Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/01/29/review_media_player_iriver_spinn/

iRiver Spinn media player

Why settle for a touchscreen when you can twiddle a knob too?

By Alun Taylor

Posted in Hardware, 29th January 2009 13:02 GMT

Review The iRiver Spinn seems to have been forged in the white heat of a fierce row about the merits of a touchscreen vs traditional controls. But rather than come down on one side of the fence or the other, iRiver seems to have ended the argument with a petulant 'fine, we'll have both then!'

iRiver Spinn

iRiver's Spinn: why have touchscreen or physical controls when you can have both?

Eschewing the sleek curves of the iPod Touch or Cowon S9, iRiver has opted for a rather severe, sharp design, albeit with a circular spindle at one end, the upper half of which is the eponymous "Spinn wheel", which can be rotated to the left or right as well as depressed.

Physically, the Spinn is just a shade smaller than Cowon's S9, measuring up at 99.5 x 51 x 10.7mm and weighing 70g. The whole thing is rendered in metal giving it a cool, modern and solid feel.

Apart from the Spinn wheel, the external controls consist of a lock slider and small 'back' button on the top; volume and power controls on the left; and a proprietary - or common-in-Korea-but-nowhere-else - USB port on the bottom.

Be warned, unless you have long finger nails, opening the USB port cover will send you hunting for a very sharp implement. We took to using a craft knife to open it, not a device – we hope – that most people keep about their person.

iRiver Spinn

The metal casing makes for a solid-feeling PMP

Fire the Spinn up and you're presented with a rather stark home page listing the eight main menu items in text along with the time and battery status. To move from one item to the next, you can either rotate the spindle or the use the touchscreen, though if you chose the latter you have to touch the centre bottom of the screen where the numbers 1-8 mirror the menu names. Swipe the main part of the screen Touch-fashion and nothing happens. To access a menu item or setting, you simply depress the spindle when it's highlighted, or touch the relevant name on the screen.

Interesting and novel though the Spinn's hybrid UI is, it's hard not to feel it is also just a little pointless. If the touchscreen worked better, you wouldn't need the spindle, so the player could be made smaller or the screen bigger. On the other hand, with the exception of some of the optional settings, the Spinn can be used without actually touching the screen at all.

iRiver Spinn

Could have been made smaller

Typical of the Spinn's rather half-formed UI are the 'back' controls. Both the button on the top of the player and the control on the screen are too small to be used comfortably and neither is in a particularly convenient place for a function you'll be using regularly.

Within the limitations of what part of it you can actually touch, the resistive touchscreen reacts smoothly and promptly, especially once we updated our review device's firmware from version 1.21 to 1.50.

The Spinn comes with a full complement of haptic feedback for both the screen and the Spinn wheel. They work just fine if you like that sort of thing, but can be switched off if you don't. Though the Spinn lacks an orientation sensor to auto-rotate the screen if the device is turned round, this is one of the functions that can be assigned to a long-push of the spindle.

Incidentally, since the Spinn's UI is Flash-based, getting hold of new menu styles is simply a case of tracking down some relevant Shockwave Flash files and dumping them into the player's Themes folder. It took us less than ten minutes to find some on a Korean site, all of which looked much better than the basic design provided by iRiver.

iRiver Spinn

Touchscreen or spindle - the choice is yours

Codec support encompasses MP3, WMA, Ogg, APE, ASF and Flac audio, along with MPEG 4 Simple Profile and WMV video - so no AAC audio or H.264 video. Subsidiary file support only extends as far as JPEG and TXT files.

Our Spinn proved rather erratic when it came to video file playback. For instance, a 25f/s 640 x 352 .AVI DivX file played without fault, but while a 25f/s 660 x 278 Xvid file also played, there was noticeable frame skip. When we reformatted both files to the Spinn's native resolution, 480 x 272, they refused to play at all. Similarly some WMV files played and some didn't, even though all were within the player's declared technical parameters.

iRiver Spinn

Ideal for knob-twiddlers?

If you have trouble with video files, iRiver bundles a conversion tool that turns everything into WMV. It's rather slow, reformatting a 700MB 660 x 278 .AVI file taking over two hours.

The Spinn won't support SubRip subtitle files nor can you set bookmarks in video files – though we understand the soon-to-be-released version 2.0 firmware will address the latter issue. Another stumbling block is the apparent lack of support for PlaysForSure DRM - so no BBC iPlayer downloads.

Though the Spinn's 3.2in 480 x 272, 166ppi AMOLED screen is clear and bright it suffers from only having a 262,000-colour palette which often results in colour gradients being far too visible. One of the videos we tested on the Spinn was Downfall, a film which includes a lot of facial close-ups and monochromatic backgrounds, and these really didn't come across at all well on the Spinn, large swathes of colour block being highly visible.

iRiver Spinn

Swiping the menu names has no effect - you need to swipe the numbers below

At the end of the day, the Cowon S9 is a far superior video player both in terms of quality and versatility.

Sound quality has long been one of the the stronger cards in the iRiver deck and thankfully the Spinn is no exception. Across the genres, the Spinn pumped out a solid, sharp and clear sound and also had plenty of volume on tap. On balance, we'd say it's a better sonic performer than the Cowon S9, and considerably better than anything Apple makes. It's particular good with Flac files.

iRiver Spinn

Should CE devices really need a reset switch?

Sound modification is handled by the now familiar iRiver SRS-WOW HD 3D expander and frequency booster system, which worked well when we first came across it on the Lplayer and works no less well here. It's highly adaptable and capable of producing a sound to suit most tastes. Unfortunately, none of the modifiers work on video soundtracks.

When it comes to playlists, the Spinn supports an on-board 'Top Rated' list and allows you to drag and drop tracks into a favourites 'Quick List'. You can also sync multiple playlists directly from MTP-compatible media player apps.

While the Spinn works just fine as either an MTP or a USB Mass Storage device with Windows, we only managed to hook it up to Linux and Mac machines in Mass Storage mode. Curiously - and annoyingly - changing the player's storage setting from one to the other involves re-formatting the device and erasing all content. If music files are loaded onto the device under the Mass Storage setting, you have to manually tell the player to rebuild the media library.

iRiver Spinn

A cool, modern feel

Another Spinn foible is that if you load Flac files onto it while in MTP mode, they won't show up in the library and won't play when you eventually track them down using the folder browser. Load them onto the Spinn in Mass Storage mode though and all is well.

The Spinn's FM radio, though lacking RDS, proved both easy to tune and to assign pre-sets. The stereo Bluetooth also worked as advertised, the connection a pair of Sony Bluetooth cans proving very straightforward. The device also comes with a voice recorder and a couple of Flash games, though ours got erased during an MTP-Mass Storage switch before we could sample them.

iRiver quotes a battery life of 25 hours for audio and five for video. We found those numbers to be about right, getting 22 hours and 4.75 hours, respectively, but they are still a long way short of what you can get from a fully charged S9. You can only charge the Spinn through the USB cable.

iRiver Spinn

The Spinn is currently only available in 4 and 8GB flavours. We think a video player needs more storage, or memory card expansion. Even 8GB is only going to be good enough for ten or 11 full length .AVI feature films.

The 4GB version can be yours for £136, the 8GB for £165. With the 8GB Cowon S9 only a few quid more and the 8GB Apple iPod Touch the exact same price, we struggle to see why anyone would plump for the Spinn unless Flac playback is your absolute and overriding priority.

Verdict

As a music player, the Spinn not at all bad - it gives a strong performance across the genres and is particularly impressive when playing Flac files. As a video player, it's less successful, proving mysteriously intolerant of some file types and seriously hamstrung by only having 262,000 colours on tap. The UI is also a little too half-baked and the firmware just a bit too infused with strangeness for our liking, though the arrival of version 2.0 may see some of these issues remedied. ®

Thanks to AdvancedMP3Players for lending us the review device.

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