iRiver is known as a manufacturer of mostly expensive and functional MP3/CD players. What made the company expand to other market segments? First of all, CD players are not going to develop further. Although there certainly are things yet to be improved, nothing new will be invented. It is not difficult to persuade owners of the Lenoxx and other similar device of the first generation to replace with more up-to-date models, but can you convince people who bought the SlimX a year ago that it should be changed for the SlimX2? Moreover, many are satisfied with weaker models, that is why the number of buyers isn't actually growing, and large profits won't be obtained. Besides, the competition on this market is very strong. It was easy to sell the iMP-100 when it was unique, but the new-comers have cheaper competitors with comparable features. Well, the market becomes less profitable and even gets narrower because of brand-name companies which are now storming into this sector, and their prices are approximately equal to those of the iRiver's models. Sony's solutions can be weaker, but those who understand it have already bought a player of the last but one generation. And those who doesn't have a player yet are, most probably, waiting for products from Sony, Panasonic, Thomson and the like instead of iRiver, DataWalker, A-Max and other Asian firms. That is why iRiver has to reduce prices and simplify models to be able to compete against cheaper players receiving a couple of dollars for each model instead of a dozen, or expand to new markets where it's easier to operate. The company decided to take the second approach and released two lines using DataPlay discs instead of CDs (this segment can bring superprofits as it is not developed yet), as well as flash memory (this market can still house more players). Today we will have a look at the model using flash memory while the DP based one will be examined next time.
The iRiver iFP line includes three models, though it makes sense to speak about two lines at once. All three players have equal dimensions of 31 x 28.5 x 82 mm (together with the neck strip eye let the player is 95 mm long) but the weight is different. Two junior models (iFP-120 and iFP-140) weigh 29 g without the battery (32 with it), while the senior solution (iFP-180T) is heavier by 20 g. The players differ not only in the integrated memory size and an FM tuner in the senior model. The junior models can be considered competitors against MPIO DMK or CHiC MP10 (though it's hard to say whether they can be competitors with such size of nonexpansible memory), the third model is a higher-level solution which is fighting only against the compact player Cowon iAudio CW200. However, it might also be opposed to such bulky models as MPMan MP-M700.
The whole line inherits from MP3/CD models the control and folder navigation system, though the latter is unnecessary, MP3 and WMA formats support (the company also mentions the ASF support (though files of such extension will be taken only as audio files, the decoder won't support such compression format), software upgradability and a good informative LCD display with backlight and support of different alphabets. At present each model has covers of only one color. Like all modern players the iFT connects a computer via USB. A remote control is missing, though it's not necessary for such a petite device.
Further we will describe only the senior model but you can apply the description to the others as well. Just remember that they are lacking a radio receiver.
The player is packed into a loud plastic box which also contains a user guide, a CD with software and drivers, headphones and a neck strap. Such wearing is dominant on the market, but it's not very convenient because of the hanging headphones cable. Why don't they combine the headphones with the strap like in the MPIO DMK or in headsets for Samsung phones? Well, now such a ring looks like an unnecessary attachment.
By the way, the company didn't save on headphones and supplied those from Sennheiser. The sound quality is quite good, though unfortunately they are not my size.
Connection and software
After installation of the software we plug the cable into the USB port, switch on the player, plug the other end of the cable into it and the Windows detects a new device. Actually, the software can be installed later if you set the way to the folder with the drivers first time.
The iRiver Music Manager, this very useful program, can record everything into the player's memory and extract everything except audio files, reorder a playback sequence and delete files from the player. The difference from other managers of players of this class is only one: the program can operate with entire directories because the player has a complete directory support inherited from MP3/CD players of this company. On the one hand, this is a more correct approach than a single directory used in most models, a linear structure of directories used in the DIVA/MusicPen/PhotoClip or several predefined directories used in the iAudio; on the other hand, with such a small memory size a normal tree-type file system is like an umbrella for a fish. :)
But because of an error in the current firmware version you will have to use folders, because the player doesn't reorder files when they are added or deleted (some other models can have it as well). As a result, if you put everything into the root directory you won't even need the Shuffle mode. Besides, all functions can be applied to a separate folder, and because one line on the screen is used only for a current folder, and it would be irrational to ignore it.
The program also integrates a converter for REC files (recorded with a microphone or from the air) which turns them into standard WAV files.
Unfortunately, there is no a tag editor. If you don't want to go with software from third companies, then you can use the iRiver Caption Editor, though it's still better to install the mp3Tag or Tag&Rename because the Caption Editor can edit ID3 v. 2 only "manually": you can't either synchronize them with tags of the first version or create a tag according to a file name.
The Caption Editor has a richer set of functions than any simple tag editor as this is a normal Lyrics3 editor. When I found this program in the player I decided it could show lyrics. But the player ignores it, and CE files can be used only on computer with the respective players.
There are three versions of the player coming complete with 32, 64 and 128 MB. Well, for 2002 32 MB of memory is really an odd solution. Moreover, the radio tuner is integrated only into the senior model! A direct competitor (taking into account the specs) from Cowon is produced in three versions as well, but they have 64, 128 and 256 MB. I hope iRiver will take out of production the junior model and extend the line upward as it's impossible to add more memory.
File types supported
The documentation mentions support of the MPEG1/2/2.5 Layer3 and WMA and ASF. The latter is a metaformat (like AVI), and its support means that the player will find in such files an audio track which will most likely be reproduced in WMA. Bitrates are supported from 8 to 320 Kbit/s though it's not clear for which formats, and there is no a single word about sampling frequencies. Well, we will find out that ourselves.
First of all I tested the MP3 section, and what I heard was exactly what they promised. Files with various parameters: bitrate, channels, sampling frequency - are played excellently.
For the WMA the documentation doesn't specify the formats supported that is why we used all in the tests. The oldest one (V2) had problems with a sampling frequency: like most players the iFP-180T couldn't play WMA files of 48 kHz. I wonder why an inexpensive Zillion is able to avoid problems which all the other players stumble over. If it were not Zillion, I would think of objective difficulties, but Digital Square copes easily with them.
There are no problems with other frequencies. As to bitrates, the V2 supports all up to 160 Kbit/s, and the V7 and V8 up to 192 Kbit/s. Besides, Microsoft has lately developed a new version of its format - V9. The maximum bitrate is now 320 Kbit/s (like for MP3) and it's also possible now to encode files with a variable bitrate. There are still some limitations, for example, not all combinations of bitrates and sampling frequencies are allowed, but on the whole the format is now much closer to the MP3. That is why I was tempted to test it (though with a beta version of the codec). Well, it's compatible, supports a bitrate up to 256 Kbit/s and VBR. However, it failed to cope with 320 Kbit/s: it turned off when encountering such file and then turned on again on a next track. But the V9 is not officially released yet, and the situation can also be improved with a newer firmware version.
Making a long story short, I must say that there are no problems with playback of MP3 files while there are some with a sampling frequency in case of WMA. However, it's OK with standard ones for AudioCD 44 kHz, that is why if WMA suits you as a storage format you can use it especially considering that there is everything necessary for creation of such files in the Windows.
It's built in all models of the line. Its quality is quite good for nonprofessional use, as well as the parameters: ADPCM, 8 kHz, 32 Kbit/s (converted into PCM 256 Kbit/s when transferred to PC). For some reason, the dictaphone works in a stereo mode which is not necessary at all here. As a result, files get twice greater, and 32 MB of memory can house only 2.25 hours instead of 4.5. However, the dictaphone is not professional and nobody would use it so long.
On the one hand, the tuner has very good reception, but its sensitivity is quite low. In places of unstable reception where other tuners manage to catch at least one station or even a couple in the manual mode, the iRiver remained inexorable and received only noise. But it works excellently in a zone of stable reception.
You can record a part of the radio air into a file. It's not an exclusive feature - it was Creative who first brought it into players. Record parameters: ADPCM, 16 kHz, 130 Kbit/s (according to the player's version), stereo, and it will be 512 Kbit/s on PC. The record quality is not high, though it's hard to expect more from a dictaphone. It's very similar to that of the Nomad II MG and iAudio CW200, but much inferior to the MPIO DMB Plus (which uses MP3 instead of ADPCM); that is why if you are going to record songs often from the air, go with the latter.
Saved radio stations (20 positions available) can be deleted right on the player. So, if the reception quality is not acceptable you can simply remove them from the list.
Here is how the LCD display of the player looks like:
First off, the iRiver can now define correctly the time in files with VBR. Although the documentation says that errors are possible, I never came across misoperation of the counter.
Secondly, tags in WMA files are not displayed. The screen can show something but it's hardly possible. I think it's connected with different ways of recording tags into files (at the creation stage or later by a program). On the other hand, while Winamp, MPIO DMG and MPMan MP-M700 players do show tags for the same files, and the iRiver iFP-180T doesn't, the problem definitely is in the player ;).
Fortunately, there are no troubles with ID3 of both v. 1.x and v. 2.x, and the latter is given preference to. The display format is standard: "Author - composition". An album's name is lacking (though the MPMan and iAudio display it), though it can be solved by recording files into a respective folder. A current directory is always shown taking a whole line, though there is no need to support folders. Well, the Daisy DIVA doesn't support them at all, but it's hard to do without them because the player comes complete with memory up to 1 GB; on the contrary, the iFT does support it but its memory is limited by 128 MB.
The management system is developed but not easy to use. All functions can be handled with three buttons (on the side) and one joystick (on the front). The functions are distributed among them illogically. The joystick is used in the menu, - turn it left/right for fast wind or for next/previous track, and click it up/down to adjust volume. It's OK. But its middle position (i.e. when you press it in the middle) is saved for not so useful functions - NAVI (press) and MENU (press and hold), while switching on/ff is assigned for a side button. I reckon these functions should be interchanged, because I saw none who wouldn't try to turn on the player pressing on the joystick! And you don't often use the menu and navigation that often, that is why the management seems to be contrary to intuitive.
What is NAVI? Press on the joystick and you will get an access to a list of files and folders stored here. You can move from one folder to another with the joystick when looking for a composition you need. While you are traveling such way, the player keeps on playing a current track. I wouldn't call it either disadvantage or advantage. I think such navigation system is not needed for the current models. It was a good option for MP3/CD players with their developed file structure, and I missed it in the Daisy DIVA (I tested a model coming with 64 MB though there are samples with 1.12 GB), but with about 30 files in the senior models and even less in the junior ones we could do with just a root directory. Files coming from a microphone and air could also be recorded into the same folder. If iRiver extends the memory up to 256 MB, that will be a nice add-on.
The menu is quite branchy here and allows changing a great heap of parameters. The only thing lacking is that you can't remember a track position. Usually, in CD players you can disable this mode entirely, remember both a track and a track position, or remember only a track, and the iFT doesn't have the last option. Another unpleasant thing is that most parameters are to be adjusted with sliders. So, you can move a slider only when rocking continuously the joystick, there is no auto repeat. Finally, the menu items are positioned vertically, and everybody tries to go from one to another by pressing the joystick down and... gets out of the menu, because it's necessary to rock it left or right.
All other capabilities are standard: switching between modes, deletion of files or radio stations, recording. The equalizer has 5 default settings, but there is also a user mode. As to the playback order control, you can repeat one or several compositions and set random playback both for the whole contents of the player and for a separate folder. The only thing not shown on the picture is that the player has a slider for key locking.
By the way, playlists in the M3U format are not supported (which was a big advantage in MP3/CD players of iRiver) - the only thing you can do is to create a playlist manually. However, it's not a drawback as the volumes are not great. But the M3U may appear in a newer firmware version.
The player is not very slim because it is powered by an AA battery instead of AAA typical of compact models. But the run-down time is greater: up to 20 hours claimed, but actually it makes 13-14 hours with a rechargeable battery of 1600 mAh (though it can be greater depending on a mode). It's not breaking records, but the result is impressive. As to compact models there is only one that can stands against - CHiC MP10, because others use 2-2.5 times less capacious AAA batteries. On the other hand, it's always worth having with you a spare battery, and a battery of the AAA type is smaller :).
The design of the battery compartment is disappointing. The cover is pressed against a butt-end of the strung battery and is fixed weakly, while on other players a battery compartment usually opens on the side panel. As a result, the cover opens easily, the contact is lost off and the player turns off. And it then it starts playing a position which was last when you switched off the player last time. During a week I had the cover unfastened ten times, and when worn on you neck it unfastens every two times. Moreover, you can lose the battery.
The iFT are quite advanced models among compact players, though some of their features look superfluous. There are two really bad disadvantages: little memory and a high price - the iFP-180T will be available at approx. $200. At the same time, its direct competitor Cowon iAudio CW200 with the same memory size is $50 cheaper, and at $250 you can get the iAudio with 256 MB memory. What could we lose? Nothing important, like WMA support or a branchy file structure (4 directories of the Cowon are enough). Moreover, if dimensions are not crucial for you, you can go with the MPIO DMB Plus with its perfect MP3 coder and almost unlimited memory. It doesn't support WMA and a developed folder structure, but it's less costly and has a remote control.
Promotion of the iRiver players is not going to be easy. But if 128
MB is sufficient, if you can't do without a radio tuner and want a compact
player with a maximum set of features and if you are ready to pay for it
- the iRiver iFP-180T is an excellent choice.
Andrei Kozhemyako aka Korzh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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