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Once again, I'm beginning to wonder whether there's something in iRiver's water. While most of the smaller PMP manufacturers attack Apple's domination of the market through a combination of better audio quality, video playback, file format support and value, iRiver's recent PMPs have seen it poking at the Cupertino giant's strongest area: style.
Last year's Spinn was a particularly innovative effort, positioned somewhere between the iPod nano and IPod touch, combining slick, stripped-back looks with a cool Flash-based interface and a mix of touchscreen and click-wheel controls. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was easily one of the most attractive players I've seen in the last year. Now iRiver returns with the P7, and if anything it's even more a statement. A flat, tablet-style PMP in powder-coated aluminium and off-white plastic, it's about as cool and minimalist as such things get. And that's before you even switch this beauty on…
Admittedly, it's not the most compact or lightweight PMP. At 112mm x 73mm and nearly 14mm thick, it's nearly as big as the porky Archos 5, and a good deal larger than, say, the Samsung YP-P3. At 175g it's also not a player you'll forget when it's sitting in your pocket. In fact, I suspect I've carried smaller and lighter tape-based Walkmans around in my day.
But then compensation comes, as with other larger PMPs, in the form of the screen. It's a 4.3in TFT effort with the same 480 x 272 pixel resolution as the YP-P3, and though it's limited to 260,000 colours and could do with a stronger contrast and some extra brightness, the combination of size and clarity works well.
It's not the quality of the screen that impresses, however, as much as iRiver's specially developed user interface. Again based on Flash, it's designed - I'm told - to mimic a glossy magazine layout, with eight different panels laid out across the surface. Top-left we have a digital clock, and below that a panel for the currently selected music track, complete with album art if available. In the centre we get, from top to bottom, a panel showing the current video selection, then one for the built-in FM radio, then two buttons for voice recording and overall settings.
Finally, the right hand side brings us the current photo image and a panel for text. Click on any one of these, and you go straight to the relevant function. These sub-pages are also well designed, providing - in music playback, for example - access to transport controls, EQ settings, play modes and the file browser at a touch of the screen, but without looking cluttered or confusing. The user-interface is one area where so many smaller Korean manufacturers seem to struggle, but iRiver seems to be taking huge strides in the right direction.