- Review Price: £185.00
The end of last year saw things get a little tasty in the digital audio player market. Creative, emboldened by the positive reception its little Zen Micro received in the press, declared war on Apple. The stated aim – to outsell the ubiquitous little white player using the ingenious strategy of throwing a whole lot of marketing money at the problem. It didn’t work of course, and Apple comfortably outsold Creative by at least two to one over the Christmas period.
iRiver clearly has the same aspirations as Creative, and hopes to do a Chelsea FC and leap to the top of the table, while the other big players slug it out. However, judging from the H10, it’s not going to happen that way, as while the new player has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, it fails to do a lot of the basic things needed to win over a crowd.
On paper at least, the H10 has a lot going for it. It’s a very compact little audio player and though its measurements are slightly larger than that of the Pod mini, it’s slightly lighter at 96.2g, and thinner than the Zen Micro. It’s certainly more pocketable than my third generation 20GB iPod.
In the box is a transparent carry case that enables you to use all the controls, even with it on. It does detract from the look of the player though, with a slightly bizarre fetishist feel to the rubber. A cradle and a remote control are available as accessories, but they’re not included in the box.
The 5GB capacity is 1GB greater than that of the iPod mini and equal to that of the Creative Zen Micro. Like the Zen, it bests the mini with extra features such as an in-built FM Tuner from which it can record. It also has the ability to record from a line-in and has a built-in microphone. You can adjust the level of compression to maximise recording space or raise the quality.
Where it outdoes both the iPod mini and the Zen Micro though, is with its colour display. This makes it easier to navigate and adds the ability to view photos in JPEG format. As for audio, the H10 can handle MP3 and DRM (Digital Rights Management) encoded WMA files. So while there’s inevitably no AAC support for iTunes Store files, it can play tracks downloaded from places such as Napster. It also supports Napster-to-Go. Ogg Vorbis fans will be disappointed though, as there’s no support for the high quality encoding format.
In terms of appearance the H10 proves that iRiver has come a long way with regards to design. While early iRiver players were hard to love for their looks, the recently reviewed N10 and now the H10 are undeniably decent looking devices. Taking a lead from the competition the H10 is available in multiple colours – platinum, blue, red and grey. The screen is 1.5in diagonal, which is somewhat small though it’s the same size as the competition.
Of course, it wins out by being in colour and indeed the wallpapers for each of the categories look great. Moving between each of these is quick and easy using the touch slider that runs down the centre. This is responsive and easy to control. However, my first instinct was to tap it to select songs and I was disappointed to find that this didn’t work. Of course, some may not like this control method but it would have been good if iRiver had included it with the option to turn it off if not desired.
Instead, selecting tracks is done with the right button on the front, with the left one used for going back out of menus. There are also three buttons down the side used for play/pause, and skipping between and within songs or photos.
While the touch strip works well, one oddity I noticed straightaway was that once you reach the bottom of the list it doesn’t start over at the top. However, when you scroll through albums or playlists it does, which is a strange inconsistency.
The H10 is nevertheless easy to use thanks to the effective touch strip and button arrangement. However, there’s more to a player than just the hardware – the software is a vital part of the experience. The bundled software is iRiver Plus, which can be used as a media player, to encode CDs and to transfer tracks. This checked and detected an update online on first launch and downloaded and installed it. On first attempt it actually got stuck in a loop trying to do this, but I started the process from the beginning and all went smoothly. I then hooked up the H10 and the software player promptly detected a firmware update, which pleasingly went without a hitch.
The software enables you to build a library of tracks and transfer them to the player either automatically or manually. How the latter is actually done is not that clear at first but involves right clicking tracks from the library and selecting add to the sync list. I couldn’t see a button to activate the sync process so selected it from the menu instead. Tracks copied over this way can then be easily browsed via artist, album or genre, with information taken from the ID3 tags. Connection is via USB 2.0 so is pleasingly speedy. The software only enables you to encode to WMA, with no option for regular MP3.
Considering it reads ID3 tags I was therefore absolutely amazed to find that when browsing albums, the tracks can only be played in alphabetical order. Assuming I missed some option I browsed the online forums only to discover that this was a known issue. I didn’t know whether to be more surprised by the fact that iRiver had released the player in this state or the fact that most of those that had bought the player didn’t seem to mind.
What made it all the more disappointing was the fact that I’d mentioned this issue in person to an iRiver representative when seeing the player at a preview back in December. The individual had agreed with me that it was a flaw and that it would be corrected at launch. Clearly, this proved not to be the case. So if you’ve ever wanted to listen to Sgt. Pepper in alphabetical order, now’s your chance.
There are two workarounds, however. As well as using the software you can also drag and drop files on and off the player, which also means that the H10 is not constrained by the copy protection that iPod users are used to. However, tracks copied across this way don’t appear in the albums and artists database – instead you access them via the ‘Browser’ option, which presents a folder and sub-folder view. In this view, the ID3 tags are not displayed, but this at least means that the alphabetical order results in tracks appearing in the correct order.
The other way is to create a playlist of the album and then manually drag the tracks into the correct order, though this is an inconvenience. Again, tracks in the playlist aren’t displayed using ID3 tags.
Another disappointment is that the colour screen isn’t put to better use by displaying album art that is often embedded in ID3 tags. The iPod Photo will do this, but as with track number information the iRiver H10 chooses to ignore it.
The resolution on the screen isn’t stated by iRiver but it certainly isn’t that high. This means that while the colour screen is a nice touch images look quite grainy. For comparison we looked at an iPod Photo (review coming soon) and the quality of the images and the way they can be manipulated was far superior. Sure it’s no more than you would expect from a far more expensive device, but once you’ve seen it on the iPod, the colour screen on the H10 is shown up to be more of a gimmick that a must have feature.
A slide show activates as you browse photos and you can also view them while music is playing, though you then can’t make any adjustments to the music playing without going out of the photo.
Other options are the ability to view text files, and the in-built FM radio. This picked up a slew of stations quickly using the auto setting though you need to be outside to get decent reception. You can also record the radio just by pressing one button.
Battery life is rated at 12 hours, which is impressive considering the colour display, though if you’re making heavy use of the screen by browsing photos a lot you have to expect that to be reduced somewhat. There’s no way of seeing the remaining charge on the default menu screen – you have to actually go and start a song playing to see the power indicator.
Where the H10 does really well though is with its sound quality, which as we’ve come to expect from iRiver is superb. The bundled headphones are fairly unpleasant but using a decent set like my Koss Porta Pro’s and you’ll be treated to full bass and a clear and bright sound. It was even powerful enough to act as the music source for my Hi-Fi amp. You can also play with a number of sound presets for different types of music and there are SRS sound enhancements, which do have a marked effect on output.
I really wanted to like the iRiver H10. On paper at least, its beats both the mini and the Zen with its feature set. It’s small, it’s light, it’s capacious, it sounds great and the price is right. However, there are so many rough edges that it’s just going to drive people back to one of the other options from Creative and Apple. Not being able to play albums in the correct track order without jumping through hoops is plain bizarre, as is requiring a USB connection to charge. The colour screen in practice is more of a gimmick than an essential feature, and if you’re looking to the H10 as a portable photo viewer you’ll likely be disappointed.
We had high hopes for the H10 but numerous idiosyncrasies keep it well away from reaching an award podium. Creative will be releasing its colour screen enabled Zen Micro by the middle of the year, and iRiver has until then to sort out the flaws and up the screen resolution. If it can do that, it might have a real contender on its hands.