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In both form and functionality, Optima's A121 MP3 player reminds us an awful lot of the Acer MagicDrive and while we were unable to confirm it, it wouldn't surprise us in the least to find out that both units sprung from the same factory. The A121 is a chunky little unit with a smooth black finish and a backlit blue LCD display that shows quite a lot of information, albeit in very tiny, tiny type. Like the rest of the field of solid state storage USB devices, one end is actually a cap that shields the USB plug, although on a mildly amusing note we did discover that it's possible to put the cap on backwards.
The base of the player holds the volume controls and hold switches as well as a standard earphone socket, while the top of the unit houses a single clickable rocker switch that's used for all mode selections, as well as track skipping when in playback mode. The back of the player houses the battery compartment, where a lonely AAA battery supplies power for up to a claimed eight hours, and the front of the unit houses the LCD screen and play button that also acts as the player's on/off switch.
The A121's physically intimidating size could be a problem for notebook users, as it'll easily dwarf multiple USB ports if they're close together, so thankfully a small length of USB extension cable is supplied in the box, along with the obligatory bud headphones that also act as a lanyard for the player itself.
It's a sign of how far the flash-based MP3 player market has progressed that it's not enough to just offer music playback and a bit of data transfer capability. Naturally, you can do both with the A121, which supports audio in MP3 and WMA format. Additionally, you can change the tempo of playback songs, as long as they're in MP3 format -- perfect for if you ever wanted the frankly mindblowing experience of finding out what a sedentary and low Barry White song sounds like even slower.
There's also the usual options for random play, graphic equaliser settings and simple section repeats, which work again via the clickable rocker switch on top of the player.
The A121 also acts as a simple but effective voice recorder and FM radio, and supports the use of lyric files in .lrc format if you fancy a little solo karaoke on the way to work. Sure, people are going to look at you strangely, and you might get thrown off the bus, but surely being able to belt out "Agadoo" with perfect lyrics is worth it -- isn't it?
On the data front, the A121 offers a capability not commonly seen on portable MP3 players, in that you can choose to encrypt part of the unit's 256MB of storage capacity as a password-protected individual partition. It's an interesting mix of a feature that's normally only the province of the corporate world within what is otherwise a consumer-level MP3 player.
As a basic music player, the A121 is a workable but not entirely elegant little unit. It'll take you a little initial play to get used to the menu system, but it is logical enough and not too hard to make out. The unit's inbuilt volume goes up to a reasonable but never ear-splitting level; you'll know for yourself if that's a good or wussy kind of level.
The backlit LCD is a little weak, as on our test unit the backlit shone very clearly on one side of the LCD, and not at all on the other.
Supplied bud headphones are nearly always awful -- and that includes the ever-popular but still awful white iPod ones, for what it's worth -- but we hit a rather unique problem with the A121's supplied pair. Because they've been built to serve double duty as a lanyard, there's an awful lot of cabling that'll happily twist and knot itself up given half a chance, but at the same time the headphone cable doesn't stretch out terribly far. For an average sized male (like this reviewer) this meant that the A121 would fit happily in a shirt pocket, but dangled irritatingly just above a jeans pocket. If you're a little more compactly built it would no doubt be fine, but if you're taller you may as well plan to buy new headphones straight away if the A121 appeals to you.
The inbuilt voice recorder works well, but the inbuilt radio is a touch on the shaky side. Like every other digital FM radio out there, you've got to use the headphones as the antenna, which means that in certain physical circumstances you'd be better off recording lots of white noise and just playing that back to yourself. As a data storage device, the A121 works just like every other USB portable flash drive out there, although we suspect you'll be kicking yourself if you do lose the supplied USB extension cable, as the physical size of the unit will make it a problem with certain notebook and even desktop USB ports. Likewise, it'd be a very bad idea to forget your encrypted partition password.
At an asking price of AU$110, the A121 also suffers by comparison to Apple's recently launched Shuffle line. For only AU$39 more, you could get a Shuffle that omits an LCD screen, but features 50% more battery life and twice the storage capacity, as well as the cachet of owning an iPod -- and at the time of writing, your choice of MP3 player seems to be as much about having those distinctive white headphones as anything else.