iRiver iFP-890 (256MB)
If you value a workweek's worth of listening from a single AA battery, then iRiver's $100 iFP-890 (256MB) should definitely be on your short list. This flash-based player has excellent audio quality, a laundry list of features, and an amazing 40-hour battery life. However, if listening to FM radio, recording memos, or moving files between random systems are important to you, then you should probably keep shopping. The player also comes in 128MB (iFP-880, blue), 512MB (iFP-895, silver), and 1GB (iFP-899, dark red) capacities.
While the iFP-890 is hardly massive at 3.48 by 1.4 by 1.07 inches, it's still on the bulky side for a wearable flash player. And wearable it must be: Stuffed inside the iFP-890's blister we found a neck cord, a silver plastic snap-on cover that acts as a belt loop (for very narrow belts), and a bulky, black clip-on Sport Band. We found the Sport Band terribly unsporty when we strapped it on; the combination puts the weight of the MP3 player out far enough from your arm that it flaps with every movement. You're better off sliding the iFP-890 onto a belt or into a pocket.
The triangular shape of the flash player puts the LCD at a good angle for viewing while it sits on a desktop. It also falls neatly into your hands, leaving the three control buttons and the thumb-stick neatly under the appropriate digits. Printed on the buttons are markings for play/stop, the A-B loop function, and record. It took us some fumbling to figure out that the play/stop button also turns the iFP-890 on.
We wish the buttons were better labeled: when you hold the iFP-890 in your hands, you can see only the printed labels for stereo, memory/EQ, and mode, which cover fewer than half the features those same buttons actually control. Time spent with the manual will save you the frustration of learning to hold down the A-B/memory/EQ button for a few seconds so that you can switch EQ settings or using similar tactics with the record/mode button to activate the FM radio. It's typical for a flash player to spread a zillion features across a minimum of buttons, but we found this implementation especially clumsy on the iFP-890.
We were also disappointed with the headphone jack on the iFP-890, which is recessed into one end of the player. No big deal, except that it makes it difficult to keep the cord on our favorite third-party 'phones from falling out of the player. That's unfortunate because when we did manage to keep our fave Grado headphones plugged in, the iFP-890 delivered some truly satisfying audio, whether we were playing Hank III, Spearhead, or just about anything else from our audio collection. The earbuds that shipped with the iRiver are better than most we've found with portable players, but that isn't saying a whole lot.
The onboard mic did a good job tracking voices and not the rest of the room, even when we used it near a fairly loud fan. Unfortunately, the mic also did a good job of picking up anything that touched the case, such as your fingers shifting on the device when you move. It didn't completely obscure the recording, but we found it annoying, particularly since other portable MP3 recorders don't suffer this problem quite so badly. The iFP-890 also packs a line-in jack for recording from an external audio source. The sessions are recorded in a proprietary REC format with a user-selectable bitrate. The files are converted to MP3 when moved from the player to the PC using the iRiver Music Manager software; a conversion wizard opens in the software when dragging REC files from the player to a PC. In addition, the iFP-890 can record from its onboard FM tuner, though we doubt we'd use it too often: the FM quality ranged from mediocre (occasionally) to poor (most of the time), and we were testing in a neighborhood with fairly solid FM coverage.