When you power on the device, however, you're presented with a small but gorgeous 128x128-pixel, 65,536-color screen. The cartoonlike interface, which includes scrolling ID3-tag info, bit-rate and sampling-rate info, a battery-level indicator, EQ selection, the current track number, and the total number of tracks, looks nice in color, and as you might guess, it's equipped to display digital photos. In Play mode, a fresh graphic equalizer moves to the beat.
At 3.66 by 1.65 by 0.7 inches and 2.82 ounces, the iBead is on the small side for a microdrive player, but you can find smaller, more stylish flash players that feature a similar 1GB-plus capacity. The device feels sturdy enough; all of the buttons give a responsive click and are tightly set into the casing. Those of you with fairly large thumbs may find the five-way navigation control a bit tight at first, but it's easy to become accustomed to.
The iBead 1000 ships with both USB and line-in cables, but the USB power adapter works only with European-style outlets. U.S. residents will have to either pick up the appropriate adapter or recharge the nonremovable lithium-ion battery via a computer's USB port, which requires 5 to 6 hours for a full charge.The iBead 1000 mixes some useful offerings with a few baffling limitations. The player supports MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and unprotected WMA files, which means music downloaded from legal sites such as Musicmatch or Napster won't work on this device. Following the trend set by iRiver, the player includes an image viewer. But you can't view photos during music playback or associate album art with a track, which are the main advantages in having image support.
iBead wisely includes an FM tuner that supports as many as 10 presets. Because reception was subpar--typical of many MP3 players--we found it best to set the presets manually rather than through the autopreset feature. The player also includes FM and line-in recording capabilities, but again, their implementation leaves much to be desired. Recording in FM mode requires two steps: press and hold the Rec button to activate the recording mode, then quickly press the Rec button again to begin recording. The extra step is a bit frustrating when trying to catch the beginning of a song. Also, although you can adjust the bit rate--all recordings are saved as MP3 files ranging from 16Kbps to 192Kbps--the player also automatically adjusts the sampling rate. So a song ripped at 128Kbps has the standard sampling rate of 44.1KHz. But at 96Kbps, the iBead downshifts the sampling rate to an abysmal 22KHz; there's no way to manually set both rates.
If you have the player for the long haul, the iBead is firmware upgradable. According to the company, forthcoming upgrades will add playlist support and allow you to scroll lyrics associated with a track.Audio quality is the one area in which the iBead 1000 truly shines. The 90dB signal-to-noise ratio delivers a clean sound with good high and low response. With an output of 18mW per channel at 160 ohms, its sound is sufficiently loud with a pair of full-size Koss UR-40 headphones; the included earbuds are uncomfortable, but they deliver decent sound. Along with five preset EQ modes and one user-defined five-band EQ, the iBead includes SRS, WOW, and TruBass effects. You can also adjust the SRS effects for intended output: earphone, headphone, small speaker, midsize speaker, or big speaker.
If only the device itself were consistently up to the task. Operation tended to be sluggish--simply skipping ahead to the next track often takes longer than necessary, even for a hard drive player--and the disk locked up a couple of times during our tests. In fact, the player froze on us while scanning the FM radio, which isn't exactly a labor-intensive hard disk function.
Line-in recordings made from a portable CD player were plagued with heavy distortion at various bit rates. Regardless of whether we were at the high or low end of the quality spectrum, the recordings sounded offensive just the same.
The iBead's transfer rate of 3.38MB per second over a USB 2.0 connection is better than average. The 7.1 hours of battery life the player scored in CNET Labs' tests falls short of the company's 8-hour rating and well below what we've come to expect from a modern hard drive-based player.