For a long time, the Iriver Clix stood alone as the highest-scoring MP3 player on CNET (it is now tied with the iPod Touch). This is both good and bad for Iriver: good, because it helped to sell more units, but bad because now the company has a stellar player against which all of its future offerings will be compared. The E100, Iriver's first true U.S. release since the second-gen Clix, falls a bit flat, but it's not the worst budget option on the market. We certainly appreciate the competitive pricing--$109.99 and $159.99 for the 4GB and 8GB models, respectively--and plethora of features, but the player suffers from irksome controls, an uninspired user interface, and sound quality unbefitting to the Iriver reputation.
Click pad irritation
We wouldn't necessarily say that the Iriver E100 completely fails in the design department, but it could definitely use some work. The main issue is the control pad--it's just bad. It's plastic and feels cheaply constructed. The center button is small and recessed, which makes it difficult to press. Plus, the buttons are slightly unresponsive, and we experienced some delays when moving between selections. Also, when on the playback screen, the D-Click orientation of the pad doesn't quite mesh with the screen above. The center key is play/pause--that makes sense. Then, it's surrounded by a four-way pad with arrow indicators. However, the right and left buttons don't serve to shuttle through tracks; instead, you press up to go back and down to go forward. The right arrow acts as a shortcut/contextual menu key, while the left backs out of screens/menus. It acts exactly like the pad on the Clix, but on the Clix the control pad surrounded the edges of the display, so it worked with the clarification provided by the soft "keys" on the screen. For the E100, it's not as logical, since the soft keys are nowhere near the actual controls.
Design, interface, and other features
Fortunately, the rest of the E100's design isn't quite so bad, although it has a decidedly plasticky feel. The player comes in a variety of colors--black, brown, white, pink, and sky blue--but none of them quite pop. The QVGA (320x240 resolution) screen is nice and big, measuring 2.5 inches diagonally. Its placement and the size and shape of the device makes it look a bit like a Zune clone, not that that's a bad thing necessarily. Around the edges of the player, you'll find a power button, a dedicated volume rocker, a hold switch, a mic, and a reset hole. The bottom side of the unit houses a standard mini USB port for syncing and charging as well as two 3.5mm jacks: one for headphone out and one for line-in. A microSD card slot built into the top side allows for memory expansion, while two speakers on the rear let you share the tunes. Both are nice extras, though don't expect stellar sound from the speakers.
The Iriver E100 has plenty of other features to keep you busy, although the ability to customize the interface to your liking is not one of them. We're a bit disappointed by this, since the overall interface is fairly bland. The main menu is icon-driven, but it's all gray and black, with a touch of red. We'd prefer some more color, or at least the option to change the wallpaper. Still, it's not a deal-breaker, and some users may appreciate the starkness. Other features include photo (JPEG, BMP, PNG, GIF) and video (AVI, WMV) support; voice and line-in recording; a text viewer; and a built-in FM radio with recording capability, autoscan functionality, and up to 20 preset slots. We're also pleased to note that the E100 can sync with both Windows and Mac PCs.
Music to your ears?
Of course, audio should be a top consideration when selecting an MP3 player. The E100 succeeds somewhat in this area, but doesn't hit a home run. On the plus side, the player offers extensive file format support: it plays MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, and ASF files and supports subscription services such as Rhapsody. It also offers nine EQ settings, including SRS WOW and a five-band customizable EQ. In addition, the unit offers A/B looping, lyrics display, shuffle and repeat modes, and bookmarking. Plus, there's a neat fade-in feature that gradually increases/decreases the volume on a track as it starts/ends.
The downside is that music doesn't sound all that fantastic; it definitely doesn't stack up to the Clix, or similarly priced players such as the Creative Zen V Plus. Namely, audio wasn't as crisp or as clear as we'd like; many songs (notably, Amy Winehouse tracks) had a slightly muddled quality to them. Also, we found that mids were missing the warmth and richness you get from a device capable of producing top-quality audio. On the plus side, bass was tight and present, and activating the extra bass feature helped it thump. Still, EQ settings in general did little to achieve truly great sound, although the average listener will probably find that the E100 sounds just fine. Another bummer is that any content you add via a microSD card doesn't integrate seamlessly into the music menu. Instead, you have to access the external memory separately. The rated battery life of 25 hours for audio is solid, but CNET Labs was unable to match it, getting only about 18 hours, which is neither horrible or great. On the plus side, we beat the rated video battery life by more than an hour with a final time of 6.2 hours.