iRiver is a ratings king, so we're not surprised that its 256MB iFP-790 (the successor to the excellent ) is an impressive MP3 player. With head-turning looks, a truckload of recording features, and sound quality that will please the pickiest of ears, this compact player ($149) is poised to grab the MP3 flash memory crown. However, for some users, the iFP-790's limited file-transfer options might keep it from the throne.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. With its smooth, molded curves and silver-and-metallic-red coloring, the iRiver iFP-790 looks like it could have been designed by Corvette. The three buttons along the top, which look like a silver-and-red backbone, are particularly eye-catching. Measuring 3.4 by 1.3 by 1.1 inches and weighing 2.1 ounces, the iFP-790 is a bit larger and heavier than some flash memory players we've seen, due in part to its AA battery, compared to the tiny AAA or rechargeable cells found in most key-ring-size players. That said, the triangular player still fits easily into a jeans pocket, and it comes with a carrying case and an armband, which are handy for jogging or the gym.
The blue-backlit, four-line LCD packs in plenty of information: song title, album, artist, directory, sound visualization, bit rate, sampling rate, and time elapsed/remaining. To the right of the LCD is a four-way toggle that lets you skip tracks, adjust the volume, and access settings. The three styling buttons we mentioned earlier are Play/Pause, A-B Repeat (which doubles as fast access to the EQ presets), and Record, which does additional duty as a Mode toggle and a Delete button; luckily, the iFP-790 asks you to confirm before it wipes files or directories. You'll also find a Hold slider on the bottom of the player, line-in and headphone jacks on the left end, and a standard USB port on the right. We appreciate the sliding plastic cover that protects the latter; it's much sturdier than the awkward rubber ones we've seen on other players. All in all, the design is solid, although out of the box, the iFP-790's numerous functions aren't immediately clear. A close read of the manual will help you figure out secondary functions that aren't labelled.
Aside from the mediocre armband and the carrying case (with belt/armband loop), iRiver includes a neck strap, a USB 1.1/2.0 cable, an AA battery, and earbuds. Setting up the iRiver iFP-790 and loading it with music is more complicated than we'd like. Before you plug in the player, you'll need to install some drivers and iRiver's Music Manager software; Windows and Mac versions are included. Music Manager's slick, two-paned interface lets you drag, drop, and arrange music on the player, and the program supports MP3, OGG, AAC, and WMA (protected and unprotected) formats. It even lets you tweak the FM radio presets, which is easier than setting them up on the player. Mac users get a pared-down version of the software, which lacks the abilities to set FM presets and to drag and drop within the application; instead, you have to drag songs from the Mac Finder. Music Manager is effective, but we prefer a flash player that connects to our system without a driver or software, for when we just want to dump some files onto the player and head out the door.
Because the iFP-790 connects to PCs through iRiver's software, it doesn't show up as a removable drive. Also, bear in mind that to protect against piracy, Music Manager won't let you upload music from the player to a PC, although you can do so with data files. The upside to this light level of security is that the iFP-790 can play songs in the secure WMA format sold by online music stores such as Wal-Mart and Napster.
Once you set up the iFP-790, you'll be treated to a fully loaded feature set, including an equalizer with presets for Rock, Jazz, Classic, U Bass (for bass lovers), Metal, Xtrm EQ (a cool-sounding name for a user-defined setting), and Xtreme 3D (a simulated surround mode that sounded echoey to us). An autoresume feature picks up a song where you left off after powering down, while repeat and shuffle modes and an on-the-fly playlist let you mix and match music at will. Howard Stern fans can listen in with the FM tuner, which comes with 20 presets that the player can set up automatically.
Like its predecessor, last year's , the iFP-790 provides some of the best voice, FM, and line-in recording options around. At the highest sound-quality settings (44.1KHz, 320Kbps stereo), you'll have room for about 90 minutes of recording. For mono voice recordings using the included internal mike. you'll get 3 hours, though you can raise that to 64 hours by dialing down to the lowest sound-quality setting (11.025KHz, 8Kbps mono).
The player's Voice Activated mode pauses recording during periods of silence; you can select the sensitivity, as well as how many seconds of quiet it takes to trigger the pause. Additionally, Automatic Gain Control boosts the recording level to catch far-off sounds and to avoid distortion from loud noises. The Auto-Sync feature creates a new track whenever it detects pauses during line-in recordings--incredibly handy if you're recording an audio CD or using the iFP-790 to convert cassettes or vinyl to digital. Regrettably, the iFP-790 lacks the ability to encode recordings directly to MP3 (the player records content in a proprietary REC format). This isn't too annoying, however, because you can easily convert recordings to MP3 format when you upload the files with Music Manager. Quite frankly, we were blown away by the iRiver iFP-790's sound quality. Even with flat EQ settings, the player sounded great and hiss-free, thanks to its 90dB signal-to-noise ratio. We encounted no problems after pumping up the volume, due to the higher-than-average 18mW-per-channel output.
Even the included earbuds dished up surprising results; they actually sounded better than our ailing $50 pair. Music was warm and detailed, with bass that was truly thumping. We've never heard in-the-box earbuds sound this good, but adding high-end headphones can make a dramatic improvement to the sound of any player. Thus, we'd recommend that those picky about sound consider looking into replacements.
The iFP-790 performed well in our other tests. Music transfers were a speedy 1.42MB per second, thanks to the player's USB 2.0 connection, which, like others of its kind, also works with USB 1.1. iRiver claims up to a whopping 40 hours of battery life, which we were nearly able to match at about 38.5 hours. This bloated figure is definitely music to our ears.
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