The PoGo Products RipDrive appeals to the penny-pinching MP3 fan who can live with a larger portable player. The 20GB model offers ample playback time and an impressive list of features, including a recordable FM radio, high-quality line-in recording, and text-file viewing. And this no-nonsense package is affordable, costing nearly $100 less than a 20GB Apple iPod. But bargains usually come with a few tell-tale compromises, and the RipDrive's most notable concession to frugality is its hefty form factor. The RipDrive certainly isn't the most petite player we've seen. At 3.1 by 0.86 by 5 inches, it looks more like a PDA. Luckily, PoGo devoted much of the face to the LCD. The 160x105-pixel screen doesn't offer much in the way of graphics, but it measures a healthy 2.5 inches; is backlit in blue; and uses a big, block typeface. So, even if you hold the RipDrive at arm's length, reading the LCD is extremely easy. The playback view is especially sharp, with song, artist, and album information clearly displayed on separate lines.
The interface, on the other hand, takes some getting used to. Music navigation, voice-memo recording, and other common functions are a walk in the park. But accessing deeper menus requires both hands; multiple buttons; a small, two-directional toggle stick; and a thorough examination of the RipDrive's manual. Tasks such as station scanning could definitely use a control like the Apple iPod's scrollwheel; the player creeps through the FM band at a snail's pace. Practice makes perfect, however, and we got the hang of the interface in the space of an afternoon.
The package comes with the core accessories: earbuds, a power adapter, and a carrying case with a belt clip. You get cables for USB connection and line-in recording, and for $19, you can add a displayless in-line remote. Also available is a $19 rechargeable battery. Swapping in replacements requires a screwdriver but is still a good option; Creative is the only other company selling hard drive players with user-replaceable cells. When you connect the RipDrive to your USB 1.1/2.0 port, the player shows up as a removable drive in Windows Explorer, and drag-and-drop file transfer is easy. The PoGo's directories are permanently alphabetical, so there's no way to sort music by artist, album, or genre, but you can create playlists. On the fly, you build them with the device's easy-to-use internal tool; at home on your computer, you assemble them in M3U using Winamp or other software, then drag them to the RipDrive. The selection of playback modes is also decent; there's a shuffle option, and you can repeat all the contents, a directory or subdirectory, or a single track. The equalizer provides five presets and a five-band user-definable setting.
The 20-preset FM tuner is nice, but recording is the RipDrive's big attraction. At any standard MP3 bit rate up to 320Kbps, the player can capture its radio's signals, line-in analog input, and audio from digital optical sources. Voice memos spoken into the internal microphone are saved at up to 128Kbps. One benefit of these capabilities is that you can pop a CD into your stereo system and send the music straight to the RipDrive for MP3 encoding. The process skips your computer altogether. But while listening to your new tunes is easy, organizing them will force you back to your desktop. You can't include them in playlists or shuffles until you've shepherded them out of the unit's recording directory, to your PC, and back into the RipDrive's regular MP3 space--an annoying and time-consuming limitation.
Recording couldn't be more straightforward, but unfortunately, the RipDrive can't control or monitor the volume of line-in sources. You have to listen in on headphones and adjust the level on the external audio gear. With the digital connection, volume is not an issue.
Support for TXT files means that you can read notes or converted e-mail on the RipDrive's large screen. Your choice of English, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean displays rounds out the player's more noteworthy offerings. The PoGo Products RipDrive offers excellent audio quality, thanks to a signal-to-noise ratio greater than 90dB. While navigating between tracks, we heard popping and cracking, but the noises never turned up during music playback. The radio's FM reception was also surprisingly clear. But the bundled headphones didn't do justice to the RipDrive's sound, so an upgrade is probably in order.
File transfers over our USB 2.0 connection clocked in at 2.9MB per second. For this class of player, that rate is fairly average, but it's still fast enough to fill the 20GB drive in just a couple of hours.
During our testing, a corrupt MP3 file completely froze the player, and a lengthy consultation of the manual yielded no solutions. However, PoGo's free technical support proved impressive. A quick call had us up and running again in less than a minute; we had to reset the device.
PoGo rates the RipDrive's playback time at 10 hours, but the player pleasantly surprised us by lasting 11 hours.
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