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Review of iRiver i799 MP3 Player

Once on a trip, I remarked that I wish I had a MP3 player, and the person I was with said, “Why? Do you get lonely?”Â  While I suppose that, someone could look at music as a relief from loneliness, but for me I like being alone.  For me, music has always done two things:  The first is to enhance the experience that you’re having, but providing extra stimulus, or by providing a background soundtrack like a movie, and the second thing it has done for me is to provide a getaway from problems or boredom.

iRiver 799 mp3 player.
iRiver 799 mp3 player.

When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, my trail partner and I used walkmans to catch the news, listen to new music on the radio or listen to cassettes of songs.  It was great to be in the woods for six months while being able to keep up to date with what was going on in the world, and while I generally like to stay out of touch with families, friends, and work associates when on trip, and I would never consider bringing a cell phone with me, but I like to keep up to date with the world.  I remember staying up late to listen to the landslide Clinton reelection while in my sleeping bag in a shelter on the AT.
So, for the last year, I’ve been thinking about buying an MP3 player, but there really hasn’t been anything on the market that met my qualifications for the perfect one.  My qualifications are 40 hours of battery life on one battery, holds 40 albums at close-to CD quality, has an FM radio (AM is a plus), is small and light, and is waterproof.  I found one that hits all those points if you buy an optional waterproof case and headphones for it.  It’s made by iRiver and is called the i799.
The unit itself is small.  If you put it in the palm of your hand, you can close your hand around it, and this is the first feature that drew me to this player verses some of the bigger players, like the Apple iPod.  It weighs in at 2.8 ounces with the one AA battery that is used to power it, and with the headphones that comes with it.  This makes it much lighter than my old Walkman and the four or five tapes I’d hike with.  To keep it this light, they had to use plastic and because of that it feels somewhat frail, but after using it for a month and carrying it in my coat wherever I go, it has done just fine.  But for $220, you would expect it to be made out of titanium.
The reason it is so expensive is because of the memory chip included in the unit.  It has 1 GB of memory built from a flash chip, which is a different type of memory system than that used on the Apple iPod and others.  These later MP3 players use a mini-hard drive, which has some pit falls, one of which is that at high attitudes they can stop working. Another is that when dropped their memory system is more delicate, and likely to fail.  And because a hard drive has to spin for it to retrieve what is stored on it, it uses more battery power.  On an iPod, you can expect 8 to 10 hours of battery life, which in my book doesn’t cut it.  By the end of the 2005, I expect that 1 GB of flash memory with has dropped to $50 retail, so you can expect to see these units drop significantly in price.
I’ve found that 1GB of memory is just enough to squeeze 40 albums onto the player, since I typically only listen to between 10 and 20 different albums this works perfect for me.  Although, I do admit, it would be nice to have twice this amount of memory, because out for my CD collection for about 400, I really only ever listen to 80 of those in a year, but at twice the price 2GB is just too much for me.  I’ll wait a couple of years to upgrade.
Often in a review like this you’ll hear about the menu system, and although I won’t cover it in depth, I will say that the menu system is somewhat confusing, and it is hard to figure out and remember what each button does, because they all are assigned double duty.  I still have to play around to get to the right spot, but this is minor quibble.  One thing that I wish that the menu and buttons allowed you to do is to instantly switch into voice record from wherever you are in the system.  With a feature like voice record this would allow you to instantly record your thoughts without have to wade through the system.  As it is, you have to hold down a button for about a second, and then use the joystick to switch to voice record, press down on the joystick, and then press the record button.  After your done recording, you have to go back through all those steps to get to music again.  One button that you could hold down while recording would be perfect for this type of use.
A second thing that I didn’t like about the unit as shipped was that you couldn’t use it as a USB memory type key and the shuffle replayed the same songs, but by going to the international website for iRiver, they have a software upgrade that will turn your unit into a USB key and fix the shuffle.  Avoid the US site, because their software doesn’t do this.  Before you load music on the unit, I recommend doing this.  Also, if you don’t do this upgrade anything that you record in MP3 format from the radio or line-in is not transferable from the unit to your computer.  I expect this has to do with the paranoia that the US music industry has about MP3 and music on the Internet.
One other minor problem I have with the unit is that it doesn’t pick up radio stations as well as some other radios that I’ve used.  For example, when hiking up to Eagle Mountain, MN a week or so ago, I started to lose the NPR station before I end got to the base of the mountain.  I’ve been much deeper in the BWCAW before and have gotten the radio much better on my Walkman.  Right after 9/11, we went into the Wilderness on 9/13 and carried a radio the whole trip and I don’t remember not being able to get NPR.
But overall, I recommend the iRiver i799.  For me, with its outstanding 40 hours of battery life on one AA battery, its ability to hold 40 albums, and its ability to play FM radio when combined with its Ultralight weight of 2.8 ounce makes this the perfect MP3 player.

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