Technology

iRiver's Disappointing Spinn


1209_iriver
Editor's Rating: star rating

The latest music player from the South Korean electronics maker is dazzling to look at, but lacks features now standard on comparably priced iPods

As a longtime iPod owner, I wonder whether Apple (AAPL) has created the be-all, end-all line of digital music players. They boast elegant, compact forms, affordable prices, and a seemingly unending parade of game-changing features like the click wheel, album artwork, and—in the case of the iPhone and iPod Touch—integration of music playing with phone and Web browser capabilities. At least for now, Apple has set expectations for any other device impossibly high.

That's not stopping competitors from trying. Portable audio mainstays like Sony (SNE), Samsung, and Creative (CREA), as well as relative newcomers like iRiver, Archos, and Microsoft (MSFT) are busy pumping out new players to vie for the affection of music lovers like me. In this series of reviews, I'll put the worthiest iPod-challengers through their paces, beginning with the iRiver Spinn.

The first thing you need to know about iRiver, a division of South Korean company ReignCom (RGNMF), is that its designers have it in for plain old buttons. Its U10 device, which made its debut in 2005, could be navigated entirely by thumbing each side of the screen. On the Clix, from 2007, the entire screen acted as a pushable pad. Those innovations were original and fun—I felt like I was using a classic Nintendo controller—but they limit your ability to move through menus quickly.

Standout Feature? The Video Player

The Spinn, a lightweight, brushed aluminum media player, takes the buttonless approach to a whole new level. The device is about the length and width of a business card and the thickness of a Hershey bar, and it boasts a hinge-like cylindrical wheel on the right side. Spin the wheel between thumb and index finger to navigate menus, and push down from the top to make selections. The wheel lends the device a cool retro look, and it's great for speeding through a long list of hundreds of songs with a few simple twists.

The Spinn is not just an audio player. From the main menu, you can dive into nine different functions, including games, picture or video viewer, music player, FM radio, and file viewer.

The standout feature by far is the video player. Load up a video and you'll notice a big difference between the 3.3-in. screen of the Spinn and most other portables. It's an organic light-emitting diode (OLED), meaning it produces light pixels directly, rather than filtering them from a backlight. The OLED screen makes colors brighter and more vivid, and when you tilt your head at an angle, they don't seem dimmer. This crispness is particularly impressive in the video menu, where you can scroll though previews of each video as a shrunk-down but fully rendered thumbnail.

Another benefit of OLED technology is that it sucks up less battery life. I was able to get through an entire two-hour movie and listen to music for about four hours before running out of juice.

Unfortunately, there are two big constraints on this great screen: limited size and lack of an online store. The Spinn only comes in 4GB ($190) and 8GB ($230) versions, so don't plan on importing more than a couple of movies, especially if you're planning to store music, too.

No Music-Store Support

What's more, the novelty of the Spinn's controls wears off quickly. When you put the device in "locked" mode, the wheel becomes a volume knob that can accidentally get fumbled if you slide the device into your pocket. Leave it unlocked and the wheel can flip jarringly from one song to the next.

Spinn's biggest drawback of all is its lack of a supportive media ecosystem akin to the iTunes music store. The Spinn lets you drag-and-drop a wide range of media files, including MP3, WMA, OGG, ASF, FLAC, APE, MPEG4, WMV9, and XVD, from the PC to the player. But when it comes to downloading or buying those files, you're on your own. It would have been wise to cross-promote the device with an existing download service, like Amazon.com's (AMZN) MP3 store.

I applaud iRiver's imaginative approach to portable media players—and I can't wait to discover what unusual navigation feature they'll introduce next. But the Spinn ultimately falls short. At about $230, an 8GB Spinn costs about the same as an iPod Touch. But Apple's device lets you access e-mail and the Web, delivers all manner of multimedia, and connects with a robust online store—a set of features consumers will come to expect from a music player all too soon.

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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