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Review You've got to hand it to iRiver. Faced with Apple's iconic iPod, the company hasn't tried to emulate its rival by devising a single, clear product identity around which to build its range. Instead, it's gone for a scattergun approach: fire off lots of different models and hope some of them stick to consumers.

Review You've got to hand it to iRiver. Faced with Apple's iconic iPod, the company hasn't tried to emulate its rival by devising a single, clear product identity around which to build its range. Instead, it's gone for a scattergun approach: fire off lots of different models and hope some of them stick to consumers.

Enter the T10, T20 and T30. I'll be looking at all three over the next few days, but first it's the turn of the smallest, the T20. Available in 1GB and 512MB versions, I took a look at the latter. It's an archetypal compact MP3 player, all straight lines and tiny, fiddly controls. The black and red front panel plays host to a small blue-backlit LCD of the kind we've seen on Creative's MuVo range and other Flash-based devices. The back is an iPod-like shiny chrome panel that wraps around the sides, splitting to form the T20's main controls. Like the iPod, it quickly becomes a mess of fingerprints. There's barely any movement to the buttons, which are flush with the edge of the player. I didn't take to them, and I found the player to be too small to be comfortable to use. It might look great hung from a young model's neck, but it didn't pass my 'use on a crowded bus' test.

The top of the device has two 3.5mm-jack sockets, one for earphones, the other for line-in recording. There's a microphone on the front for voice recording, too. I've always felt recording is an excuse to tick a couple of extra boxes on a feature comparison chart, but they're there if you do need them. The line-in even has a sensor to automatically break tracks after a sufficient length of silence.

The T20 sports the usual custom and pre-set EQ settings, along with SRS, the '3D' sound enhancement technology. Moving between these changes the sound immediately, allowing you to quickly sample each one then move on to the next without having to re-navigate the menu structure.

That's just as well, because the T20's menu system is something of a step backwards. Pressing and holding the M key displays the top-level menu, and you use the track skip controls to move from one selection to the other. Since these are on the other side of the player to the M key, which is right next to the + and - buttons used usually to control the volume. The Play/Stop button next to the track skip controls is used to select an option or make a setting. The main menu runs laterally, all the others stack one option on top of another in a vertical list. It's all inconsistent and unintuitive.

 iRiver T20 512MB digital music player

Back to the sound, and the quality isn't at all bad. But then solid-state music players have been around long enough that the underlying audio technology is well understood now. Hence the presence of SRS, to provide a slightly more interesting audio enhancement technology than the usual EQ pre-sets. Like EQ settings, SRS' results are both a matter of personal taste and a drainer of battery power. You can give your songs a spacier sound, though the effect is inevitably limited by the earphones iRiver bundles, and the extra processing will reduce the battery life.

That's important in the T20's case because unlike other iRiver Flash players it has a built-in rechargeable battery, so there's no swapping in a new power cell when the current one runs down. iRiver quotes a 14-hour playback period for 128KBps MP3s. With SRS turned on, and playing a stack of DRM-protected 128KBps WMA files, I got 8-9 hours out of a single charge.

The T20 uses Microsoft's MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) to manage file transfers, so you're pretty much limited to using Windows Media Player 10's sync system to copy songs to the player. You can do drag-and-drop, too, but Windows monitors the process to make sure you're not copying anything you're not supposed to.

I tried a stack of MP3s, most of which were mysteriously mangled in the process. For some reason, the T20 kept seeing their sample rate as 8kHz. It's something to do with the ID tags inserted by iTunes, because other songs not encoded in the Apple jukebox software played as they're supposed to. It's impossible to say where the blame for this lies, Microsoft, iRiver or Apple, but it's a warning if you plan to use iTunes to manage your MP3s and WMP just to copy them to the T20.

Inevitably, DRM-protected WMA files played just fine. The T20 supports subscription-sourced downloads, but I prefer to own my music, so I was only able to test one-off downloads. It can also handle Ogg files.

 
iRiver T20 512MB digital music player 
The T20's stand-out feature - literally - is its USB connector. This is protected not by a cap, but by a mechanism that allows it to slide into the body of the player. The slider locks in the open position to ensure that pushing the connector into a USB port doesn't nudge it back into the player - to retract it, you push a button to release the lock. It's fiddly, but cute. iRiver has slipped a tiny rubber bung on the end, but it's not connected to the player and my guess is most owners will lose it fairly quickly.

Verdict

The T20 is a perfectly competent music player. It isn't bad, but there are better products out there, from iRiver and elsewhere. It's closely tied into Windows Media Player 10, so that will determine your source of legal downloads, and how you get them onto the device. The retractable USB connector is certainly a neat feature, and you may enjoy the SRS sound enhancer, but for me, the controls were just too irritating. It's not much of a looker either.

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