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Review of the iRiver HD340

The iRiver HD340 is a 40GB hard-drive-based multi-codec music player, radio, text reader, and image viewer. I have had mine for about 6 months now. I have found some strengths and weaknesses that do not seem to be common knowledge. As usual, I will try to avoid giving information available elsewhere on the Internet.

I use my unit solely to listen to my CD collection and have not used its other functions much. My motivation for buying it was to be able to take my music with me conveniently, without risking loss or damage. In this respect I’m just like millions of others. But I don’t use non-Free Software compression formats (and I don’t want to have to encode at a high bitrate to get good sound quality, another reason not to use mp3), so just any old player won’t do. I need something that will play Ogg Vorbis files. That’s why I chose this unit over the others available on the market.

I have a lot of criticism below, but don’t be fooled: I really like this little gizmo and would definitely buy it again.

What’s good

The unit is compatible with Ogg Vorbis and other Free Software formats. The firmware is upgradable and iRiver has a good track record with updates.

The unit itself is little more than a hard drive, a screen, and some software. It has a USB2.0 interface and when I plug it in, it shows up as an external hard drive like any other. The filesystem is FAT32. This means interfacing with my Gentoo GNU/Linux system is trivial.

The player is well-built; it is very solid. It looks and feels like quality.

Filesystem layout is very simple: the unit simply browses the directory structure in a familiar tree view. There is a single four-way up/down/left/right button for navigation, which is very easy to use.

Sound quality is excellent. People often shrug off sound quality reviews and assume that every player will be great, but I can tell you from experience, some players can take a great file and make it sound like crap. Playback quality is very dependent on the software and hardware used. iRiver’s sounds great. I listen through a set of Sennheiser HD590s.

Battery life is very good. I’m not sure exactly how long it lasts; I listen at low levels and it will play for a couple of work days, so maybe 16 to 20 hours.

Room for improvement

The interface is fairly geeky. Buttons do unintuitive things in different modes. After a little practice it’s not hard to use, but it is not straightforward. A person who isn’t used to it can easily choose the wrong song or album by accident.

The instructions are unclear, in part because everything has a different function in different modes. For example, I tried and tried to get .m3u playlists to work, and concluded that the unit didn’t work right, but finally found something on the iRiver support website that explained how to do it. You have to press (and hold?) a certain button in a certain mode. I’ve forgotten how to do it now, and I usually don’t forget these types of things.

Navigating through the list of artists is slow. I have a lot of music and it would be nice to have a page-up/page-down function instead of clicking through them one at a time.

There is about a half-second gap between tracks. Gapless playback would be really nice, especially for my many albums that have no space between tracks.

The display doesn’t really show all the information in a good way. Most song titles are too long to fit on the display. Instead of wrapping, they are scrolled. I have to wait for the text to scroll into view. In general, there is a lot of display real estate that’s poorly used.

The unit takes about 20 seconds to start. I understand that if I used Windows to transfer files to it, an internal database would be maintained and boot-up would be faster. I don’t think this is the reason for slow boot-up though. The system just takes a while to boot, period.

There is both a headphone and line-level output. The line output seems to be the same as the headphone though, and its level is controlled by the volume setting. A line output ought to be a certain voltage and impedance range. This isn’t a true line output.

When the battery goes low, playback is interrupted by a beep every few minutes as a warning. This is annoying and can’t be turned off. Worse, the battery really isn’t that close to dying. I’ve found there are typically two to three hours left in the battery when it starts beeping. To make the battery last as long as possible, it really needs to be drained every time before recharging, so there’s no way around it except to put it aside and not listen to it while it plays itself out of battery.

The unit is bigger than an iPod. It’s small, just not that small. It’s about the length and thickness of a deck of cards, and slightly narrower. When it is in its leather case it’s bulkier. The case has a small nub for attaching to a belt or other means of carrying, and the nub is not removable, which is a poor design choice.

Changing the settings is confusing. Many settings are unclear. Once the settings are saved it’s hard to get back to playback mode.

It is possible to charge the unit by plugging it into a USB cable. Sometimes it started to charge when I really wanted it to connect for data transfer or vice versa. There is a setting to change this, but it’s hard to find, and unclear what really does what I want. It took some experimentation, but I was able to just disable USB charging, and I’m happy with that.

Conclusion

Now that I have my settings the way I want, I really enjoy using this unit. I just turn it on and let it play, and that’s really all I want out of it. I’m very satisfied. I do not expect it to be a very popular toy for the masses, though.

Posted on Wed, Oct 5, 2005. Approximately 1100 Words.

Hardware