Does the recording job, pity about the sound

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 March, 1999, 12:00am

Do you get your best ideas while driving, eating or when your hands are otherwise too occupied to jot them down? Panasonic's ultra-light, ultra-petite digital IC Recorder may be for you.

It uses a flash-memory chip to let you record up to 99 voice memos, interviews and messages of a total 60 minutes. It is an easy-to-use gadget that shows off the Japanese ingenuity for cramming multiple controls into the tiniest package.

The Recorder is a triumph of design, not technology. The flash-memory chip used to store the audio is only 16 megabits, the condenser microphone is tiny, and the voice compression technology is similar to that used in first-generation mobile phones.

Sound quality varies depending on the situation. Quality was adequate when I held the Recorder to my mouth to take a voice memo and for a two-way conversation in a quiet room.

The microphone is small, but tuned to a high sensitivity, meaning it tends to pick up background noise. Do not expect to record meetings in a conference room, or a conversation in a restaurant. And you would not want to record anything other than voices: music sounded like it was piped underwater.

Full marks for the IC Recorder's elegant interface, though. It uses a jog dial combined with an LCD screen, which is fast-becoming standard on digital cameras and mini-disc players.

Twirl the dial to move among your stored sound files, and press it to select the one you want. The LCD screen tells you the file number, the recording date, length of file, and remaining battery life.

Other buttons include Record, Erase and Lock, which when depressed protects selected files from being deleted. What was missing were fast-forward and rewind controls. There is no way to go to a certain point in a long conversation or interview. As a result, I found transcribing interviews painfully slow and clumsy.

The IC Recorder partly makes up for this by letting you speed up or slow playback speed by 50 per cent.

A Hold safety switch lets you put the Recorder in your bag without worrying that buttons might accidently be depressed, which could drain your batteries and erase your sound files (there's also no way to export the sound files to a PC).

Panasonic says two AAA batteries should last about 10 hours of recording time. I was pleasantly surprised to have the Recorder almost three weeks, use it for about four interviews, and not come close to draining the batteries.

Replacing batteries can be tricky because Panasonic says you only have 10 seconds of back-up power before your files get erased. Again, I was pleasantly surprised after I fumbled with the batteries for a minute but found my recordings intact. For many users, the obvious usefulness of the Recorder would make up for the mediocre sound quality.

PROS AND CONS Product: Panasonic IC Recorder Specifications: 60-minute capacity with 99 individual files; slow and fast playback; voice-activated recording; LCD screen; AAA batteries Cost: $890 Pros: petite; intuitive controls; good for notes Cons: muddy sound; no fast-forward or rewind makes searching cumbersome; not rechargeable