The iAudio U3 and GNU/Linux

Posted by tadelste on Dec 29, 2005 7:25 AM EDT
LXer; By DC Parris
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  LXer Review: 29-Dec-05

LXer editor, Don Parris, reviews the iAudio U3 he got for Christmas. If you've never heard of iAudio, it's about time you did.


O.k., my new toy this year is the new iAudio 1GB U3 flash MP3 player. And what a toy it is! The real question surrounding the U3 is not so much what it will do as what it won't do - which ain't much. It'll read me bedtime stories at night and wake me up in the morning, to boot! I can play video, show off my family, and listen to FM radio or The Linux Link Tech Show. And it has a built-in voice recorder that blew my mind with its range. Let's take a closer look.

I do not want any player that doesn't support Ogg-Vorbis, as some recordings I want to hear may not be available in other formats. So that weighed heavily in my search, ruling out the iPod, among others. When I started looking at portable audio players, I already knew that iRiver players typically support the Ogg-Vorbis format. What I did not know was how easy the typical iRiver player would be to setup for use with GNU/Linux, especially my SUSE Linux 10.0 systems. So I went looking for a GNU/Linux-oriented review.

The best review I found was, I believe, from one of the guys on the Linux Link Tech Show (on his blog), and he also mentioned iAudio. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued, and I went to have a peek. Cowon Systems produces the iAudio players, and although I had never even heard of them or iAudio, I was impressed by the features and price of the U3, as compared to the iRiver players I had looked at. One of the things that really got my attention though, was that iAudio actually advertises the fact that their devices will work with Mac and GNU/Linux. Most such devices do work, but the manufacturers don't advertise that fact. Since I don't have Windows, it was important to me to see that the manufacturer was advertising GNU/Linux support.

I ordered my U3 on last Wednesday afternoon. It arrived via UPS on Friday, just after I left home for work. My wife had wrapped the little doo-dad and put it under the tree before I could be tempted into opening it before Christmas morning. The package included the headphones, a USB cable for battery charging and data transfer, and a line-in cable for plugging into the headphone jack of some other device (cassette player, CD player, etc.), and a simple USB adapter (in addition to the USB cable).

When I opened it, I plugged it into the USB port to charge it up while I was off at church. When I got the chance, I unplugged it, and turned it on, then hooked it back up to the PC to see how it worked with my SUSE Linux 10.0 box. Sure enough, just as advertised, KDE recognized the U3 as a memory stick device, and allowed me to configure it. It also launched Konqueror and opened the U3 folder automatically. Funny enough, even the WinXP box at work didn't do that much. I actually had to launch Explorer.

The included software is Windows-only. While I understand the logic, the fact is that there are plenty of multi-platform programming tools - Python, anyone? that can be used to develop a cross-platform GUI to include with these devices. There's just not much reason to develop single-platform apps for devices like this. That's one of my few gripes though. The main thing is that I can transfer files between my SUSE box and the U3. I can even use it as an upgraded "sneakernet". With a whole gigabyte of data storage, I could probably download an ISO image. I won't try that right now, as I've got too much music and other stuff on it already.

The U3's screen is only 1"x.75", so I didn't expect much. Yet, when I turned on the U3, the Cowon logo came up just as clear as shown on the website, maybe clearer. Even the sample photos included, though rather small, revealed a phenomenal amount of detail. And the LCD is adjustable, but I plan to leave it at its default setting. You can change the color scheme and choose wallpaper, if you like. The menus are pretty easy to figure out and navigate. Just use the menu button on the side to bring up the system menu, and use the lever to navigate. The + and - on the lever represent Up and Down, respectively, while << and >> let you either back out of the menu, or choose the menu item. Additionally, the lever can be pushed straight in for pop-up menus.

So how's the sound quality? I'll leave that to the sound experts, since I seem to be one step short of tone-deaf. Even so, I think the quality is absolutely phenomenal. It was definitely clear. I drove across Charlotte listening to the FM tuner, and decided I no longer have much need for a car stereo system. Although I do listen to some AM stations frequently, the FM tuner and digital audio files is suitable for most of my needs. Given a plug-in to my car's sound system, I would literally no longer need a car stereo system. The sample audio file is called "Friends and Lovers", though it has nothing to do with the country song I knew growing up. Still, the file is pretty cool, and definitely offers an impressive sample of what the U3 is capable of. Other users have proclaimed the superiority of the U3 over the iPod in the iAudio forums. So I am not alone in my belief that the quality is pretty darned good.

One of the other major features I wanted, which the iRiver players had, was a built-in voice recorder. The U3's voice recorder is one of the best recorders I have ever used. I have an Olympus voice recorder that doesn't pick up half as well, or offer near the recording quality that the U3 offers. To give an example of the U3 mic's ability, I stood in two different large rooms to test it. One was a mini auditorium, capable of seating 100 people. The other room was a cubicle farm that is now empty. It has a corner to break it up. I left my U3 on table at one end of the room, and walked all the way to the other, talking in a normal tone of voice. The U3 picked me up all the way around the corner at the opposite end of the room - some 65 feet away! I'll be recording church services and other events from now on.

The only other gripe I have about the U3 is that it saves voice recordings in WMA format. I would really like to see it encode to Ogg-Vorbis or at least WAVE, so I can choose the final format later. It sure seems like Ogg-Vorbis encoding would cost less and/or be easier, in terms of licensing. There are plenty of audio conversion tools I can use for that. At the very least, the kind folks at Cowon could give me a choice. Otherwise, I am seriously impressed by the U3's recording capabilities.

In short, the U3 is small, powerful and easy to use. Despite its small screen, pictures and video are amazingly clear. It works with GNU/Linux out of the box, and the manufacturer advertises that fact. Given it's sub-$200 price tag, I dare say it's certainly worth considering. If all the iAudio players are this cool, iRiver and Apple should be afraid - very afraid. And just a final note to all the device manufacturers out there: if you don't advertise that your product works with GNU/Linux, some of us may choose your competitors who do.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Sounds EXACTLY like the MPIO ONE kynada 1 3,631 Dec 29, 2005 4:55 PM
iRiver is almost as useful ralph 1 3,498 Dec 29, 2005 12:34 PM

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