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Appeared on: Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Freecom Beatman Flash MP3 Recorder


1. Introduction
Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder 128 Review - Page 1


On January 2004, Freecom announced a new product in the digital media players line. One of these products, the Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder 128 arrived recently in our labs for review. We had already reviewed the Freecom BeatMan 8cm mp3 player in the past, and the results were quite good.

Sizing in at 52.6 x 56.7 x 17.5 mm and with a weight of 44 g, there is always room for the Beatman Flash. This super-compact, silver player provides more than 4 hours* of pure listening pleasure, is shock-resistant and can play either MP3 or WMA files. The in-ear headphones from Sennheiser also supplied with the player guarantee a rich sound quality.

The four-line multi-line graphic display with background lighting provides a complete ID3-tag display with information on the album, song and artist, and all information from the digital equalizer. New music files can easily be copied to the player with the included Digital Audio Manager software and the USB cable supplied. The Beatman Flash can also be used as a dictation device, allowing more than 30 hours of voice recording.

Let's start with a detailed features and specifications list:

- Features & Specifications

Storage capacity 128MB built-in flash memory (models with 256 & 512 MB also available)
Supported Bitrates MP3: 8 ~ 320Kbps & VBR (Variable Bit Rate)
WMA: 32Kbps ~ 192Kbps
MP3 Sampling Frequency 16/22.05/24/32/44.1/48KHz
Voice Recording Time Over 16 hours (Based on 128 MB memory and 16kbps encoding)
Line in recording time Over 2 hours (Based on 128 MB memory and 128kbps encoding)
Additional features Multi 4-Line Graphic Display with EL Backlight
ID3 tag support
FM radio with custom presets
Digital Sound Equalizer (normal/classic/pop/rock/live)
Function keys: Play/Pause/Power Off, Previous, Next,Volume Up/Down, Mode/Navigation, Rec
(voice)/A-B loop, Hold
Firmware upgradeable, Memory not expandeable
Silence Detection level (selects the silence levels between tracks to record)
Power requirements 1x AAA battery (1.5V).Freecom recommends Duracell batteries for optimal performance. Ni-MH rechargeable battery and charger are optionally available.
Operation Time MP3/WMA: over 7 hours / FM: over 16 hours
Line in Connection 3.5 mm Mini Jack connector
PC Connection USB (can also be connected to USB 2.0 port)
System Requirements PC, Intel Pentium 133MHz or higher, 32MB RAM, 40MB free hard drive space, CD-ROM drive,
Windows98SE / ME / 2000 / XP, available USB port
Physical Specifications Dimensions: 57 x 64.6 x 12.6 mm / 2.2 x 2.5 x 0.5 inch - Weight: 41 gr / 1.4 ounce (without battery)
Environmental specifications

Storage: temp. -20° C to 60° C / Hum. 10% to 90% RH non-condensing
Operating: temp. 0° C to 45° C / Hum. 10% to 80% RH non-condensing

Headphone Output 8mW, Frequency Response: 20Hz – 20KHz, Signal to Noise ratio: > 60 dB (without filter), Total Harmonic Distortion: < 0.1%
Headphone Specification Type: Sennheiser MX 300
Frequency response: 18-20000Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Max. SPL: 116dB (at 1kHz, 0.5Vrms)
Cable length: approx. 1m.
Remote Specification Play/Pause/Next/Stop/Speed Control/Previous/Hold/Volume
Package Includes Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder (128 MB or 256 MB)
Wired clip-on remote control
Audio line-in record cable
Sennheiser in-ear headphones
Neckstrap, Carrying Pouch, Luxury cloth, Carrying case with belt clip
USB connection cable
CD with Digital Audio Manager software (English) and manual in 7 languages (GB/D/F/NL/E/I/TR)
1x Duracell AAA-size battery
Quick Install Guide,Warranty card
Service & Support 2 years limited warranty

2. Retail Package

Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder 128 Review - Page 2

Packaging


Firstly, let's examine the package contents.

The Beatman Flash Recorder's box contains (most of the contents are shown in the photo below):

Opening the box and taking out the Flash Recorder, the first thing we noticed was its size. It is very compact, and as you can see from the picture above, it is smaller in size than a credit card!. But don't be fooled by its size. This device, as we will see in this review, packs a lot of features in this small space. Despite the size, it looks very sturdy and solid, and there is a certain quality that it radiates just looking at it. It uses one AAA size battery, and its total weight is very small, around 50-60 grams. Very light indeed!

Another nice surprise in the package is the included earphones. They are made by Sennheiser, a company well known for producing high quality earphones. This is a nice change, since usually many manufacturers choose to include cheap, average quality earphones, that do not produce good sound.

Also included is a very handy carrying case with a belt clip, that allows you to carry the Flash Recorder safely with you wherever you go, without having to resort to solutions like putting it in your pocket for example. The included clip-on remote control, allows you to easily change songs, pause/fast-forward, adjust the volume, all without reaching for the device.

There is also a carrying pouch included, which can easily fit the Flash Recorder, the remote control, the USB cable and the earphones, in case you want to store the player and some of the basic accessories safely and in one place. A very well thought package by Freecom, providing all the necessary accessories to make the most out of the Flash Recorder. Even a Duracell AAA size battery is included, so that you can get to business right away!

You can see more photos by clicking on the following links.

Earphones, Beatman Flash Recorder''s Front/Back/Left Side/Right Side/Top side, Beatman with carrying case Remote control 1 2 3


3. Bundled Software
Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder 128 Review - Page 3
Software

First of all, we need to put some music files to listen to on the device. To do that, special software needs to be installed, namely Mp3 File Transfer Manager. The installation is done using the included software CD, and is pretty straightforward. Along with the software, the necessary USB driver is installed to enable Windows to recognize the device.

The software can be used to transfer mp3/wma files to the device, transfer recorded audio from the device to the computer, or store files to/from the device. So the device can be used as a flash disk to store your files in order to transfer them to another computer. There are "virtual folders" visible with the software. The music folder is where you can put mp3/wma files that you want to on the device. Also there is the voice and FM folders where anything you record from the built-in microphone/line-in input and FM radio are stored respectively, and from there can be transferred to the computer. And finally, the data folder where you can store files in general.

There are a few catches though. First of all, you can only transfer mp3/wma files to the device, and not from it. This means that if you store mp3/wma files in the music folder, you cannot retrieve them afterwards back to your computer. They can only be deleted to free space for other files to be stored. The software also does not allow files with the mp3 or wma extension to be stored in the data folder. This was not much of a problem though, since we managed to fool the software by just changing the file extension.


If you expected that you would be able to use the device as a flash disk that plugs into the USB port and is automatically recognized by windows as a removable disk, think again. As mentioned previously, a driver needs to be installed first, and the device is accessible only through the Mp3 File Transfer Manager. So if you want to use the device to transfer files around, you will need to have the driver and the software installed on every pc that you need to plug into.

Apart from this, the operation of the software was flawless, and was quite easy to use. Just select the mp3/wma files you want to transfer to the device and with a few clicks, you're done. You can also use the software to update the device's firmware, which is fully upgradable. Freecom has not produced any newer firmware at the time of this review, but it is a feature to have.


4. Working with the Flash Recorder
Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder 128 Review - Page 4
Working with the Flash Recorder

The Flash Recorder stores the audio/data files in flash memory. The sample that arrived in our labs had a capacity of 128MB, but Freecom also produces 256MB and 512MB models. While 128MB might appear small to many of you, you can easily store about 3-4 hours of music. This depends mostly on the bitrate of the stored music. The larger the bitrate/quality of the mp3/wma files you store, the less playback time will be available. So if you feel you have greater needs for storage space, you can go for the larger capacity models. Apart from the difference in storage space, all models in the series are identical.

The main advantage of players that use flash memory instead of a CDROM reader is completely flawless playback without skips. Since the player does not have any moving mechanical parts (like the optical pickup that a CDROM reader has), there is no need for skip protection mechanisms. Playback is smooth, and skipping between tracks is almost instantaneous. So you can use the player without annoying skips while jogging, or doing any activity that requires rapid movement.

There is another advantage as well, that stems from the lack of mechanical parts. Power consumption is much less than a CDROM reader based player. This is the case with the Beatman Flash Recorder as well. It operates on a single AAA size battery, which will give you many hours of playback time. In our tests using the included Duracell battery, we managed to get a little more than 10 hours of playback. As stated in the specs as well, listening to FM radio consumes even less power, so you will get more playback time than that one mentioned above.



As for the Flash Recorder itself, it is controlled with two small jog dial buttons, both located on either side. Both buttons can be scrolled up or down, and they can be pushed towards the inside. All the Flash Recorder's functions are controlled from here. The user manual that is included, both in print and in electronic form, is quite explanatory and will help you configure and use the Flash Recorder's functions without much hassle.

Left Side

Right Side


On the top side, we can see the earphones, line-in and USB connectors along with a selection switch and the builtin microphone. The switch selects between music, FM reception and the middle position ("HOLD") in which all the device's controls are locked so that nothing is accidentally pressed while listening. The USB with the line-in connector are protected by a plastic cap.


On the front side, we can see the LCD screen, which is backlit with a nice neutral blue light.There are two buttons on the front. The one on the top named "RECORD" can be used to start recording audio instantly to the device. The other button on the left named "EQ/PRT" can be used to change the equalizer settings. There are 5 presets, plus one more which is user configurable.


As for the wired remote control, it gives the ability to control most of the Flash Recorder's functions easily without having to reach for the device. You can adjust the volume, pause/play the current song, skip back/forward the current song, change equaliser preset. There is a hold switch here as well, that you can use to lock the buttons and avoid having them accidentally pressed. One thing you should bear in mind is that the remote's volume control is analog, and is independent from the volume setting of the Flash Recorder's. So if you experience low sound output from the earphones when the remote control is connected and the volume setting on the device is at maximum, check the volume setting on the remote control as well.




Below you can see snapshots from the Flash Recorder's menu functions:






5. Tests

Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder 128 Review - Page 5

Tests

We tested the Flash Recorder's playback abilities with different types of mp3/wma files. We tried playing files with different bitrates, constant and variable bitrate encoded files, both of mp3 and wma format. The device managed to playback everything we threw at it with no problems. It can read ID3 tags as well, and it can display various information about the songs played, like the song's title/duration/current position, bitrate and it's position in the player's playlist. Concerning ID3 tags, the Flash Recorder reads and displays many that are stored in the song files like Artist and Title. All this information is displayed in the device's screen, scrolling from left to right in order for all of it to be displayed. The device is also capable of displaying correctly international character sets, like Greek.

As far as music quality is concerned, The Flash Recorder performed very well. When listening to well-encoded MP3s or WMAs, the produced sound was good, crisp and clear without noise and distortions, even at the maximum volume level. A big contribution in this can be attributed to the high-quality Sennheiser earphones.

The Flash Recorder can be used as an FM radio as well. By switching to FM reception, we can tune in to our favorite radio station by manually selecting the frequency using the right side jog dial button. There is a search mode as well, in which the device searches and stores as presets the first 16 stations it detects. You can also control the 16 presets individually by manually storing in each one the station you want. This was not stated clearly in the manual, though. There are a few options related to the FM radio mode, like switching between FM stereo and mono mode (can increase reception quality), adjust the sleep timer timeout, FM recording bitrate (32-160Kbps). The quality of the reception was good, but bear in mind that the earphones have to be connected all the time as they're used as an antenna.

Looking at the recording capabilities of the Flash Recorder, there are two possibilities. The one is using the device as a voice recorder using the builtin microphone. The other is connecting it via the line-in connector to another device, like a home stereo using the included cable and then recording directly from that.

The bitrate of the recording can be adjusted from 8 to 112Kbps for voice recording and from 32 to 224Kbps for the line in input. The sampling frequency can be adjusted as well, ranging from 32 to 48 KHz. As you can see, by adjusting these settings, you can increase the maximum recording time by decreasing the recording quality and vice versa. The Flash Recorder encodes the recorder audio using the MP3 file format.


There is also a handy feature that adds to the Flash Recorder's voice recording capabilities: voice activity detection. Quoting from the manual " VAD is a function whereby Voice Recording only starts when a voice is detected. The recording pauses when no voice is detected. This method saves memory-usage by optimizing the file size of voice recording. (recording, fm radio quality, adjusting recording quality". So as you can see the Flash Recorder can be used as a regular tape recorder that you can use in order to record a lecture, an interview, dictate personal notes.


6. Conclusion

Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder 128 Review - Page 6

Conclusion

The Freecom Beatman Flash Recorder is a nifty little device that packs a lot of features in a very small space. The packaging as well is exceptional, giving you from the start all the necessary accessories that will help you to make the most out of the Flash Recorder without needing to buy anything extra (except replacement batteries of course!).

The only drawback that we could find is that it cannot be used as a flash disk easily. You must have Freecom's software installed in order to access the Flash Recorder, and there are restrictions as we saw during the course of this review. Suggested street price from Freecom's web site is 140 Euros, but you can probably find it at a lower price at other retailers. The price is a little high in our opinion, but it is a very complete and quality package that will not disappoint you.

- The Good

- The Bad

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