Brief Hands-On with iriver AK100

Yesterday at Hottracks in Gangnam (Style!) I had a chance to play around with the iriver AK100 for a short time. My impressions were:

– Navigating through the music was done on the touchscreen, and changing tracks was either done on the touchscreen or on the physical buttons on the left. Either way, and I suspect the music was on the expandable micro-SD storage, it was very slow and cumbersome. Tracks took that crucial half-second longer to change, main navigation was folder-based, and it took an inordinately long time to move into the folder on the external storage probably due to the large number of files on it. This is why certain companies (won’t mention names) never allow external storage: it slows down the user experience. I knew it from my time with the Cowon D2 and HTC Desire, and AK100 was a discomfiting reminder of the downsides of expandable storage. 

– I have never been a fan of folder-based navigation. I prefer the device’s OS to sort my songs by Artists, Songs and Albums automatically without me dragging and dropping my collection and putting them in their respective folders. It’s OK if you only have 50 or 100 songs, but I have over 20GBs of music. Again, certain companies know this and take the trouble of developing the right software to minimize user chores. iriver has been in business since the early days of the MP3 player, and should really know better. It’s been more than ten years, so it was disheartening to see the OS feel so barebones. Maybe I’m wrong and there is an option to choose tag-based navigation, but I couldn’t even find the Option section in the menu. 

– The build-quality was fantastic. Brushed aluminum dominates the surface, and although very small (about 2/3 the size of an iPhone 4) it had a real premium heft to it that really felt good in the hand. The volume control wheel on the right side had a nice click to it when spun, which added to the overall physical experience.

– Sound quality was terrific. I plugged in my trusty Etymotic ER-4P, and was immediately impressed with the subtly accentuated bass. It was not overdone like on so many other players, but was pronounced just so. Detail was alive in most songs, the presentation was clear and the treble and mid-sections were nicely controlled and not overly forward. I will probably need more time with the device to see if the MQS files with the super-high sample rates do sound better, however. 

Overall, the conclusion I had to draw from my brief time with AK100 is unfortunately the same as ones I had with so many other MP3 players in the past: great hardware and excellent sound let down by undercooked OS. At this day and age, there’s no excuse for manufacturers to skimp out on the software. One of the main reasons why I stick with iPhones is their music player: not only does familiarity with iTunes and the iPod player keep me loyal, but the overall experience – tag-based navigation, ability to create smart playlists and then send songs to different playlists on the fly, ultra-fast track changes and navigation – ensures that I get disappointed whenever I have to put up with anything less on other devices. Again, it was a quick sample, but even that short time was enough to convince me that AK100 isn’t worth putting down the $600 it costs. No matter how good the music sounds, an MP3 player needs to make it convenient for users to manage and choose their music. 


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