Review: Belkin Voice Recorder
Pros: Appropriate size and solid quality for both build and features, including a very good microphone.
Cons: Limited functions, premium price point, and it can’t record direct audio in.
It’s Not a Rumor
Even if they’re untrue, rumors have a tendency to excite people. Months ago, iPod users discovered a hidden, cryptic iPod self-test menu that included a mysterious microphone test option - the bigger (and counterintuitive) surprise was that a pair of headphones could actually be used to test a unit’s audio recording capabilities. Rumors and conspiracy theories soon abounded, positing Apple in possession of a secret plan to turn iPods into next-generation portable audio and video recorders (think iSight), and Apple responded by… well, saying nothing and removing the microphone test feature.
Flash forward several months to the release of both iTunes for Windows and version 2.1 of the iPod 3G system software, a date which few expected would involve any other major surprises. But, surprises there were - two new peripherals from Belkin, pertinently including a tiny $59.99 device called the Voice Recorder. Lo and behold, Belkin’s Voice Recorder plugs right into the headphone port (and its four-pin data connector - sorry 1G and 2G iPod owners), enabling the iPod to record and even play back live audio.
A Tiny Value
The Voice Recorder isn’t the first microphone peripheral to connect to a hard drive-based MP3 player, nor is it the most fully-featured. But it’s certainly among the smallest and easiest to use.
Narrower but taller and the same thickness as TEN’s NaviPod infrared remote control accessory, the smooth white plastic Voice Recorder fits neatly on top of a 3G iPod, blending in nicely with Apple’s front casing. (Like most other top-mounting iPod peripherals, the Voice Recorder cannot be inserted while the iPod is encased in an iSkin or other protective case.) Circular holes on the front denote the unexpected presence of a small speaker, while the clear gray top has a single small microphone hole, a small LED light, and the Belkin logo. Power to the unit is supplied solely by the iPod’s battery, though drain is likely to be modest.
By comparison with Creative Labs’ microphone peripheral for the Nomad Jukebox 3 and Zen players, the Voice Recorder is limited in concept: Creative developed an all-in-one wired remote control with microphone and FM radio tuner, promised it for $39.95, and then delivered it months late for $69.95. For $59.99 MSRP - $49.99 at many stores - Belkin’s device is nothing more than a microphone and speaker, but both components produce very clear, if not super-powered results. And some of them may surprise you.
It’s in the Software: the iPod’s Software
As it turns out, Belkin doesn’t supply any software for the Voice Recorder, and didn’t need to. Version 2.1 of the iPod system software handles recording functionality, first by delivering instantaneous plug-and-play access when the Voice Recorder is plugged in, then by providing an “extra” menu that automatically appears after the device has recorded its first audio sample. And yes, we mean “instantaneous.” Insert the Voice Recorder and the iPod turns on and shifts immediately to “Voice Memo” mode, complete with a large count-up hours/minutes/seconds timer and two options: Record and Cancel.
Press record and within two seconds, the top LED has turned green and the on-screen timer is counting up seconds, with a flashing word “Recording” and two new options: “Pause” and “Stop and Save.” Choose “Pause” or press the Play/Pause button and the word becomes “Resume;” press “Stop and Save” or hit the Menu button and the iPod quickly saves the recording before shifting to another menu. The new menu contains all of your previous recordings, organized by date and time, and the “Record Now” option to return to the recording screen. In typical iPod fashion, all of the functionality is contained within individual button presses, absent the freedom or confusion inherent in naming your own files, choosing recording locations on the hard disk, et cetera.
Where’s it All Going?
Recordings in fact are deposited into a folder on the iPod’s hard drive, named - you guessed it -Recordings. And their file names are date and time stamps (20031017 204959) with a little suffix -WAV. Simple enough, right? Each file is saved as an 8KHz, 16-bit mono file, such that a nine-second file consumes 150KB. Expect to get about a minute of recorded voice per Megabyte, or 1,000 minutes per Gigabyte - plenty of recording space on an unfilled 40GB iPod, and probably enough even for the casual needs of people who have nearly filled their 10GB units. Of course, you can transfer voice files off the iPod to a computer with simple cutting and pasting.
Once a recording has been made, it can be played back through the built-in speaker or headphones. No doubt owing somewhat to the Voice Recorder’s quality omnidirectional microphone, voice recording quality is surprisingly clear, especially for 8KHz sampling, and we feel comfortable agreeing with Belkin’s claims that the Voice Recorder is capable of recording lectures*, memos, interviews and conversations. But you’ll only be able to hear them clearly with a set of headphones. Playback through the speaker is clear, though quite limited in volume by the speaker’s small 16 millimeter size and the unit’s low power drain.
(* = Notably, though Belkin includes “lectures” on the Voice Recorder’s packaging, a recent support document on their web site appears to back down somewhat from this claim, suggesting that the device is primarily intended for close-contact use. We tested the device at ten-foot ranges and found that it did indeed pick up quiet sounds from that distance, leading us to believe the iPod is safe to use in small lecture rooms or large ones with booming lecturers. But, individual circumstances will vary, so if this is your intended purpose, consider purchasing from a store with a decent return policy.)
As a voice recording device, the iPod has quite a bit to offer, even if Creative Nomad fans might scoff at the simplicity of this first peripheral. True, it would have been nice to see a bit of additional functionality in the Voice Recorder, specifically a pass-through line-in, perhaps FM radio tuning, or at least a cable to extend the distance between the iPod and the microphone. And Apple’s choice to keep its interface simple, minus file naming and higher and lower-quality recording options, contrasts sharply with more sophisticated recording options. But for the time being, all of this is just wishful thinking, and we don’t think Belkin should be knocked for delivering an early product with top of class functionality for the iPod platform.
Like other speaker peripherals, the Voice Recorder enables users to take better advantage of an iPod feature that Apple’s quietly offered for some time - the Alarm Clock, which can be set to go off at any time with a wake-up sound. Previously, the Alarm Clock was an impractical feature for those of us who don’t keep our iPods connected to speakers, but with the Voice Recorder’s speaker plugged in, the iPod suddenly becomes a viable travel alarm. Or at least more viable than falling asleep with headphone cords wrapped around your neck.
Finally, the Voice Recorder package also includes a protective plastic storage cap which should be adequate to shield the ports (but not the microphone or speaker holes) during transport. While the unit has fully satisfactory build quality and isn’t fragile per se, we surely wouldn’t want to step on it, crunch it, or try to pour water in those holes.
In sum, the Voice Recorder is a nifty little peripheral that delivers entirely on its promised functionality. While the $59.99 price might deter some potential customers, digital voice recorders with considerably less recording time cost just as much - rationalize or argue this at your leisure - so adding the feature to the iPod is a legitimate alternative for gadgeteers aiming to avoid further crowding their pockets, bags or briefcases. The Voice Recorder is only helped by the iPod’s simple user interface and its ability to transfer recordings via Firewire or USB 2.0 to a computer for storage and playback. Now if only someone would find a way to make these shiny little babies record video.
Jeremy Horwitz is a consumer electronics fanatic who practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school -ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.