Mobile Computing: Digital Voice Recorders

Feature: Voice Memos on the Go

Truly inspired ideas often occur when you're unable to write them down--a situation most mobile professionals have experienced. So I think it's a good idea to keep a digital voice recorder handy as often as possible for on-the-go dictation.

Digital voice recorders let you record memos, meetings, and phone conversations--with permission, of course. Unlike tape recorders, though, the recordings are stored in .wma, .wav, and other formats. You can listen to the files on the recorder itself or transfer them to your PC for playback, archiving, and sending to others as e-mail attachments. Depending on the recording device, you can even use voice recognition software to transcribe your recordings into text, though the results can be spotty.

Fortunately, there are many options for digital voice recording. In fact, if you own a digital audio player, a Pocket PC, or a high-end Palm PDA, you may already have that capability. Here's a look at the ways you can create digital voice recordings and what to expect with each method.

Digital Audio Players

Some MP3 players feature built-in voice recording software and microphones. Devices in this category include the Dell Digital Jukebox (aka the Dell DJ), the Frontier Labs NexIa, the IRiver IHP-120, and the MP-110 from Jens of Sweden. Typically, these players record in mono rather than stereo, which is no big deal for basic voice recordings. The length of the recordings is dependent on the player's available storage space. The recordings you make can be transferred to a computer via a flash memory card, a USB connection, and so on.

Apple's IPod doesn't include a built-in microphone, but you can add one via Belkin's Voice Recorder for IPod w/Dock Connector ($60; you can check the PC World Product Finder for the latest prices). The microphone, which includes a small (16mm) speaker, snaps into the IPod's headphone and remote ports. In my informal tests, the mono recordings (in .wav format) were easy to make and easily accessible for playback from within ITunes, Apple's music software. The sound quality was adequate, though a bit fuzzy and distorted at high volumes.

Bottom line: If you frequently carry tunes with you, and need only basic and occasional voice recordings, an MP3 player with voice recording capability is the way to go.

For the latest prices on MP3 players, check our Product Finder.

PDAs

The majority of Pocket PCs have voice recording capabilities, including the entire Hewlett-Packard IPaq line, the Dell Axim X3i, and the Toshiba Pocket PC e750.

Palm OS PDAs with voice recording capabilities tend to be high-end models. For instance, the least expensive PalmOne model with voice recording is the $329 Tungsten T2. Sony's lowest-priced Clie with voice recording is the $300 TG50.

Usually, PDAs with voice recording capabilities feature an on/off button to begin and end recordings. The recordings are automatically transferred to your computer when you synchronize the devices. The mono recordings (in .wma format) I've made with the Palm Tungsten T3 are of good quality, lacking the slight distortion of the IPod/Belkin recordings.

Bottom line: Most of us carry a PDA on the go, so a model with a built-in voice recorder is a real convenience. Make sure your PDA has plenty of memory, though, or you'll be limited to making only brief recordings.

For the latest prices on PDAs, check our Product Finder. To see PDAs we've tested recently, go to our Top 10 chart.

Digital Voice Recorders

Olympus, Panasonic, and others make a variety of dedicated digital voice recorders. Some models, such as the Olympus DM-10 and DM-20, can act as stereo MP3 players, too. Others, such as the Panasonic RR-US006, come with a desktop stand that has a speaker and controls for easy playback, such as fast-forward and reverse buttons. Almost all models can connect to a computer via a USB port. Typically, digital voice recorders come with software that lets you upload and download audio files between your computer and the recorder, play the recordings on your computer, rename files, and so on.

In my informal tests of the Olympus DM-20 ($290) and the Panasonic RR-US006 ($200), I found the Olympus recorder to be the easier to use out of the box. Its hardware controls were readily identifiable, and setting preferences, such as recording quality, through on-screen menus was a snap. Recording sound quality was excellent.

With the Olympus DM-20's built-in 128MB of memory, you can record up to 44 hours in LP mode, the lowest quality setting. Keep in mind that the DM-20 is not aimed at consumers, and it isn't widely available for purchase online, according to a company spokesperson. Nonetheless, I found the DM-20 at the Digital Foto Discount Club for $280. The Olympus DM-10 ($149) is designed for consumers--but it has only 64MB of memory.

Overall, though, I prefer the Panasonic RR-US006. First, some caveats: Its recording quality wasn't as good as the Olympus model; recordings were a tad fuzzy in places and not as rich. And with the ability to record only 7 hours in LP mode, the RR-US006 has nowhere near the 44-hour recording capacity of the Olympus model.

But the Panasonic's desktop stand makes playback from the recorder extremely easy. Also, the RR-US006 includes Voice Editor 3, which integrates nicely with Dragon NaturallySpeaking 7.0, the leading voice recognition program.

Using the Panasonic recorder and its software, I was able to quickly import my voice recordings into NaturallySpeaking, which then transcribed the recordings into text. The accuracy was fair--about 60 percent of the recorded words were transcribed accurately. But voice recognition improves with use, so over time, my recordings are likely to be transcribed more accurately.

Bottom line: If you plan to make lots of voice recordings and you want the best audio quality, you should consider a digital voice recorder over an MP3 player or PDA. The Olympus DM-20 is a great choice for those who want high-quality digital voice recordings but don't care about voice recognition. But if you want to transcribe your notes using voice recognition software, or you want to play your notes back easily from the recorder itself (as opposed to on your PC), go with the Panasonic RR-US006.

And Now: Your Bottom Line

Do you regularly use a digital voice recording device of some kind? If so, I'd like to hear about your experiences--the device you're using, recording quality, ease of use, and so on. Please send me e-mail.

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