Digital Voice Recorder



While not exactly a radio accessory, I offer a brief review of one of the best gadgets I have come across in a long time…the digital voice recorder. It may be the best $40 I have spent in a long while. I have found the difficulties of trying to keep up with things in an increasingly complicated world have forced me to develop an effective planning/organization system. In my case, I have come up with a pretty decent arrangement which combines the Palm PDA and a card system to capture "to do items" and establish priorities. I have found that once I get things into my organization system, it has a decent chance of actually getting done.

My biggest problem has been trying to capture ideas or "to do" items between the times they flash across my brain and the time it escapes! If you are like me, these "I gotta remember to do this" moments occur anytime…in the car, while shaving, at lunch, shopping, mowing the lawn, etc. These are the times that I will either not have my planner handy or it will be way too cumbersome to use it. A possibility is to go scrambling for a scrap of paper, hope that a pencil is close by, hope you don't lose the written note and hope you get it into your planning system. Or you can just hope that you remember it. For me, I have found that both the "scramble-to-write-a-note" and "hope to remember it" options to be flat out failures. Enter the digital voice recorder (look Mom, no tapes!).

There are lots of brands and models available. For this review, I will be focusing on the Olympus VN-900, the unit I settled on. The main criteria that were important to me included:

- must be very portable (small and lightweight)
- easy to use
- reasonably priced
- decent storage capacity
- operates on standard battery size

The Olympus met these criteria. The VN-900 is the low end of the Olympus VN family. They offer more expensive models, the VN-1800 and the VN-3600, which offer twice and four times the recording space as the VN-900.

The VN-900 is very portable. The dimensions are approximately 3.75"H x 1.5"W x 13/16" D. Loaded with two AAA alkaline cells, it weighs only 2.5 ounces. It easily fits into a pocket or purse. The instruction pamphlet was easy to follow, big enough to read and in English only! The first thing you do is work through the menus to set the date and time.

Other menu settings include:

Recording Mode: HQ (high quality), SP (standard play), LP (long play). The VN-900 will store 22 minutes in HQ, 33 minutes in SP and 90 minutes in LP. I have found that the quality of LP is poor. Standard Play (SP) is perfectly acceptable and that is what I use.

MIC: high or low microphone sensitivity

Voice Activation

Alarm settings.

The recorder offers 3 main folders A, B & C. These folders can each hold up to 100 files (recording events). This is a great feature. I use Folder A for home/family items, Folder B for business/work and C for hobbies. If you accidentally record to the wrong main folder, it is easy to move files between folders A, B or C.

The VN-900 also provides Folder S. This folder contains a sub-folder for every day of the year. It is possible to record up to 15 files to any subfolder….however Folder S will only hold a maximum of 100 files. Also you cannot move items from S to A/B/C or to another date subfolder within S. The S Folder would be useful for those wanting to use the digital recorder as a reminder system. I am using my Palm PDA for that, so I do not use the S Folder for its' intended purpose.

However, I have found a neat alternative use for Folder S. I am using the January 1 subfolder to store often used cell phone numbers. January 2 holds often used regular phone numbers. On January 3, I have recorded basic instructions on how to use the VN-900. For January 4, I have recorded basic instructions on how to program my cell phone. You can use the digital recorder to store important how-to information that you can always have with you!

The VN-900 is very intuitive. Controls for Record, Play and Stop are well marked. A red LED lights up while recording. Erasing files or entire folders is easy via the Erase button. Moving between folders or activating the menu is a simple operation with the Menu/Folder button. Additionally, moving between files, pausing record or playback, or rewinding/fast forwarding is an easy deal as well. The VN-900 also has a fast playback feature. This lets you playback files at about 30% faster than normal and makes you sound like you've inhaled a lot of helium.

The speaker (28 mm) provides decent audio and is located at the bottom front of the recorder. Alternatively, you can listen privately through the mono (1/8") earphone jack on the top. The microphone is built in at the top of the unit. Additionally, a mice jack is provided at the top for external mic usage.

All of the functions are indicated on the LCD display. The VN-900 is capable of displaying how many files have been used in each main folder, how much total recorded time remains and the date/time a file was recorded to a main folder.

The right side of the unit features the volume control and a hold switch. The hold switch in the "on" position will prevent accidental recording or playback by a bump to one of the buttons. The buttons are quite flush to the unit, so accidental activation of a control is not a frequent occurrence. However, I have managed to do it occasionally. Switch the hold button on when the unit is not in use. You don't want your voice coming out of your pocket during a meeting! Olympus recommends switching the hold switch to "on" when changing batteries, to hold the memories intact. I am finding the life of the 2 AAA batteries to be phenomenal. The manual rates the life of the batteries to be about 33 hours of continuous use.

A completely useless and inadequate pocket/belt clip is provided on the left side of the recorder. If Olympus had figured out a way to put a belt clip of some kind on the back of the unit, that might have worked. Fortunately, they did provide strap holes on the VN-900. Curiously, they do not provide a strap - either with the unit or as an accessory.

One of my frustrations with the VN-900 was that it would not stay vertical in my pocket and would want to rest horizontally at the bottom. This made retrieval difficult and wasn't all that comfortable either. To solve this, I made my own pocket clip. I recycled a plastic Bic roller pen top and punched a few holes in it. I then fashioned a strap out of a mini electrical wire wrap which went thru the strap holes and then through the holes in the pen top. The pen top clips to the pants pocket and holds the VN-900 in an upright position in the pocket and is easy to retrieve. I recommend the use of an all plastic pen top to avoid the possibility of scratching the display.

There are other neat features such as an alarm to remind you playback files. I have used the alarm from time to time as just a basic alarm.

So what's the verdict? Wow, this thing is great! It is my constant companion and I am "remembering" to do a lot more stuff by capturing things quickly onto the recorder. It's small and easy to use. It is much more portable and versatile than the traditional micro cassette recorder.

I was wondering if 33 minutes of record time would be enough. It's way more than enough for me. Even with about 6-8 minutes of "permanent files" in Folder S, that leaves me with 25+ minutes left. My recorded self reminder files average less than 10 seconds each (reschedule the Ed Jones interview, get the car inspected this weekend, send a sympathy card to Joyce…..). This means I could store about 150 reminder files. I think the most I have ever stored at once was 25. Again, for the digital recorder…it is just a temporary storage bin…a place to capture and hold a thought until I can get it entered into my organization/planning system.

The designers of the VN-900 did a nice job with ergonomics. They put a nice groove in the back above the battery hatch which is perfect for the index finger, making it easy to work the controls with the thumb.

Complaints? Just a few. A momentary backlight feature for the display would have been nice, even at the sacrifice of some battery life. Also, I wish the folder symbols on the display were easier to see. Finally, they could have done a much better job with that goofy clip arrangement. The user should not have to retrofit their own.

I highly recommend the Olympus VN-900 digital voice recorder. For anyone finding it difficult to capture all the ideas and thoughts that flash through their mind each day, it's a real godsend. For $40, it's an inexpensive "auxiliary brain." So am I a nerd for carrying a digital voice recorder around with me? Maybe. But I really don't care. It has saved my bacon more than once, has made me a lot more effective and has made me less reliant on an increasingly less reliable memory.

Best DX
Russ K3PI




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