Once in a while a device comes along that makes you sit up and take notice. Digitalway’s MPIO FL 100 is just such a device. This little surprise comes to us from a relative newcomer in the North American consumer electronics market.
Digitalway has been around since 1998, predominantly overseas and content being an OEM for such names as TEAC and Samsung, among others. Having captured roughly 20% of worldwide market share, Digitalway has embarked on entering the U.S. market with its own brand name, MPIO.
While this is not their first device released in the U.S. market, with devices like the FL 100, one thing is for sure, Digitalway is making some pretty big waves in the portable digital media player industry.
The FL 100 is one remarkable piece of technology. It is a digital music player that plays a multitude of file types: MP3, WMA, MPEG-2, MPEG-2.5 and ASF. Incorporated in the FL 100 is also an FM tuner and a digital recorder that can record directly from FM radio as well as from it’s integrated microphone. It comes in three versions offering onboard storage of 128MB, 256MB and 512MB and is expandable with a Multi-media card (MMC) or Secure Digital card (SD). It works with both Windows (98, 2000, ME, XP) and Macintosh (10.1) operating systems – it is not Linux compatible.
Function aside; it’s the design that sets this device apart from other players. It is nearly impossible to understand how small the FL 100 is until it is seen and held in your hand. Scarcely bigger than a Zippo lighter and almost as light, it is both elegant and utilitarian. The silver metal and plastic chassis is complimented by a mirror-finished faceplate surrounding the LCD display.
This device does not look anything like any MP3 player we have seen before, or any other kind of electronic gadgetry for that matter. It easily resembles a piece of jewelry with its sleek triangular Power/Play/Pause button and the Record button on the mirrored front. It is so attractive, it is hard to believe it does all that it does.
Included in the package is the player itself, an instruction manual, a setup CD-Rom, a USB 1.1 cable, earphones, one AAA battery, a carrying pouch and a wrist strap.
The elegant look of the MPIO FL 100 digital audio device.
Usability, Form and Function
The FL 100 is relatively easy to start using. The control buttons are well thought out but do require a little getting used to. There are a total of six buttons on the device. The Power/Play/Pause button and the Record button are on the face, while the Hold, Menu, Volume and Mode buttons are on the side of the device.
The Hold button is an important feature lost on some new devices. It locks out the controls, and prevents any accidental changes being made during playback. While the Volume button is self-explanatory and the Menu button switches between MP3 mode and the FM tuner, the most important button is the Mode button. This clever little scroll lever is where the bulk of the features are “nested.” Flick the lever forward or backward in MP3 mode to skip tracks or play one again, fast-forward or rewind. It also allows you to search through tracks and adjust playback without interrupting playback.
In the FM tuner mode, do the same to scan through the FM band or the presets. Depress the Mode button for a second or two in the MP3 mode, and you will access a menu of choices, whereupon the user can adjust the equalizer settings, erase tracks, arrange folders, change the language and other major system settings. In the FM tuner mode, depressing the Mode button will allow you to set stations and even select FM bands used in other parts of the world. Digitalway really put a lot of thought into this device. By making this device compatible with all its user’s possible environments, they have made it all the more useful to consumers that travel abroad and want to be able to listen to local broadcasts.
The Hold, Menu, Volume and Mode buttons of the MPIO FL 100.
The relatively small three-line LCD display is packed with a wealth of information such as scrolling ID3 tags featuring artist/song/album name, battery status, track duration, settings and more. The cobalt blue LED backlight comes in handy in dark or poorly lit surroundings and enhances the overall look of this device. The characters on the screen are clear and easy to read. By pressing the Menu button during playback, the user can change the bottom of the screen from info about bit rate and duration of the song to one of two types of graphic equalizers.
This device was built with flexibility in mind. While it was mainly designed for MP3 files, it can also play WMA files, MPEG-2, MPEG-2.5 and ASF files. It can also be utilized as a portable storage device for virtually all kinds of files. The unit can be obtained in a variety of memory sizes, usually found in the U.S. in 128MB and 256MB versions. While that might seem like a respectable amount of storage for some,
Digitalway incorporated an expansion slot for SD/MMC memory that in effect can increase the unit’s memory to 384MB and 512MB respectively. The firmware for the FL 100 can be upgraded as well, effectively enabling it to become better as fixes and improvements are released.
Tucked away, behind a flip-out door, is the USB port and on the side of the device is the SD/MMC memory expansion slot. One perplexing design flaw is the color of the USB port. Digitalway managed to closely match the color of the plastic for the door to the memory slot and the battery compartment, but used a dark grey plastic for the USB port door. Though very minor in its impact, from a design perspective, it’s like inclusions in a diamond. It’s the little things that make all the difference. The doors also seemed a bit delicate and we were concerned that we’d eventually break them with constant use.
Angle view of the Digitalway MPIO FL 100.
The unit’s pre-configured equalizer sound settings are a nice function, but left a little to be desired in the overall sound quality. There is a nominal change in sound quality from setting to setting. Of the 7 preprogrammed settings, the “Pop” and “Dynamic Bass” settings provided the richest, most full-bodied sound. For our ears, the best sound quality was obtained by tweaking the “User Defined” setting. It provides a five-band adjustment that when adjusted provided more than decent sound quality. However, the bass still lacked a certain amount of depth to the playback and seemed slightly underpowered. Overall, the sound quality was quite acceptable but did not measure up to the likes of other devices with bass enhancing circuitry.
One recommendation to perspective buyers is to invest in a decent set of headphones. Though the included headphones provide decent sound, the weakest link in many portable audio devices, is often the headphones. The foundation of any good portable player is a set of good headphones that can accurately reproduce audio recordings. It is rare to find a great set of OEM headphones. Most manufacturers save their best headphone models for sale separately.
One function we really liked was the ability to navigate through tracks without having to stop listening to your current track. Many devices on the market only allow you to view the current song you are playing.
One of the most important aspects of a portable digital media player is its battery life. Power usage becomes so much more important when you are talking about a device as small and compact as the FL 100.
The FL 100 runs on a single AAA battery. MPIO states that a single battery can power the device for up to 11 hours. Our tests found the battery life to be closer to 9.5 hours, but that is still quite respectable. On a five-hour cross-country flight, the battery indicator was at about the halfway point.
We found that the battery lasted longer when it was just functioning as a radio than when it was playing back MP3s from memory, but it was not a dramatic difference in prolonged life.
As with all portable devices, we recommend that you use rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries often last just as long as conventional batteries and are much less expensive over time, as well as being better for the environment.
Managing Your Music
Digitalway put a lot of thought into the construction of the software interface with the device. Known as the MPIO Manager 2, this little piece of software provides handy Windows functionality like drag and drop. This software features an ID3 tag editor, an intro logo editor, an FM Station name editor, a skin switching function, display size control function, and an auto Firmware upgrade function.
With a USB 1.1 connection, Digitalway states it can transfer at up to 4.5Mbps. Our tests found it to be closer to 1.5Mpbs, which is typical for a USB 1.1 device. We would have liked to see USB 2.0 implemented in the MPIO FL 100 but understand it would have increased the cost of the unit. Transferring WMA files seemed to slow the speed the most – they took significantly longer to transfer in our tests.
The included software gives the user the ability to organize and store music in a multi-folder environment; even allowing you to cluster them into files. Any user can now have their workout music in one file and their study music in another and their daily commute tunes in yet another. The software even allows the user to tailor the ID3 tag that reads out on the LCD display for each song.
We did come across a few quirky issues with the software. For one, the device does not register on Windows as an external drive. Only the MPIO Manager 2 can recognize the device when it’s connected. When a unit is promoted as being able to act as a portable drive, we’d expect it to be usable from the Windows file system, not only through the proprietary software. This makes ransferring data from one computer to another quite cumbersome, as you need the MPIO software on each PC. Also, the software does not allow the upload of MP3 to the computer, apparently for copyright reasons. Lastly, we experienced several instances where MP3 files did not transfer completely and the songs were cut short.
Having the ability to record anything you need to, on a moment’s notice is very easy with the FL 100 recording capability. The built-in microphone is a barely visible dot on the face of the FL 100. It does not provide studio quality recording, but all recordings were clear and every word could be understood. Using the record feature in conjunction with the FM tuner did create decent reproductions of broadcasts, yet sound quality had degraded noticeably.
The Digitalway MPIO FL 100 is a quality digital audio device in a good-looking package. It’s not that the FL 100 is a breakthrough in new technology but rather it is a well-bred device that combines features that many other competing products lack. The minor issues this device has don’t drastically take away from the many strong benefits it possesses, however, it is the minor imperfections that prevent the FL 100 from obtaining an Editor’s Choice award.