The MP3 player market has been in a very different state since Apple launched the iPod.
Apple didn't invent the MP3 player, but it was the first to get the consumer formula right. For this reason, a lot of smaller manufacturers’ products are overlooked, either because people don't consider any alternatives or they aren’t displayed in stores, or they are put on display with a large security holder obscuring the controls and/or screen. It's a shame, because a lot of companies have their own take on how an MP3 player should function, and in many cases they add some really handy functions.
In this case, MSI has borrowed a few design queues from Apple for their P610, which has the same form factor as a Nano but is slightly thicker. We think it looks better in a functional kind of way, with its shiny silver back wrapping around the front to cover the lower half of the unit. The buttons are hidden underneath cuts in the chassis, and make everything look nice and sleek. The top half of the unit is black, which surrounds the screen and increases its apparent contrast.
It includes a voice recorder, FM radio, line input and video playback out of the box. There’s also an A-B loop function, if that gets you excited.
What's more, it doesn't force you into using a proprietary program to manage your media (we're looking at you, iTunes). When connected, the P610 simply appears and functions just like a removable drive. Managing music is done by copying what you want to anywhere on the player, then letting it refresh itself when you next turn it on. It displays all your folders in the same way that you copy them across.
The P610 we tested was a 1GB version, although you can get 512MB and 2GB models. Like the iPod Nano, it’s a solid state device, however there’s a USB-Mini connector at the base. No proprietary connectors here. The standard headphone port at bottom right of the unit will both playback and record sound, depending on what mode you've selected. It will record in WAV or encode to MP3 on the fly at bitrates from 64 to 192 Kbps. You’ll be fine for line level recording, but because there’s no level meter, you’ll need to do some trial and error before recording from a headphone jack.
The P610 gave a clean sound without being too trebly. It was better than we expected, delivering very warm mid-range tones for excellent vocal clarity without being thick or muddied. We tested with a range of music and found the overall reproduction to be on par with the iPod, though the unit showed a reluctance to give heavy metal the full oomph it needs. Typical rock/pop drum and bass was satisfyingly meaty, but too much of a reliance on heavy guitar and it all thins out too much to get your rocks off.
The unit features built-in SRS, which adds a pseudo-3D effect. SRS has been around for almost 2 decades now and is a simple spatial effect that is now nothing more than a gimmick. It certainly adds nothing to the music and even Creative’s equivalent CMSS is superior, but equally useless.
Volumes weren’t high enough. We wanted to crank some tunes but were left short. This unit doesn’t just need an ‘11’ button – it needs a 12 and 13, too.
You can playback MJPG videos (motion jpegs, which are videos recorded by many still cameras as a series of JPEGs encapsulated into a single file) on the surprisingly large 1.8" colour screen. It's a big step up from the Ipod Nano's screen and a potentially useful gimmick. You wouldn't want to watch a movie on it, though.
The memory is non-upgradeable, and it will only play MP3s, WAVs and WMAs. When you’re searching the device for files that aren’t recognized, it just sticks its head in the sand and ignores them. They’ll appear under Windows, however, making the device a poor man’s removable drive.
At the end of the day, it performs well and we like a lot about it. The only drawbacks are that it’s a bit of a pain to use. Menus are simple and easy to get to grips with, however there are some button separation issues -- press a button and you run the risk of accidentally pressing its neighbor first. It’s cheaper than an iPod Nano of equivalent capacity, so if you plan on Raging Against the Apple, it’s an alternative that may give you what you want.
We’d prefer the Nano though. The P610 is only available in capacities up to 2GB compared to the 4GB max in the Nano. And although the P610 has a decent UI, it’s not as polished as the Nanos.