The surprise with this portable music player was not the size, which at 66mm x 56mm x 15.5mm makes it small but not the smallest. Nor was it the fact that we could drop it without the casing showing any sign of damage. The surprise was that the F660 would not play WMA files, even though it has been advertised as playing mp3 and WMA.
After exchanging emails with the makers - Huaqi Information Digital Technology - in Beijing, we discovered that the F660 is not intended to play WMA files. Huaqi is the country's leading manufacturer of portable digital music players, with ten times the sales of Apple's iPod in China. The company told us that it has no plans to invite Microsoft and its WMA Media Player to take a stranglehold of the F660. This is bad news for Microsoft and not much better for Apple, both of which want us to adopt their proprietary file formats over mp3. Of course, the fact that a gadget can go on sale in the UK advertised as an mp3/WMA player, without anyone actually checking that the device does what it says, is very bad news for consumers. It goes to show how difficult it is to buy the latest technology wisely. The lesson has to be to buy gadgets from retailers who have excellent after sales service and will not quibble if you decide you want to return something.
Now to review the mp3 player, which actually works very well. As well as mp3, there is an FM radio and voice recorder, and line in recording if you want it. It runs on an ordinary AAA battery: expect about 10 hours play. Plug the F660 into a USB port and it appears on the desktop as a removable storage device. Drag and dropping a couple of albums from wherever you keep them on your computer takes no time at all and with manageable file sizes, the USB 1.1 transfer rate is not a problem. With this sort of capacity, you are sorting through the equivalent of what's on your coffee table which means the simple organic LED display, which illuminates two lines of information, works perfectly. The volume control is especially good with 30 fine settings. There is nothing worse than an audio device that is either too quiet or too loud because there is too little choice to set the volume level. There are four equalizer settings and tracks can be programmed to play once, twice or repeat. The headphones have a neck strap and seemed well built, like the device itself. Switching on starts the mp3 player mode. A button on the underside of the player opens the Function Menu and you can scroll through to select the voice recorder or FM radio. The EZ - Navigator is handy if you want to browse all files on the memory, as you would on a computer. Setting up the radio is also easy. Select FM Setting and then your region (the UK is for some reason coupled with China which made us smile), then FM Auto Scan and the Smart FM tuner saves stations as what the manual calls.FLS files but which on our device showed as .FSL files. Problems with language translation maybe?
Finally, a note about the so called magnesium alloy casing. Huagi claims the F660 is made of the same alloy as used in missiles and aeroplane parts, hence the company's tag line 'rocket in your pocket'. To test the claim, we dropped the player several times and it survived without a scratch. Later, reading the manual, we noticed the casing is in fact ordinary zinc alloy, not rocket scientist magnesium alloy.
Once you start using gadgets this tiny, whether it is a phone, a digital camera or a music player, your perception shifts forever. You find yourself ruling out all sorts of devices that you used to think were small but which now seem embarrassingly big. It's like looking at your old clothes once you've lost a couple of stone. It is well designed, but the F660 has some big drawbacks. We hate to say it, but 256MB memory cries out for WMA files, which are half the size of mp3. The memory is fixed so there is no chance of upping it with an SD card. If you know the big price and storage capacity of hard disk players will be totally wasted on you, then the F660 is a well priced alternative that is very easy to pick up and enjoy.