It would be ambitious to say that iRiver has ever “nailed” the MP3 player market with a killer device, but it's certainly been mentioned in the same breath as some of the major players over the years, so it was with some intrigue that we noted the recent release of the USB-drive T8.
There can be little doubt that combining the convenience of portable storage with the ability to play back tunes in such a portable manner has its benefits, presuming you're unwilling or unable to utilise a mobile phone for such purpose of course, so we were expecting iRiver to at least satisfy a relatively small niche demographic with its latest release.
The T8 is styled like a typical memory stick with a removable cap and choice of 2GB and 4GB capacities. A small, monochrome screen and 3.5mm jack distinguishes it from the blandness of a typical flash drive, along with side-mounted volume, power and a hold switch and front-facing directional pad for navigation.
It's also available in a range of colours and features that have now become typical additions in the form of an FM radio, voice recorder, and the ability to combine the two to save radio broadcasts to the internal memory.
It also offers less common features such as lyric support and the ability to rate songs and has what appears to be a healthy number of audio environment settings, graphic equaliser control and sound modes to boost an audio range for a specific purpose.
All of these features are now fairly standard, however, so there's nothing on paper to truly distinguish it from a swathe of rivals or, indeed, the capabilities of a decent media-oriented mobile phone.
We're left with judging performance in deciding whether or not to recommend the T8 then, and unfortunately it doesn't do itself too many favours in this area. In testing the device with a decent set of ear-buds we were actually quite let down by the sound quality, which ranges from overly tinny to undesirably distorted depending on the type of music you're playing.
Navigating through the audio customisation options isn't particularly easy either, and this goes for much of the rest of operation as using the directional pad to adjust settings and browse around is rarely straightforward, though it does get easier with practice. Tweaking the various sound modes was of limited use here, and in many cases it's either difficult to discern a change at all or difficult to establish a mode that works.
There are also a couple of niggling frustrations with operation that threaten to undermine the device entirely. While the lack of ID3tag supported and enforced folder/file browsing is forgiveable in a low-capacity device, it's not possible to browse to a "now playing" screen after navigating away from this area to search a library or access some of the other features, so returning to a tune involves navigating back through your tracklist and restarting the song from scratch. This sounds like a minor grievance, but in practice is rather frustrating and restrictive and certainly has no place in a modern market.
Elsewhere the FM radio did a fairly poor job of picking up a suitable number of stations in our area, and with no manual tuning available you're often left with three or four detected presets to browse. Recording FM radio to the internal storage and using the device as a voice recorder does work well however, though as "peripheral" features we can't imagine this would swing it for most.
The iRiver T8 will, by its very nature, appeal to a fairly limited market, but its inability to perform adequately as an MP3 player or FM radio means that we're loathe to recommend it even if this is the sort of device you're after. There are far more capable alternatives of this type on offer from rivals, especially from a performance standpoint, leaving the T8 with precious few saving graces.