iRiver H10 1

iRiver's H10 5GB portable audio player has a lot to like, but there are a few flaws that were deal-breakers for us. In the end, we're returning this item, though the positive features may make the issues with this unit worth it for some. Read on for a full review.

Update: Please note, Firmware 2.0 is available now for the H10. However, it was not available when we tested the player! Thanks.

So the first thing we noticed about this player when we opened it up was, unfortunately, a huge orange flyer that said "STOP! Having trouble? Before you return it... "

iRiver H10 2

This isn't a great confidence builder to have this flyer be the first thing the consumer sees! Tsk tsk. Anywho, once we got past that we noticed that there weren't a heck of a lot of accessories included with the H10. There are the obligatory crappy headphones which not only sound crappy but actually look crappy, as well, in this case. Manual, install CD (which basically just includes Windows Media 10, as the iRiver needs no drivers other than its firmware), charger, USB cable (attaches to the charger), the player, and a really crappy clear case for the unit. That case... that case is just nothing to write home about.  Whatever material it's made out of gives you the added unpleasantness of having it feel sort of mysteriously icky in your hand. Here's what's in the box:

iRiver H10 3

Those of you who read our Napster to Go review know that we had a bit of trouble initially setting up the iRiver to work with the NtG software. We had to reformat the internal drive completely, and had to hunt down some obscure instructions to help us do so. Before we tried out Napster, we did successfully transfer a few MP3 files from our library to the player via Windows Media 10, so the H10 did work well there right out of the box. You can also transfer files by dragging and dropping in the filesystem, as the iRiver is recognized as an external hard drive — we had no trouble with this, either.

The sound quality from the unit was definitely decent under the default EQ settings. But when we changed them to pretty much anything else, things went horribly awry. We didn't try every last preset but we tried a whole bunch of them and experienced a ton of distortion with most. On the default, the sound quality was decent on a range of output devices: the crappy headphones, through a home stereo, in the car, and through some crappy PC speakers — all good.

iRiver H10 front face 2

Navigating the player interface was easy and intuitive at both the physical and software levels. On the front face of the unit you've got your standard "back" and "forward" buttons plus a slider, which keeps it simple and works intuitively to navigate in and out of the menu hierarchies. We liked the slider control better than the slider on the Creative Zen Micro, but still not as much as the iPod scroll wheel/click wheel. With Apple's scroll wheel you can really stop on a dime when you find what you're looking for. With an up and down slider, well... it's just not as easy, at least for us. It's especially maddening when you just want to select one item up or down from your current selection position — it's all too easy to overshoot and re-overshoot again on the way back. With practice or perhaps some tweaking of the sensitivity this might improve, but it's not the same "out of the box" ease of use as with the iPod.

Play, reverse and fast-forward buttons are broken out onto the right side of the unit, which admittedly took a few attempts to get used to but quite quickly felt not only easy, but nicely ergonomic whilst held in the hand. One caveat — you'll have to get used to spreading your fingers on the opposite side of the unit to avoid accidentally hitting the power button, which lives on the left side of the player. Overall, the size is quite nice — comparable to the iPod mini without the rounded edges, and a tiny bit longer.

iRiver H10 side controls

The color screen on the H10 is quite nice. It's easy to see what the heck you're doing in both daylight and darkness — much nicer than a monochrome interface. All the menus were dead easy to find and walk through.

iRiver H10 color screen

Now we come to the point in our tale where the deal-breakers come out. For one thing, the firmware of the player was somewhat buggy. Sometimes tracks would just disappear, sometimes they wouldn't play, and occasionally buttons would do the wrong things, or wouldn't do any things. We also saw duplicate track listings, a lot — though this may have had to do with how many times Napster to Go crashed on us in the midst of transfers, so dupes may have been downloaded on reconnects. We didn't use the Windows Media 10 interface nearly as often, but when we did it, too, seemed prone to hanging during transfers particularly of large numbers of music files. Sometimes there would be an error message about communication with the player having been lost, other times nothing. Each time a disconnect and restart of WMP or NtG would solve the problem, but it was definitely annoying.

The firmware for the U.S. version of the player is only at 1.0, so some of these stability issues and quirks may be fixed by a firmware update. The other issue that may get fixed by a future update is something we just weren't willing to wait for: you can only play albums and playlists in alphabetical order. The iRiver software will not retain any intrinsic order of tracks when you transfer them over. If you want to preserve any of the original order, you have to manually manage this by changing the track names in whatever software you're using to manage the music on the device. This is something that a) we just would never have time for and b) we should never have to resort to in the first place! Furthermore, there's no shuffle function, so unless you do manually change the names of your tracks you're always going to be stuck listening in the same old order. No thanks!

The iRiver H10 also has FM radio and recording functions. The disappointing fact to be noted here is that although you can record voice as well as record directly from the radio without needing any extra equipment, if you want to use the 1/4-inch jack as a line in you'll need to purchase a separate dock for use while recording. This means you're limited to the (fine, but nothing to write home about) quality of the internal mic for any recording if you don't want to spring for the dock. That said, the radio tuner was decent and recording quality was certainly adequate for both FM and voice recording.

iRiver H10 radio 2iRiver H10 recording 2

Another one of the touted features of the iRiver H10 is its photo storage and display capability, which makes it odd than in its 34-page manual iRiver says absolutely nothing about how to actually get the photos onto the unit. It turns out that you can dump the image files (JPG only) anywhere in the file structure of the player and view them using the Browser, but if you want to take advantage of the built-in slideshow-type navigation features (which aren't that great, anyway) you have to put the files into a specific spot. You can manage the photos via Windows Media 10, but we just wanted the simplicity of drag and drop, so we went looking for how to do this in the file system. To find the magical spot where the photos are supposed to live required a hunt through some message boards. We got some bad advice at first, to locate the photos inside the Photos folder inside the Media folder. Since the Photos folder didn't exist, we had to create it and drop our photos in. Turns out it's not the Photos folder after all, it's the Pictures folder the firmware looks for (which also didn't exist and had to be created). After round two we finally had our photos loaded up and viewable on the 1.5-inch screen. The quality was not terrible, but again — not about to replace... well, pretty much anything. Just a nice convenience. Since there's no way to hook the iRiver up to an external monitor or TV, what you see is all you get.

iRiver H10 photo view 4iRiver H10 photo view 3

The final deal breaker for us on this player was the battery life. Though iRiver claims the H10 should have a playtime of about 12 hours, we didn't get anything close to that in two weeks of usage. The most we ever got was about eight hours, with the default backlight settings which leave the screen off most of the time. Following is a summary of the pros and cons of the iRiver H10 as we experienced them.

What's to like about the iRiver H10:

  • Interface easy to navigate and use.
  • Size is just right.
  • Good sound quality on default EQ settings. Deviate from this at your peril.
  • Works with Napster to Go... eventually.
  • Decent FM tuner, voice recorder and FM recorder.
  • Text viewer functionality.
  • Easily usable as a portable flash drive, with no need to first install drivers.
  • The color screen is slick. It's just nice to look at, and easy to see what's playing in daylight or darkness. Photo viewing is not going to replace your PC anytime soon, but the display quality is decent for a screen this size. For showing shots to the fam, it definitely beats carting around a sack full of photos.
  • Most of the menus feature "wrap-around" scrolling, so that when you get to the bottom of a list and keep scrolling, you'll get back to the top — this instead of having to scroll allll the way back up to get there, which is one thing that always annoys us about the iPod interface.

What's not to like about the iRiver H10:

  • Only plays album tracks alphabetically. What ridiculous specs committee let that fly?
  • Long pauses between tracks. We're not expecting true gapless playback, here, but it just shouldn't take that long to queue a song. It really kills the flow that was already dismembered by the alphabetical playback.
  • Firmware is dopey. Sometimes buttons do the wrong things, or won't do any things.
  • Accessories are supremely lame. Stock headphones are crap — we usually expect them the sound like crap, but these manage to look like crap, as well.
  • EQ presets are mostly not usable. Especially when using any of the bass boosting presets, you'll tend to get distortion.
  • Line-in recording only works if you purchase an additional cradle for the unit. Hello?
  • USB cable is proprietary and tied in to the AC adapter — you'll have to cart around both to charge the player.
  • No way to hook up to an external TV or monitor to display photos.
  • 34-page manual tells you almost nothing about using the photo features on the device.
  • Battery life not nearly as long as advertised. We got 6-8 hours versus the claimed 12.

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