We've had iriver's SPINN laying around the Engadget HQ for a little while, and figure we've finally fiddled with the player enough to write down some impressions. If you're looking for the one liner, here it is: we're blown away by the beauty of the hardware, but the barebones player software, lack of an "ecosystem," and hefty price really hurt its chances with the mainstream. Full thoughts after the break.

iriver SPINN review

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iriver

SPINN

Pros

  • Beautiful hardware design
  • Unique scroll bar
  • Great OLED screen

Cons

  • Not as slim as some of the competition
  • Lacking software
  • High price
Summary



Hardware

Get ready for some superlatives: the iriver SPINN is the sexiest piece of kit we've played with this year. It's simply beautiful, and truly "designed." iriver didn't just cut a slab of brushed aluminum and call it good, they've crafted a piece of art here with quality details, a truly elegant spinning cylinder, and a gorgeous OLED screen front and center. It's not the slimmest player around, but it's not trying to be, and still effortlessly fits into a jean pocket.

We'll start with the cylinder, which puts the "spin" in SPINN. It's rather large for a hardware element in this day and age, and it's a joy to thumb around with. It doesn't spin "freely," instead giving a pretty solid click for every step of movement, and it doesn't take long to get the hang of breezing through menus with it. To make a selection, simply click the cylinder down toward the middle of the hump.

The inclusion of back, power, volume and hold buttons means you can do pretty much everything on the player without touching the screen, though the placement of the controls demands that you hold the device in a landscape orientation, and that you use both hands. Even if you're using the touchscreen, the lack of a portrait mode for the player means you're most likely going to need both hands for even the simplest tasks. The whole thing is a major step backwards from the Clix from a usability standpoint, as fun as spinning can be.

As for the screen, it's a pretty mixed bag. On one hand, the colors and brightness of the OLED screen are practically breathtaking. We've never seen such richness on any mobile device before. The screen is resistive touch, which is disappointing, but it's pretty responsive as far as resistive touchscreens go. However, the screen appears to possess a mere 16-bit color depth, instead of the 24-bit standard on most LCDs, which means that as great as those reds, greens and blues look, there are only around 65k of them, instead of the 16 million or so we're used to. Dithering and color stepping is really noticeable when viewing pictures or video, and we're not sure if we're comfortable with that tradeoff for the otherwise amazing view the SPINN provides.

Storage-wise the SPINN comes in 8GB ($280) and 4GB ($240) flavors, with zero media expansion to speak of. Luckily, if you dig around you can get both versions for a good bit cheaper.

We haven't done any rigorous testing of the audio quality or battery life, but you can expect typical iriver superiority on those fronts -- other reviews have had good things to say, and we didn't notice any issues with either. One thing to note when using headphones is that the jack is on the "bottom" of the player, on the opposite side of the hump from the spin wheel. That's fine when you're holding and using the device, but iriver's stock headphones plug sticks out nearly an inch from the player, which means it just got that much harder to put in and take out of your pocket.

Software

First off, for the hardcore: the SPINN is first and foremost a mass storage device, perfect for plugging into just about any OS and loading media into plainly marked folders for video, audio, pictures and more. Vista preferred we install the drivers from the included CD first, but OS X spotted and loaded the SPINN right away. When you plug in the USB, the SPINN asks you if you'd like "Power & Play" or "Power & Data," to obvious effect. Rhapsody also has little trouble recognizing the device and PlaysForSure should be a snap, though our pre-release device wasn't set up for working with subscription music.

Like we said at the outset, the lack of an ecosystem really hurts iriver on the desktop side. "Works with anybody" doesn't exactly equal "works the best." With stores like Amazon's DRM-free MP3 wonderland, things are certainly looking up, but the best two jukeboxes (iTunes and Zune, in our humble opinion) are intrinsically tied to their players, and few developers seem ready to fill in the gap for the rest of us, especially on Windows and Mac. Video is even a worse scenario, with few legal methods to obtain DRM-free content, and cumbersome ripping and transcoding required to score your own.

That said, iriver's certainly doing its best at making this work from the player standpoint, offering up playback of MP3, WMA, OGG, ASF, FLAC and APE for music, MPEG4, WMV9 and XVID for video. Unfortunately, while the SPINN will easily play just about anything you'd care to torrent (legally, of course) it can't handle downsizing the full-res video without getting choppy and eventually getting the audio out of sync. That means your current computer-friendly video collection will need some re-encoding to play on the SPINN, even if you're all set for codecs.
But let's get down to the nitty gritty of actual player usage. The main menu has ten options (Flash, Rec, Picture, Video, Music, DMB [outside the US], Radio, Text, File and Set), which can be scrolled through with the wheel or your finger. The device doesn't have any touch-and-swipe motions, you'll have to grab the scroll bar and pull, so it usually makes sense to just spin. When you do pull and drag, or try and tap items, the device somehow seems to act slower than it does when you work with the spin wheel.

We'll run you through those menu options real fast: "Flash" gets you at the Flash games, which make full use of the touchscreen and certainly show potential; "Rec" offers up a simple recording interface for use with the built-in mic; "Picture" is an extremely simple gallery view, but it's fun to step through the pictures with the wheel; "Video" offers up a nice list view of videos, with an actual live video preview of the selected vid; "Music" we'll detail in the next paragraph; "Radio" offers up simple ways to set presets and jump through stations (another win for the wheel); "Text" lets you read through text documents, which look great on the screen, but doesn't allow for much styling; "File" is a simple folder-structure file browser; "Set" offers up just a few options, like changing the theme, screen brightness and pairing with an A2DP headset over Bluetooth, but not much here.

The music player is just a little disappointing for a device of this stature. Everything is there like on-the-go playlist creation, EQ, and even some fancy options under the hood like altering playback speed, but actually interfacing with the thing requires a lot of drilling into categories and then backing back out, something the player just seems particularly unsuited to do with either its physical controls or the touchscreen. It's great scrolling through long lists with the spin wheel, but that's just not enough. The player also fails to rely on the rich imagery of album art that Zune and iPods have been taking advantage of late -- it's even a bit of an afterthought in the now playing view.

Perhaps you're picking up a theme here, but the only place where the device really rewards touchscreen usage is in Flash games. It's not that the touchscreen is horrible, just that the interface hasn't been optimized for it, while still failing in enough ways to make using the scroll wheel and the back button exclusively a bit of a chore.

Wrap-up

It's plain to see that iriver has obviously put a lot of thought into the design of this player, we just wish they'd put half as much thought into everyday usability. There's so much to love about the SPINN, and a bit of an x-factor that makes us want to love it more, but when we really sit down and try to build our portable media life around this little flash-based bugger, there are too many drawbacks in actual usage to make it worth it. Your mileage may vary.

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