We're torn. On one hand, iriver's stark, minimal design prowess is at its height here. No needless curves, wasted buttons or confusing bits, just a simple slab of recycling-friendly metal, with plastic on the ends and a screen in the middle. At the same time, the player seems needlessly thick. We appreciate a good bit of battery life (iriver claims 7 hours of video playback) and 4.3-inches of screen real estate, but we've seen it done thinner, and, combined with the sharp metal corners on this thing, we aren't about to slip this into a jeans pocket.
The metal has a cold, rough quality to it -- it looks exactly like the aluminum of a last-gen MacBook Pro, but feels almost like cardboard to the touch. It's not unpleasant, just odd, and it at least adds a sense of monolith-type mystique to the player.
There's a stylus included for operating the resistive touchscreen, but we really had little trouble tapping the uniformly large interface elements with our fingers -- which is good news, since there's no convenient place to slip the stylus when it's out of use, it's meant to screw into a cap that can looped onto one end of the player, and we'd rather not.
On the top there are volume buttons flush with the surface, that click when pressed, and a menu button denoted by a single small bump. Other than the power button on the top left and a hold switch on the right side, the player is controlled entirely by touch -- a large improvement over the confusing dual (and dueling) interfaces of the iriver SPINN.
There's a small external speaker, a mic, a microSD slot and a proprietary USB plug. The included earbuds are, like with most players, pretty much worthless, quite uncomfortable, and seem designed for inexplicably large ears. The 4.3-inch 480 x 272 LCD screen is great, and for any video that we could actually get to play on it we were very pleased with the colors, brightness and smooth action.Software
iriver calls the interface "like a magazine," and it's not hard to see why. The home screen has an almost editorial layout, with instant access to all of the player's main functions. It shows album art and the song title for the currently playing music, the most recent picture viewed, a text snippet from the most recent text viewed and so forth. Tapping any of those items sends you straight to it (even the clock takes you to a great world clock), and a back button usually sends you to the main menu for that category (photo albums, playlists, so forth). It's a novel and fun approach to an interface, and while iriver isn't packing in extensive functionality or connected information, it's a far cry from surfing through a boring menu tree with a d-pad.
Most functions are responsive and intuitive, with cross-fades between screens and large, obvious buttons to take you where you need to go. Unfortunately, at times the player seems to forget itself, and requires a second tap to make a function happen. It also hard-froze on us once, and wouldn't reset with a press from the power button -- we had to hard reset the whole player with a paper clip. Hopefully a firmware update from iriver can iron out those kinks in the near future.
Unfortunately, the biggest function we were looking forward to was the player's biggest disappointment. The P7 is supposed to have what iriver calls a "built-in media converter," which is supposed to transcode files on the go and let us watch whatever media we damn well please. But it doesn't. At least as far as we could perceive, the player has a very narrow level of codec support (MPEG, DivX, RM, RMVB and H.264 are quoted), and hardly strays from it. We tried all sorts of files on it, from torrented videos to pure MPEG-4 we shot ourselves, and got "File Format Error!" alerts on almost all of it. A torrented .avi played fine but without audio, and we got a .mp4 video podcast to play perfectly, but otherwise we were completely out of luck with our own media. It also didn't recognize the Audible Audio file we loaded onto it, which is inconvenient.
We're not expecting iriver to be magical and support every codec on the planet, but there is the unavoidable truth that without some sort of convenient method for regular people to get regular content onto the player (like a movie they shot of their kids), it's not going to be a roaring success. The included Windows client software is a tragedy of interface and doesn't support video for some unapparent reason, while the Windows Media Player support seemed promising until Windows Media Player failed to sync anything into the right place. And then crashed.Wrap-up
Overall, we'd be happy to grab the P7 for a long flight and watch a full-length movie on it, but the limitations of media management and codec support mean it'd be a bit of an "event" to prep a movie for the player -- and a chore to use the player on a regular basis. There's little to fault the player in all of this, but it's a reality of the way we use a PMP these days, and something iriver seems to be addressing by increasing functionality in upcoming players such as the WiFi-equipped P35. Still, there's the problem of proper desktop-side software to make using a PMP a truly convenient and useful experience -- power users won't have much trouble, but it's a bit of a deal breaker for the rest of us mere mortals.