UNEVEN ODDYSEY iPod competitor offers voice recording and radio, but still falls shy

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Whenever I hear a cut from "Cosmo's Factory," the 1970 classic by
Creedence Clearwater Revival, I think Venezuela. That's because when my
family carted me there on vacation that year, I carted that cassette
among a shoebox full of others, along with a player that rivaled the
shoebox in size.

When I stepped onto the plane for the New Orleans Jazz Festival on
Thursday, I carried seven or eight times the amount of music on my
iPod, slipped into my shirt pocket.

As impressive as that is, I sometimes wish it could do more. That's
why I was eager to try the Odyssey 1000, which has emerged from the
same neighborhood as the iPod, but with an FM radio and a voice
recorder. Now that I have, I find it tough to say whether it is a
fruitful advance or just another baby misstep toward the electronic
promised land.

Here are the good points: The sound quality is great and the robust
tuner accepts 12 station presets, more than one could ever use in this
nothing's-on era of shrink-wrapped radio. The voice recorder adequately
snares voices at 15 feet, good enough to take down the minutes of your
next meeting, even if the meeting goes on for days: The manufacturer,
e.Digital of San Diego, says 16 hours of talking will fill only one
giga byte and the Odyssey gives you 20.

As e.Digital boasts, that translates to as many as 10,000 songs.
Even with the added functions, the Odyssey's suggested price of $350 is
$50 less than the 15-gigabyte iPod announced by Apple on Monday.

Regrettably, another size comparison isn't so favorable: The Odyssey
is bigger in every respect, most tellingly in heft, where its 6.2
ounces is almost twice the iPod's - and that was before the new iPods
were announced; the new ones are touted to be smaller and lighter. Six
ounces would have wowed them in Venezuela, but it fails the
shirt-pocket test nevertheless.

The Odyssey fares poorly in several other ergonomic areas as well,
most annoyingly in start-up time. About 20 seconds lapse between
pushing the on button and getting sound, a condition that evokes a
1950s television more than anything from this century. It's hard to
know whether the wait was programmed to allow for the two promotional
animations that fill the display screen during the interlude, or if
they threw those in to fill the crank-up time, but regardless, it is
absurdly long.

Learning to operate the device was less intuitive than learning the
iPod. The main cog is a wheel that spins for scrolling menus and is
pressed to make selections, similar to a Blackberry's main navigational
tool. The problem was that after I'd chosen a song, the finger force needed to turn the wheel too often depressed it,
choosing whatever was on the menu screen at the time. I also didn't
like that when I paused a song long enough to make the power saver shut
off the Odyssey, the player couldn't remember where I'd stopped when I
turned it back on.

Voice Nav, which might have been the Odyssey's neatest feature, is
instead its most irritating disappointment. As the name implies, you're
supposed to be able to navigate menus via voice recognition. But not
once did I get to the song I wanted; either it "recognized" an artist
or song I wasn't voicing, or it gave a too-long tone saying it didn't
get it.

When I asked to sample the Odyssey, it was one of the only devices
I'd heard of that combined digital music with a radio. But a little
more than a week ago, Griffin Technology started shipping an iPod FM
device that sells for $35. Sure, it's only an add-on, but it
neutralizes Odyssey's greatest advantage. And, of course, the iPod is
available for Macs and Windows; the Odyssey is limited to the latter.