What to look for in a digital voice recorder

Washington  - If you're a student or business person responsible for transcribing what others say, the need for a digital voice recorder is obvious.

But even if you're not, you probably could have more uses for a digital voice recorder than you realise.

These devices are so small and handy that they fit easily into a shirt pocket and can be put to good use recording random thoughts, making shopping lists, taking reminders to yourself or others, or committing ideas that you can use for projects later on.

Once you have one, in fact, you just might wonder how you did without it. Finding the right digital voice recorder, though, means navigating through a new world of features and specifications.

There are quite a few voice recorders on the market, and while sifting through them may cause some confusion, one thing is certain: digital voice recorders bear little resemblance to the old tape-based voice recorders of a decade ago. And that's a good thing.

Gone are headaches with rewinding or fast forwarding tapes, finding tapes long enough to hold what you need to record, dealing with poor sound quality, or finding a pocket large enough to carry the devices.

Today's digital voice recorders are almost uniformly superior devices. Most of them fit in the palm of your hand, have several levels of recording quality, accept memory to hold hours and hours of recordings, and offer other features - such as multiple bookmarks - that were unthinkable in the days of tape.

Beyond that, some also sync up easily with your personal computer and can even be used in conjunction with speech recognition software to create written text from your voice recordings. Here's an overview of what to look for when you research these tools.

--- Sound quality

To many, sound quality is of primary concern, and in this regard most digital recorders are exponentially better than yesterday's tape-based voice recorders. But that doesn't mean all digital recorders will provide the playback quality that you require.

Most digital recorders have several levels of recording quality, with the higher levels consuming more memory and thus reducing the overall recording time that's available in one sitting. If all you will be doing is recording for the purpose of listening to the playback yourself, even the lowest quality setting will probably be sufficient.

But if you intend to do more with your audio afterwards - such as running it through a speech recognition package to try to get printed words from the sound - then you'll need to rely on the highest quality setting. Sony, Philips, and Olympus all make voice recorders that can interface with speech recognition software, and the software most often used in this capacity is Nuance's Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

--- Storage

Instead of tapes, digital voice recorders use internal memory to save files. The amount of internal memory, in combination with the voice quality setting you use, will determine how many hours of recording time you have available - and also how much the voice recorder costs. Recorders come with anywhere from 256 MB of memory to
4 GB or more, allowing you to record anywhere from several hours to several hundred hours, depending upon the voice quality chosen.

Some recorders even have the ability to support removable memory cards, meaning that you could purchase your own to supplement or replace the supplied memory.

--- Features

Given that most digital voice recorders will do an adequate job of recording your voice, the additional features that distinguish one model from the next might be most meaningful to you. Some models, for instance, take advantage of the fact that at their core, digital voice recorders are portable storage devices. So you'll find models on the market that will allow you to use the storage capacity to store any type of file, allowing them to double as flash drives. In addition, some models - especially those from Sony - include the circuitry that allows the units to play MP3 files, a feature that's handy for those who do not already have an iPod or other MP3 player.

Of more significance, though, are features that enhance the use of the voice recorder's core feature: recording and manipulating voice recordings. Chief among these is an external microphone jack. While the internal microphones on these units have become quite good, there's only so much microphone quality you can squeeze into an inexpensive voice recorder, and, of course, an internal microphone does not allow you any versatility in where the microphone is placed relative to the recorder. So if you want the ultimate in audio quality, you should really prefer voice recorders that have an external microphone jack built in. Some models even come with an external microphone in the package.

Another feature that's essential for some is a built-in USB port, which makes it easy to hook the voice recorder up to a computer in order to transfer files. Not everyone needs or wants the ability to transfer the voice files to the PC, however, so USB is not found on all models.

--- Controls

Controls such as play, rewind, fast forward, and record are vitally important to a digital voice recorder. They will probably, in fact, have the biggest impact upon how satisfied or dissatisfied you are with the unit. If, after an initial learning period, you still have to fumble to find the "record" button, or you repeatedly find yourself hitting the wrong button, you're going to be unhappy with the unit, and it will likely find its place in your discarded electronics bin.

So a hands-on test of your digital voice recorder is critical. You can purchase one of these small devices online - trusting the user reviews you might find there - but remember that one person's dream device is another's nightmare. If you buy online, be sure the retailer has a liberal return policy.

--- Batteries

Generally voice recorders will use either AAA or AA batteries, and most will work fine with rechargeable batteries. Battery size should probably be of secondary concern, though, to battery life: there's nothing worse than having to worry about running out of battery power when you're recording an important lecture or interview.

Voice recorders boast a running time per charge of anywhere from 25 hours to 32 hours. Naturally, the longer battery life is better. But so many factors go into how long your batteries will actually last - including how old the batteries are, how long it's been since you last used the recorder, and whether the unit has been exposed to cold temperatures - that the issue of battery life should be a checkbox issue rather than a determining factor in your purchase.

--- The manufacturers

There are dozens upon dozens of digital voice recorders on the market, which is why it makes sense to talk not about individual models but rather the features you're most likely to enjoy. A few manufacturers, however - namely, Olympus, Sony, RCA, and Panasonic - produce the lion's share of top-rated models.

Prices range from a low of just over 20 dollars to over 200 dollars at the retail level. It's generally the models in the over 80-dollar category that come with many of the more advanced features - such as external microphone jack and support for speech recognition software. Whichever model you ultimately decide to use, you'll no doubt be amazed at the versatility of these devices. (dpa)