Monthly Archive for February, 2006

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UIQ sound recording woes

My smartphone is a Sony Ericsson P900, running the UIQ variant of the Symbian operating system. It’s my fifth Symbian-powered PDA (after a Psion Revo, Diamond Mako, and a Sony Ericsson P800) and I’ve been reasonably happy with it. However, there has always been the little niggle in the back of my head that I’m not using the device to it’s full potential (as a £450-odd computer, rather than a cellphone).

Last week I found that Anu was recording one of our lectures (to cover the possibility that audio playback may help in revision) with a nifty USB flash hard drive / MP3 recorder unit. During the half-way break (our lectures tend to be 3 hours long) I was discussing this with Anu and decided that it might be useful for me too (since I’m horrendously bad with taking notes, it takes my concentration away from understanding the lecture). Rather than spending £60 pounds on a similar device I remembered that my P900 has an application called Sound Recorder (it’s one of the bundled UIQ programs) and decided to put this in use, as a trial for the second half of the lecture.

The results were somewhat disappointing. It wasn’t the sound quality – which was surprisingly good, given the lack of a directional microphone. No, the problem was the interface and capability of the sound recorder app which turns out to be a little basic – and hence unable to fully record the half lecture.

Firstly Sound Recorder, saves audio in WAV format. Given that the built-in video application can record AAC (aka ‘MP4′) and MP3 audio tracks (as part of MPEG video) I don’t see why this functionality is not available in Sound Recorder. This isn’t just a ‘techy’ gripe. Compression levels in MP3 and other advanced formats allow for much, much smaller file sizes – which is critical on small, portable device.

The lack of good compression was compounded by the startling realisation that the Sound Recorder only records to/from a fixed directory on in the internal RAM. The P900′s RAM is quite limited (16 MB) and even this is shared with executing program and data code. Most of the time my P900 operates with less than 3 MB free. At the end of the lecture I found that the device had stopped recording after 37 mins due to a lack of space (having consumed 3.5 MB of precious RAM). By contrast the device has a slot for memory stick duo removable memory. Mine came with a 32 MB stick (about 1/2 in use through software downloads) although I believe the slot can take up to 2 GB sticks.

What’s more Sound Recorder does not allow file names to be changed (recordings are simply date/time-stamped). The interface presents a simple next/previous button method of navigating between recordings. There is no mechanism for visually grouping recordings (as in folders or with some sort of label).

I can accept the interface failings – I see that Sound Recorder has been designed as a simple dictaphone application. What I can’t accept is the fundamental flaw of restricting its use to scarce (and limited) internal RAM whilst using minimal compression – particularly when the device has the ability to use external storage media and to encode advanced audio compression formats.

I could live with the lack of a decent audio encoding format. Provided I didn’t do too many recordings one day I could, conceivably, record in WAV and convert them to AAC when I transfer them to Mac at home. However, the restriction to internal storage is so limiting as to make the device unusable for me. I assumed that there must be a way of changing this behaviour. It would make sense, even for a simple application, for this to be configured in some .ini file.

I poked around and, sure enough, found a c:\system\APPS\voice\voice.ini file. And inside there I found a reference to “c:\documents\Voice\Sound recorder”. I tried changing the ‘c:’ drive (RAM) reference to ‘d:’ (memory stick) but to no avail. Every time I changed it and opened Sound Recorder, the .ini file would grow and add a new reference to the c: drive. The application carried on working as before.

So, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to hack it. Having looked on the web it seems that I’m not the only person to have found the Sound Recorder a little lacking. There are two shareware packages available for the P900 that claim to record MP3 audio: ALON Audio Recorder and VITO SoundExplorer. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any that record into AAC. They are similarly priced at around the $25 mark. Not quite free but, if they work well, cheaper than a real dictaphone and less baggage to carry around.

I shall be downloading both the ALON and VITO software packages to try out over the coming week. I may write up a short review of my findings.