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Sound Explorer for Pocket PC review
Posted on 5-Dec-2004 12:52 by Darryl Burling. | Tags Filed under: Reviews.


Sound Explorer is one of the few fully featured sound applications available for the Pocket PC platform today. While there are plenty of music players out there and good ones at that, Sound Explorer is one of the few applications that can record audio as well as play it back.

Recording
Vito have included a lot of options for recordings. There are a wide variety of formats and bit rates that you can choose from for your recording, including compressed and non-compressed formats.

Sound explorer supports recording in MP3 (up to 96kbps), WAV (up to 688kbps), ADPCM (good quality recording - up to 176bps) and GSM (good for voice - 16kbps). The variety of recording formats mean that the application has a range of uses for recording of lectures to music at high or low quality. It also means that you can adjust your recording quality to suit the amount of space on your device.


Plenty of recording options

Speaking of space, you can record to any location on your device including a storage card. You need to be wary of the processing ability of the device though. If you choose to record in MP3 format and have a slow device, you might find that you get a recording with skips and other anomalies due to the CPU power required to encode the MP3 file. I recorded a 31 minute speaking engagement I had in MP3 format to my 1GB storage card and had no problems on my HTC Harrier (check our performance chart to compare it with other Pocket PC models).

The other factor to bear in mind is the quality of the microphone on your device. A poor quality microphone will mean a poor recording. I've generally found that I've been surprised at the high quality of the microphone on my devices.

In addition to bit rates and storage location, you can also set the default file prefix for recorded files, as well as time to wait before the application shuts off the screen. I found this feature to be both a curse and a blessing. Firstly, it is handy to have the option to automatically shut off the screen. However, Im a long time user of Windows Media, and like a number of other applications, WMP gives you the ability to assign a button to toggle the screen on and off. Ive become quite accustomed to turning the screen on and off manually as needed. I have missed this feature in Sound Explorer. Once the screen is off, there is no way to turn it back on again without using the power button. Fortunately the default behavior of the power button seems to be to simply turn on the screen again rather than turning the device off.

There area few inconsistencies between the help file and the actual behavior of the application. For instance, the manual states that if you turn your device off while recording, Sound explorer will pause recording and automatically restart recording next time the device is powered on. My tests seemed to reflect this until the device was powered back on, when the application seemed to be recording but the timer was not incrementing. On playback, it was apparent that Sound Explorer had simply stopped recording when the device was powered off and had not restarted at all.

My final note regarding recording is the VAS or Voice Activated System. This allows you to set a threshold which will determine whether silence is recorded or not. According to the manual, when enabled, it automatically starts recording if the sound ambience is above the adjusted level and it pauses recording if sound ambience goes under adjusted level (during 1s). In addition, when the VAS pauses recording, it sets a bookmark automatically. One of the concerns I had is that Sound Explorer might miss the first bit of the recording while it was paused, but I was pleasantly surprised to find during the playback of my test that you could not tell how long the silence was for the recording was so seamless.

Playback
Sound Explorer supports a wide range of media formats including MP3, WAV, OGG, WMA, GSM and ADPCM. My collection is almost entirely made up of WMA and most of these are variable bit rate. I found that while Sound Explorer recognised that these files were associated with it, it was not able to read or play the file. Ive sent a message to Vito asking about this, but I suspect that the problem is related to the Windows Media plug-in being used. Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition ships with Windows Media Player 9/10 mobile both of which will play VBR WMA files. However, Sound Explorer uses the Windows Media 8.01 Pocket IE plug-in which does not support VBR files. Thus, while Media player supports VBR WMA, Sound Explorer does not appear to at least until Microsoft release a VBR WMA plug-in for Pocket Internet Explorer.


Selection of playback speed

If you use winamp play lists it means you can work with these within Sound Explorer. Personally, I would like to see support for Windows media play lists too. You can also create M3U files on the device, but I found that the interface for doing this was a little cumbersome.

The files that Sound Explorer did play were played well with no skipping or popping that I could notice (admittedly Im not a quality freak and cant tell the difference between 128kb and 192kb MP3 or WMA files.).

Sound Explorer really comes into its own when you are working with Spoken Word audio e.g. audio books, lectures, sermons, podcasts, etc.

To this end, one cool feature of Sound Explorer, that I understand some of the other popular players have is the ability to speed up or slow down a track. This sounds like a nice to have that will make next to no difference and if you are listening to music, you will probably never use it unless you really like Alvin and the chipmunks. However, if you listen to spoken word content, you will really appreciate the ability to get the speaker to get to the point quickly. It can make it harder to take in, but then that is what the pause button is for. So with Sound Explorer you can listen to your slow 45 minute podcast comfortably in 30 minutes not that Im suggesting that any podcast has fluff in it that you want to whiz past ;-) !

If spoken word audio is your thing, then youll also appreciate the ability to put a bookmark into the sound file. To do this, simply tap the bookmark button to create a bookmark. To see what bookmarks are available, tap and hold the file and select bookmarks. You can then move the order of the bookmarks and delete any bookmarks you dont want. Although there is a rename option to rename a bookmark, I could enter the text for the new name, but not save it Im assuming Ive missed something. Once you are happy with your bookmarks, you can play the file based on the bookmarks. This allows you to select snippets of the audio that are useful and play just those snippets back in whatever order you want at a later stage. This can be quite good for providing a summary of a lecture or sermon or other spoken message later on rather than having to listen to the whole message again.

Another really nice feature is the ability to insert voice notes into any sound file. So if you are listening to a lecture and some brain wave comes to you, you can insert your brainwave directly into the audio. Sound Explorer will add a bookmark for you automatically, to make it easy to come back to later on.

Other nice features
In addition to completely customizable equalizers (unlike any Ive ever seen and very cool), another nice feature of Sound Explorer is the today screen plug-in. The plug-in allows you to start Sound Explorer (of course) as well as record, play/pause, skip and stop. It also scrolls the name of the currently playing file at the bottom of the plug in and the elapsed time.


Today plug-in


Set a schedule for unattended recording

Sound Explorer also has a skinning engine built into it. However, I was unable to find any skins available or where to find skins on the Vito website.

You can also edit any ID3 tags on any MP3 file too this is especially useful for the on the fly recordings you make with your device you can add a considerable amount of text information, which you can then use to search through files using Media Player or another ID3 aware application.

Finally, Sound Explorer also supports in application button mapping. This button mapping replaces the settings in Start -> Settings -> Buttons while the Sound Explorer is the active application. If you open another application Sound Explorer will release its button mapping and things will go back to normal.

Conclusion
If you are a spoken word junkie, I dont believe there is a better player on the market than Sound Explorer. If you normally take notes, throw away your note taking application this is a far better way of taking annotations on the fly.



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