General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 4
June 2000

Digital Voice Recorders

BY Jeffrey M. Allen

For this issue, your Road Warrior evaluated several digital voice recorders. The digital voice recorder is an especially appropriate tool for us to look at in this issue, as it can serve multiple purposes. In addition to using digital recorders for standard dictation, taking notes, recording meetings, or simply recording memos to yourself, you can use certain recorders to capture information that you can transfer to your computer. Voice recognition (VRT) software can then translate the information into editable text for use in your word processing program.

Digital recorder technology has evolved significantly in the last few years, and it keeps getting better. The first digital recorder I saw (all right, I admit that I bought it), several years ago, had a very short recording duration, poor reproduction quality, and far too high a price tag for what it did. Digital recorders have gotten better, smaller, less expensive, and more sophisticated in the past few years. The current crop of digital recorders boasts reasonable to long recording times, acceptable battery life, decent to very good quality voice reproduction, diminutive size, and little weight. The price for these devices has dropped to fair in terms of what they can do. The recorders come in several sizes: small, smaller, and smaller yet.

The VoicePen. The Sims Digital Voice Recorder, Model SVR-P700 was the smallest unit we tried. The instructions that come with the device refer to it simply as the "VoicePen." The device looks like a cross between a cigar and a Montblanc Diplomat fountain pen, so that's not a bad name. The VoicePen easily fits into a shirt or jacket pocket and has a clip to hold it in place. It comes with an internal speaker and microphone, an earphone or line-out jack for connection to other speakers or recording devices, and an earphone. The VoicePen does not accept an external microphone.

The VoicePen holds almost 70 minutes of voice recording. Because of its diminutive size (it is a 5.75-inch-long cylinder with a 0.5-inch diameter) you would reasonably expect difficulty in using the controls. However, they operate simply and easily. The controls consist of three buttons: recording, playback, and erase. The VoicePen lists at $190, but we have seen it advertised for as little as $150. I am advised that an updated version will be released later this year with a two-hour recording time, but information is not yet available.

The VoicePen Plus. The Samsung VoicePen Plus is often advertised as an upgraded version of the VoicePen. Slightly larger than the VoicePen (4.9 inches long, 1 inch wide by 0.6 inch deep), the Plus easily fits into a shirt or jacket pocket. It comes with a clip, but the clip is on the wrong side of the recorder for convenient use in a pocket. The VoicePen Plus has an internal speaker and microphone. It also comes with an external microphone and jack, an earphone or line-out jack for connection to earphones, external speakers, or other recording devices, an earphone, and a telephone connector for recording phone conversations.

The VoicePen Plus holds about two hours of voice recording. The controls are simple and easy to operate, but more complex than the VoicePen. Controls include six buttons, a switch, and a rotary dial for volume. The six buttons provide a control for recording, playback, pause, fast search (forward and back), and erase. The switch is a lock to prevent accidental recording or playback. The VoicePen Plus operates on two AAA batteries. It lists at $229, but we have seen it advertised for as little as $180.

The Olympus DS-150. Next largest in size, the Olympus DS-150 measures 4.5 inches long, 1.75 inches wide, and 0.5 inches deep. Like the others, it can easily fit into a shirt or jacket pocket. It comes with a wrist lanyard, but no pocket clip. The DS-150 will record approximately 160 minutes of voice. Like the VoicePen Plus, it comes with an internal speaker and microphone and also has jacks for an external microphone and line out to work with a headset or earphone. Unlike either the VoicePen or the VoicePen Plus, the DS-150 has been designed to interface with the Com port or USB port on a personal computer. A special connector on the bottom of the unit provides that contact. The unit comes with a cable for connection to the computer and with a headset.

Two of the leading word recognition program publishers, Lernout & Hauspie (Voice Express) and IBM (ViaVoice) sell their software in a package with the DS-150. Olympus designed the DS-150 to be more like a dictation unit. It also has a more extensive feature package than the VoicePen or the VoicePen Plus, including the ability to organize your work into specific divisions. We have seen the DS-150 advertised on the Internet for $179 and for $220 with ViaVoice.

[Note: Olympus also offers a larger, heavier recorder called the D-1000. The D-1000 has been out for several years and weighs 50 percent more than the next lightest unit. Unlike the others reviewed for this column, the D-1000 uses removable media (Intel's flash memory mini cards). We did not review the D-1000 as we felt that most users would prefer the smaller, lighter, newer recorders and would find their memory more than adequate.]

Jeffrey M. Allen. The largest (but not the heaviest) of the recorders we looked at was the Voice-It. We have seen this unit advertised as approved for use with both IBM's ViaVoice and Dragon Software's Naturally Speaking. You can purchase it separately or in a package from Dragon Software with (surprise) its Naturally Speaking program. The Voice-It unit comes with 40 minutes of memory and can be upgraded to 122 minutes of recording time through the purchase and installation of additional memory. The Voice-It unit weighs in at four ounces. It is 4.75 inches long, 2.25 inches wide, and 1 inch deep.

Like the DS-150, the Voice-It unit's design is more along the lines of a dictation unit than the VoicePen or the VoicePen Plus. It includes the ability to organize work into folders. Its controls are easy to use and fairly straightforward. Like the DS-150, the Voice-It unit has a special computer connection on the bottom. The Voice-It connector is a USB receptacle. The cable provided for interfacing with personal computers is USB on one side and serial on the other so that it can connect to the computer's Com port. We have seen the Voice-It sold on the Internet for as little as $175.

Comparing the Units

As you might expect, the differing sizes of the devices mandate substantially different control configurations. The convenience of size and weight often trades for easily manipulated and configured controls.

The tone or reproduction quality of the devices varies significantly. That should come as no surprise given the substantial size differences of the units. One would expect the larger units to have larger speakers and, therefore, better tone quality on playback. In this case, however, reality defies that logic. To my ear the best tone quality came from the Olympus DS-150, followed in descending order by Voice-It, VoicePen Plus, and VoicePen.

We tried all of the units in several configurations with VRT software. For this analysis we primarily used Naturally Speaking, but also tried both ViaVoice and Voice Express in some configurations. Because Dragon packages the Voice-It unit with Naturally Speaking, and IBM and L&H respectively package the DS-150 with ViaVoice and Voice Express, you would expect that each of those programs would have software and hardware interfaces between the packaged recorder and the computer. They do, and the connections and interfaces work. The Voice-It and DS-150 units can connect to the Com or serial port of your computer and download files in special format for the VRT program to translate. We found that the use of a headset/microphone substantially improved the quality (accuracy) of the transcription, as did a quiet environment. Higher levels of background noise resulted in lower levels of transcription accuracy. We had the best overall success with the Voice-It/Naturally Speaking package. The DS-150/Via Voice combination came in second.

Because the recording devices all had line-out capabilities, we checked with technical support personnel for the VRT publishers. Logic dictated that connecting the line out from the recorder to the microphone jack on the computer should allow the VRT software to receive the information much as it would if you spoke into a microphone connected to the computer. Tech support told us that it would not work. We gave it a shot anyway to see what would happen.

The results were fairly straightforward. When we used the VoicePen this way, it did not work. The VoicePen Plus worked, but had such a high error rate that you would not want to use it this way (accuracy improved with use of a headset or external microphone, but not enough to make you want to take this route). Both the DS-150 and the Voice-It units worked with this connection. Both worked better with the line out to microphone connection than the VoicePen Plus, but not nearly as well as they did through the Com port or USB connection. Bottom line: If you plan on using the digital recorder with VRT software, use the special software and Com port or USB port connection provided by the VRT software publisher.

Which Recorder to Buy?

The question of which recorder to purchase really depends on your intended use and on which unit you feel comfortable using. "Touch and feel" are subjective standards. I find the largest of the recorders, the Voice-It, the most comfortable to hold and operate. I rated the convenience of the controls, comfort in holding, and overall ease of use in descending order as: Voice-It, DS-150, VoicePen Plus, and VoicePen.

If you want to use the device for VRT, decide which VRT program you like best and get the recorder that the publisher packages with it. You will find that the simplest, easiest, and most satisfactory approach. If you don't plan on using the device with VRT software and simply want a small and lightweight recorder to carry with you for the convenience of recording notes to yourself or even a memorandum or letter that you can transfer to standard dictation equipment for your secretary to transcribe, the Voice-It unit is the least satisfactory for this use, as its size makes it too bulky to pocket comfortably.

The VoicePen and VoicePen Plus stand out due to their size and convenience. Although I have VRT software on my computer, I don't use it that often. When I do, I generally use a headset microphone plugged directly into the computer as it gives me the most accuracy. I am not inclined to use digital recorders for VRT because the only time they work close to as well as a headset and your PC is if you use them in a very quiet environment (such as your hotel room) and with a headset/microphone. I normally travel with a laptop that has VRT software on it. If I'm going to use VRT software, I will generally plug the headset directly into the laptop.

My personal choice: Because I'm not satisfied with the digital recorders for VRT purposes, except in the limited circumstances noted above, I carry the VoicePen Plus with me most of the time. Its combination of size, weight, and recording time works well for my uses.

Jeffrey M. Allen practices law in Oakland, California. He is the special issue editor of GPSolo magazine's Technology & Practice Guide issues.

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