Introduction

On first impressions, the device is slick. Slightly larger than your typical thumb drive, it's blue hard plastic on one side, with silver buttons and graphics, and a rubberized black plastic on the other. The size is just over 3.5 inches long, 1.5 inches wide and about 3/4 inch thick. The display is a 128x64 pixel LCD measuring 1.5 inches long by .8 inches tall. The buttons are slightly recessed and consist of a power/stop button, a pause/play button and a joystick that controls volume, scrolls through MP3's or stations as well as scrolls through the menus.

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The ULT31576 is only slightly bigger than your typical memory stick or MMC reader.

An end cap pops off of the left of the device to expose a male USB A-type connector. This connector can be plugged directly into a USB port or plugged into the included USB A-to-A cable provided with the device.

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ULT31576 blisterpack and ULT31576 and all of it's accessories outside of the package.

In addition to the USB cable, one receives a pair of ear-bud headphones that are unique in that they are integrated into an around-the-neck carrying apparatus for the device, as well as a rechargeable AAA battery and an application CD. I refrain from calling the CD a "driver disk" as I've yet to need any drivers for this device.

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The ULT31576 uses a AAA battery and comes with a rechargable unit.

I've tested it in Windows 98, ME, 2000 and XP and the thumb drive and the MMC reader pop right up with drive letters. The only thing that didn't work consistently is the Autorun of the built-in e-mail client. After setting the e-mail client to autorun (something you can set once in the settings portion of the program) the e-mail would pop up automatically when the device was plugged into a 2000 or XP machine, but not a 98 or ME machine. No big deal. After a couple days, I found the autorun annoying and turned it back off. I'll touch more on the software and e-mail client in a bit.

The ear-buds are ok. Although the more I use them, the more I want someone to buy me a pair of Shure ear-buds for Christmas. The ear-buds are better than a lot of other units that come with portable audio devices. When I first looked at them, I thought they were going to be painful as soon as I put them in my ear. They weren't. My ears only hurt after prolonged use (the hours and hours that went by testing the device and writing this review) and the dynamic range of the headphones, although undocumented, seem to be pretty good.

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The ear-buds are attached to a nylon rope that plugs into the device so the ULT31576 can be worn around the neck.

The around-the-neck contraption isn't a bad idea, but there's room for improvement. There's a braided nylon rope that goes around your neck. The ear-buds are attached to this rope. At the end of the rope is a little silver disk that the strap of the device snaps into. I don't mind having the device around my neck, but sometimes you don't want it around your neck, but the rope isn't long enough to fit the device anywhere else, like a hip pocket or something! And then there's the snap that goes into the little silver disk. I couldn't get my device to stay snapped in. After struggling with it for a while, I ended up breaking it altogether. So now my device stays attached to the nylon rope only by the headphone jack. Oops!

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The ULT31576 easily plugs into my laptop's USB port. For people with harder to access USB ports, a cable is included.

Once I installed the included battery, I plugged the device into my laptop's USB port and it immediately lit up just like a Timex Indiglo watch and displayed the Ultra logo. The device then told me the battery was charging and the light faded out. While the battery was charging, I was allowed to copy over my MP3 files. No special software was needed to do this. I just dragged and dropped files the way I would drag and drop files to any other thumb drive, and you can still use the device as an MP3 player and thumb drive simultaneously. The MP3 playback function of the device simply ignores any non-MP3 files. In fact, when I installed the MMC card from my Canon camera into the back of the device, it was given it's own drive letter and I copied MP3's over to it to co-exist with the JPG's that were on there from my camera. On playback, the device just blended those MP3's in with the MP3's copied over to the internal memory and the only indicator that it was playing an MP3 from the MMC versus internal memory was a little icon that said "SD" at the top of the LCD.

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The ULT31576 can be used as an MMC and SD card reader and MP3's stored on MMC cards can be played on the MP3 player.

Observations

Unfortuntely, data transfer was slow. Thank goodness it takes two hours to fully charge a dead battery because if it took any less time, I'd be afraid the files would still be copying over once the device was ready to use. The drive uses USB 1.1 technology, not USB 2.0. So despite the fact my Ultra was plugged into my ThinkPad's USB 2.0 port, it took nearly 5 minutes to copy over Pink Floyd's Wall, Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon and Meddle albums, a total of 220MB at 128kbps. That's a transfer rate of just better than .73MB/sec.

Speaking of batteries, as I said it takes almost two hours to charge the included AAA. It's lasts 8 hours. Neither of these figures are bad because I don't see using this device for more than 8 hours straight, and finding a USB port to plug into for a quick charge is pretty easy. I even have a cigarette lighter USB charger in my work truck. But I've seen some reviews that claimed that they were getting 12 or more hours out of the device, so I tried killing the battery over and over again and each time, the device told me that the battery was dead and was shutting down after 8 hours. Knowing that in other devices, like my digital camera and cordless mouse, that rechargable batteries don't last as long as alkalines, I decided to try an Energizer AAA battery in the device instead of the included AAA. I found that even the alkaline lasted 8 hours.

When the device is not plugged into the USB port (the device does not function as anything but a thumb drive or e-mail client when plugged in) and powered up, the device immediately jumps to MP3 mode. In the upper left of the LCD, it says ". Next to this is battery status, then track number, then track length. On the next line, the ID3 tag scrolls across. On a third line you are told the bitrate of the recording and what eq mode you are using for playback.

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Goofy stick figures dance while MP3's play. Note the Indiglo-type back-light.

If we hit the play button, the ID3 tag is replaced with any additional ID3 information (if available) or lyrics (if programmed into the ID3 tag.) The entire bottom of the screen is taken up with a bunch of dancing stick figures wearing headphones. Cheesy to the point of evoking a giggle.

If I click the joystick down, I go to track 2. If I click up, I go back one track. If I click the joystick left, the volue goes down, and to the right, the volume goes back up. If I push down on the middle of the jostick, a menu with the choices of MP3 Player, Voice Player, FM Radio, Record, Setting and Exit comes up.

When I switch to Record, the upper left of the screen switches from "" to "" and I can start recording my voice by speaking into the built-in microphone. Any files that were recorded in Record mode can be played back in Voice Player mode. Voice recordings are recorded in WAV format, but are very low, 32kbps quality so you can store alomost 17 hours on the internal memory. You are not able to store Voice Recordings on the MMC.

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In voice recorder mode, we're told length of recording and time remaining.

In FM Radio mode, my screen changes to read "" and I'm presented with 8 presets and a tuning dial. If I click the joystick up, I tune up the FM band. Down and I go down the band. If I press the Play/Pause button, the presets flash and I can use the up and down of the joystick to scroll through presets. If I hold down the Play/Pause button, whatever station I'm on is saved as whatever preset I'm on.

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The FM Tuner gives us 8 presets and the entire FM band to tune in using the joystick.

Tuning with the device was hit or miss. Stations that came in one day wouldn't come in the next and some stations that I get in perfectly in the car didn't come up at all on the Ultra while other stations came in perfectly. And my presets WOULD NOT SAVE. I would have all 8 presets programmed but then the very next day three presets worked and the other five didn't. This happened to me three times in a row. I gave up on saving presets. Maybe my device is somehow defective.

In the Menu mode, I can choose to adjust the backlight timer, the backlight contrast, the menu language, I can erase tracks or format the memory stick and in MP3 mode set the eq to either Classical, Pop, Rock, Jazz, Bass or Normal and in MP3 or Voice Player mode set it to repeat tracks.

If I press the power/stop button at the same time as clicking the joystick, I can lock the device. This prevents accidental power offs, track skips or any other annoying things that can happen if something or someone were to accidently bump into your device.


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We're reminded what brand our memory stick is when out e-mail client loads.

Conclusions

The built in e-mail client is nothing more than a few files stored on the thumb drive that make it possible to check your mail from any PC without having to install additional software onto that PC. As I mentioned before, the one added feature of this e-mail client that makes it unique to this device is it's ability to autorun when the device is plugged into the USB, but as I stated; this gets annoying after a while. That said, it is a very good email client. In the photo above, you can see there's a little bit of bloat added by having a JPG of the device pop up when the client first starts. Functions are self explainatory, set up is easy and mails are stored in a file format that is compatible with Outlook so e-mails can be saved and then later viewed in Outlook.

The software included on the CD is an MP3 player, ID3 tag editor and lyrics editor all in one player. The ID3 tag editor certainly has it's uses, but the lyric editor was particularly neat to play with. One merely has to play the song, pause it and a time stamp is created, type in the lyrics that should appear at that time stamp, and then the lyrics scroll across the ID3 tag part of the display while the music plays. Very neat.

In conclusion, I will say that I definitely like this device. The audio quality was better than expected, the features were plentiful and the fact that even as just a 256MB memory stick that can be upgraded to 768MB by simply adding an MMC to it is too slick. The MSRP on the device is $129, which seemed a bit high, but one can buy the device from Think Geek for only $99, and from now until Christmas there's a mail-in rebate for another $30 which means you can get one of these for only $69. THAT is a steal for even a 256MB thumb drive, never mind a thumb drive, card reader, MP3 player, FM tuner, voice recorder and portable e-mail client!

Pros:

Small and light
Good size LCD and nice backlight are easy to read
Easy to use buttons and joystick control
Standard AAA battery that lasts 8 hours and only takes 2 hours to charge via USB
Good sound quality
Better than crap ear-buds
So many features, I don't how to categorize this thing
Cons:

Slow to transfer files
Tuner reception was flaky and I kept losing presets
Only better than crap ear-buds
Nylon neck rope has room for improvement
Overall, this is a product I can strongly recommend.

Only because of the ear-buds, the tuner that wouldn't keep presets and the slow data transfer do I give this product an 8.5 instead of a 10. Of course, the ear-buds are a matter of personal preference and the presets issue is likely an isolated issue so this item could easily get a rating of 9.

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SLRating: 8.5/10



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