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iKey Portable USB Recorder

Mon Jul 31, 2006 - 12:03 PM EDT - By Harv Laser

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Once upon a time, I sat here thinking about the 2000 albums in my record collection, the hundreds of audio cassettes, old reel-to-reel tapes I've bought or recorded over the decades, and what a kick it'd be to digitize music and other audio I haven't heard for eons into MP3s.

I was a radio station DJ for a few years in the early 70s and have "air check" tapes of myself I haven't heard for ages. Besides my enormous collection of carefully preserved vinyl (growing more valuable by the year).. I had "letters on tape" from long-gone relatives. Back before anyone ever imagined digital audio or even personal computers and email, it was pretty common for families to record tapes and send them through the mails to faraway relatives. I wanted to hear my late Grandparents' voices again, my Dad's retirement dinner. The voices of my cousins who visited me in the 60s when I was a teenager, old girlfriends who'd left messages on my tape-based answering machines. And what a cool idea it'd be to digitize those precious recordings and send them to friends and relatives so they could hear what they sounded like when we were so much younger and no one's hair was gray.

If you're young, this kind of "listening to the past" might not mean much to you yet. Trust me, as you get older, it will. Call me a sentimental fool but hearing my Grandparents' voices again actually brought tears to my eyes.

But audio tape doesn't last forever, vinyl is fragile, and it was important to me to get this material into a zero footprint digital format I could save, play, and especially store to preserve and archive it. Once a homemade tape goes bad, and eventually it will, you've lost its contents forever. Scratch a valuable album and that scratch will haunt you forever.

I have plenty of HiFi equipment, turntables, mixers, upscale cassette decks, so that playing old media was no problem. To play those little three inch reel tapes I scored a vintage 1960s portable recorder off eBay.

The problem was my living room stereo is a looooong way from my computer. How would I accomplish digitizing this stuff? It'd take a very long run of shielded audio cable to connect my stereo (turntable and tape decks) to my computer's input jack. Then I'd need some kind of software, such as MusicMatch that could take an analog line input and convert it on the fly to MP3 files.

This was a daunting task and I really didn't want to string long runs of cable all over the place and have to keep running back and forth from my stereo gear to my computer. Nor did I want to drag the computer over to the stereo or vice versa. There had to be a better, easier way to get my old music and tapes into MP3 format.

I read about Gemini's new gizmo, the iKey. Introduced in late 2005 and debuted to rave reviews at the January's CES show in Las Vegas, this little white box, the size of a paperback book, was a dream come true.

Cable it to ANY audio source and it takes that source's output, digitizes it in real-time, on the fly, and spits it out as either 128kbps (FM quality), 192kbps (better), 256kbps (basically CD quality) or uncompressed WAV files to virtually ANY USB 1.0/1.1/2.0 device plugged into it.

So where's the Treo connection in all of this, you may ask? Well as I said, the iKey writes to any USB device. Hard drive, thumb drive, iPod, and (drum roll) SD cards! And what kind of storage media do Treos use? (rim shot) SD cards! Starting to get the picture?

If you only own standard SD cards, just get one of these, pop your SD card into it, and plug the card reader into the iKey. If you own one of these, you don't even need the card reader. Just flip and expose the USB connectors on SanDisk's brilliant little Ultra II Plus USB cards and plug it right into the iKey's USB port and you're good to go.

Since every Treo 650/700p/700w is equipped with an MP3 player right out of the box, and many other players (Pocket Tunes Deluxe, mOcean, Busker, and others) are available for a song (no pun intended), you can go from vinyl or tape (or any other audio source) to the iKey to MP3 to SD card to Treo to listening bliss without ANY computer ripping and Editing software, long runs of cables, or hassle.

If you can hear it, the iKey can rip it and your Treo can play it. Simple as that.

How much MP3 audio can you cram onto an SD card? See the chart below. It depends on the capacity of your card, and which MP3 bitrate you tell the iKey to make. (You really don't want the iKey to save uncompressed WAV files to an SD card since they're enormous � a portable USB hard drive would be a better storage choice for those).

Double the 1gb figures for a 2gb card. Quadruple them if you're lucky enough to own one of the new 4gb cards. By the end of 2007, the SD card consortium projects we'll have 32gb cards! Bye bye iPods and fragile microdrives. (I don't know one single iPod owner who hasn't had his or her drive go bad, forcing a re-format or repair).


Open the iKey's box and you'll find the iKey itself, an illustrated multi-language 46 page owner's manual, an AC wall wart with a nice, long cord, and a three foot long white stereo input cable which terminates in a pair of gold plated male RCA jacks on one end, and a stereo mini-jack on the other. There is no software to install, no CD, because you don't need any. The iKey is totally self-contained and requires NO computer connection of any kind.

The iKey's brushed aluminum top plate is secured with four flat screws. Unscrew these and surprise! - inside you'll find a chamber that holds four AA batteries. Battery operation is totally optional; the iKey will work just fine off AC with no batteries in it at all, but pop them in and it makes the iKey totally portable. Not only will it run off AAs, but it'll also re-charge NiMH AAs. They even supply four alternate screws with taller heads so you can take the lid off and securely close it again without a screwdriver. Thoughtful, eh?

By itself, the iKey is smooth on all sides and corners. Nothing sticking out to break off. You can literally slide it into the pocket of your jeans.

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