Mobile Computing: More on Voice Recorders

Feature: Voice Recorder Redux

A recent newsletter about digital voice recorders prompted lots of questions from readers. Is the digital audio tape, or DAT, format better for voice recordings? Is there a speech-to-speech handheld device that translates what you say in one language into the appropriate phrase in another language? Also, several readers wrote to share their opinions of the digital voice recorders they use.

Here's a sampling of reader responses about digital voice recorders. If you have further questions about these wonderful time-saving devices, or you want to share your experiences using one, send me an e-mail.

Which Format Works Best?

Pam Spies of Australia wrote to say she is planning to buy a digital voice recorder for a corporate history publishing project, in which the author will record the remembrances of employees and others "who made that history." Primarily, the writer will use the recordings to ensure the best, most accurate quotes in the printed book. But the company also wants to create a collection of oral history recordings, Spies says, "which we can either donate to a public collection or later, post on our Web site."

Spies says she has considered DAT recorders as well as digital voice recorders for this project. "My IT department is very keen on digital voice recorders, as their files are so much easier to download," she writes. "Others say DAT is much better quality and essential if we want to broadcast any of the recordings in the future." What's my advice?

I've never used a DAT recorder, so I can't speak from personal experience. However, because they can capture CD-quality audio, DAT recorders are popular among electronic media journalists for recording quotes to air on television and radio. (Digital voice recorders can't capture CD-quality audio.) Professional musicians often use DAT recorders, too.

The downsides: Importing DAT recordings into a computer is more complicated than importing digital voice recorder files. DAT recordings require far greater storage space, too. And DAT recorders are expensive. For example, Sony's TCD-D100 Recording DAT Walkman lists for $900. Digital voice recorders, by comparison, are often about $200. Sony recently came out with a $300 model that can capture up to 6 hours on a Memory Stick; see this week's PDA's & Gadgets section to learn more.

Because Spies may need to broadcast the audio files in the future, I suggested she consider both types of devices, if the budget allows.

First, I believe that when recording important interviews, meetings, and conferences, you should always use two devices. I've had more than one recording fail for various reasons--the recorder batteries die, the tape gets mangled, and so on. So I'm a big believer in using a backup device for important recording sessions.

Second, using both formats would give Spies's company the best of both worlds. The DAT recordings would provide the high quality needed for future broadcasting. Meanwhile, the digital voice recordings, which are often saved in .wav or other common PC formats, would be easy to download to and archive on a computer. And a voice recognition program such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking can transcribe files made with compatible digital voice recorders.

Parlez-Vous?

Speaking of voice recognition, Richard H. Roberts of Bryan, Texas asks if there's device that translates spoken words into another language. You speak into the device in English, say, and it plays back the spoken equivalent of your phrase or question in French, Italian, or another language. The device could prove enormously helpful for travelers abroad.

Such devices, called speech-to-speech translators, do indeed exist. I've never used one, but the Wall Street Journal recently evaluated several models with the help of professional linguists. The favorite speech-to-speech translator was Aim High's Talking TR-2203.

The $199 device is capable of translating a spoken phrase into any of ten languages. The TR-2203 offers "decent pronunciation" and "displayed translations in the appropriate characters, so you can show the screen to someone in, say, Japan, and have them read the translation." Though some translations went off track, the Journal found the TR-2203 to be the overall best in show.

In addition, voice translation software has been available for PDAs (primarily Pocket PCs) for some time. Such programs promise similar benefits as the TR-2203. You speak into the PDA's microphone; the software locates the phrase in its dictionary; and then the equivalent phrase in another language is played out of your PDA's speaker.

Ectaco offers a series of software programs for Pocket PCs that translate spoken phrases into audible phrases in other languages. Most of the products in the Partner Voice Translator line ($100) translate into only one language, however. I haven't used any of these programs, but you can download a trial version at the company's Web site.

An Inexpensive Voice Recorder

Finally, newsletter reader Linda Tadir gives this glowing recommendation of the no-frills, inexpensive Olympus VN-900 digital voice recorder. "It's easy to use and very small," Tadir writes. "It slips easily into small pockets and bags. I've dropped it quite a few times, and it's always survived. It's very sturdy."

Tadir uses the VN-900 in the car and during exercise for reminders. "If I'm driving and I remember something that needs to be done ... I record it," she explains. The recorder goes along on her morning power walks, too. "All my ideas start running along with my feet," Tadir says, so she captures them on her digital voice recorder.

While some mobile phones offer voice memo capabilities, Tadir finds that feature cumbersome: "To use it requires me to stop in my tracks and do a lot of button punching." With her Olympus VN-900, Tadir just clicks a button and she's ready to record. Tadir claims she has no affiliation with Olympus; she's simply a satisfied customer, she says.

At press time, I found the Olympus VN-900 for about $35 with the PC World Product Finder.

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