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For the past 18 years, I've worked for a boss who is a dictater. Yes, I spelt that wrong on purpose. You see, I certainly wouldn't willingly stay working with a horrid, mean boss for all these years - I'm no masochist, I assure you. It's just that my boss likes to dictate his correspondence - hence, he is a 'dictater'. Over the years we've gone through dozens of dictation machines and transcribers - all of which were dependent on micro-cassettes. But the world moves on, and our office finally entered the digital age when we purchased a Philips Digital Pocket Memo.
What is a Philips Digital Pocket Memo (DPM)? It is a small, hand-held machine that looks very much like any ordinary micro-cassette recorder. However, instead of recording my boss' eloquence on tapes, it records his wisdom on to memory cards. And, instead of taking a tape and putting it into a transcribing machine, you download files onto your computer. It's that simple. Still, that might not be enough for most of you so let me go into a touch more detail. (For those of you who really don't care about the physical/boring stuff, you can jump right down to the using it stuff. I'm warning you now, since this is a technical review, its going to be a long one, but I'll try to be as clear and concise as possible.)
§ The Physical Stuff (a.k.a. The Boring Stuff): As you can see from the picture above, the main difference between this and a micro-cassette recorder is that it has a LCD screen instead of a window where the cassette used to go in. This LCD screen shows you things like how much battery life you have left, the speed you're recording at, the date and/or time and how long (in time) the file is you're presently recording. It also shows you the total amount you've recorded on the memory card, and what number the file is that you're recording. Above the screen there are two dots - one is a dot that goes red if the machine is ready to use (i.e. when its on) and the other is actually the microphone. Yes, it's just a little dot, but it does the job.
On the sides and back of the DPM are some buttons and stuff. The important one is the four-position slide switch, which turns the recording on or off. There's also a "jog shuttle" wheel type thing which is for setting the volume or skipping forwards or backwards. When pressed, this wheel then helps you go through the setup features, so you can set the DPM up for the way you like to use it (slow play vs. long play, the date and time, etc.).
Below these is a button you can push to change between insert and overwrite modes - for when you want to put some extra stuff inside what you've already recorded, or for when you just want to blot out what you dictated with something else altogether. Lastly, on this side of the DPM, is the delete button - for deleting files, obviously.
On the other side of the DPM are sockets to connecting a microphone, and a headphone. There's also the fast-forward button there, which you push when you want the DPM to fast forward through recorded text. Most importantly on this side is the download button - which, when the DPM is connected to a computer, will take all the dictated files off of your memory card and move them to your hard disk.
On the back is a very good little button called "EOL". That stands for "end of letter". When you press this button, the DPM stops the recording for that file and automatically opens up a new file. Also on the back is the slot for the memory card. This DPM uses what are called SD (which stands for 'secure digital') flash memory cards, and it comes with a Philips 32mb card.
On some models there is a power connector socket for plugging in an adapter, and on other models there are charging contacts for putting it into a charging station, but on the version we have, there's just a battery slot, which holds two AAA batteries, and an AC adaptor.
I find this to be a very attractive bit of kit, and since it uses AAA batteries, its not at all heavy and isn't in the least bit bulky to hold. Compared to some of the other pocket memo machines I've seen, this one really is the sleekest on the market - of the ones that use memory cards (those that have only internal memory are generally smaller than this one, as was our Olympus).
§ The Using it Stuff: This DPM really is very simple to use. To get the DPM to work, you slide the middle part of the four-position switch from the back towards the front so that it's in line with the rest of the switch, which turns the DPM on. When you want to record, you simply slide the whole switch upwards. When you want to rewind or fast forward, you slide the switch downwards. And of course, to just have it on standby, you put it in the middle/on position. When you're done, you hit the EOL button and the file is closed and ready for downloading, just listening to or even deleting. Yes, it really is that simple.
By the way, if you press the EOL button twice instead of once, then the letter you've just recorded gets marked as "priority" so that the person transcribing the documents will know it should be typed up first. This is one of the best features of this machine. What happens is that when you download the files, all of the priority ones come up bolded, and that way you know which ones to transcribe first. Pretty cool, huh? Well, we thought so.
I mentioned the overwrite/insert button above. We never use this button since my boss is far too used to saying things like "strike that" or "go back to where I said", and anyway, he doesn't have time to fiddle around listening here or there to figure out where he wants to insert or overwrite things. Still, for the newer dictaters out there, this might be very useful - although I have my doubts. As for that delete button - we also don't use this since I'm far to worried that my boss will accidentally get rid of an important document. But I can see where someone who uses a machine such as this one for notes to themselves would find this very handy.
Regarding the cards, my boss decided to purchase two extras in addition to the 32mb card he got with the DPM - one 256mb and another 512mb. Personally, I doubt that most people will need large capacity cards, but my boss does huge amounts of dictation, much of it while traveling abroad, which he does about 2½ to 3 weeks out of every 4, so, having a few larger cards was important to him. Of course, if you're writing the next great international best selling epic novel, I suppose getting a couple of the 1GB cards would be more appropriate for you. But if you're just taking some notes here and there, I'm sure the 32mb card and perhaps another 128mb card as a spare would be more than enough for most people's needs.
We've tried to figure it out how much recording time these disks hold, and what I can tell you is that our early "test" file, which only recorded 12 seconds of speech, came out to a 24kb DSS file. Now, if I'm doing my math right, to fill up a 256mb card, you'd have to record over 10,000 files of those 12 seconds of speech, which comes out to 120,000 seconds or 2,000 minutes, which is 33.33 hours! If you take into account that your average micro-cassette will record 30 minutes on each side, at the regular speed and 60 minutes on each side at the slow speed, then you're getting quite a whole lot more on even the smaller disk then you ever got on cassettes. I figure that the little 32mb card will hold easily 4 hours of speech at the faster speed and 8 hours at the slow speed. I can't say if there's a difference in size of files when using the slower speed, because we only use the faster speed, but I'd be willing to guess that these files would be larger than the slower ones - I just don't know by how much.
As for the battery life, the first two AAA batteries that came with the DPM lasted my boss almost a whole 5 day work-week worth of recording. When we put longer-life batteries in, the amount of days of recording was doubled. Taking into account my boss records an average of 5 hours of dictation a day that can be as much as 50 hours of use time between battery changes. When we were using the micro-cassette recorders, we had to change the batteries at least once, and sometimes twice in one average work-week. Moreover, when the batteries on a micro-cassette get low, they affect the sound quality of the recording (the sound would get muddy, or fuzzy or the recording would get slower, all of which made it hard to hear what was being said). However, with this DPM, the sound quality stayed totally consistently clear until the batteries went dead and then the DPM just stopped recording altogether.
Speaking of sound quality, I have to say that digital sound is absolutely worlds better than analogue sound. On the old micro-cassettes, there were times when the tapes would get worn out or old and we'd have to throw them away because you couldn't hear anything on them (not to mention the times when the tape would get stuck in the machines and they'd have to be painstakingly pried out). Not so with the digital disks. There has been absolutely no reduction in sound quality whatsoever from file #1 to file #1000 and beyond. My boss sounds exactly as he does when I hear him recording, as he does on the files. This may also be because the microphone is good. Of course, this isn't an MP3 player, so you're not looking for the type of sound quality you'd want your music to be. Still, but there's just no comparison - the digital sound quality beats the cassettes hands down.
§ The Computer Stuff: I really should talk a little bit about downloading and transcribing. There are two ways to download the files. Either you can hook the DPM up via (provided) USB cable to your computer and hit download, or you can remove the SD memory disk and download it via a card reader hooked up to your computer, and then just cut and paste them onto your hard-disk. The DPM comes with a CD-ROM of software that will help your computer recognize the files that are downloaded, and comes with a program you can use to listen to the files. All you really need which isn't provided is a set of speakers that have a socket for headphones.
Any typist who is experienced in transcription will tell you that we don't just hit play button and start typing. What we need is some kind of control over the speed, stopping and starting of the materials we're working on. This is usually done via some type of pedal, and no this DPM does not come with any kind of transcription hardware. When we purchased this particular DPM we also invested in a transcription machine. Unfortunately, while trying to set it up, it fell and the bit which connects up to the computer got bashed in and we haven't succeeded in getting it repaired. But while it was still working, we noticed that the only way to use it was to take the SD card out of the machine and transcribe directly from the card. While this doesn't seem like such a bad idea, the problem is this forces you to have more than one SD card. However, since the smaller SD cards are quite cheap these days, this shouldn't be a problem.
Regarding the foot pedals, since we had thought about going digital several years ago, at the time had purchased special transcription pedals for that system (the pedals are by Sony and can still be purchased). Those old pedals work only with WAV files, but luckily for us, the software for the DPM easily converts the DSS files into WAV files. Since our secretary doesn't like the feel of these old pedals, we just ordered a new one (made by Olympus) which will work with either WAV or DSS files, which is exactly like the comfortable foot pedal from her old micro-cassette transcriber - how convenient!
By the way, using WAV files isn't efficient since they are fairly inflated and caused no end of problems when trying to attach them to emails. We had to use a convoluted compaction system to make them small enough to send as attachments and after only a few trials my boss gave up on the whole thing. The DSS files, however, are already in a compacted form and are about 60% smaller than the same length WAV files, which means you can send more dictation via email than you could using the WAV system, and you don't have to futz with them before you send them.
Of course, you don't have to buy an expensive (and yes, they are very expensive - ours cost us US$170!) foot pedal system - but then you'll have to listen to the dictation without typing so you can click on the pause button when you've heard enough. Depending on the quantities of dictation you have to transcribe this could be anywhere between adequate and the lowest rung of hell (for us that would have been the latter). In the end, we found that using a card reader in conjunction with the DPM software to download the disks and then using the pedal program for the transcription works very well for us. Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary.
Getting back to the DPM, I have to say that the software installed very easily, and on multiple computers using the same key code, with no problems. The program is very easy to use and even our technophobe typist was able to start using it with only the tiniest bit of instruction from me. You should know that I didn't even read the book before telling her what to do, I just played around a touch and it was all very clear and self explanatory.
But, you ask, what about my boss who has been using micro-cassettes for somewhere around 40 years? Now my boss is a gadget lover, but he doesn't have any natural instincts regarding such things, and has very little patience when it comes to learning how to use the little buggers. I must say that this was terribly easy for him to pick up and start using. I did have to remind him about was to remember to turn the machine off before he removed the cards (which will prevent possible damage to any open file). I also had to teach him about hitting the EOL button. But except for those two little things, he just started using it as if he'd been using it all his life. His first trial of him downloading the files worked like a charm with no hitches. As for emailing the files to us, he seemed to have gotten the hang of it until our server went down. This frustrated him a bit but I'm sure he'll get used to it all pretty quickly.
§ The Crux of the Stuff: All in all, I have to say that I really believe we've taken a huge step forward with our dictation by getting this machine. The plusses of this machine are: the sound quality is superb and consistent; the battery life is well within reason, if not excellent; the convenience of having digital files also lets more than one person work on transcribing at the same time; the SD memory cards hold far more information than the old tapes and don't wear out, tear or get caught inside the mechanism of the machine; you can - if you want to - edit your dictation by overwriting or deleting sections on the memory cards, which you could never do on a tape, and; being able to make individual files means that you can have more than one person working on the transcription at the same time without having to switch tapes.
The major drawbacks of this machine are the fact that it doesn't come with transcription software that supports a foot pedal and the price of both this machine and any transcription hardware and software you might require.
Bottom line - if you're in need of a digital dictation/memo system, which uses memory cards (vs. one that only records on its own internal memory) this one is very good, and seems to be fairly well priced compared to other similar dictation systems I've looked at. Still, these things aren't cheap and you should expect to pay well over £150 for a really good one. Digital dictation machines that don't have memory cards do seem to be less expensive, however. So I'll say this is recommended (with four stars due to the price) but only for the serious dictaters out there.
(By the way - Ciao is wrong. This machine does NOT have Voice Activation. I believe it is the model 9360 has Voice Activation.)
~~~~~ Technical Stuff:
I did a Google search on this and saved the URL of my results at http://tinyurl.com/d53pn which may be helpful to you in looking at different sites where you can find this and similar machines, as well as transcribers and pedals.
For comparison sake, the cheapest I've found this is at http://www.euroffice.co.uk/ for £167.99, (reduced from £239.00), whereas, for instance, at http://www.dictationsupplies.com/ this costs £210.33 including VAT. ~~~~~
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