Living the life aquatic? For anyone who spends a lot of time frolicking in the surf or swimming laps in the pool, a waterproof MP3 player/FM radio might be just the ticket. Oregon Scientific's MP120 promises to keep the tunes coming at depths of up to one metre. This player even floats, so it's less likely to end up at the bottom of the sea. However, before you start dancing with the fishes, be prepared for awkward controls, a lack of DRM WMA support and poor sound from the included earbuds.
Compact enough for a magician to do his sleight-of-hand stuff on, the rugged, rubberised MP120 looks ready to take a beating -- on land or otherwise. Its black, membrane-style control panel consists of six extremely stiff buttons. Plan on memorising the functions, as the tiny, embossed labels are also black, making them difficult to identify except under the brightest lights. Thankfully, the controls aren't difficult to remember, though they're hard to press. And you may need glasses to make out the sharp but tiny text on the MP120's minuscule LCD. Its bright blue backlight improves readability considerably, but we still found ourselves squinting most of the time.
Oregon Scientific's earbuds don't plug into the MP120's headphone jack in the traditional sense; rather, they screw onto the bottom of the player to form a waterproof seal. While it's possible to tighten the connector's oversize screw with a thumbnail, you may end up needing a coin or a screwdriver to loosen it. You'll need to, because the MP120's USB 2.0 port also resides beneath the connector, which must be removed before you can use the former.
This is a hassle not only for file transfers but also for charging the player. There's no AC adaptor; the MP120's internal battery recharges via its USB connection. That means you'll have to remove and reconnect the earbuds on a regular basis -- a chore that quickly becomes annoying.
The MP120 supports MP3 and WMA files but not DRM WMA -- don't plan on using it to play tunes purchased from your favourite online music store. You can, however, listen to your favourite FM radio stations. As a radio, the MP120 can save up to 30 presets, and it automatically scans for stations the first time you switch to FM mode. Like most flash-based MP3 players these days, the MP120 requires no special drivers, meaning you can plug it into any PC so that it doubles as a removable storage device. Songs and files alike can be dragged and dropped to the player.
In our tests, the MP120 managed a data-transfer rate of only 1.51MB per second -- definitely on the slow side for a USB 2.0 interface. Oregon says the player runs for 10 hours between charges; in our tests, it came close, lasting 9.3 hours, which is on the measly side for a flash player.
We took the Oregon Scientific MP120 to the local pool, clipped it to our CNET bathing suit and took it for a swim. Although it operated perfectly while immersed, the earbuds seriously diminished the experience. They sounded tinny, flat and weak, and their rubber, pluglike tips didn't create a waterproof seal in our ear canals. Thus, as we submerged and surfaced, audio alternated between muffled and loud. One could argue that sound quality isn't a crucial consideration when you're getting wet and wild, but we found the frequent tonal changes distracting.
If you plan to hit the gym before hitting the pool, you can remove the rubber tips from the earbuds and enjoy slightly improved audio, but the larger-than-average 'buds get uncomfortable in a hurry. You should plug in your usual headphones of choice, as we did. Sound quality went from mediocre to stellar. Of course, without the waterproof connector, the MP120 becomes an ordinary MP3 player, unable to get wet safely.
Given the MP120's reasonable price and watertight design, we're willing to overlook the stiff buttons and the lack of DRM support. Even the screw-on earbud connector is an understandable concession. But the AM-quality audio that dribbles from those earbuds makes the Oregon Scientific MP120 hard to recommend.
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Nick Hide