Monday, August 13, 2007

Olympus VN-960PC Review and Tech Support

I bought an Olympus VN-960PC digital voice recorder (DVR). I liked it, and at one point I was lending it to someone to record a series of lectures for me, so I even bought a second one. I felt the sound quality was very good, battery life was very good, and so forth. What prompts me to write this post is that, at this time, I have two VN-960PCs that contain a large number of recordings. I would like to get those recordings from the DVR to the computer. Unfortunately, this is not happening. When I connect the recorder to the computer via the mini-USB cable, I get either no response or, most recently, a blue screen of death (BSOD) followed by a computer reset. I had this problem on two previous motherboards, and I see online that others have had the problem as well. It is definitely a problem with the VN-960PC and/or with its software. On one previous motherboard, the system would crash if I attempted to connect the DVR twice in a row without an intervening reboot. On the other previous motherboard, it would not crash on the second connect, but the Digital Wave Player (DWP) software supplied on CD with the recorder would also not recognize the recorder until I rebooted. On the present MSI motherboard, which has generally been a huge hassle for hardware installations, I get both: sometimes the software does not respond (even on the first connection), and sometimes it gives me a system reset. Once I knew the nature of the problem on previous systems, I was pretty much able to work around it and not have major problems. On this present system, I have succeeded in downloading from the recorder on several occasions. But right now, for some reason, and for the past few days, the computer has totally refused to work with this DVR. So it seems I need to find some workable solution. From experience, I tend to log these experiences, both for my own future reference and for others who may run into the problem; so at this point I decided to make a determined effort to solve the problem. One solution, I suppose, would be to connect the DVR's headphone jack to the computer's audio input port, and download all these messages through analog. I assume the recorder has some kind of setting that allows messages to play without interruption, one after another, in which case this approach would be something like connecting a tape recorder to the audio in and just letting it roll. I did not want to lose sound quality, however, and I did not want to invest the time that it would take to divide these many recordings back out into separate files following the download as a single audio file (and I also did not want to go through the process of manually typing out the relevant information for each file on the DVR, if I instead chose to download them one at a time through the analog connection). Another possibility was to download the audio files onto my laptop, where I had also installed the Olympus DVR software, and then copy them over to the desktop computer, where I could work with them. This kludge had a chance of being somewhat workable over the long haul, and I decided to keep it in mind, as a backup plan. But what I really wanted, of course, was to be able to connect the DVR and download my recordings, just like that, without a lot of additional mickey-mousing. As I began writing these notes, it occurred to me that perhaps both of my VN960PCs were not functioning the same -- that possibly I got a bad one. So I decided to try connecting the other one to the system. But first, just to make sure we were getting a fair comparison, I started with the one I normally used -- the one that contained most of my data and that was giving rise to the problem just described. And, what do you know, suddenly it decided to work. I emptied the recordings from the first one, and decided to test it by immediately plugging in the second one. Sure enough, I got a BSOD. It was too fast for me to read the contents of the blue screen, but I did see that it had something to do with a file beginning with the word "Driver." On reboot, I got ready with my video camera, so as to record the BSOD, and I had the tape rolling when a friend plugged in the DVR. But this time, no crash. The first DVR (on which I had added a new dummy file) called up the Olympus Digital Wave Player (ODWP) software, downloaded, asked if I wanted to delete the stuff on the DVR, and then deleted it. So, OK, I killed ODWP and had the friend plug in this second DVR. Still no crash! Instead, I got a dialog bubble, down by the taskbar, telling me that I had an unrecognized USB device. I clicked on it, and it opened a dialog saying "USB Device Not Recognized," and underneath it was a diagram of part of Device Manager, showing "Unknown Device" under Generic USB Hub. (I had the mini-USB cable running to a hub, which I suppose was another possible problem. I knew some hardware supposedly worked better if you connected it directly to a USB port on the computer.) The dialog also offered some advice: "Try reconnecting the device." So I did. And now, wouldn't you know it, ODWP offered, in its own non-native English way, to "Transfer from the recorder detected?" and I said yes. So this post had to sit for a while until the next time the problem emerged. A week later, the problem had still not reemerged, at least not to the extent of causing a crash. The worst it got was that the system would not recognize the recorder until I rebooted. Under these circumstances, I decided to finish this post with the information that I had gathered, and to reopen and repost if crashes did commence sometime in the future. At this writing, the VN-960PC was available for $32 including shipping from PriceGrabber.com. But those were refurbished units, and there were only two sellers. Users' reviews had given it four stars out of five, dinging it especially for the crummy software. Amazon.com reviewers were even more critical. One improvement, possibly in response to some of those complaints, is that Olympus now does provide some software downloads and a product support page, along with some FAQs. Also, a webpage called Area 417 offered a page of comments on how to install the software in such a way that the USB connection would work -- sometimes. Olympus itself no longer offered the item, which may indicate that they couldn't fix its problems or that they never intended to do so (and may not do so with the newer models either). That's where the matter sits at present.

4 comments:

raywood

I've found some other notes I had compiled about this recorder. They are a bit redundant, but they also add some new information to what I've said above. Note also that I posted a review at PriceGrabber (http://tinyurl.com/3cdvsq). Here are those other notes:

* * * * *

Items on my wish list for DVRs, which I am not presently finding in this unit:

* Backlit display so I can use the thing in the dark
* Option for automatic time and date stamp of recordings — automatically generated voice saying, e.g., “October 17, 3:01 PM.”
* Easy-to-use ability to trim out parts of recordings that I don’t want, and insert additional material at the ends of recordings
* Sort recordings into groups, so that e.g., items 1-4 pertain to this afternoon’s meeting (instead of items 1, 13, 28, and 53)
* I really would rather have more folders if I can get them
* Adjustable microphone sensitivity
* Fast playback

Since I compiled those notes in November 2005, I have had two years’ experience with the unit. On that basis, I add the following remarks:

* It has been a very sturdy, reliable recorder of good-quality audio
* The battery meter is useless: it stays on full until moments before the battery dies
* I would like to be able to pause the thing on playback
* When I pause during recordings, it is impatient. After just a minute or two, it shuts off. So my single event is recorded in two or more separate files, which I must then join together
* Olympus has never updated the driver or the download software

That last note deserves further comment. I have spent hours, over the past two years, attempting to install, uninstall, reinstall, and otherwise make the download software work. With one computer I had, the system would reboot if I unplugged and then re-plugged the USB download cable. I had an opportunity for just one download per reboot. With another system, it would not reboot, but it would not respond either; again, just one download per boot. With my present system, fortunately, I have no problems along these lines.

I asked Olympus for the addition of a very useful and, I think, easy-to-add feature to their software. They indicated that they would not be devoting resources to that, and they haven’t. My request had to do with timestamps. The recorder does record the actual time when you make a recording. It displays that time when you view that recording in the Olympus Digital Wave Player software. But you cannot export that timestamp. What I wanted was an option to name my downloaded WAV recordings, made on this machine, according to the time when they were made. For example, it would have been useful if I could have set a preference to have the download named “2005-12-05 13.28 01.wav” instead of “DW_A7149.wav.” The former has meaning to me; the latter does not. Moreover, the latter runs into naming conflicts. It is short for Digital Wave, Folder A, File No. 7149. When the machine gets up to A9999, it starts over again at A0001. Filename conflicts are even more likely if you are downloading from two or more of these recorders.

All said, I made a good investment when I bought this unit. But I am disappointed in Olympus’s tech support and product commitment, and I will pay attention to that when I make my next purchase.

raywood

A later post contains some information on the arrangement of files when using the VN-960PC.

UII Official

Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
thank you :)

raywood

My Amazon review of the Olympus VN-702PC illustrates some of the relative strengths of the old VN-960PC. Here's what I wrote in that review:

I got better sound and functionality on an old VN-960PC (no longer available). I don't know why Olympus can't produce another recorder as good as that one. On this unit, Olympus decided to go for slimness, which translates into excessive length. Startup takes forever -- only a few seconds, but that can feel like a long time if you're wanting to capture a thought or sound immediately. Worse, if you've tried to start it by pressing Record, you're in for another surprise: it's still not recording, even after the startup delay is past. The display has lots of information, but it also means lots of space to be scratched. It's hard to operate by feel -- you have to look at it to be sure it is doing what you want. The folder button is easily triggered in my pocket: I suddenly find I'm dictating into some other folder. There's no flashing light to indicate the recording has been paused. Since you can't tell what is happening either by touch or by the available lights, I would have liked to see something like the Timex Indiglo option, so that I could read it in the dark. It could have had more options for date and time display (e.g., current time) and font size. Relatively poor sound pickup -- it loses sounds that some older models would catch. Poor speaker quality. Playback circuit appears incapable of handling the 192kbps recording rate -- sound is very quiet, and it breaks up on playback. There seems to be an emphasis on absurdly long recording capabilities (e.g., 91 hours) at the expense of other features. The Pause button leaves an audible click every time you hit it. I would have liked an easy way to append additional notes to a previous recording.

On the positive side, the file review capability is much improved over some previous models. I like that the file creation time is visible in Windows Explorer. The option of using flash memory cards is helpful. The battery meter is improved.