Have you ever considered using your digital audio player as a key to lock and unlock your notebook? Or perhaps as a password-protected thumb drive for stashing sensitive data? Or a voice-activated recorder? Transcend uses these features to help its T.sonic 850 stand out in a very crowded field of portable audio players. The $75 price for 4GB, about half the price of the iPod nano, also doesn't hurt. But while it's a decent player for the money, overall we don't recommend it.
Appearances may not be everything, but they account for a lot. The 3.2 x 1.6 x 0.5-inch, 1.7-ounce T.sonic 850 sports a ho-hum ivory-and-silver design (an 8GB version is also available in black for $98.40) that won't win any design awards. We appreciated the soft-touch finish on the back of the player, but it's not a good sign when the circular icon in the middle of the cheap-feeling D-pad on the front doesn't line up with the Up and Down arrows.
Upon booting the player, we encountered a laughably bad, pixelated load screen that looked like it was pulled straight from a ColecoVision. It didn't do justice to the device's bright and colorful 1.8-inch (220 x 176-pixel resolution) display, which showed a more modern interface once we reached the main menu, with graphical icons for music, video, photo, and more. Unfortunately, the lame graphics return in the form of an hourglass while loading a new menu. Equally dated-looking text appears on a bar at the bottom of the screen and in some other menus.
Compatibility and Performance
Whether you're a Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows user, the T.sonic 850 lets you drag and drop your favorite tracks to the device, as it's compatible with all three operating systems. The player supports MP3, WMA (protected and unprotected), and WAV audio formats and JEPG and BMP photo formats--pretty standard fare for a sub-$100 player.
We enjoyed loud volume through the bundled earbuds, and photos looked decent, albeit with some jagginess around the edges. The T.sonic plays only MTV-formatted videos, however; you'll need to convert AVI, WMV, and other common video formats using the bundled Windows-only Transcend MTV Converter software. Converting a 3-minute home video clip took just under 3 minutes. That could be a real hassle to users with lots of video.
Using Winamp, we were able to merge The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony," purchased from Amazon MP3 with the song's lyrics, for a cool karaoke-like experience on the T.sonic 850. It lacked only the timing indicator that you'd find with real karaoke, but that's a small gripe.
We were also able to play tracks downloaded from Rhapsody without a hitch. Transcend rates the T.Sonic 850 to run for 22 hours of audio playback and 2.5 hours for video. In our day-to-day use, we saw close to 10 hours of battery life with a good mix of radio and MP3 listening as well as photo and video playback.
T.sonic 850 Unique Features
Also included in the software suite is the Windows-only Transcend Utility that gives the player enhanced functionality. Its PC Lock feature turns the T.sonic 850 into a digital key for your notebook, locking it when the T.sonic 850 is not plugged in. PC Lock prevents others from getting to your desktop by simply unplugging the T.sonic 850.
Initially, we couldn't get the player and the software to play nice together at all, but after receiving a link to download the software from Transcend's site (and discovering that the T.sonic 850 needed to be set to USB Mode, not MTP mode), we were able to get the locking feature to function properly. Would-be intruders will be presented with a full-screen Transcend logo, and a user-defined string of dialogue (we chose "BUSTED!"). We also liked the option to have the PC Lock disengage after a certain period of time, which provides a much-needed way to access your notebook should you lose or break the player.
The Partition feature is supposed to let you create a password-protected area on the device for storing personal files. Unfortunately, we couldn't get this to work, despite repeated attempts.
Other Bells and Whistles
The voice-activated recorder (which you power on by pressing the red Record button on the right side of the player) is particularly cool, as it will automatically begin recording when it registers a sound and pause itself when it can't detect noise. In a quiet room, it's a gem of a feature.
Transcend also tosses in a handy user-customizable equalizer, a static-filled recordable FM radio with 20 presets, an e-book reader (compatible only with text files), and a silicon case for protecting the T.sonic 850 from damage.
T.sonic 850 Verdict
Most sub-$100 MP3 players involve some compromises, and the T.sonic 850 is no exception; even its most useful feature was initially plagued with problems. Value-concious shoppers are better off spending a bit more on the SanDisk Sansa Fuze, which offers a better interface, more robust file support, and expandable memory.