Brando USB MP3 Pen + FM Radio + Voice Recorder

This device is Brando’s 21st-century equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife, as it contains a raft of semi-related features in a compact package:

It’s a 1GB USB thumb drive!
It’s an MP3 player!
It’s a voice recorder!
It’s (supposedly) an FM radio!
It’s a pen!
It’s a floor wax!
It’s a dessert topping!

(floor wax and dessert topping sold separately)

Physically, it resembles a fat-barrel pen:


Photos courtesy of Brando

The two halves unscrew, exposing the USB connector:

In the package comes a tiny instruction manual, a USB extension cable, an unlabeled mini-CD, a USB-AC adapter (for charging the device away from a computer), and earbuds – all packaged nicely in a gift tin.

This device is a classic “jack of all trades/master of none”, in that while it does a wide variety of things, it doesn’t do any of them terribly well. Let’s start with its most refined, best implemented feature:

It’s a Pen

The pen writes fairly well. I have slightly above average hand size, and I could hold and write with it fairly comfortably, though I’m not a huge fan of fat pens. People will smaller hands may find it a bit unwieldy. That’s in part because it’s a it heavy, due to a chrome and brushed aluminum construction.

The ink cartridge can be removed and theoretically replaced. However, it’s unclear if replacement cartridges are available and what styles/sizes would necessarily be compatible. It would be nice if the manual would indicate replacement options (e.g., “compatible with Cross such-and-so pen refills”), but the manual is silent on the issue…a theme which I’ll come back to repeatedly.

Next up:

It’s a Voice Recorder

Through a series of button presses, the device will record your voice through a microphone located at the end of the pen, above the buttons. The recordings are saved to flash memory as WAV files, and so they should be compatible with all flavors of computer (Windows, Mac, Linux). Four minutes of recording time takes up about 1 MB of memory, so if the flash is otherwise empty, you could hold up to ~4000 minutes of recording time, which is a minor eternity.

The microphone picks up a voice fairly well when the pen is held close to the face. It might not hold up as well for recording at a distance, such as a classroom lecture. I tested mostly as a note-taker while driving, and it had no problems overcoming road noise.

To listen to the recordings, you can either use your computer when you use the device as a USB thumb drive (see below), or you can plug headphones into the 2.5mm jack at the top of the pen. Since it’s a 2.5mm jack, you can’t use ordinary headphones, which use a 3.5mm jack. A mobile phone headset would work, as do the earbuds supplied with the device.

However, all is not perfect. There’s no way to tell the device what the date and time is, so the recording files get stamped with some random time in the past, so you can’t use the file time to tell you when the recording was made. And, since the recordings themselves just get sequentially numbered, the file names aren’t going to mean much either. So, you’ll want to plug the device in as a USB thumb drive and archive your recordings relatively frequently, or else you’ll just have a mass of unidentified WAV files to deal with. Plus, there’s no way to tell how much battery charge you have remaining, and no way to replace the battery – you just have to recharge it via a USB port (or the included AC adapter).

And then…

It’s a USB Thumb Drive

As a thumb drive, it’s rather unremarkable. 1GB capacity is good, but not top-of-the-line nowadays. Recordings from the voice recorder show up under a top-level RECORD folder.

There are two drawbacks to its use as a thumb drive:

1.It is slow. It’s difficult to get good accurate times, due to operating system considerations, but I got 1.0MB/sec for reading data off the drive, compared to 7.9MB/sec for PNY Attache 512MB thumb drive. You’ll feel this most when loading up the device with MP3 files for playback (see below).

2.When you detach the drive from the PC, the device stays on. “On” means it is playing back music, or ready to record a voice. When on, the device draws down the internal rechargeable battery. Hence, if you’re not paying attention, you’ll drain the battery just by unplugging the device and forgetting about it. This counterbalances the fact that, when plugged into a USB jack, the device recharges.

Moving along…

It’s an MP3 Player

Volume is surprisingly good through earbuds, and playback time is significant (6-7 hours at reasonable volume). However, it only plays back in sequential mode, not shuffle play. Considering the relative success of the iPod Shuffle as an LCD-less MP3 player, you would think Brando would have gone with shuffle-only instead of sequential-only.

Also, the 2.5mm audio jack will be much more of a problem here, as you’ll either need a 2.5mm-to-3.5mm adapter (to use your favorite headset or earbuds) or you’ll need to find a 2.5mm set that you like. The earbuds that come with the device, while functional, aren’t exactly top-notch.

Finally…

It’s an FM Radio. Maybe.

The manual says that FM radio functionality is optional, so it may be this unit lacks the radio. Or, it could be that I couldn’t figure out how to tune without a display. Or, it could be that it doesn’t pick up FM signals well and it couldn’t latch onto a station. Regardless, I couldn’t get this feature to work.

Miscellaneous

The mini-CD is not mentioned in the manual, and it includes no README or other documentation. Taking a PC’s life into my hands, I installed the Windows software, which turned out to be a utility for reformatting the thumb drive plus some sort of audio conversion utility. Without any clear idea how to use them, I left them alone.

Because this charges via USB, anything that charges USB devices should be able to recharge this one as well. This means if you have a car adapter, solar charger, or the like, you should be able to use them here.

Summary

This device has many features in a compact package, and some people might find the sheet set of capabilities worth the price tag. However, it’s not going to join my stable of gizmos:

My cell phone is a better MP3 player
I already have a smattering of thumb drives
I’d rather have a voice recorder with an LCD display and replaceable batteries
I have plenty of pens

 

Product Information

Price:68.0
Manufacturer:Brando USB
Retailer:Brando USB
Pros:
  • Compact
  • Solid construction
Cons:
  • Inadequate documentation
  • No shuffle mode on MP3 player
  • 2.5mm headset jack
Posted in: Audio, Video, TV Gear, Gear

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Julie October 19, 2006, 9:54 pm

    Post your comments on the Brando USB MP3 Pen + FM Radio + Voice Recorder review.

    http://www.the-gadgeteer.com/review/brando_usb_mp3_pen_fm_radio_voice_recorder

    Just click the POST REPLY button on this page.

    1
  • isobutane October 20, 2006, 9:25 pm

    Looks like a cool device…if only it had some sort of small LCD status screen, to give you battery status, memory status, and other system info. What is the estimated battery life when recording audio? Can you pause a recording? Does it get stored as one audio file, or does each press of the record button start a new file? How’s the playback quality of voice memos?

    Mark

    2
  • mmurphy000 October 21, 2006, 12:05 pm

    I didn’t try measuring recording duration. Off the cuff, I think powering a microphone would take no more power than driving a set of earphones, so I suspect it’ll last 6+ hours. But, that’s a guess.

    You can stop recording, but not pause. Each separate recording gets its own file, sequentially numbered, with invalid dates/times (since the device doesn’t know what time it is and there doesn’t appear to be a way to tell it).

    Voice recordings sound fine playing back through the earphones. Note, however, that since you have limited control over what’s playing back, it will be rather difficult to use the device as both an MP3 player and a voice recorder. For example, you’ve been jogging, listening to music, you come up with a brainstorm, you stop the player, record the idea, then want to play the idea back…except that, from the player’s standpoint, you’re in the middle of your MP3s. You now get the joy of pressing the next-track button a zillion times to get to your recording. If you’re only using the device for voice, then this is not significantly worse than, say, an Olympus voice recorder. It’s when you dump few hundred MP3 tracks on there that sequential-only navigation becomes a problem.

    3

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