How to Choose a Digital Voice Recorder

What makes a digital voice recorder so useful is its ability to connect to your PC so that you can store recordings and retrieve them at any time without having to wade through piles of microcassettes.

Recording Time
Most people shop for a digital voice recorder based on its recording time. Don't make that mistake; shop for a microphone, which determines the quality of the recordings you'll get.

The listed recording times for a digital voice recorder are the maximum that's possible, and they do not necessarily reflect all uses. To get all those hours of recording, you'll need to use your digital voice recorder on the lowest-quality recording setting, which may not be good enough for your needs. The high recording time also assumes that there is no data stored in the digital voice recorder.

Most importantly, the high recording time does not reflect the battery life. Your new digital voice recorder may feature 250 hours of recording time, but the battery life may only be 24 hours. If you're planning to record sequentially for a long period of time, look for a digital voice recorder with an AC power cord so you're not relying on batteries.

Recording Modes
A digital voice recorder will offer anywhere from three to five recording modes. Each mode is associated with a different amount of available recording time, and as recording time increases, quality decreases because the digital file is more compressed, which results in a loss of fidelity.

In general, it's best to reserve the longest recording modes for situations where there is a single speaker close to the digital voice recorder and little or no background noise. Use higher-quality recording modes for classrooms and meetings, and use the highest quality mode for live performances or events. Some digital voice recorders offer a stereo recording option; with a good microphone, this will capture top-quality audio, but it will fill the storage drive quickly. If you want high-quality audio, consider getting a separate microphone that can plug in to your digital voice recorder.

Connecting to Your PC
If you want to save and edit your recordings, you'll need a digital voice recorder that has a USB connection or cable. You'll find these on higher-end models, but some budget digital recorders lack them.

Things get a little trickier if you want to edit and share your audio. A digital voice recorder may use a proprietary recording format, such as the one developed by Sony, that can't be edited and won't work with a Mac. Check for compatibility with your computer before buying. If you're looking at a digital voice recorder that uses a proprietary recording format, make sure you can get software that will play the files on your PC.

Windows Media is a common recording format that's easy to edit and share, but WMA files aren't known for their superior sound quality. Spending a little more will get you a digital voice recorder that supports MP3 recording, which is the best choice for those who want to post their recordings on blogs or social-networking sites.

Some digital voice recorders also double as portable hard drives, allowing you to store and carry digital documents, photos and presentation files. At the high end, you can get a digital voice recorder with an LCD screen and support for music and video files, extending its value as a portable media player. Keep in mind that storing data on a digital voice recorder will reduce the amount of recording time available to you.

Some high-end digital voice recorders offer transcription features. Transcription features may be as simple as offering a speed control for low-speed playback to full-featured transcription software that will automatically transcribe your recordings.

Transcription technology works from a dictionary database. New or unfamiliar terms, such as medical or legal terms, may not be included in the transcription dictionary and may need to be entered manually. Some transcription dictionaries are programmable, with the option of adding new words that the dictionary will recognize in later transcriptions. If you're looking for a digital voice recorder for transcription, evaluate which features you truly need. Transcription software or advanced transcription recording options add considerably to the price tag. If you're efficient at transcribing, you may be better served by buying a basic digital voice recorder and transcribing the recordings yourself.

Useful Features
A stereo microphone is worthwhile for those who want to record live performances or high-quality audio, and a digital voice recorder with a detachable mic gives you more flexibility in mic placement. If you're just recording your thoughts or small meetings, a less expensive mono digital voice recorder will work well.

If you make a lot of long recordings, look for a digital voice recorder with an index button that lets you set a digital marker for important sections. This feature makes it easier to isolate the information that you need.

If you're transcribing recordings, you'll want a digital voice recorder with variable playback speeds. Another valuable feature for transcribers is voice activation, which turns the digital voice recorder on only when someone speaks. Make sure there's no startup lag with this feature so that you don't miss things you want to record.

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