(CNET.com) -- We're always on the lookout for an inexpensive MP3 player with a well-rounded set of features. There's no disputing that the RCA Opal is a great value and one of the only players to offer photo and video playback for under $80.
Unfortunately, the Opal is held back by a confusing interface.
The RCA Opal looks like a miniature plastic body board, with its slightly tapered, rounded edges, and measures 3.5 inches tall by 2 inches wide by a slender 0.25 inches thick.
The headphone jack is located at the very top, while a small, yet usable, hold switch is found on the middle of the right edge of the player.
The Opal's back is nondescript, except for two holes for the microphone and reset switch (with which we soon became familiar).
On the front of the Opal you'll find its 1.5-inch color OLED screen, a menu button, and a four-way rocker pad that controls volume in the vertical direction and track skipping in the horizontal direction. A play/pause button is located in the middle of the four-way pad.
The navigation controls look similar to the iPod's click wheel, but functionally the Opal is controlled very differently. Instead of using the central button to drill down into menus and a menu key to back out of them, the Opal assigns these functions to the track skip buttons.
For instance, if you navigate to the Music icon on the Opal's main menu and press the central play button, it will begin playing your entire music collection. If you want to view your music collection sorted by artist, album, title, genre, or year, you'll need to use the track skip buttons to step through the different folders.
The same cannot be said, however, for the photo or video menus. Instead, pressing the play button on the Photo or Video menu icons will take you to a submenu of selections. This inconsistency left us confused, and the dedicated Menu button also had us scratching our heads. In some cases, no amount of hitting or holding the Menu button would take us back to the Opal's main screen.
The Opal is loaded with a relatively attractive array of features for its $75 price tag. RCA packs in support for MP3, WMA, Audible, and DRM-protected WMA (including subscription music content). Voice recording and line-input recording are also included, as well as a JPEG photo viewer and support for video content (see the "Performance" section below).
The Opal connects over USB 2.0, using a proprietary cable that plugs into the player's headphone jack. Once connected, the Opal had no problem being detected by Windows Media Player, and transferring music files was a snap.
One of the biggest surprises we found was the above-average earphones included with the player. The iPod-styled white earphones offered full sound and a comfortable fit -- a rare find in a sub-$100 MP3 player.
The Opal's sound quality was average for its price. The five selectable EQ enhancement presets ranged from unremarkable to unusable. Using our Ultrasone HFI-700 test headphones with the Opal's EQ set flat, we were unable to detect any noticeable audio degradation. Voice recording quality was predictably thin but useful. Line-input recording quality was remarkably good, using the 2-foot, male-to-male minijack cable included as an accessory.
Unfortunately, because the line-input function uses the Opal's headphone jack connection, there's no way to monitor your recording while it's happening. Even worse, there's no on-screen visual feedback to indicate whether the Opal is actually receiving any input. If you're going to use feature, you'll just have to keep your fingers crossed.
As photo viewers go, the Opal makes it simple -- just drag and drop. As long as the photos are in JPEG format, there's no need to convert or resize. The Opal does not use preview icons for photos, so you have to browse your collection by file name, or skip through each photo like a slide show.
Video is not the Opal's strong suit. Arguably, including video support for a 1.5-inch screen is inherently silly, but that hasn't stopped manufacturers before. The Opal doesn't offer native playback of common video files such as MPEG, AVI, or WMV. Instead, you'll need to boot up the bundled RCA SMV Video Converter application to shoehorn videos on to the Opal.
We tested the video application on a Windows Media Center computer with mixed results. Most MPEG and WMV files converted with no problems and minimal transcoding time, but our collection of AVI files gave us error messages.
RCA's software team went over the issue with us and was not able to replicate the problem on their end -- so maybe our computer needs a tune-up. Regardless, the whole converting process is too much trouble for the reward of watching cropped and compressed videos on a 1.5-inch screen. For a product like the Opal, including an FM radio feature in lieu of video playback would have been much more practical.
The RCA Opal, however, is not a bad product. The inclusion of a color screen, decent earphones, video support, subscription music compatibility, and a battery rated at 15 hours is commendable for an MP3 player under $80. Still, it's not a product we would feel good recommending. Out of the box, our Opal froze on a number of occasions, requiring us to use the player's pinhole reset switch.
A firmware upgrade has seemingly fixed this problem, but when you add in the proprietary USB cable, lack of an FM radio, and awkward interface, the Opal might be more trouble than it's worth. If you can live without photo and video support, a player such as SanDisk Sansa Express is a preferable, all-around budget player. If you want to do your photos and videos justice, for just a little more money the Creative Zen V Plus can't be beat for under $100. E-mail to a friend