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PlusDeck2 review.

Recently received a PlusDeck2 PC Cassette Deck in for review. This innovative little Korean made device is basically a cassette drive which fits inside your PC, allowing you to copy back and forth between your hard disk and cassette tapes. Why would you want to do that, I hear you mutter? Well, for one thing it promises to make tape to hard disk conversions a lot more convenient. No more having to fiddle around at the back of your PC hooking up Hi-Fi components or your Walkman, and if you have a lot of cassettes to transfer or want to record Internet radio to play on your car cassette player, this is quite a cool way to do it.

So does it work? Simple answer: yes.

Introduction
Now I know that it sounds silly to pay 135.00 ($225.00) for an internal cassette deck for your PC, especially when we appear to live in a CD dominated universe, but that’s being a little unfair on the humble cassette. I suspect that there are still a fair few million cassette players in daily use around the world, I still own three including the one that came with my car, and most teenage bedrooms probably sport at least one player somewhere. So why not a PC cassette drive, to help move the audio around a bit more efficiently? Well that’s enough of the lacklustre justification, now to the product.

First Look
The product is supplied in a nicely presented box, complete with a small manual – of which more later – and a selection of bits and bobs to make it all work. The first thing that you’ll notice is a bag containing a sort of connect-thru port. This small gizmo is what connects the drive to the sound card via some colour coded cables included in the box. The idea is that the drive sends signals down a 20 pin ribbon cable to the port, and the port then transfers the signal through the sound card. For some reason I have not yet managed to fathom, it is also necessary to hook this connect-thru board up to your PC’s RS232 serial port, which could be problematical if you only have one and want to use it for something else like a modem.

It’s important that I mention one thing here before I forget – this is not a cheapo cheapo Far Eastern product by any means. I thought that it would be a sort of tacky car cassette affair with some basic electronic hooks to the PC, but it’s actually much better thought out than that. The cassette drive itself is a very robust and well built unit. The first clue you get is when you fire it up. It’s one of those decks which gently sucks your cassette tape in, rather than one where you ram your tape in with a joggle and a prayer. In addition it’s very very quiet. In fact if there was one thing that I would wish for it’s some sort of indicator light on the front panel of the drive to let you know when a tape is running. Because it’s hard to tell, see? (Or maybe I’ve just got a noisy PC!)

Installation
Anyway back to the installation. As long as you’re comfortable with installing CD ROM drives and the like, you’ll be fine with the PlusDeck. Insert the drive as per the manual’s sparse instructions, connect up the ribbon cable, screw in the connector port and attach the cables. That’s it. The connect-thru bracket doesn’t need a slot, just a handy hole to poke the ports through, although obviously it’s designed to fit into a PCI slot space. Once the deck is in, you fire up the computer and install the software from the CD. Again I found the installation to be a very simple 2 minute, 2 key press experience on my Windows XP test rig. The installation leaves a small PlusDeck icon on the desktop, which is your control panel for all the recording and playback functionality of the drive. Another example of a well thought out product, not only are there a full set of controls on the front of the drive, but you can do everything from the software program – including ejecting a cassette – if you can’t be bothered to bend down and fiddle around at knee level.

In operation
Pop a cassette into the drive, fire up the software via the icon and you’re ready to go. I suspect that this is the point at which some users will experience a few problems, since the manual [warning:PDF] is not very detailed at all, and the software interface is not the most intuitive I’ve ever come across. That said, there’s enough there to get started, although it may take some time to get exactly the kind of result you want. What I mean is that unless you read the manual or play around with the software interface carefully, you’ll miss the settings to choose between WAV or MP3 files, or to select recording quality. It’s not a terminal problem, but it could cause a few heckles to rise on more demanding user backs until they work it out.

It’s also important to remember that the drive is totally reliant on the Line In, so make sure that the sound settings in control panel are set so that the Line In is not muted and the volume is set at a reasonable level. This is mentioned in the documentation, but not in great detail, which again could create a problem for newcomers to the add-on multimedia world.

Update: I notice that on the Korean version of the site, there’s a new software interface being displayed which looks a lot more intuitive. Hmmm…

Recording
Well it works. I popped in a tape holding a 90 minute recording I wanted to transfer, pressed the To File button and 90 minutes later out came a 960MB WAV file. Notice that I said 90 minutes and not 45. Yep, that’s right, the program has smarts enough to do double sided recording on the fly, which in itself is an excellent feature. Real fire and forget.

I also tried recording some MP3 tracks from the hard disk onto tape and this also worked, although I could only get it to work by starting up my Winamp MP3 player, playing a track and then pressing Record. I couldn’t get the Track Listing wizard, where you select MP3 tracks to record in a specified order on both sides of the tape, to function on my system. [Update: ah…according to the online help page, this needs Winamp installed in order to work – ‘Warning it should be installed Winamp on PC’ – so clearly it does not want to work with the latest Winamp 5.0 version that I’m using. Ah well!] Nevertheless, the facility to convert from MP3 to music audio on the fly whilst recording to tape is a great feature that I suspect a lot of people could find a use for – if not for music, then for audiobooks, Internet radio and the like.

The end result recording was also surprisingly good in terms of quality. Cassettes and hiss, of course, have a sort of eternal karmic relationship, so you will probably need to keep a handy audio file editor handy to remove unwanted noise and stuff when transferring audio from cassette to digital files (I tried experimenting with the rather excellent and free Audacity editor, but I found that if you really want to do the job properly you need to use something a little more heavyweight like Steinberg’s Clean). Going the other way was no problem – the transfer/conversion from digital MP3 file to analogue cassette audio was superb in terms of quality.

Do note that you will have to put up with quite a bit of the rather strange Engrish stuff, both in the manual and during operation of the software. I think they must have used the same guy that made all his base belong to us. ‘It will be effective to change connection lines during sound output.’ Eh?

Conclusion
I was surprised at how well crafted and thought out this product is. Far from being a cheap exploitation of commodity cassette decks, it looks like a product that is genuinely aiming to fill a user need as effectively as possible. The next version of the software should definitely have some audio manipulation tools included – even a basic EQ function would be a plus – to allow for more fine tuning of the end result, but even as it stands the PlusDeck does its job well. Note that I haven’t had time yet to try out all the MP3 conversion features, maybe when I get around to it I will update this report. So the big question – is it worth 135.00 ($225.00)? Well, if you have a massive cassette collection, still own a car cassette player and hate MP3 with a vengeance, then probably yes. However, considering that you can buy a top notch Sony cassette Walkman for less than this, and hook it up within a minute or two, it’s actually a close call.

There’s definitely a benefit in having the ease of use of the control program, being able to move tracks effortlessly back and forth between tape and disk is also quite a powerful incentive I suppose. If this was a court house and I was a jury, I think I’d give it to the PlusDeck, if only because it looks great and is clearly professionally designed and manufactured. The old cassette deck may have some life left in it yet, eh?

Review unit supplied by Forge Valley.

Specifications
Size : (WxHxD) 145 x 40 x 215mm
Tape Speed : 4.75 cm/sec
Wow & Flutter : 0.09% (WRMS)
Frequency Resp : 30 – 18,000Hz
Separation : 40 dB
Signal to Noise : 55 dB
Power Supply : DC 12V / DC 5V

Red – who has written posts on The Red Ferret Journal.


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