Meet the Insignia Pilot- Best Buy’s latest budget DAP which was covertly introduced late last year (seriously, not even a press release?). The Pilot is the successor to the Insignia NS-DV series of players, which gained somewhat of a cult following on the Internet, particularly in our own forums. The Pilot sports a 2.4” 262K color display and is available in both 4GB, and 8GB capacities. The Pilot also offers a few features which rival those of more expensive players such as Bluetooth support, an SDHC card slot, RDS support, video-out, and dual headphone jacks.
The Pilot is, however, still a budget DAP, and probably won’t be making your Zune wielding friends jealous any time soon. But, if you’re looking for a solid no-frills player for every-day use, the Pilot might just be for you.
The Pilot comes bundled with standard-issue MP3 player accessories: earbuds, USB cable, software CD, and a quick-start guide. Notably absent from the package is a vinyl protective case, which Insignia included with the NS-DV.
Being a store brand player, custom third party accessories for the Pilot are scarce. DLO and Init (another Best Buy brand), both make a couple of cases for it, but they aren’t exactly something I would want to be seen with. Additionally, Best Buy carries Insignia brand Bluetooth speakers.
Design’s beauty as they say is in the eye of the beholder, but honestly the Pilot looks pretty “stock”. The face is made of a glossy scratch-resistant plastic, while the rear is made up of a semi-matte black plastic.
The Pilot looks and feels fragile, but after throwing the player in my pocket with my keys, accidentally throwing it to the ground, and watching it fly across the interior of my car during a last-minute turn, the player still looks nearly as good as new. However, the face is not scratch proof and after 4 months of use, it does indeed show the typical haze of minor surface scratches most screens eventually get.
The image quality of the Pilot’s 2.4” 18-bit LCD is identical to the LCD in the NS-DV, if not slightly better. Colors are vivid with no major color banding to be seen. The Pilot uses an MVA LCD, so viewing angles are exceptional. You can look at the display from almost any angle with very little image degradation. The only thing that really bothered me was the abnormally large amount of backlight bleeding from the right edge of the display. It’s especially obvious on dark screens, even if brightness is set to minimum.
User Interface / Controls
The Pilot’s controls are similar to those of the NS-DV. On the face you have the play/pause button, the menu button, and a mechanical 4-way click wheel. Along the perimeter of the wheel are several tiny transparent bumps for grip. Following in Sandisk’s footsteps, the bumps glow blue when the wheel is turned or a button pressed. They also function as a charging indicator for when the Pilot is charging while powered off.
The wheel behaves much like the one on the NS-DV. It has a detent for tactile feedback while rotating and the Pilot has scroll acceleration making traversal of those large libraries a piece of cake. My only complaint about the wheel is it’s not very easy on the thumb due to the roughness of the bumps.
Absent from the Pilot’s face is a power button. Following the trend of other MP3 player manufacturers, Insignia integrated the power switch into the the hold switch at the top of the player. This switch is also used to force the Pilot into MSC mode, as well as reset it if things go awry (which they will). Also at the top of the player is an interesting little lever used to rate songs by rocking it left or right and if pressed it will bring up a context menu. Pressing it can also toggle between certain settings, or will do absolutely nothing depending on where you are in the GUI.
Those who have used the Insignia NS-DV should feel somewhat at home with the Pilot’s GUI. The function icons in the main menu are again laid out in a circular pattern, but if that’s not to your liking there’s also a “matrix” option which lays the icons out in grid form. In the music library, you will find the same “tab” interface found on the NS-DV. Except this time, instead of clearly labeling the various tabs with text, they used little cryptic icons which only have a clear meaning to the person who designed them. Fortunately, if you actually move to the tab you think you want, the icon will turn into a text label. The same interface is used in the Settings menu, which makes navigating this menu even more of a chore.
I found the GUI to be quite aggravating to navigate, mainly because they completely changed the control scheme for the menu system. In the library for example, to drill down through an album you must now press the ‘down’ button, as opposed to the more logical and commonly used ‘right’ button. A side effect of this is you can no longe
r scroll through the library one line at a time using the up/down buttons; you must use the wheel to scroll. This can prove to be quite frustrating while in your car, for instance, when you need control precision only the up/down buttons can provide. And, inevitably out of habit, you will press the ‘right’ button to go deeper through an album which will cause you to move to a completely different tab, losing your place in the previous tab.
Insignia hasn’t always been the best at designing intuitive user interfaces for their players and the Pilot unfortunately is no exception. It’s full of several little graphical and control inconsistencies from function to function. For example, in the folder browser they flipped the control scheme around yet again. You use the left/right buttons to drill up/down through folders, and you can use the up/down buttons to scroll a line at a time… Why Insignia do you torture me so?
Insignia includes a Best Buy badged version of Real’s Rhapsody, awkwardly dubbed the “BBDMS” (Best Buy Digital Music Store). You will find many-a-review of Rhapsody on the internet, so I won’t bore you with another one here.
The Pilot’s firmware contains “Rhapsody DNA”. This basically means if you use Rhapsody to purchase, or subscribe to music you have the ability to listen to Rhapsody channels on the player, read the artist’s bio, and can see exactly what day your licenses will expire. You also get to see a super cool ”Welcome to Rhapsody” message on every single start up.
The lithium-ion battery is rated for up to 25 hours of playback time for music and 5 hours for video. In the real world, however, while playing a mix of DRM’d and non DRM’d 160Kbps tracks with light LCD usage, I found it came closer to18 hours which is still very good. The video rating is not too far off; the battery called it quits after about 4 hours of repeating a 168Kbps 30FPS .wmv clip at full brightness.
One thing that keeps me up at night is the fact that while designing the Pilot, Insignia took one of the best features of the NS-DV: a rechargeable battery pack which could be quickly removed and replaced without any tools and tossed it out the window. While the battery is still user-replaceable, they clearly only intended for it to be opened when the battery fails 2 years down the road. The battery cover of the Pilot is now held on by a single screw which is “hidden” behind a sticky black piece of vinyl, which almost looks like it was a last-minute solution. But I do have to give Insignia credit for still making the battery user-accessible at all.
Insignia has always been pretty good about releasing new firmware. They are always fixing bugs and adding features. Their MP3 team frequently reads the feature request list over in our Insignia forum to help them improve their next release.
Audio over Bluetooth works well on the Pilot . Pairing it with my BT headset was a very painless process. The Pilot supports AVRCP, so it can be remotely controlled if your headphones support it. Sound quality is very good for Bluetooth. I did immediately notice one oddity though; occasionally the audio pitch seems to slowly bend up or down slightly for no apparent reason. The Pilot only supports the A2DP and AVRCP profiles, so don’t expect anything fancy like file transfers over Bluetooth.
The radio interface is very easy to figure out and use. Reception is above average; all local stations came in clear and it held a good lock on the stereo signal.
The Pilot features RDS (radio data service). Currently, there is only a small handful of high-end players on the market which support RDS, which makes finding it on a budget player like the Pilot a very pleasant surprise. With RDS you can see info like artist names, song titles, and station call letters on screen, provided the station is broadcasting it of course. This is great for the few who still use the radio to discover new music. It also has an option to save artist/song info to a text file so if you want to search for that artist/song online later, it’s simply a matter of copying and pasting.
The Pilot can save up to 20 presets. It also has an auto-tune feature which will populate those preset slots with the clearest stations it finds. You can record from the radio by holding the play/pause button. Oddly, there are no bitrate/format options, so you are stuck with 160Kbps WMA.
The Pilot follows Insignia’s tradition of substituting a built-in microphone for a line-in jack, which in my opinion is far more useful anyway. Incoming audio can be monitored live over the main headphone jack, as well as over the Bluetooth connection when not recording. The play/pause button is used to start/stop recording and recording can also be triggered remotely over Bluetooth should the need arise.
It can record in either WMA or PCM, quality choices are “Low”, “Medium”, “High”, and “Highest”. Recording quality was excellent, at PCM “Highest” the recording I made was indistinguishable from the source material. The Pilot also gives you the ability to amplify or attenuate input levels. There are also two VU meters to assist you in monitoring input levels of the left and right channels.
Hidden behind an incredibly difficult-to-open rubber door is an SDHC compatible SD slot. Insignia went with old school SD instead of microSD which is great because SDHC cards are much cheaper and way more universal. My only gripe is how difficult it is to install a card; you really need to push it in far to get it to ‘click’. Those of you with short fingernails may even need the assistance of a blunt object to push the card in.
The Pilot can play both protected and unprotected audio from an SD card, in addition to video and photos. All playable files are seamlessly integrated into the library, which unfortunately means indexing times can be painfully slow depending on the size and amount of files on the card. It took about 25 seconds to index the various files on my full 2GB card, so I would imagine a full 16GB SDHC card would almost be unbearable. Especially since the Pilot assumes something has changed and re-indexes the card on every start-up.
The Pilot features a rather unique lever which is used solely for rating music. When moved to the right, it will add a star and if moved to the left will take one away. But I’m puzzled by the fact that after all this trouble, the Pilot offers no way to utilize the ratings; there’s no way to sort music by rating. The Pilot’s ratings system was obviously only intended to help you sort music in Rhapsody. If you don’t use Rhapsody, the lever will probably be of little use to you.
While I have to commend Insignia for trying to greatly simplify the task of rating music, I find it hard to believe that there are users so frequently rating their music that it warranted a physical switch. I believe the switch could have been put to much more innovative uses, or at the very least turned into a dedicated volume controller.
Context menu button
One of the biggest complaints I had about the NS-DV was the complete lack of a context menu, forcing you to travel into the settings menu to enable simple, frequently-used options like shuffle and repeat. The Pilot now has a context menu, which can be brought up by pressing the rating lever straight down.
Insignia had the right idea with the button, but they didn’t quite follow through with the functionality. First, as far as I could tell, there are only context menus in two functions: the radio and the “Now Playing” screen. You still need to travel to the settings menu if, for example, you wan
t to change the photo slide show duration or want to set a video to repeat. Second, rather than placing shuffle/repeat options directly within the “Now Playing” context menu it merely contains a link to the settings menu. So in the end it requires nearly as many button presses to enable shuffle or repeat as the NS-DV did.
At the request of NS-DV users, Insignia added a text viewer to the Pilot. But I think somewhere along the line something went horribly wrong. It’s buggy, ugly and feels like it was just thrown in so they could say the Pilot has one. To my surprise, it does actually read .txt files. Plus it’ll remember where you were if you return the same file later.
MSC/MTP OS/User Selectable
The Pilot is both MSC and MTP compatible. It automatically selects which protocol to use depending on what operating system it communicates with. You can also force it into MSC mode for all operating systems by either changing the “Connection type” setting to “File and folder”, or temporarily by sliding the hold switch on before connecting it.
Bookmarks are created by pressing the context menu button and selecting “Add Bookmark”, but you can only create 12 bookmarks. Bookmarks can be accessed through the music library, or by pressing the context menu button again. The only problem is when returning to a bookmarked song for example, the player isolates that song from the rest of the album so when it’s done playing the song, it simply stops instead of going to the next track. This is especially annoying when returning to a bookmarked MP3 audiobook which is separated into several files.
This is something I wish more players included: the Pilot has the option to start playing when connected to a charger, and pause when disconnected. This is extremely useful if you use the Pilot in a car situation. Assuming you have it connected to a switched 12v outlet, when you turn the key off, the Pilot will pause and eventually turn itself off. When you turn the key on, the Pilot will turn on and resume playing where it left off.
Worth noting: the Pilot allows you to choose between 5 different preset backgrounds; “Navy Blue”, “Yellow Green”, “Deep Magenta”, “Dark Gray” and “Blue Mist”. Photos cannot be turned into backgrounds.
The Pilot can only display JPEG images, but they can be in just about any resolution. The photo menu only shows 3 photo thumbnails at a time, which I find annoying. It would be nice if there was a grid option so you could look further ahead. Image quality is excellent; at times it can have you forgetting it’s only an 18-bit display. You can rotate the image 90° and zoom the image. This time they also included a slideshow function, but in the typical Insignia fashion it’s buried deep in the settings menu under ‘Time’. Slidshow duration is adjustable from 2 seconds, up to 1 minute.
The Pilot natively supports MPEG4 and WMA videos at a resolution of 320×240. It’s picky about bitrates, so chances are good you will need to use the included Arcosft Media Converter to convert your videos to the proper format. At 30 FPS, videos look very good, or as good as they can on a 2.4” display. Videos cannot be bookmarked, but it does keep track of where you left off in multiple videos at once, which is pretty cool.
The Pilot can output video at 320×240 over the main headphone jack. It can output in either 4:3 or letter-boxed 16:9 and has 3 sharpness settings (“Natural” “Soft” and “Sharp”). It also supports a few different TV systems if you travel out of the country. The video quality is what you’d expect 320×240 video stretched to fit a large TV screen would be. It’s not unwatchable by any means, but it certainly won’t be fooling you into thinking you’re watching a DVD. It actually looks very close to a good quality VHS tape.
The Pilot also supports Audible files purchased through Audible’s website. Audible files are separated from the rest of your music collection and placed in the “Audible Book” function. Unlike the NS-DV, the Pilot will remember where you left off you do something else. Audible files can also bookmarked.
You can also force your MP3 audiobooks or podcasts to appear in the audible menu by placing them in the Audible folder on the player. By doing that, the Pilot will also remember where you left off if you decide to break off from a podcast and listen to music for a while.
The Pilot can read .pla as well as .m3u playlists. But it won’t see .m3u lists unless transferred over in MSC mod. You can also create one on-the-go list. Unfortunately, the on-the-go list can’t be saved and will be lost if you use another function or play a song without adding it to the on-the-go list first.
Sound quality is very similar to that of the NS-DV; though not quite isn’t quite as warm overall. Highs are clear, and mids are detailed. However, the bottom end is bit lacking and probably won’t satisfy the bass heads out there. It’s certainly no high end player, but the sound quality is more than acceptable and should satisfy the ears of all but the most extreme audio enthusiasts.
There is no system noise to be heard with the Pilot. One thing that has always impressed me about Insignia’s DAPs is the complete absence of system noise, even with sensitive IEMs. There is nothing I hate more than having to listen to the hiss of a poorly designed amplification circuit, or actually being able to hear a song being loaded from memory when a tack is changed.
Audio enhancements consist of five EQ presets: “Normal”, “Rock “, “Jazz”, “Classical” and “Pop”. Unfortunately, Insignia didn’t get the EQ presets right this time around either. They are just as useless on the Pilot as they were on the NS-DV. All of the presets introduce an unacceptable amount of distortion into the audio. Fortunately, it also includes a 5-band custom EQ, which allows you to adjust the 60hz 300hz 1k 6k and 14k bands.
Insignia is definitely on the right track with the Pilot. The hardware side of it is solid. It also has a very nice feature-set for a low-end player; you’d be hard pressed to find another player in this price range with Bluetooth, RDS support, SDHC support, video-out and line-in recording. However, the user interface needs work, especially if Insignia intends for the Pilot to compete with the latest offerings from current heavyweight MP3 player makers. I don’t care how good the hardware is; a user interface can make or break a player and I’m afraid it almost broke this one. The unintuitive and inconsistent controls, combined with the somewhat difficult-to-navigate menus can make the Pilot very frustrating to use at times.
Bottom line is despite the interface flaws, the Pilot is still an excellent player. Especially for those who are tight on cash but still want a player with premium features. And software issues can always be ironed out with firmware updates.
- Good feature set
- Bluetooth support
- SDHC support
- Above average LCD
- User interface needs improvement
- LCD shows moderate backlight bleeding
- Some features are poorly implemented
- SD cards are very difficult to insert into the SD slot