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.