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Take a memo: digital Voice recorders

It's probably the last device with cassette tapes you have left in your home: your old tape recorder. It's also probably the one you're least attached to, ever since the time you found you had captured 25 minutes of the coughing colleague next to you and couldn't make out a word of the seminar speaker _ and you didn't take notes.

That's why many people are moving to digital recorders. I tested some of the leading digital voice recorders and software, with an emphasis on the units themselves: their recording capabilities, sound quality and ease of use. Their software allows you to download voice files to a computer. Some also include voice-recognition programs, which turn speech into text, but these aren't at the stage yet where they can transcribe complicated recordings.

I focused on two digital recorders that are new this year: the Panasonic RR-US351, at a suggested price of $129.95; and the Olympus DM-20, which is priced at $289. Both units run on two AAA batteries.

What's nice about the digital recorders is that every new segment of recorded sound is added sequentially, so it's impossible to accidentally record over anything. Each time you hit the record button, a new file is created, which can then be moved from folder to folder to separate, say, meetings from personal notes. Playback starts at the beginning of a take, with no rewind. Also, the devices date each recording and give its length. Most important, the sound they reproduce is very clear.

I tested the devices during hours of interviews: in a home, in a silent conference room, in a restaurant and at an open-air cafe. I didn't lose a word, even with a lot of background noise.

The Panasonic RR-US351 has a clean, uncrowded look, though it could use a bigger "recording" light. It is 4.2 by 1.9 inches and a half-inch thick, and weighs about 2 ounces with batteries.

This recorder can store 3.5 hours of sound on its long-play setting, but just over half an hour in the high-quality mode. Recordings can be organized into 99 sound files in each of four folders, labeled A, B, C and D.

The Panasonic seems designed to have its sound files played back on a computer, since the playback functions of the recorder itself are very basic. There is no repeat feature or any way to set markers in a long recording. And the package doesn't come with earphones.

Its plug-in microphone is a small, black clip-on rectangle designed to attach to a pocket or collar.

The Olympus DM-20 gives you a whopping 44 hours and 45 minutes of recording at its LP setting, and just under nine hours at high quality. It also has somewhat better sound than the Panasonic. These factors account for the big difference in price.

It has five folders that hold 199 files each. You can rename a folder, although it's tedious to through an on-screen alphabet.

The Olympus also can store and play MP3 music files. It's a bit slimmer and longer than the Panasonic at 1.6 by 4.3 inches by half-an-inch, and feels more solid at 3.5 ounces. The mic is a silver clip-on cylinder the size of a forefinger and has basic function buttons.

This recorder makes it a cinch to transcribe notes from the unit: It has comfortable earphones, and the ability to set a repeat cycle for replay of a segment until you get it down pat.