Ready Player One
With such a vast smorgasbord of features you’d be excused for thinking the M11 is much more than your average music player. Still, there are many people that are interested in a DAP for one reason only – music playback. If you’re one of those people you might want to skim over this next section, or jump straight to the next one, where I’ll specifically talk about sound quality.
One of the first indications of the processing power and software agility of a modern DAP is bootup time. The M11 is ready to use in less than 10 seconds, from power on to playback. By comparison that’s faster than my iPhone 7, which has a more powerful processor, and indicates – at the very least – performance parity with my smartphone.
On first bootup you get to choose your preferred language (unlike some very expensive DAPs that limit your language choice to the sales region – I’m looking at you Lotoo and Sony). You can then choose whether you want to use the traditional Android button-based navigation bar or a series of smart gestures (I chose the latter), complete with a short interactive tutorial on which gestures do what.
As a side note, the M11 is the first I’ve used extensively, to the point where I now miss some of the smart gestures used to navigate around the M11’s UI. No amount of upward swipes on the iPhone will take me to the home screen, and side-swiping my iPhone doesn’t take me back a step – very disappointing!
Once you’re up and running, the M11 gives you an initial selection of three apps (FiiO Music, ES Explorer and Google Chrome) in a dock-like array, with a status bar at the top of the screen and smaller icons for indicators such as volume level, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth status, battery level and the current time.
Depending on your settings, you’ll also have a larger digital clock showing time and date on the main screen. A side-swipe or press of the middle dock icon reveals a second page with the rest of the preloaded apps, which in my case (my M11 was imported directly from China) contained repeats of the dock apps and a few Asian music streaming services.
What you won’t see is the very different array of icons, wallpaper and colourful apps in the screenshots above and below, because almost as soon as I fired up the M11, I began customising it to my liking.
Without Google Play, there are two ways to load apps onto the M11: sideload them by downloading the .apk files from various sources (direct from FiiO or from apk resource websites like apkpure.com), and by using third-party app stores like Amazon, Aurora and APKPure. With the latest iteration (1.0.4) of the M11 firmware, FiiO have also provided their own app store ‘app’ called FiiO Applications, although for now this is limited to a few streaming services like Tidal and other apps you’re better off sourcing elsewhere.
Speaking of firmware, the M11 makes full use of its Wi-Fi capabilities for ‘over the air’ (OTA) downloads. A popup notification lets you know when a new firmware version is available, and a few clicks gets the download process underway. In my experience this is seamless and relatively fast, although a weak Wi-Fi signal or slow Internet access could stall the upgrade process and make you start from scratch. Best be prepared to leave your M11 in a strong signal area and enjoy some coffee and biscuits in the 20 minutes you have to wait for the update to complete. Annoyingly, the M11 won’t update to the latest firmware in one step, but instead forces you to upgrade to every next version until you’re current. I was three versions behind, so do the math.
But again I digress. The first thing I changed was the launcher to Nova Launcher, and sure enough, it noticeably improved how I was able to configure and use the M11. Not only could I select the layout of icons, I was also able to change the icons of individual apps that weren’t to my liking, and hide apps I couldn’t uninstall but didn’t need (like ES Explorer).
Finding and loading new apps was a simple process, with Tidal, Plex, Netflix, Solid Explorer and TuneIn Radio quickly joining the list of pre-installed apps. I then spent several days finding, testing and discarding numerous music apps, looking for an alternative to FiiO Music (more on that later). Currently Poweramp is the best of the rest, despite some reservations on its ability to make the most of the M11’s advanced audio hardware (again, more on that later).
I’ve always been very big on UI cohesiveness, simplicity and cleanliness, and in my experience, stock Android isn’t quite as polished or consistent as iOS. A few clicks and switches in Nova, and I quickly got the M11 looking and working just the way I wanted.