The Big Picture on Small-Screen PlayersReady for a pocket-size video player? Here's what you need to know before you take your shows on the road.
Michael Cahlin, PC World
Care for some personal portable media, Hollywood style? We're talking Pocket TiVo, Portable Media Centers, audio players that also play movie files, and Video IPods (no, they don't exist--yet). And in this story, we're referring to the latest small-screen gadgets, which plug into a PC or TV near you.
About the size of a small paperback book, portable media players (or audio-video players) come in two flavors: Some use a proprietary operating system to power the device; others, typically marketed as Portable Media Centers, are billed as such because they use Microsoft's Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Center operating system.
Regardless of what these handheld devices are called, they all let you watch movies and TV, listen to music, and store a gazillion files on a single device. They're great for commuting, traveling with kids, or catching up on TV on business trips. Companies like Archos, Creative, IRiver, RCA, and Samsung are currently offering these players, which cost anywhere from $400 to $800 (read more about these products here).
You'll find two distinct ways for the content to get inside the hardware. Portable Media Centers from Creative, IRiver, and Samsung, for example, use a Windows XP PC or Windows Media Center PC as its digital multimedia "mothership"; you transfer files the way you would sync a PDA with your PC. All of these devices can store and play--but not record--content.
The more generic category of portable media players (that is, devices not running Microsoft's Portable Media Center operating system) can typically record content as well as import it from your PC. For example, models from Archos, AMA Technologies, Ovideon, and RCA, plug into the back of your TV, cable or satellite box, VCR, or DVD player, and all can record, store, and play content. (To read a hands-on review of one of these devices, see "First Look: Ovideon's So-So Media Player.")
Just as you might pit Star Trek against Star Wars or Superman against Spider-Man, each player's handling of content input, storage, and retrieval has its strengths and weaknesses. We'll discuss both kinds of setups and explain how these players operate. Here's what you need to know before you put one in your pocket.
Portable Media Centers
For years, Microsoft has been trying to crowbar its way out of your PC and into your entertainment center. Don't look now, but the scheme is no longer a dream.
Late last year, Microsoft introduced a portable version of its Media Center operating system. Devices running Portable Media Center have a look and feel that's consistent with systems running Windows XP Media Center, but they work with both Media Center and vanilla Windows XP PCs (ideally, you should be running Windows Media Player 10, which features automatic file synchronization between PC and PMC handhelds, and facilitates copying files to a PMC handheld).
PCs running the Media Center OS are optimized for capturing audio and video content (for example, all Media Center systems have a built-in TV-tuner card for recording TV). The Media Center OS also makes it easy to manage your digital media library, and to use your PC as a home server that can send audio and video over a wireless network to any XP-powered notebook or Windows Mobile-based device such as a PDA or smart phone.
While Creative's $499 Zen Portable Media Center, Samsung's $499 YH-999, and IRiver's $500 PMP-120 differ in style, features, and functions, each one shares a common and very familiar graphical user interface, explains James Bernard, lead product manager for Windows Mobile Group. These units use Windows Media Player 10 to organize, store, play, and transfer content; you don't have to learn or install any other programs. "Any digital file that can be played in Windows Media Player 10--music, video, or a still image--can be synched to a Portable Media Center," says Bernard.
In addition to sharing a common operating system, all the Portable Media Centers lack the ability to record directly from a TV, cable or satellite box, DVD player, or VCR. In fact, the units don't even have a video-input jack. Microsoft's philosophy: You already have recording devices, such as a personal video recorder or a VCR, and you don't need another. Instead, all video content comes from a Windows Media Center PC or a Windows XP PC (with--or without--a third-party TV tuner from companies such as ATI Technologies and Hauppauge Computer Works, along with PVR software such as SnapStream Beyond TV 3.
With both the Windows Media Center PC and the Windows XP scenarios, electronic programming guides record and store programs, which can be played on a computer or transferred to a Portable Media Center. But even if you don't have a Media Center PC or a TV tuner inside your XP system, you can still store and play TV on any Windows XP PC--provided you have TiVo.
Subscribers with a TiVo Series 2 DVR can now beam recorded shows over a wireless home network to any Windows XP PC using its TiVoToGo Transfer service. TiVo recorded content is played via Windows Media Player. An alliance with Microsoft is in the works: Sometime this spring, you will be able to transfer these TiVo-recorded programs from your XP PC to any Portable Media Center. (Note: No release date has been specified yet.)
Once inside your XP PC, any TiVo or other recorded program can be "transcoded" into the Window Media Video format and then moved to the PMC. (Note: If you have video other than TiVoToGo or WMV files, it still has to be transcoded.) While the TiVo-to-PC conversion process is admittedly time-consuming, it can be scheduled for off-hours. You also don't need to know anything about file conversion. (See "Portable Media Center: What Files Can I Play?" to see a list of all media file types supported by Portable Media Centers.)
Not all content needs to be converted. Specially formatted Portable Media Center content is available from Microsoft partners such as CinemaNow that offers over 200 pay-for-view rental and download-to-own titles.
Another subscription service, MSN Video Downloads (currently in beta), includes Portable Media Center-formatted content from more than a dozen sources--including CNBC, the Food Network, Fox Sports, Major League Baseball, and MSNBC. According to Microsoft's Bernard, additional content providers will be announced throughout the year.
Portable Media Players
While Microsoft-based Portable Media Centers all share a common operating system, each of these companies uses its own OS. The result: Each unit comes with its unique sense of identity. For example, each comes with its own interface, support for a wide variety of video and audio formats, and its own set of idiosyncrasies--especially when it comes to converting video into a format the player understands.
A major selling point of this class of players is that they can also record TV programs directly from a TV (or a cable or satellite box), or from another digital video recorder (such as a DVD recorder with a hard drive, or a PC with a TV tuner); they can also be used like a VCR or video recorder to schedule and record programs--assuming, that is, you can make sense out of an octopus of composite-video and audio-input and-output cords. However, once you figure it out, the scheduling and recording process is relatively easy. You will get some--but not much--guidance from the enclosed support materials.
Since these devices are different by definition, they handle specific tasks in various ways. For example, the PVR software in the Archos AV420 can schedule up to five recordings. You can also go online and remotely schedule two weeks' worth of programming using Yahoo Calendar and Yahoo TV.
By comparison, the MobiNote DP7010's PVR software can preschedule only a single recording from an external source, and it doesn't allow online remote scheduling.
How to Pick the Right Player
So how do you decide which format is best for you? Simple, says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research. The biggest question to answer is, where do you want your content to come from--a TV or a PC? If you own (or plan to buy) a Media Center PC or an XP PC with a TV tuner, and you like the idea of Microsoft's more intuitive software to sync content, go with a Portable Media Center. If you want to record content directly from any video source--TV, cable box, satellite receiver, VCR, DVD, or camcorder--or if you have either a PC running an older version of Windows or a Mac, a portable video player is the your best format choice.
Once you've picked a format, the hard part is over. Selecting the player is no different than deciding which notebook or MP3 player to buy.
To cram so many features into a portable device, manufacturers were forced to make specific design choices. To find out what they look like first-hand, and to get a feel for image quality, sound, the button and menu options, and so on, we recommend going to a couple of retail stores, checking out the players on the shelves, and taking them for a test drive.
Here are the main things you need to consider while you're shopping around.
Storage Matters. Most portable video players sport 20GB hard drives, but larger storage options are starting to appear. Archos's AV480 comes with an 80GB drive (for $750), and the AV4100 (for $800) is the first 100GB model we've seen.
Sound Issues. Let's face it: You're not going to get theater-style sound from speakers the size of a quarter. Nor do the included headsets make listening to Spider-Man 2 any better than listening to music on an MP3 player. (Third-party headsets like Shure's $99 E2c or Etymotic Research's $139 ER-6 can make a noticeable difference.) So don't get too hung up on sound quality. Keep in mind, though, that a lot will depend on the sound quality coming from your original source material.
Screen Size. The 20GB models from Archos, IRiver, RCA, and Samsung all have 3.5-inch screens. Archos's AV480 and AV4100 have the same 3.8-inch display as Creative's Zen Portable Media Center. These screens are Lilliputian compared with the 6.5-inch wide-screen on the AMA Technologies' DP7010.
Screen Resolution. Portable Media Centers come standard with QVGA 320-by-240-pixel screens. All Archos AV400 models have 704-by-480 screens; AMA Technologies MobiNote DP7010 uses a more DVD-like 720-by-480 screen. Keep in mind, the higher the resolution, the better the picture, but the faster it gobbles up storage.
Battery Life. Of course, DP7010's massive 6.5-inch LCD screen sucks up battery power much faster than any of the other players, and it certainly can't touch Microsoft's requirement that all Portable Media Centers achieve at least 7 hours of video playback, enough for a coast-to-coast flight (and your delay at the airport). As with notebooks, the battery life depends on what you're doing. Currently, only the Creative Zen PMC, the IRiver PMC-120 and PMC-140, and the Archos AV420, have removable batteries--a boon that lets you just pop in a replacement rather than worrying about recharging on the fly.
Weight. If you can believe the manufacturer's specs, expect these players to weigh in anywhere from a low of about 8 ounces for the TV-shaped Samsung YH-999 to a high of 21 ounces for the AMA Technologies' DP7010. The rest weigh a respectable 10 to 12 ounces. But weight has very little to do with looks: Archos's players look more like PDAs, Creative's Zen PMC feels more like a gaming device, RCA's Lyra RD2780 is the thinnest of bunch, and the beefier MobiNote DP7010 bears more than a striking similarity to Apple's IPod.
Design Factors. Form factors, preset shortcut function keys, scroll wheels (or lack thereof), button size, and color are just some of the factors differentiating each device--a fact that makes a trip to a local store practically mandatory. After price, external controls and internal distinguishing features should be your guiding pointers.
Accessories. Depending on the unit(s) you're interested in, be sure to take into account the cost of assorted extras like a remote control, a docking station, a kickstand, a carrying case, and other goodies. Some come standard, and others à la carte. Before you buy, be sure you know what is and isn't included. For example, Archos players come with a very cool TV cradle and protective carrying case. IRiver players have a built-in kickstand so that they can stand on their own, along with a protective carrying case. Creative's unit doesn't come with a kickstand or a cradle, but its case has a flip-back stand so that it sits upright. Creative's after-market docking station sells for $40, for example.
All Archos portable video recorders come with a wireless remote; Creative and IRiver units do not; and the Samsung comes with a wired remote. Creative sells a wireless IR remote for $20; IRiver doesn't sell one at all. Archos, Creative, and IRiver each sell an optional wired remote control with FM tuner and digital readout display for $50.
By figuring out what accessories you'll need before you buy, you may not have to spend extra bucks later.
Price. At $419, RCA's Lyra RD2780 PVR is least expensive. Archos's AV420, Creative's Zen PMC, Samsung's YH-999, and IRiver's PMP-120 all cost about $500--or about $50 more than Apple's new 60GB IPod Photo (which plays music and displays photos, but can't play videos). As with all things tech, expect prices to tumble as new and bigger models arrive. For example, the Archos AV480 price dropped by $50 when the AV4100 was introduced, and the company just cut the price of its entry-level AV420 player from $550 to $500.
Commercial extras. Expect to see plenty of content promotions later this year, predicts Jupiter analyst Gartenberg, as hardware and content companies buddy up. And by the end of the year, prepare for a full-on holiday sales assault.
In the meantime, Creative's Zen PMC comes with a special offer to download two free movies from CinemaNow (a $20 to $30 value). All Archos players come with 100 free downloads from EMusic. And if you buy RCA's Lyra RD2780 before December 31 this year, you'll receive a $100 rebate, provided you sign up for a year's service with Audible.com, which costs $179.40 for BasicListener or $263.40 for PremiumListener.
Bargains online. Using PC World's Product Finder, we found nearly every player mentioned in this story for at least $50 less than its list price. What's more, we found one brick-and-mortar retailer--Staples--willing to match many online prices (you need to be able to substantiate the price with a printout of the ad). If you try your luck at getting a price match with another retailer, you may not get a warm reception. But to quote Stevie Wonder, "if you don't ask, you don't get."
Portable Media Center: What Files Can I Play?
An advantage to Microsoft's Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Center operating system is that all Portable Media Centers must be able to play the following media file types:
For Portable Media Centers to store as much video as possible, Windows Media Player 10 can transcode the following file types automatically to the Windows Media Video format--and then quickly and easily transfer the files to the device:
Note: In some cases, Windows Media Player converts files to Windows Media Video and Windows Media Audio file formats to play on your device. Plus, compatibility of some file formats may depend on third-party software.