What's a PVP and a PMC?
"Ppersonal Video Players" or PVPs as they're being called, have been around for quite some time. One of the first
entries into the market, and one of our favorites so far, have been from Archos (specifically their AV300 and AV400
series). Most have hard drives and small LCD screens and you can usually use them to listen to music and look at
digital video in addition to being able to playback video clips.
With that said, Microsoft's Portable Media Center (PMC) operating system was developed with partners like Creative,
iRiver and Samsung, with the goal of bringing PVPs to the masses and break into this newly-formed market.
We've been using Creative's new Portable Media Center for about 2 weeks, traveling with it, recording TV, and really
pounding on it, trying to figure out how useful this thing really is. And that's pretty much the big question: Who
really needs these?
Who needs a Portable Media Center?
Simply put, if you don't have a Media Center PC, or a PC with a TV tuner/recorder—and don't plan on getting one—the
PMC isn't really going to fulfill any portable content playing needs. The PMC, at least how it is now, is mainly
intended as a companion to a Media Center PC or a PC with a TV tuner/recorder, so we can't really imagine using one
without either of those. There are already plenty of other personal video players out there, but being able to playback
TV is where the PMC really shines.
Unlike the Archos devices we mentioned, the PMC cannot record video directly, it needs a Media Center PC or a PC with
a TV tuner/recorder to get TV recordings. Something worth noting: we have an Archos, and while we occasionally recorded
to it, it was a bit of a hassle to manage yet another recording device. So for day-to-day use we're more likely to copy
recordings off of a Media Center PC or something like it and put that on a device. You can of course move any recording
onto an Archos, it was just easier with the PMC + Media Center PC combo.
Now, on with show for the folks who have Media Centers and TV recorders (we do and use it a lot). The PMC is basically
a portable version of your Media Center so you can take all your photos, videos, TV and music with you, and it does
this extremely well. There are some caveats with getting TV and movies on PMCs and we'll cover those in a bit.
The Creative Zen Hardware
The unit is pretty solid, weighing about a pound, it appears well built. It won't get any awards for industrial
design, but all of the PVPs on the market pretty much look the same. So far, the Creative Zen, in our opinion, looks
the best. Here are the specs of the Creative Zen:
Processor Speed: 400 Mhz
Storage Capacity: 20 GB HDD, 40 GB HDD (Note: OEM-dependent)
Memory: 64 MB RAM; 2 MB ROM
Screen resolution: 320x240 pixels
Screen size: 3.5 inches to 4 inches diagonal
PC connection: USB 2.0
Transfer rate: Between 35 Mbps and 40 Mbps, based on USB 2.0 transfer (transfers a two-hour movie in less than three
Supported digital media file types:
•Windows Media Video and Photo Story files (.wmv, .asf) at a resolution of 320 x 240 pixels and at a bit rate less
•Windows Media Audio files (.wma)
•MP3 audio files (.mp3)
•JPEG image files (.jpg, .jpg, .jpe, .jfif)
•Windows Media and Photo Story files (.wmv, .asf) at a resolution higher than 320 x 240 pixels and/or at a bit rate
higher than 800kbps
•Microsoft Recorded TV Show file (.dvr-ms)
•MPEG movie file (.mpeg, .mpg, mpe, .m1v, .mp2v, .mpeg2)
•Windows Video file (.avi)
•Windows Audio file (.wav)
Navigation: The green Start button always brings you back to the Start menu from any location in your Portable Media
Center. The Start screen is the main access point for your Portable Media Center.
Sync: After you run the Portable Media Center Setup disk, you are ready to add music, videos and pictures to your
Portable Media Center using Windows Media Player 10 and a USB 2.0 cable.
Metadata support: Portable Media Centers support information related to audio, picture and video files, including
album art, music ratings, video title and TV information.
Settings: You can control the music equalizer, display, effects and language settings, including the following:
•Stereo and TV Out, including support for both NTSC and PAL
•Backlight dim timing
•Select a language (English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Traditional and Simple
•Display information about drive content (number of songs, videos, pictures; used and free space)
•Enable or disable UI sounds and UI animations
•Shuffle and repeat functions and equalizer
For the hardware geeks out there, here's the
reference design, which seems to indicate some
future models "could" support removable memory for loading in and getting data off of PMCs.
One thing we'd like to see in future units is for the bottom of the unit to be angled and for it to be able to stand
on its own, the Zen can't stand up without falling over usually. While that's usually not a big deal, for a long movie
or show it would be better to be able to prop it up somewhere. The included carrying case can do that, but we're
talking just for the device itself.
We're rarely away from a PC for more than 15 hours, so we never ran out of juice watching TV, listening to music or
even leaving the device on for a few hours while at a conference while letting a few dozen people use it, so for the
most part we can't complain at all about that. It can charge via the USB connection, so even in a jam we think we could
get more than enough time to watch or listen to anything we'd need to. We watched TV for 5 hours on a long trip and the
battery still showed 50%. Here's the battery in all of its 3.7V Li-ion glory.
The PMC can pretty much play anything you throw at it, however you may need to convert it using Windows Media Player
10 (now in beta, final version likely out this week). When you use the PMC you can sync all your content with what you
normally have in Windows Media Player.
The PMC natively plays WMA, WMV, MP3 and JPGs (see the list above). You can play other formats, but the Media Player
may need to convert them first. If you're looking to only play XviD and DivX (lots of BitTorrent content is in this
format) you might want to go for the Archos which does that natively, otherwise you'll need to covert it first,
something which can add extra time. Not a huge annoyance, but we thought we'd mention it.
Speaking of downloading movies and TV from the web, here's something we noticed. While we'll often hunt for a movie or
TV show on BitTorrent, it's usually faster to just use the Media Center PC guide and search for a movie or show. With
200 channels on cable there's a good chance what you're looking for might be playing somewhere soon. Then we just set
it to record and automatically transfer it over to the PMC.
With a Media Center PC, you record TV and it saves the files as DVR-MS files, these files are usually huge, about a 1
GB per 30 minutes which is normal for TV recording. These files can then be added to the Windows Media Player,
converted, and sync'd to the PMC. Same goes for a PC with a TV tuner/recorder.
One thing to always realize is that this process takes awhile. As we found out, if you have a 30 minute show it
takes on average 30 minutes to convert to WMV (Windows Media) and sync to the PMC. Future versions of the Windows Media
Player will allow batch or background processing, but for now, if you record 4 hours of TV, it's going to take about 4
hours to convert. The new version of the Windows Media Player, which should be out this week, will background encode as
you record so you'll always have content ready.
Here's a small Windows Media file we cut down so you can see what TV recording is like,
click here to view.
Disney, FoxSports and MLB have announced that they will offer TV clips and shows, so as these come available there
might be custom TV content you can just download directly to you PMC.
Now you might be asking, why wouldn't you just send over the native DVR-MS file? Well, that would be a huge file, 1GB
per 30 minutes, so until we're up to bigger hard drives, we still need to convert things to smaller file sizes.
Future versions of the Media Center PC will likely have a "record for PMC only" option and that would eliminate any
need for conversions, along with other TV recording devices which will offer this.
If you have tracks in your playlist in Windows Media Player these'll sync right over to the PMC. Simple, painless
and straightforward. Added bonus: you get album art displayed on the device, which is kinda nice. You can fit about
5,000 songs or so on a 20GB PMC.
We can't imagine not using our iPod rather than the PMC for music. They're definitely different devices. The PMC is
geared towards TV, video, movie, photos, and while we put some of our music on it, it's not our full-time music player.
Here they are if you want to see the size comparison:
Like music, the PMC syncs up with the photos in your "My Photos" Library. One of the best features of the Media
Center is displaying photos on a TV, we have thousands, so this was a great (and quick) way of bringing them around
Videos and Movies...
Any home video or pretty much any video you've downloaded off the web can be sent over to the PMC and/or
You can play video at 30fps @ 800kbps. So that means if you download lots of things off BitTorrent, KaZaA, etc., and
you want to bring them with you, the PMC might be something to check out.
Microsoft and their partners are gearing up to make it possible to rent or purchase movie downloads for the PMC through
CinemaNow.com. Prices will be around $3 for a rental and $15 for purchase, and you'll be able to download movies
directly to your PMC. They're will likely be some protection on these files, which is completely expected, but we
haven't tried it out yet so we can't report on the experience. We've used MovieLink a lot on our PCs, and if it works
like that it'll be fine—easy to use, with a pretty good selection and DRM protections on the files that don't get too
much in the way of user experience. You'll be store about 80 hours of movies on a 20 GB PMC.
Now awhile back we showed you how to get movies on PVPs, and all of what we said then still
applies. We're still confused how the world works now: you buy a CD and you can put it on your iPod, or PMC, but if you
buy a DVD you can't do anything with it, at least not very easily. If PVPs are going to succeed, users will need to be
able to copy movies from DVD to hard drive-based video players just like they do with their CDs.
One "trick" we like to do is record a pay-per-view movie on our Media Center PC and then transfer the file to the PMC.
Works great, plus no commercials.
Recording DVDs to the PMC
To do this we used DVD To Pocket PC from Makayama. This tool
takes any DVD and creates a WMV (Windows Media) video file out of it. While it is meant for the Pocket PC, it's perfect
for converting DVDs for the PMC. The cost on the application is $27, but it's worth it. We converted 4 or 5 movies, and
they looked and played pretty well.
Is it legal? Seems like it falls under fair use, but depending on who you ask and what time of day it is, it may not
be. So be smart. We don't think recording a DVD for personal use you own to a device you own should ever be considered
illegal, but these are odd times folks and we're not giving you legal advice.
Like we said, if you have a Media Center or a PC with a TV tuner/recorder, this is a great gadget. If you don't, a PMC
most likely won't be that fun.
Personal video players are still fairly new, and it's going to take some time to see if people start buying these. We
think the biggest obstacle will be the frustrating copyright laws regarding movies and DVDs, so while you can copy DVDs
you own onto these devices, it's not exactly easy and the legality of doing so is still unclear.
Where to get and how much?
The Zen's are shipping as of today. Ourst was a review unit, but we found the Zen for
as low as $469 through Froogle.
If we missed anything you want to know, post up in the comments and we'll try and answer them in a jiffy.
Phillip Torrone can be reach via his personal website