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Review of Creative's new Zen Portable Media Center


It was a long time in coming, but the first personal video players running on Microsoft's Portable Media Center software are just about to arrive. We managed to get our hands on one and have been playing around for it for the past few weeks, and our review has tons of photos, exclusive screenshots and even show how to get DVDs on this puppy. The soundbite is that we think the Portable Media Center is good for folks with Media Center PCs and PCs with TV tuner cards which can record TV-that's really the one killer feature of these new devices. If you don't have a Media Center and don't record TV to your PC (or don't download a crapload of movies) then this device might not be quite as useful for you.

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 minutes )

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 than 800kbps
•Windows Media Audio files (.wma)
•MP3 audio files (.mp3)
•JPEG image files (.jpg, .jpg, .jpe, .jfif)

Compatible with:
•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:
•Display brightness
•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 Chinese)
•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.

Battery Life
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 everywhere.



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 converted.


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 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.

Final Thoughts
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

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