Mobile Computing: Portable Video Players

Feature: The Big Picture on Small Video Players

You're just dying to catch the new Heather Locklear nighttime soap, LAX. (Aren't you?) But you don't have time to see it at home, so you watch it on your shiny new portable video player on the train to work.

That's the type of scenario PVP makers are hoping will unfold this fall as new models arrive en masse. But before plunking down your credit card for one of these expensive gadgets, I'd suggest you stop and get the big picture first.

Here's the lowdown on PVPs: Why they're hot; why they're not; and why you should (or shouldn't) buy one now.

Why They're Hot

With models recently arrived or debuting this fall from Archos, Creative Labs, IRiver, Samsung, ViewSonic and others, PVPs are being hyped as "video IPods"--gotta-have gadgets that let you enjoy your favorite TV shows, movies, music, and photos on the go.

PVPs are bigger and heavier than most MP3 players, but much smaller than most portable DVD players, so you can take them just about anywhere. Movies and TV shows are stored on a hard drive (20GB or more), eliminating the hassle of packing DVDs. And because PVPs store a variety of media, you can travel with one entertainment device instead of several.

Recently, I tested the Archos AV420 for Digital World, PC World's newest sibling. (The Archos AV400 series includes the 20GB AV420 for $550 and the 80GB AV480 for $800.) I found much to admire: The AV420 was easy to use, with a crisp color screen and good audio and video playback quality. It also plays digital music and can store your image and data files. Read "Take-Out TV" for the full review.

Another plus: The AV400 series is Archos' third-generation PVP. Most of its competitors, such as Creative Labs' Zen Portable Media Center, are first-generation devices based on Microsoft's new Portable Media Center operating system. (Devices based on PMC are dubbed, not surprisingly, PMCs rather than the more generic PVP.) Given a choice, I always wait for a technology to move into its third generation before I buy. I figure by then, most hardware design and software interface quirks will have been resolved.

Unlike its PMC-based competitors, the AV420 has its own input connections. This lets you record programs directly from a TV, TiVo, VCR, cable or satellite converter box--even a DVD player. You can set up unattended recording, too, from an external video source, as with a VCR. The AV420 lets you play back a recording on a TV set, except for those made from encrypted DVDs, a bone Archos threw to appease the copyright concerns of content owners, according to an Archos spokesperson.

In short: If I had an extra $550 lying around, I would be extremely tempted to buy an AV420. But as Mae West probably said, temptation isn't the same thing as submission. Keep reading and you'll see why I haven't bought an AV420--or any other PVP.

For more details on the AV400 series, go to the Archos site. You can check PC World's Product Finder for the AV420's latest prices.

Why They're Not

To cram so many features into a portable device, something's got to give. For me, the PVP's typically small screen size (3.5 to 3.8 inches) is a big drawback--at least when viewed for more than, say, an hour.

For example, on a plane ride from San Francisco to Charlotte, North Carolina, I watched episodes of Six Feet Under and The Graham Norton Effect as well as a documentary about the Berlin Wall. I also developed temporary vision blurriness and a headache from watching video on a screen not much bigger than a Pocket PC display.

But those concerns are minor compared to the hassles imposed by the digital rights management technology--and the resulting user limitations--built into most PVPs.

The Archos AV400 series is probably the most liberal PVP in terms of digital rights management and therefore the only model I'd even consider buying at this stage of the game. I haven't tested any of its competitors, however.

The majority of PVPs are based on Microsoft's PMC operating system. And, unlike the Archos players, PMCs have no video input jacks. It's not physically possible to, say, record a show from your cable converter box directly onto a PMC. Instead, all video content must be downloaded to your Windows XP or Windows Media Center PC and then converted into the Windows Media Video format and transferred to the PMC.

To accomplish all that, your Windows XP PC must have a TV tuner card and the appropriate software, or it must be a Windows Media Center PC, which has a built-in TV tuner. One example of a notebook with a TV tuner is Sony's VAIO VGN-A190 ($2800). See "Notebooks & Accessories."

Your only other option for getting content onto a PMC is to purchase video files especially formatted for PMCs from Microsoft partners, such as CinemaNow.

Though I haven't experienced it myself, the PC-to-PMC download and transfer process can be frustrating. PC World's Richard Baguley reports it took about 20 minutes to convert and copy a 30-minute episode of The Simpsons onto the Creative Zen Portable Media Center.

Finally, there's the price tag. Costing between $400 and $800, PVPs are simply too expensive for most of us.

Why You Should (or Shouldn't) Buy Now

The digital rights management technology built into PVPs in general, and PMCs in particular, is obviously an effort to prevent the unauthorized file copying and sharing that plagues the music industry. And I don't argue with the need to protect copyrights. Still, I'm guessing many consumers will be frustrated by the recording and playback restrictions built into most of the current PVPs.

Maybe, as the PVP product category becomes more mature, the balance between copyright protection and usability will shift in the consumer's favor. That's my hope, at least. And perhaps the next crop of PVPs will offer larger screens--even though they'd be less convenient to carry, they'd certainly be easier to watch.

When someone comes out with a PVP that has a 6-inch screen or larger, records directly from TV, and costs less than $450, I'll be all over it. Until then, if you absolutely must have a PVP, I'd recommend the Archos AV400 series.

For more about Portable Media Centers, read "Microsoft Lets the Digital Media Play."

How About You?

Have you bought a PVP? If so, I'd like to know which model you bought, and what you think of it. Please send me e-mail.

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