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At a Glance
  • Archos AV420 20GB Video/MP3 Player

  • Creative DAP-HD0013 Zen Portable Media Center 20GB MP3/Video Player

  • Archos GMini400 20GB MP3/Video Player

  • Zvue Player

  • Apex Digital MP-2000

Let's play: From top, IPod Mini, Creative Zen Touch, and IRiver PMC-120.
Photograph: John Kuczala
It certainly feels like we're living in an IPod world these days. Apple has done a lot to make portable audio players the must-own tech toy of the decade; but while we still admire the IPod, it's not the only game in town. Competing audio players now display tons of different forms and innovative features. And there's an entire new frontier opening: video. Snazzy handhelds based on Microsoft's new Windows Portable Media Center operating system allow you to enjoy Jon Stewart's jokes on The Daily Show during your commute. We rate 20 audio and video players that are likely candidates for amusing yourself while you're on the move.

I tested a stack of audio players for functionality, ease of use, audio quality, portability, size, price, and style. Depending on the device, you can record MP3s from your favorite CDs, listen to FM radio, save your brilliant business ideas via voice recording, and keep your vacation photos handy. The Apple IPods even hold your personal calendar and address book.

But it isn't just about music anymore. Now, with the debut of Microsoft's Portable Media Center operating system, video fans can enjoy ultraportability, too. The PMC OS powers a whole array of interesting new handheld devices--from Creative, IRiver, and other vendors--sporting 3.5- to 4-inch color screens and 20GB or larger hard drives that enable you to play your favorite TV shows, personal videos, and selections from your music collection--anywhere.

The attractive design of most of these little PMC-based players is sure to make them highly buzzworthy items this holiday season. But their price (about $500) and their unresolved rough edges--which prevent watching video on the go from being as easy as listening to music--probably will keep them from emerging as bona fide hits. PC World Senior Associate Editor Richard Baguley looked at two PMC players and at four video devices that don't use the Portable Media Center OS but nevertheless seem able to play back television and music just fine. Check out "Focus on TV," his roundup of these products.

Play That Funky Music

The music players that I tested fall into three categories. Large-capacity players come with 20 gigabytes or more of storage and can hold 5000 songs (each song being a 128-kbps, 4-minute MP3 file, the standard throughout this review). This is the category you should be scrutinizing if you want to have all or most of your music with you at any time.

If you'd be satisfied to carry a skimpier collection of several hundred albums with you constantly, investigate the midcapacity players. These have between 1GB and 5GB of hard-drive space and hold up to 1250 songs. Just want access to a few hours of tunes while you jog or commute? Grab a gum-pack-size flash-memory player with 128MB to 512MB of storage and load up to 120 of your favorite MP3s.

One thing that every buyer of a new player--whether it be audio or video--should consider is its compatibility with Microsoft's new Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10 technology. Windows Media DRM 10 is designed to allow downloads from subscription-based services to move securely to portable players, which makes these services much more flexible and attractive than before. Microsoft has launched a new "PlaysForSure" campaign designed to make it easy to tell whether the player and service you want to use will work well together.

If this Microsoft technology catches on, it could mean a whole new world of legal digital content, including movies, for you to load onto qualified portable players.

At a Glance
  • Archos AV420 20GB Video/MP3 Player

  • Creative DAP-HD0013 Zen Portable Media Center 20GB MP3/Video Player

  • Archos GMini400 20GB MP3/Video Player

  • Zvue Player

  • Apex Digital MP-2000

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