A few companies are announcing new media companion devices based on Microsoftís recently announced Portable Media Center platform. Creative and Samsung were the first ones to get their product on the shelves as soon as the official announcement was out.
I had my first experience with media devices when Creative launched their Nomad Jukebox. That model was one of the first hard disk based MP3 players, with a small LCD display, 6GB HDD and four AA rechargeable batteries. It looked exactly like a CD player, and thatís probably one of the reasons why it wasnít my preferred device when going out. It also lacked an essential functionality: flexible synchronisation.
On the other hand, when I first saw the Creative Zen Portable Media Center it was a statement: ďtake me with youĒ. It is small (144mm x 80.7mm x 27mm) but not exactly light (340g or 12oz). The form factor reminds me of some gaming devices in the market, and some of the controls are positioned like gaming controls. But its size is part of the beauty: these devices are not for music playback only, but for watching and sharing. The display is a 320x240 pixels 3.8Ē backlight LCD, with a crisp image and good performance, even outdoors or when playing action movies.
Its 20GB hard drive can store music (.wma, .mp3), images and photos (.jpg, .jpeg), and movies (.wmv and .asf files, 320x240 pixels resolution up to 800kbps bit rate). You can also synchronise television programs recorded on Windows Media Center computers.
The specs promisses up to 22hours of music playing, or 7 hours of video playtime, powered by an Intel XScale CPU at 400MHz, with 64MB RAM. Interesting that Creative says on their website that video playtime is impacted by bit rates. In my experience, at least with music, the Zen PMC has performed well within these parameters.
So, how is this Portable Media Center doing so far in my hands, and how easy is to use it?
The Zen Portable Media Center (actual size)
First things first. We need to store some content on this device before we can use it. Synchronisation is managed by Windows Media Player 10. Simply plug the USB 2.0 cable into the computer and itís ready for sync (and charge). Using WMP 10 we can determine if the PC will synchronise the PMC contents manually or automatically. Iíve selected automatically, and also changed some options to make WMP 10 keep an eye on some folders, looking for content changes. This way WMP 10 will determine when content is moved, deleted or added.
If you have enough CPU power you can also check an option that will make WMP 10 perform any format conversion in the background while your computer is idle. This conversion is needed because not all formats can be played on the PMC, and WMP 10 will ensure files are in an appropriate format that the PMC can handle. For example, if you copy a movie from a DVD the file will be in MPEG2 format. WMP 10 will convert this file to .wmv, providing you have the proper MPEG2 decoder. More on this later.
You can create ďplaylistsĒ for your synchronisation. For example you can select All Pictures, All Songs, All Videos, or the most played songs, only the 4 and 5 stars rated content, and so on. This gives a very flexible control of what content finds its way into the PMC. It is also is a good filter if you have more than 20GB of digital media. In each selection you have the option to create selections based on any attribute of a media file, like how many times it was played or it size, or when it was recorded from TV.
The Synchronisation dialog on Windows Media Player 10
Synchronisation options: flexible selection of content
Once I had some of my digital bits on my PMC, I started using it. The user interface is pretty simple: youíll find a Start button with the Microsoft Windows logo, and of course thatís where everything starts. Click this button and the main menu will show up: my tv, my music, my pictures, my videos and settings.
The pad on the left side has four arrows and an OK button. Using this pad we can move up and down on this menu, and selecting the highlighted option brings a list of content. Depending on the content the player will shows some options. For example for music we can browse the content by album, artist, songs and genres. Photos and images are separated in Albums, which are equivalent to a folder/subfolder structure. In my case I have all pictures separated by year (folder) and event (subfolder), so itís automatically ordered by date. Mind you itíll only manage one level in this structure, so year/month/event wonít work the same.
The backspace-looking arrow is the escape key. This will always bring the menu one step back. On the right side we have other controls, like volume, Play/Pause and the other controls (fast rewind, previous track, next track, fast forward). All these keys are backlit with a blue glow.
The small speaker is also on the right side, in the front of the PMC, but the it is just high enough for quiet places. Although the bundled Creative earphones do a reasonable job, I highly suggest investing on a good pair of stereo headphones for use with the Creative Zen. When partnered with a good headphone the sound is nice and clear.
On the right side thereís a stereo headphone plug, A/V out, and a lock key (handy when the player is inside a backpack and you donít want keys being accidentally pressed).
The A/V out plug allows the PMC to be connected to a TV or monitor (NTSC/PAL) and to a stereo receiver.
CD cover on the left, track list on the righ: one of many visualisations
In terms of personalisation, the PMC has four speed keys (which can be assigned to a photo album, movie or album), a preset equaliser (with settings for Accoustic, Classical, Electronic, Hip Hop, Jazz, Pop, Rock), display control (backlight timeout, dim, effects) and language. It can also be used as an external hard drive via USB.
The preset equaliser covers a good range, but thereís no option for manual control of these settings.
The Zen PMC is compatible with the Creative FM-wire remote control. You can plug it and the current song/album title will show on the small LCD display, and all controls can be managed from this remote. By pressing the mode button the PMC changes into a FM radio too, but only when the remote is attached.
The remote control doubles as a FM radio
The Zen Portable Media Center with remote control
When playing songs the display can be changed and display track name/cd, track name/CD cover art, CD cover art only, track list/CD cover art, and a control page with quick access to the equalizer, shuffle and repeat boxes and a purchase option.
Iíve noticed a small delay a couple of times when pressing the arrows to change this display, but nothing to worry about. The songs never stopped playing, even with repeated keypresses.
How do you source media to fill a PMC? By transferring your already owned content from its current media to a digital form on your computer (media shift). Songs can be ripped using Windows Media Player (.mp3 or .wma), or a movie can be copied from a DVD.
For this review I decided to find what software Iíd need to use to have a movie copied from the disc to the PMC. I started by finding a program to copy DVD to MPEG. Since I donít have the proper codec for conversion into .wmv, I looked for another program that could convert MPEG2 files into .wmv format. This .wmv file was then synchronised with my PMC, and it played flawlessly. The trial software allowed me to copy only 20 minutes, and this was a 70MB .wmv file. Another option is to use the 94375 DVD-to-Pocket PC software, which will perform these steps in a single pass.
You can also visit a website like cinemanow.com, where there's a list of movies ready to be transferred to Portable Media Center devices. I suggest you be patient while content is brought on-line, because the current selection for portable devices is really poor in titles (on the other hand the number of rental titles available for playing on your computer is quite large, but these can not be transferred to the PMC due to digital rights management and format).
Last, synchronising television programs recorded on computers based on the Windows XP Media Center OS. This is pretty much like making the Portable Media Center a PVR device.
Some friends commented that Portable Media Center devices are in direct competition with other media players (like the Apple iPod and the HP iPod). Itís really a step ahead of the competition, in the sense that it expand the types of digital media users can take with it.
The PMC is a decent device, delivers well and it is easy to use. Its performance can be measured by the good comments I have received from friends when playing with the device around then. In terms of price, it currently markets on Amazon for US$499 (or check pricegrabber), which is pretty much the same price I paid a few years ago for my Nomad Jukebox, which couldnít show pictures, play videos or synchronise with my computer.