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Last Updated: Friday, 19 November 2004, 18:10 GMT
Click kit review: PVPs
Richard Taylor
By Richard Taylor
Editor, BBC Click Online

Welcome to a newly minted regular feature, from our own gadget guru and editor. Richard Taylor checks out some of the hi-tech gear which has either just hit the shelves or is coming soon to a tech emporium near you.

Each week I will look at products in a particular category.

We start the ball rolling with portable devices with small screens which can handle video as well as other media files like music or photos.

When you are next waiting for a bus, why settle for merely listening to music when you could be watching last night's TV highlights or that DVD you never get round to watching on the sofa at home?

A few years ago these personal video players - let's call them PVPs - simply were not feasible at a reasonable cost and design.

But storage has come down physically in size and increased exponentially in capacity, while the formats the compressed video is played back on are also more space-saving.

Here are details of three models.

First up is the Zen PMC from Creative, a familiar name in home PC entertainment.

Capacity: 20GB
Weight: 340g
Battery: 7 hours
Screen: 9.5cm, 320x240 pixels

On the up side it has a nice big bright 3.8" (9.5 cm) screen, but because it is quite reflective you will struggle to view it in bright light or outdoors.

It is not exactly a design revelation either, and you will need big trousers if you are going to get it comfortably in your pocket.

OK, it does feel robust, and it has a 20 gig hard drive, but other players have crammed more storage into sleeker devices.

Now this unit is the first to carry Microsoft's new operating system, the Portable Media Centre or PMC.

Because it is Microsoft, it is a system which relies on synchronisation with your PC.

And that is the key - the only way you can store anything on the portable unit, be it video, music or photos, is to have it on your computer and transfer it across.

Say you want to watch recorded TV on the Zen: if you have not got a TV tuner card in your PC to record onto first, you simply cannot.

Microsoft has thought this through of course, and has released Media Player 10 for Windows, which makes synching your music and video to the unit straightforward.

To broaden its appeal, Microsoft is also teaming up with content partners to get you buying downloadable video, which you then synch to your portable unit to watch while you are on the move.

The problem is that at the moment there is not very much of this downloadable video content to speak of, so you are probably going to have to rely on other sources of video content on your PC to transfer over.

The software does not natively allow you to rip your DVDs either, and so if you haven't got a TV tuner card, it does leave you wondering what you will be watching.

Perhaps re-runs of your old home movies?

20 gigs of storage means you can watch about 85 hours of highly compressed video, or you may want to browse your photos whilst listening to your music.

All your content is easily accessible through an intuitive navigation system.

This is a first generation device for people who do not mind using a computer as a conduit for their media.

For the time being it is one for early adopters of hi-tech kit, and even in the medium-term I am not convinced there will be a big market for this system, especially when there are rivals out there that take a far less restrictive approach.

Like our next player...

AV400 series from Archos
This is the AV400 series from Archos.

Capacity: 80GB
Weight: 320g
Battery: 4.5 hours
Screen: 10cm, 320x240 pixels

This particular one is the gorilla 80 gig model, the 480. Here too you will need big trousers to buy into the claim that it is pocket-sized, though the 20 gig version is 40% smaller than the Creative Zen product with a similar sized screen.

Like the Zen, the Archos AV400 is a combined video-music-photo player with playback on the small screen or hooked up to TV.

But unlike the Zen, getting material in does not necessarily involve a PC.

In addition the AV400 records directly onto the hard drive from any audio visual source - be it TV, DVD or even camcorder.

You can even record copy-protected material, but to avoid incurring the unbridled wrath of entertainment lawyers everywhere you can only watch protected content back on the small screen.

Recording is done by attaching the device to a cradle connected to the TV or other source, assuming you can find your way through the mass of wires.

You can also programme your device to make it behave like a digital video recorder, in other words to make scheduled, unattended recordings straight off the TV, though this is a bit fiddly.

The AV400 series records in the highly compressed MPEG-4 format.

You can choose a variety of resolutions, and while they look great through the pocket screen, even the best will look a little grainy and compressed when played back on a full-sized TV.

Mobinote's DVX-pod
As PVPs seem to be the current big thing, there is no shortage of smaller companies jumping on the bandwagon, such as Mobinote's DVX-pod.

Capacity: 20GB
Weight: 570g
Battery: 3 hours
Screen: 17.8cm, 720x480 pixels

With a big 7" widescreen, at first glance it seems the designers have tried to take something from the iPod, but close-up it looks and feels cheap.

All the controls are plastic, and there is no in-built speaker. Coming in at over half a kilo, this is one weighty claim to portability.

The interface is simple but with simplicity comes compromise, and there are not many options.

The lack of sophistication might draw some people in but for $600 or $700, many potential buyers will be expecting a bit more for their money.

On the plus side, getting footage into the unit is easy, either directly from an AV source or computer through USB2, and it recognises various formats.

The footage also looks good, but invariably the large screen takes its toll in battery life, which comes in at a measly three hours, far less than the other two units.

I cannot help but think this is a gadget in search of an audience.

If you are thinking of going out to buy a PVP it is worth asking yourself some searching questions.

First: where and when are you going to use it?

Watching video is an altogether different experience from listening to music.

If you do not have long periods where you are commuting or have other downtime on the move, you may find it is a very expensive, and ultimately pointless, gadget.

This brings us onto the next point: consider the alternatives.

If you enjoy watching films, then perhaps a portable DVD player might be more up your street.

Though they are bulkier and have more basic functionality, they are also less expensive and many have bigger screens.

A final thought. Because they are creating such a buzz at the moment, there are new models coming out the whole time, so it is always worth checking out the latest.

A search on personal video players will bring up a host of information, and there is a selection to start you off in the internet links on the right-hand side of this page.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

Other items in this programme:

Consumers 'snub portable video'
01 Nov 04 |  Technology
Microsoft makes mobile media push
02 Sep 04 |  Technology

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