Portable Media Centers: Entertainment to Go

Picture this. You're going to visit relatives across the country; to amuse yourself on the journey you take a few movies and favorite TV shows, a couple of audio books, a few thousand of your favorite songs, and an inordinate number of new photos to show your family when you arrive. So what did you have to cram in your carry-on? Nothing more than a slim Portable Media Center (PMC) that takes up about as much room as a couple of CD cases.

PMCs, currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com, look like the love child of a Game Boy and an iPod, although Microsoft's PMC product manager, James Bernard, is quick to say that, "Portable Media Centers are an entirely new category of devices, offering functionality and experiences that today's MP3 and portable DVD players can't provide. There will always be a market for music-only and video-only devices, but the demand for a device that can do it all—play video, music, and photos—are increasing today as more and more people are storing different types of entertainment on their PCs."

Two companies are offering similar models through Amazon: The Samsung Yepp YH-999 ($499.88) and the Creative Technology Zen Portable Media Center ($499.99), which won TechTV's "Best of CES" award this year in the Portable Audio and Video Category. Although Creative's device costs an extra $0.11, it also boasts a screen that is .3" larger—3.8" versus the 3.5" on Samsung's (Samsung does provide a remote control, which Creative does not). Microsoft has also announced that a third company, iRiver, plans to release its version of a PMC, and others are expected to follow closely behind.

Both Samsung and Creative's PMCs offer 20GB of storage for audio and/or video in a variety of formats, have relatively substantial battery lives, and include all pertinent accessories such as earphones and connection cables. The devices can also connect to televisions so users can play any of their downloads or personal creations on a larger screen (perfect for a post-vacation slide show). Microsoft has reported that the PMCs will be able to connect to home and car stereos as well.

PMCs are designed to run a version of Windows Mobile software, so the interface is familiar for users. "The PMC team has worked closely with Windows XP and Windows Media Player," explains Bernard. "You'll see this in the Windows Media Player 10 Auto Sync software, which allows you to manage the entertainment on your device, and in the way that Portable Media Centers work really well with Media Center Edition PCs."

The Auto Sync feature allows users to transfer content to the PMC by using a USB 2.0 cable to plug it into a PC running Windows XP with Windows Media Player 10. "The software automatically recognizes the device and allows you to immediately transfer digital entertainment to it, all without the need to download drivers or confusing third-party multimedia applications," says Bernard. A number of factors determine the amount of time it takes to transfer content to the PMC, but Microsoft estimates that under most circumstances a two hour film recorded at 500Kbps can be transferred in two minutes; a one hour album recorded at 128Kbps in under 25 seconds; and a 50KB picture in under one second.

The first major partnership announced for the PMCs is with MLB.com, which often positions itself as a bellwether in the digital content provider space. "It made a ton of sense for us to partner with MLB.com since they've really taken a leadership role in online video content," explains Bernard. "We think this partnership can serve as a great model for how people will get video content from the Internet in the future." Available content will likely include games, highlights, bloopers, archival footage, and classic moments which users can access via subscriptions or pay-per-view download. "In addition to MLB.com, a number of other content providers have announced support for the PMC platform, including Napster.com and CinemaNow," Bernard says. "This is just the tip of the iceberg for what is to come."
(www.amazon.com; www.creative.us; www.microsoft.com; www.samsung.com)