Strap me into a metal tube at 30,000 feet for six hours, and a player full of music is poor ammunition, indeed, in the mind-numbing, spirit-rotting battle against boredom. On the other hand, put a device in my hands that is loaded with a few good movies, some television that aired after my bedtime, the episode of "Lost" I missed last week and concert videos from my favorite bands, and there's a good chance I won't get up mid-flight and start using a rolled-up copy of Cigar Aficionado to bludgeon the smelly, snoring fat guy who is squeezed into the middle seat next to mine.
To that end, the new generation of MP3 players has evolved beyond its musical roots to include enhanced devices with photo and video playback that go by their own new term: Personal Media Players, or PMPs. I'm not sure the awkward new moniker is going to stick, though I do admit briefly considering "Pimp Your PMP" as a title for this article. I suspect that the new coinage may be unnecessary, as most folks will default to saying "iPods."
Apple has earned its 70 percent of the portable player market. I'm still not hot to make an iPhone my cell phone, but the iPod touch, with its quirky lower-case spelling, delivers all the iPhone's coveted media playback features without the phone. This sleek device, with its big, beautiful screen and slender, seductive shape, embodies all that's right about Apple design and engineering. And for those who prefer a more pocket-friendly silhouette there's the cute little iPod nano, a slender sliver of media pleasure.
Yet, while I own both iPods, I find that I also travel with other portable players in my bag as often as not. To understand why, let's take a minute to consider not the portable players themselves, but the way you'll fill them with music, videos and photography.
Are You Content With Your Content?
The driving factor behind your media player purchase has to be whether it will play back the content you want. For standard MP3 music files, which are supported by every player on the market, this is a no-brainer. Photo files are no problem either, since the JPEG format files used for nearly all personal digital photos are an accepted standard. With video and non-MP3 music, however, the situation gets a bit more complicated.
For starters you may not want to acquire your music permanently. Steve Jobs insists you do, and that's why he allows you to buy music downloads from the online iTunes store for your iPod, but refuses to add a subscription music service. I have to respectfully disagree. Buying music is fine if you have a committed relationship with a tune or an artist, but more often than not listening to music is a flirtation, a fling, a good time followed by profound disinterest. That's why music subscription services make sense. For a flat monthly fee you can play millions of songs, new and old, from nearly every popular artist you can name. Napster and Rhapsody offer services that let you listen on your computer and download tunes to a variety of portable players, including those from Archos, Creative, iRiver, RCA, Samsung, SanDisk, Sony, Toshiba and others, for just under $15 a month, while Microsoft has its own subscription service, compatible only with its Zune players, at the same price.
When it comes to downloading videos, on the other hand, Apple enjoys a distinct advantage over the competition. Purchasing movie downloads is unappealing—you pay nearly DVD prices and can only watch the movie on a computer or compatible portable player. Apple, which still offers movie purchases, recognized this and recently upgraded the iTunes store to allow rentals as well. Film rentals cost a reasonable $3.99 or less for 24-hours. Competing movie download sites offer both movie purchases and rentals for computer viewing, but only purchased films can be viewed on a portable device. That leaves Apple as the only pocket-friendly movie rental source...almost.
The one intriguing exception is a video subscription service from Vongo, part of the Starz cable network. Subscribers pay a flat $9.99 monthly for all-you-can eat access to roughly 1,000 movies and 1,500 additional video selections at any given time. Your downloads can be viewed on a PC or downloaded to a variety of portable players from Archos, Creative, Samsung and Toshiba—sorry, no iPods.
Of course, you can also purchase TV shows for download, at about $2 each, from iTunes, Amazon Unbox and other sources. Being a frugal type, I prefer to record my own. PC owners running Microsoft Vista or Media Center Edition computers already own an elegant software application for recording shows and another (Windows Media Player) for transferring those shows to many portable devices (though not, alas, the iPod). If you don't have a TV tuner built into your PC, adding one either inside the box or via USB port is practical and inexpensive. Unfortunately, cable channels today are broadcast with encoding that prevents nearly any of their programs recorded with the Media Center software from being transferred to portable devices. The workaround: a separate, more user-friendly recording program. Lately I've been using PowerCinema 5 from CyberLink ($100), and the results are very good. For Mac owners, Pinnacle Video Capture for Mac ($100) provides the gizmo and the software you need to create iPod-compatible files.
Creating portable video files from DVDs is another somewhat technical, but altogether manageable, project. Lack of space prevents me from going into details, but there are plenty of tutorials and guides online, many of which use free-to-download software. (Try these before paying for a commercial product.) The videohelp.com site is a good starting point for finding the right guide for your portable device.
If you're not a computer geek, don't give up hope. Two of the systems reviewed here—the Cowon A3 PMP and the Archos 605 WiFi—let you record broadcast programs directly to their internal hard drives—couldn't be simpler. I've also had good results creating digital video files suitable for portable playback using a device called the MPEG-4 Recorder 2 Plus from Neuros. If the product name is a mouthful, the process is pretty simple. Hook up the video output from your cable or satellite box to the recorder, connect the recorder to your TV so you can see what's going on, then use the included remote control to start saving files to a removable memory card. Some portable devices can read memory cards directly. If your player won't, you'll just copy the files from the memory card onto your computer and, from there, to your portable player. Either way, the Neuros system works well and doesn't require a tech degree to master. What's more, you can record files in formats compatible with any of the players featured here ($110, neurostechnology.com).
Apple iPod touch
You probably already know the bountiful basics of the iPod touch. You get a high-contrast 3.5-inch screen, a slick touch-controlled menu system, and a display that automatically shifts from portrait (i.e., vertical) to landscape (horizontal) orientation when you turn the player on its side. But there's more: each of its media player programs boasts distinctively ingenious features. Browse your music collection by turning the touch on its side for a view, called Cover Flow, of all your album cover art. Viewing photos, you can zoom in and out by placing two fingers on the screen and opening or closing them—lots of fun. As for videos, they look extraordinary on the touch's high-res 480 x 320 display.
The touch may not have a built-in phone but that doesn't mean it can't talk to the outside world—it comes with built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking. Connect to a wireless network and you can jump right into the iTunes store and buy and download a song on the spot (no wireless video purchases, though). You also get a capable Web browser, a workable e-mail program, Google Maps, weather and stock reports.
So what's not to like? The touch is delightfully slim but still too large to fit in your jeans pocket. It uses solid-state flash memory instead of a hard disk drive, which means if you want high capacity you'll pay for it—the recently introduced 32-gigabyte model runs a hefty $499. There's no FM radio and, if you're a subscription music or video fan, you're out of luck. If those are not concerns, though, the touch is tough to resist.
$499 (32 gigabytes), $399 (16 gigabytes), $299 (8 gigabytes), 4.3" x 2.4" x 0.3", 4.2 oz., www.apple.com
Apple iPod nano
The iPod nano is slender enough to pop into your top shirt pocket. The brushed-metal face and smart, simple design are striking. You can even order the 8-gigabyte model in a choice of six colors (the 4-gigabyte model is silver only.) Despite the lack of a touch screen, the nano navigates easily with the iPod scroll wheel, and even the Cover Flow album browsing borrowed from the touch works well.
The most striking feature of the nano is the brilliant 2-inch screen, with its razor-sharp 320 x 240 resolution. Yes, that's small for extended viewing, and won't do justice to a Star Wars battle scene or a recorded football game. On the other hand, watching an episode of "The Daily Show" or a romantic comedy is a satisfying experience. (Like the touch, the nano now supports movie rentals.) And given the player's perfect portability, you can always have a few minutes of entertainment at your fingertips. I still wish they'd include an FM radio, and capacity tops out at a middling 8 gigabytes, but overall the nano delivers.
$199 (8 gigabytes), $149 (4 gigabytes), 2.75" x 2.06" x 0.26", 1.74 oz., www.apple.com
Haier Ibiza Rhapsody
The Ibiza Rhapsody is a near clone of the classic iPod, but with unique appeal to music gourmands: its support for the Rhapsody subscription service via wireless Wi-Fi networking. Connect at any Wi-Fi hot spot—a coffee shop, hotel room, public park or your living room couch—choose "Rhapsody" from the menu and you have the entire subscription service musical inventory at your fingertips. You can fill the player without connecting to a PC at all and pick from millions of tunes. The Ibiza also offers a decent 2.5-inch screen, plays MP3 and Windows Media music files, plus some music files from iTunes (the ones sold without copy protection), along with photos and several video formats.
While I've seen some snide comments online about the relatively dowdy look of the Ibiza, I will defend the design on one important score. Haier is a company best known for building major appliances, and its understanding of ruggedizing gear pays off here. I've been tossing the Ibiza in my briefcase day after day, with no special case or covering, and there's not a scratch on it. I can't say the same for any other player in this roundup.
$299 (30 gigabytes), 4.1" x 2.4" x 0.52", 4.9 oz; $229 (8 gigabytes), $199 (4 gigabytes), 4.1" x 2.4" x 0.41", 4.9 oz., www.haieramerica.com
Cowon A3 PMP
When I first picked up the Cowon A3 PMP I was puzzled: why would you want a portable media player that weighs a chunky 9.9 ounces when you can buy one with nearly the same screen size at half the weight and thickness? But then I checked under the hood and discovered it carries something none of the other devices has: a built-in video recorder, so you can stock up on portable programs with no computer required. Plug the included video jack (a standard yellow-red-white set of wires) into your favorite TV source, choose record from the menu and you're done. You can also set the A3 for timed recording, though it can't change channels for you. The 4-inch glass screen, with its impressive 800 x 480 resolution, looks terrific, and the system is compatible with any file format you'll find in your Web downloading excursions (except material that is copy-protected, of course). Photos look great on the high-res screen, and audio quality is fine if not exceptional. What's more, you get an awful lot of capacity for not a lot of money—I found the 60-gigabyte version selling for $360, and the 30-gigabyte for $40 less.
The A3 has its annoyances, most notably a mediocre control system. Working your way through menus using four unlabeled buttons and a tiny joystick that has to be pushed straight down to click on choices is difficult to do correctly, even with practice. Furthermore, it lacks support for music subscription services. Even with these caveats, the Cowon A3 is a solid choice for someone who wants the pleasure of portable video without fiddling with finicky computer files.
$390 (60 gigabytes), $320 (30 gigabytes), 5.2" x 3.1" x 0.9", 9.9 oz., www.cowonamerica.com
Archos 605 WiFi
The Archos 605 WiFi also records video and audio directly to its internal hard drive without a computer. Yet even at high capacity (a whopping 160 gigabytes), the Archos is notably smaller and lighter than the Cowon A3. The explanation: to record the Archos requires a separate cradle ($99). Unless you record while traveling, this is an easy compromise. And the Archos can change channels for timed recordings. You can even download a program guide for your cable or satellite system and set up recordings on-screen.
The 605 can connect to a wireless network, useful for purchasing and downloading movies and TV shows over the Internet from CinemaNow. The Archos is also compatible (by PC) with the Vongo video subscription service. The player doesn't work with music subscription services.
Video and photos look wonderful on the large 4.3-inch wide-screen display, with a full 800 x 480 resolution, and the little stand that folds out so you can prop up the player is so welcome I wonder why everyone doesn't include it. My only major beef with the Archos 605 is the control scheme. Yes, you can tap a touch-sensitive screen for certain tasks, but too often you're left mashing a confusing array of buttons, each assigned too many poorly explained functions. Mastering this mess is a chore, but I think the effort is worthwhile.
$400 (160 gigabytes), $350 (80 gigabytes), 4.8" x 3.2" x 0.75", 9.17 oz.; $300 (30 gigabytes), 4.8" x 3.2'' x 0.6", 6.70 oz.; $199 (4 gigabytes), 4.8" x 3.2" x 0.6", 5.29 oz., www.archos.com
The P2 delivers sleek styling that rivals Apple's best, full support for subscription services and a handy technology that can connect directly to a Bluetooth cell phone to create a unique integrated system. When your phone rings, the music is automatically muted and you can answer the call right on the P2, using the headphones you're already wearing and the media player's built-in microphone. Applied to my T-Mobile Dash smartphone, the system set up easily and worked perfectly. Samsung's P2 also supports stereo output to Bluetooth headphones or speakers, as a few other players do.
The P2 has substantial charms beyond its phone-friendliness. It's a good-looking device, with a crisp and colorful 3-inch screen that handles video playback well. The FM radio comes complete with a recorder function, so you can prerecord your favorite station and listen while out of range (in flight, for example). Content downloaders should love the P2. It works with both Napster to Go and Rhapsody subscription services, plus Vongo video subscriptions, plus Amazon's Unbox video store. The touch screen-based controls are not just functional but fun to use, and highly customizable to suit your personal style. It would be nice to see a higher-capacity model and support for more video formats (Samsung does provide software to convert video to its preferred WMV files), but overall the P2 is a terrific choice.
$249 (8 gigabytes), $199 (4 gigabytes), 3.9" x 2.1" x 0.4", 3.0 oz., www.samsung.com
The Zen is a mighty mite, weighing in at a svelte 2.1 ounces, but boasting a superb 2.5-inch screen, audio quality as good as they come, and support for a wide range of formats (including subscription music and video services and audiobook downloads from Audible.com). It also includes an FM radio, a voice recorder and an organizer that synchronizes with your calendar, contacts and to-do list data with Microsoft Outlook.
Players like the Zen, which store files using solid-state flash memory instead of hard disk drives, have certain advantages, including longer battery life and smaller size, but you expect to pay a premium price for those benefits. Yet a recent price drop has Creative selling a full 32-gigabyte version of the Zen for just $300—that's $200 less than the iPod touch with comparable capacity. What's more, the Zen has a slot to accept removable SD memory cards, which keep growing in capacity while coming down in price. Bottom line: video fans can carry dozens of movies without stopping to reload. And if 32 gigabytes is more capacity than you care to purchase, prices start at just $80 for a 2-gigabyte model.
$300 (32 gigabyte), $199 (16 gigabytes), $149 (8 gigabytes), $100 (4 gigabytes), $80 (2 gigabytes) 3.26" x 2.16" x 0.44", 2.1 oz., www.us.creative.com
The odd thing about Zune is that Microsoft's ads focus squarely on the product's least successful feature. The Zune includes built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking. If you happen to be within range of another Zune owner, you can see what's on the other person's player and actually download a song for a trial run of three plays (with the other Zuner's permission, of course). Interesting concept. Completely impractical, unless you happen to be in a cafeteria full of Zune owners. The wireless capability can't even be used to download new music directly from an online store, which would actually be useful.
But the Zune has a lot to like, especially the high-capacity 80-gigabyte model. Some of us like to store our music in higher-quality MP3s, using less audio-distressing compression. Problem is, the higher the quality, the bigger the file. Add in movies for the road, which take up about a gigabyte each, and you're left with tough decisions about what to carry with most portable players. Give me 80 gigabytes, though, and I can bring my entire music collection plus many hours of video entertainment with no compromise. The full-size, 80-gigabyte Zune is still compact enough for easy portability, and you'll find it for under $250. And if you have a more modest appetite for media, there are smaller-sized versions with 4- and 8-gigabyte capacities.
All the Zunes share an elegantly simple design and nicely arranged menu system, controlled by moving your finger across a touch-sensitive pad below the screen. The Zune even comes with a decent set of earbuds.
Hard-drive models: $250 (80 gigabytes), 4.26" x 2.41" x 0.51", 4.5 oz.; Flash-memory models: $200 (8 gigabytes), $150 (4 gigabytes), 3.60" x 1.63" x 0.33", 1.7 oz., zune.net
Philips GoGear SA6185/6145
If you're looking for a big-screen video player with a small price tag, SA6145 is an intriguing choice. It boasts a 3.5-inch display, FM radio and voice recorder, and even built-in stereo speakers (not really high-fidelity, but useful). Yet the SA6185, with 8 gigabytes of memory, costs just $169, the 4-gigabyte SA6145, $149.
Of course, some corners were cut in the process. While the screen is large and very bright, the resolution is a modest 320 x 240—good enough, but not best of class. Video support is limited to a single format (Windows Media), though Philips does include software for converting other file formats. Audio performance is adequate, but not as precise and pleasing as category leaders like the Creative Zen and the iPods.
On the other hand, you can master the menu system without even cracking the manual, and it includes an FM radio and voice recorder. There's also support for subscription music downloads via the Rhapsody service. And compared with other large-screen video devices, you'll save enough to pay for months of subscription service.
SA6185, $169 (8 gigabytes), SA6145, $149 (4 gigabytes), 4.92" x 2.9" x 0.5", 5.40 oz., usa.philips.com
Steve Morgenstern is a contributing editor who writes frequently on technological subjects for Cigar Aficionado.