This is s simple guide to help the first time buyers of portable PVR hand-held media player/recorders. Apple's introduction of their video IPOD players has accelerated the new product introductions of portable video media players that use high capacity hard drives. The four most popular manufacturers of these units are Archos, Creative, Samsung and Cowon. There are numerous other manufacturers like Mustek, iRiver, etc. that originate from the far eastern countries that are also sold in the North American marketplace. The key purchasing criteria based on my past experience with these players is:
1) Size and Screen Resolution. How big is the screen. 2.2" diagonal should be a bare minimum and anything above 3.7" is probably optimum. Screens max out at 7" to 8.9" but you begin to sacrifice portability (heavier units) and battery life (shortens as you go to a larger screen) as you move to these larger screens.
2) Video File Format support. Does it support MPEG I, II MPEG 4, or DiVX as well as the Microsoft AVI format? Are the Sound CODECs compatible? Does it playback action scenes artifact free without blocky or blurred scenes. Does the soundtrack synchronize properly with the video? The CPU must be powerful enough to decode the video and audio files for smooth video playback performance but also be energy efficient for long run-times on batteries. Try before you buy to ensure that the videos are watchable on the small screen and that the sound is of a high enough quality for extended viewing periods.
3) Battery Life - Average for these units is 2-2 1/2 hours of continuous viewing. Some units like the Cowon claim up to 8-10 hours. Your mileage may vary based upon the brightness setting of the screen and the codec playback settings. Anything over 2 1/2 hours is exceptional battery life for a portable Video unit.
4) Does the unit feature full video/audio recording capability...that is can you use it as a PVR (Video Tape Recorder) to tape shows from your cable box or movies from a dvd or other video analog playback source? Can you plug in an optional video camera? Does it allow you set recording schedules for taping shows at different times, dates and channels un-attended? How flexible is the programming? Is there a break-out box/dock or can you do everything with a set of AV cables?
5) How complete is the documentation? Does the player support DRM? Can you copy copyrighted material? Does the player include a Video Conversion Utility?How easy is it to get customer support? Can you upgrade the hardware with BIOS upgrades to support new features or file formats and to extinguish bugs? What is the warranty period? How easy is it to get accessories? Is the battery fixed or removable. Can spare batteries be obtained easily? Can I get a 12 volt Car DC adapter for the unit? How hard/easy is it to obtain and connect an external third party extended life Battery Pack?
6) Durability and build quality - How solid is the player.What materials are used? Aluminum and/or plastic? Does it feel fragile when holding it? How easy do the controls move? Is there a hold/resume feature? Can it also be used as an external USB drive to store PC and multimedia files such as jpegs from digital cameras?
It is also rumored that both Microsoft and Sony are working on a portable PVR Video media player. The Sony unit will most likely carry the Video Walkman moniker and the Microsoft unit will have tight integration with their Media XP PC software and XBOX 360 infotainment systems.
Some other good manufacturer's websites to obtain additional information about these portable Video Players are listed below:
I hope you found this guide helpful. I tried to be manufacturer agnostic and the usual disclaimers apply. Let the buyer beware and if the advertising claims seem too good to be true, they usually are. Also try to buy from a reseller that has a decent return policy so you can try before buying. Additional research is also a good thing. PC Magazine writes pretty objective reviews for these type of devices. Lastly, if you found this guide to be helpful, please vote and say you found this guide helpful. Thanks and happy viewing out there in the field!!!
June 21, 2009 Update:
Faster Processors have appeared in the Cowon A3 and Q5, the New Archos 5 and 7 Internet-enabled PVRs and the new Creative ZEN X-Fi and Creative Zen credit card sized MP3/Video players. Videos load much faster and support for other video file formats has expanded to include WMV, AVI, MP4 and MOV formats. The Cowon Q5 has built in Bluetooth support and the Archos 5 and & have built in WiFi and USB support for attaching USB peripherals like a memory card reader, mouse or external keyboard.
Unfortunately, Creative has stopped producing the Creative Zen W which is the wide screen 4.3 inch wide PVR player that is extremely small and thin but has a decent sized bright and sharp color screen. They are only available used as 30 and 60 GB models and you can sometimes find upgraded 100 and 120 GB models on eBay. This player has proven very popular due to it's small pocket-able size and built in compact flash slot which makes it much easier to transfer video/audio/photo files into the unit.digital photographers will find the Creative Zen Vision W as an excellent portable back-up device which allows for instant viewing of their digital photos. The bundled software for converting videos to play on their devices has improved greatly with OEM deals arranged with vendors like Arcsoft to provide the codecs and software trans-coding engines to convert existing video files to play on their players. House brand Insignia (Sold by Best Buy) and Philips Go Gear offer credit card sized video players with small 2.2-3" TFT screens at the low end and also offer models with integrated Bluetooth. This is a very nice feature as it allows you to pair a set of Wireless Stereo Headphones with the video player. You can buy decent wireless Bluetooth stereo headphones from vendors such as Sony, Motorola, Panasonic, Oakley, and Samsung that are perfect for bicycling, treadmills, running, etc as you can get high quality music on the go without worrying about tangled earphone cords. Battery life is excellent for most of these new stereo headphones with some averaging up to 4-5 hours of continuous usage time on a fully charged battery.