Every time I hear the phrase "iPod killer" I'm reminded of poor Elmer Fudd on his constant quest to "kill the wabbit." Rivals such as Rio and Sony (SNE) have sleeker designs with longer battery life, but nothing so far is close to dethroning Apple Computer's (AAPL) player. Now at least six of the biggest names in portable audio are trying a different tack. They're asking: "What if you could not only fit 5,000 songs in your pocket but 80 hours of video, too?"
Over the past few weeks, I've taken a look at three portable video players from Archos, Creative Technology (CREAF), and Samsung Electronics. All three see their products as iPods for the video era. None stands a chance, in my opinion, but Archos' $550 AV400 Pocket Video Recorder is the best of the lot.
PACKING A 20-GIGABYTE hard drive and a 3.5-in. liquid-crystal display screen in a 9-oz. unit about the size of a personal digital assistant, the AV400 is a head-turner. It has a cradle and audio-video cables that can stay permanently docked near your home theater system to record TV shows or movies directly off your TV, VCR, or DVD player -- making it the first TiVo (TIVO)-like personal video recorder that's portable.
I hooked the AV400 up to my combination DirecTV (DTV)-TiVo satellite receiver, took about 15 seconds to set the date, time, and channel it would need to record Dead Like Me, and went to bed. The next morning the movie was waiting for me to take on a trip. Archos also lets you sync with My Yahoo! (YHOO) TV and calendar functions to automatically set recordings.
Getting music to the player was a snap. Musicmatch software that's bundled with the AV400 lets you encode and transfer music, or you can drag-and-drop music already stored on your PC to the device. Music I transferred in both the MP3 and Windows Media formats sounded good with the supplied headphones and great on a Bose set. You can also download iTunes music from the Mac, but only in the MP3 format.
The AV400's downside? As with all the new portable video players, you need sharp eyes or strong glasses. Even compared to notebook PCs, not TVs, the screens are scrunched. And unlike music, there's very little good, compressed video that you can download in a flash. Most of the time, you're stuck recording in real time. Another peeve: The standard lithium-ion cell lasted only about three hours, and a spare costs $60.
The other devices I looked at are part of a wave of products that should hit retail outlets in mid-August using Microsoft's (MSFT) Portable Media Center (PMC) software. Creative's Zen Portable Media Center and Samsung's YEPP YH-999, both $499, expose the shortcomings of this idea. The biggest negative is the limited recording capability. Unlike Archos', these machines accept only downloads of content that you have already recorded on your PC, encoded in Windows Media format.
The idea, of course, is to get more people to use Microsoft's multimedia software in the home. For the small minority who own Media Center PCs -- and have survived the time-consuming process of getting and installing the necessary cables to tie their PCs to TV, cable, or satellite feeds -- transferring data from the PC to a portable media center is easy. For everyone else, budget a good number of hours to finding legally available movies and TV shows on the Net. There aren't many. And any content you do find will likely need to be transcoded into Windows Media format, which can literally take days depending on the file size. Only then can you download that content to the portable player.
The media-center approach does have its merits. One cool feature: With the upcoming Windows Media 10 software, for the first time, you'll be able to download songs from subscription services such as Roxio's (ROXI) Napster to the portable players. (In the past you could download songs to your PC but not transfer them to players.) But lots of audio players, including the Archos, will support this feature, too. It seems the iPod's rivals will have to stalk this wily wabbit for a few more years.
Stephen H. Wildstrom is on vacation
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By Cliff Edwards