Personal Video Players – a market review

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Archos has one, so has Thomson, Sony will have one soon and Apple and microsoft are both sizing up the market. We are referring to personal video players, handheld devices tipped to be the next big thing in consumer electronics. Here’s our overview of a market that could potentially be enormous.

Video on the move

Wouldn’t it be great to have a small device you could take anywhere that housed a selection of video clips? Just think, on a boring train journey you could whip out your earphones, press play on the unit and be reliving a favourite cup win, some classic comedy or maybe even Junior’s first faltering steps on the gadget’s small screen? Well, you may not have much longer to wait…

Sure, video on the move isn’t an entirely new concept. In the early 90s Sony introduced its Watchman, a small LCD screen that featured an integrated TV tuner. However consumers weren’t impressed by a poor quality screen rubbish pictures and the fact they had to add new batteries every half an hour or so.
Battery related-issues, along with price, has also prevented personal DVD players from becoming more widely owned. After all what’s the point of a player that lets the user see just one movie before the screen goes blank.

Undeterred, a growing band of manufacturers are sensing that personal video players could prove to be an enormous cash cow. Ironically, spearheading the development of video on the move is not actually a traditional consumer electronics company, but rather microsoft.

In among a flurry of announcements made at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January this year, microsoft’s CEO, Bill Gates gave the first demonstration of a new type of portable device.
Acknowledging that people can potentially carry too many entertainment devices, Gates promised to shoehorn them into one small unit that uses a version of the Windows CE. Net operating system that bears the fancy title of Media2go.

The prototype device from Viewsonic (although Samsung, I-River, Sanyo and Creative Labs have also promised units) paired a 20 Gigabyte hard disk with a large 4inch colour screen.
Gates told the delegates that users would plug the device into a hard disk based video recorder (like a TiVo, or Sky Plus), or even better a Windows-driven PC that has an integrated TV tuner (like microsoft Media Center PCs), and record and store TV programmes, home videos etc, which they could then review on the move.

Although video is their headline feature the Portable Media Centers (as Media2go is now known) devices also play back music, in both MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) formats and display JPEG picture images that have been transferred to the player from a PC.

Of course video isn’t stored in its existing format (invariably MPEG2) – its files would be far too large to be stored on the players. Rather the devices convert the video into formats like MPEG4 or Windows Media that compresses them (losing some image quality along the way) so they are small enough to fit on the player’s hard drive.

For example using MPEG4 it is be possible to store around 40 hours on video on a 20Gigabyte player.
The first Portable Media Center devices are expected in the US in summer 2004. We probably won’t get to see them until later that year.

Inevitably the big issue for microsoft and its partners is going to be battery power. microsoft claims that as the devices use an operating system that doesn’t make huge demands on processing power, they will deliver up to six hours of video before their batteries finally die. Many observers feel that microsoft is a tad optimistic, and that a battery life of around three hours is more likely.

While the microsoft announcement was big news at CES there was at least one company whose execs were wearing a slightly smug smile when they heard of microsoft’s plans.

For French company Archos had just unveiled a product scheduled to go on sale in spring 2003 that did pretty much all the microsoft devices do.

The company has the AV300 range of products which can record and show video as well as display images and play MP3s. The unit, which sports a 20/40 or 60 Gigabyte hard and a 4inch screen went on sale in the UK in late summer.

Its killer application though is video. If owners add a Digital Video Recorder the Jukebox is transformed into a device that can record video from any RF source. This includes direct from a TV, from a PC (it comes with a fast USB 2.1 connector) or even from a VHS video recorder or DVD player. The files are then converted to the MPEG4 format enabling many hours (Archos claims up to 40 on the 20 Gig Jukebox) to be stored in what the company claims is VHS video and MP3 sound quality. User can also plug the device into another TV set and view the movies they have stored on its hard disk.

While the device is certainly groundbreaking, Archos has still got a fair way to go to perfect it. The main problem is that the size of the screen is just four inches. That’s fine if you want to view a minute or two of your kids playing in the garden, but likely to test your eyes and your patience if you watch a long film.
Battery life is reasonable coming in at about three hours worth of video per session.

It may soon have competition too. Sony is lining up a similar device that works with its Vaio range of PCs for a UK launch in the spring, while Thomson had a unit similar to the Archos coming in late 2003.
The one company that is keeping surprisingly quiet about video on the go is Apple Macintosh. It revolutionised the MP3 personal audio market with its iPod players and it seems almost certain that a video-playing version of that device is on the cards, possibly announced at its big exhibition in San Francisco in January. Given the company’s knack of producing innovative products with superb design and simple interfaces you wouldn’t bet against Apple being a major player in the video on the move arena very shortly.

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