microsoft's Portable Media Center on its way

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As expected microsoft used CeBIT to launch its Portable Media Center (PMC) in Europe. There’s still some time before the devices reach the stores (it will probably be in August), but at least now we know models, prices and their spec.

For the record the first two models to launch will be the Creative Zen Portable Media Center and the iRiver PMC-140. Both devices sport 3.5inch LCD screens and 40 Gigabyte hard disk drives and harness microsoft’s software to enable users to transfer and then view/listen to video, image and audio content they have stored on their Windows XP PC on the move.

There’s also a second iRiver product in the PMC-120. The only difference between it and the 140 is that it has a 20 Gigabyte rather than 40 Gigabyte hard disk and should be a little cheaper.

Speaking of prices, the companies haven’t yet revealed the cost of the devices but expect to pay between £400-500 to own one.

Having seen a demo of the Creative unit on at least a couple of occasions we have plenty of positive things to say about it.

Firstly the interface is brilliant – really simple to use. Secondly the quality of the video was excellent – much better than the rival Archos AV300 products. This may have a great deal to do with a top quality LCD screen.

Also the device may have a handy selling point in being able to show really good quality versions of JPEGs. Sure it might not be that innovative or exciting, but imagine being able to carry your family photo album with you – great for new dads.

However, like many MS products, we think the PMC is a work in progress and that it will take some time for it take off. Here’s why

1 No decent video content – The whole point of product is being able to take video with you and there is precious little quality video in the Windows Media format in the UK at the moment. microsoft imagines users will record TV programmes onto their hard disk and then port them over to the device. It is easy to do this if you own a Windows Media Center PC, but the number of people who own such a computer in the UK is a very small.

Users won’t be able to watch movies on the devices at the moment either. They are not compatible with MPEG4 video (mainly due to copyright issues) which means all the films downloaded via sites like KaZaa can’t be ported on to the device.

Users also can’t transfer their DVDs to the player as they can on the Archos players.

In the US PMC owners will be able to transfer movies from sites like Cinema Now. Until that company, or a rival service sets up in the UK, very few movies will appear on PMCs.

2 Battery life – This is going to be an issue as the screen goes blank after three hours if you watch a video. So you can only watch one movie before a recharge.

3 Content deals – So far microsoft has agreed deals with Napster and EMI Music for music downloads. Both are large companies with huge catalogues and plenty of marketing nous. However by sticking with Windows Media, the devices won’t be compatible with tracks downloaded from forthcoming Apple and Sony download services that use AAC and ATRAC respectively.

4 Compatibility – The PMCs are Windows XP only. Not Mac or any variations of Windows.

5 Pricing – At £500 the devices are just too expensive. £400 is more realistic, but to tempt anyone other than cash-rich early adopters the figure will have to be more like £300.

If that sounds little negative it isn’t meant to be. MS products often take a few years to establish themselves and we believe this will happen with the PMCs.

Much of how the PMCs fare will depend on which music and video formats take the lead in the UK market. If its success in the US is anything to go by it will hard to look beyond Apple and AAC for audio. As for video, the outlook for Windows Media looks a lot healthier.

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