Gear & Now: Pimp My PMP!
Posted Nov 29, 2007

Sorry to use that phrase so blatantly. It may be objectionable in some circles (apparently not in Hollywood), but it does describe a major trend in value-added merchandising and manufacturing. And in researching the latest developments in portable media, the acronym PMP appears so many times it is contagious.

It will only be more so in the future. According to the latest research provided by In-Stat, a major industry analysis firm, worldwide shipments of MP3 players and PMPs (video portable multimedia players) will increase from 182 million in 2006 to 275 million in 2011.

Research firm Park Associates (in its "Portable Multimedia Players: Analysis and Forecasts," second edition report) concurs, saying PMP shipments will grow 30% each year for the next 5 years. The consumer electronics industry will continue to push the ability to add video capability into the established portable audio player market, and it will want to capitalize on developments in ubiquitous acquisition tools (from cell phones to camcorders) and the booming broadband market (from VoIP to IPTV and beyond).

From Apple to Zune, consumer electronics and personal media manufacturers are dressing up what are now the old MP3 music players of yesteryear with enticing new add-ons for tomorrow. In these attempts to woo the consumer, manufacturers can also give satisfying benefits to the pro video community; at the very least, manufacturers can offer attractive and functional options for media presentation and video playback for when we’re away from home or the studio.

PMPs are not replacements for great home theater environments or professional reference monitors, but having highlights from your best or most recent video productions in the palm of your hand is convenient and eye-catching. Anywhere you and a prospective client may be is a video viewing and business pitching opportunity.

As EventDV contributor and pro videographer Marc Smiler described the Apple iPhone (a highly pimped PMP itself) in the October issue, "I can fit many more ‘complete’ weddings on any portable device than someone who delivers two-hour long movie-length features … That amount of video is certainly enough to get someone interested in my work. You are not really going to watch hours of clips with a prospect, but it is nice to have a few different stylistic options." Along with the stylistic and stylish presentation options is the fact that some of these PMPs can read maps, open PDFs, type messages, and sync to calendars, all of which are bonuses for many videographers and businesspeople.

figure 1HyOn
Matching an important business requirement with an appropriate solution is the first step in a purchase decision; the add-ons are a bonus.

For example, Korean manufacturer HyOn has enhanced its X3 PMP into one of those do-it-all devices complete with a GPS chip for global positioning, a DMB antenna for receiving digital multimedia broadcasts, and a 7" LCD screen with an 800x480-pixel resolution.

This Windows-CE handheld device can receive radio, TV, and multimedia datacasts, and it’s friendly with most media file types, including MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, XviD, and WMV9.

Additional features incorporated into the X3 include RCA jacks for stereo audio and composite video output. The X3 has four speakers, two with 1.2W and two with 1.5W. There is also a dock for PC connectivity.

Unfortunately, there’s no word on North American distribution right now; if anyone is heading to Korea soon, please let me know!)

figure 1Vosonic
My first exposure to the world of PMPs was with an early version of the Vosonic Wolverine, which is about the size of a paperback book (but with a small screen the size of a large postage stamp). It came with a detachable external speaker, and it had some voice and A/V input record capabilities.

The newest Wolverine has increased the storage capacity to 250GB (up from the 60GB or 80GB capacities of early models), and it now boasts a larger 3.6" color LCD screen on which to play back a wider range of supported media types. The Wolverine also has enhanced built-in connectivity to TV and stereo systems for greater presentation flexibility and a memory card reader for viewing still images.

Its recording capabilities include built-in mic, FM radio, and a PVR-like ability to record directly from a TV, DVD, or camcorder with optional docking cradle. The top-of-the-line model runs about $500.

That may seem a little pricey to some, especially with new releases like those from SanDisk on the way. Though SanDisk is new to the PMP market, its Sansa View is nonetheless a good first offering combining standard MP3 audio attributes with full-motion video support, a reasonably sized screen, long battery life, and expandable memory (using supported 24GB Flash memory cards).

Most popular formats are supported via embedded player functionality (H.264, WMV, and MPEG-4) or via a one-time software download of the Sansa Media Converter, which quickly transcodes numerous video files including DivX.

Building on its MP3 heritage, the Sansa View has voice recording, FM radio, and music library navigation aids. The entry price is $149; a $199 model with extra memory card still makes this a very competitively priced PMP.

Creative Technology, Ltd.
Up a notch or two in cost, if not capability, is the line of ZEN Vision PMPs from Creative Technology. Creative’s latest ZEN 2.5TFT color display supports up to 16.7 million colors, presenting video in formats such as WMV9, M-JPEG, MPEG 4-SP, compatible DivX 4/5, and XviD in its best light. One charge of the built-in rechargeable battery is said to provide up to 5 hours of video or up to 25 hours of music playback.

The Creative ZEN includes a built-in FM radio and voice recorder, but it also has a personal organizer to sync contacts, to-do lists, and calendar programs with Microsoft Outlook.

Creative ZEN will be available in 4, 8, and 16GB models (somewhat small, but expandable via an SD memory slot). Street pricing is dropping, with price tags of $149 to $249 readily available.

figure 1Archos
For many of us, 16GB of video storage (even with expandable cards) is somewhat limiting; the larger capacity of the Wolverine or the Archos 605, which is a 160GB PMP, is better.

With Archos, the pimping is wireless. Built-in Wi-Fi capabilities allow the user to stream content from the PMP (or PC) across a wireless network.

The 605’s LCD screen measures 4.3" so viewing size is good, but video format compatibility is only for WMV and MPEG-2. Pricing starts at $400 for a 160GB unit.

Most PMPs today are in the 4:3 screen aspect ratio category—perhaps not a great idea with the growing popularity and accessibility of widescreen 16:9 video. Archos’ 605 screen measures 800x480 so widescreen imagery is supported, and it’s described as high resolution. The company has 7" widescreen displays in its product lineup, and the new 700-series releases in Europe seem to indicate the way the company is heading.

Cowon Systems, Inc.
Cowon, another Korean company with an innovative track record in digital media, has among its many portable media solutions the Q5 and A2 PMP. The Q5 is a 5" 800x400-pixel touch screen PMP complete with Wi-Fi, DMB, GPS, and other networking and media capabilities. It’s priced at about $600.

The A2 is much less costly, less than $300 at most outlets, but it is almost as functional. Of course, music playback is featured, and the A2 also has voice recording, audio/visual input, FM Radio with recording, USB 2.0, text viewer, and more. It’s been called one of the best PMPs around mainly because of its multiple video format, resolution, and frame rate compatibility, even without re-encoding.

With support for video in AVI, ASF, WMV, DivX 3.11/4/5, XviD, MPEG-4, WMV9 (MP@LL) at up to 720x576, 30fps, the A2’s stats read more like those of a pro video deck or HDD than a palm-sized PMP. What’s more, the rechargeable Lithium Ion battery is rated at up to 10 hours video playback.

The A2 supports subtitle (text) overlay and outputs to NTSC and PAL. Whatever it is playing back, it will look great on the bright, colorful 4" widescreen TFT display. Its screen measures 480x272 pixels, but again, the impact of widescreen even at this size cannot be ignored.

Anyone shooting widescreen video will want to play it back that way, and the newest PMPs let that happen wherever you go. As mentioned, the portable media player market is booming, and new products are now or will soon be available from manufacturers from A to Z.

Whither Apple and Microsoft?
How will the stalwarts—Apple’s iSeries and Microsoft’s Zune—cope? Well, with new touch screen capabilities, added media features, new storage capacities, and lowered prices.

Integrated telephony, digital media playback and recording, global positioning capabilities, text and file display, wired and wireless connectivity—how many more features can fit into a device without it losing its portability?

Lee Rickwood is a media consultant and freelance writer.