BY CHAD THOMAS
Portable music players are so passé. These days, devices that merely play music represent the low end of the digital media market. Most portable music players have expanded into the world of video, and here’s a look at three different devices that each tackle the concept of mobile video in their own unique way.
(Apple, $299.99 30GB, $399.99 60GB)
Last fall, Apple’s 800-pound gorilla gained the ability to play videos. Shows, movies and sporting events are available from ABC, CBS, NBC, Disney, Showtime, MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. Videos typically cost $1.99 each, although many networks have begun offering season passes that let you download a series of shows for a single price (such as Comedy Central’s $9.99 per month plan).
The low-resolution video is only 320×240 — lower than standard broadcast. It looks great on iPod’s 2.5-inch screen, but connecting the unit to a TV reveals the blockiness of the picture. But Apple says the iPod is a music player first and a video player second and therefore doesn’t need pristine quality video. That’s too bad, because you could store a lot of high-quality video on a 60GB hard drive and still have plenty of room for music.
AV700 Mobile DVR
(Archos, $599.99 40GB, $799.99 100GB)
For an example of how good video can get on a portable device, check the AV700 Mobile DVR and its insanely huge 7-inch widescreen. And yet, at less than an inch thick, the AV700 isn’t nearly as bulky as I expected. It’s actually much smaller than a portable DVD player.
The AV700 is designed to be connected to your cable or satellite receiver and used to record programming. A breakout box connects to a specialized port on the top of the unit and provides composite and S-video connections. Built-in scheduling software allows you to set the times and channels to record, and an IR blaster lets the AV700 change the receiver to the correct channel at the designated time. The scheduling software isn’t as user-friendly as a regular digital video recorder’s programming guide, but it isn’t tortuous. Several recording options affecting audio and video quality are offered; the higher the recording quality, the less programming the unit can hold. Video recorded at the maximum resolution (720×480) will yield about 40 hours, while videos recorded at 480×234, the resolution of the built-in display, will yield closer to 80. The battery lasts about four hours during video playback.
The AV700 also plays music and games and displays digital photos. It’s clear, however, that those functions are secondary to recording and playing video. The music browser, for example, is fairly clumsy and lacks even a rudimentary shuffle feature. But a device this big won’t usurp the sleek iPod as the music player of choice. It is, however, an amazing video player.
LocationFree Player Pack
LocationFree TV consists of two pieces: the base station, which features multiple A/V inputs, and a compatible display device (sold separately) like a computer, a mobile display or Sony’s own PSP. You can connect three video devices to the base simultaneously, although the components must be stacked horizontally for the IR blaster to control them all. The base station then connects to your wired or wireless home network and streams programming to your chosen playback device.
Here’s where it gets complicated: To watch TV from outside your home, you must properly configure the DNS settings and forward the proper ports on your router. Once you get it working, the results are almost stupid cool. I tested LocationFree TV with a PSP and watched shows while connected to Highland Coffee’s wireless hotspot. The video isn’t incredibly clear, even on PSP’s 4.3-inch widescreen — it suffers from occasional stutters but is still very watchable. The quality depends on the speed and signal strength of the hotspot, though, so LocationFree TV will obviously look better in some locations.
There are several limitations to the base station. It requires a fair amount of skill to configure; the highest quality video input is a single S-video port; there is considerable lag when using the remote control functions; and you can’t connect to the base station through a proxy server (like most workplaces use). But seeing the device work is amazing and makes the trouble worthwhile. If Louisville gets on the ball with municipal WiFi, LocationFree TV will be indispensable. As it is, LocationFree TV is still really cool.
The amazing thing about the three devices detailed above is how different they are. Each is tailored to a specific market — iPod to those who want portability and simple video playback, AV700 to those who crave maximum video quality and robust recording functionality, and LocationFree TV to those who want live TV on the go. The trick is deciding which best fits your digital lifestyle.
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