Creative's Zen Portable Media Center.
Creative
Creative's Zen is the first Portable Media Center to hit the market.
By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 9/1/2004 10:43:42 PM ET 2004-09-02T02:43:42

Three big announcements today from Microsoft -– and they all revolve around media: There’s the new Windows Media Player version 10, there’s the grand opening of the MSN Music store for downloading music over the Web and the Portable Media Center, essentially a sort of iPod with video and pictures.

I’d like to tell you the entire story –- why all of these items are extremely cool when viewed as a whole –- but unfortunately, that has to wait. Microsoft has embargoed reviewers from writing about a very important piece of the puzzle until the middle of October. So, stay tuned, and in the meantime, there's no shortage of news today: 

Windows Media Player 10
The big improvement here is that the software’s interface has been upgraded to allow for easier navigation and use. The improvements include tabs with titles that finally make sense: names like Now Playing, Library, Rip, Burn and Guide.

screenshot of Windows Media Player 10
Microsoft
screenshot of Windows Media Player 10
WMP 10 now allows you to rip music in the MP3 format, not just Microsoft's proprietary format.  In the past you had to buy/get/obtain your own MP3 ripping software, or use someone else’s software. Of course, Microsoft still says their proprietary Windows Media compression format sounds better.  Many people agree.  I prefer non-compressed music files, but that’s an entire separate discussion .

In the upper right hand corner is where you can visit the Digital Media Mall and chose which online music store you’d like to rent music and videos from. There are a few choices (Wal-Mart, CinemaNow, Musicmatch, MusicNow and Napster), but Microsoft is hoping that you choose their new MSN Music store.

MSN Music
Apple’s iTunes is the industry standard. Microsoft is hoping to shake that up, -– especially if the 8 million people who get Internet access from MSN take the plunge and start renting their music via the MSN Music store. The store goes online in a test version today.

Songs will be available for download in the Windows Media format, which Microsoft likes to point out is supported by multiple portable devices. (ITunes, in contrast, uses a proprietary format.) Pricing is pretty similar to iTunes and the other online music stores, however: 99 cents per song, $9.99 for most albums. Which service you use may come down to which store offers you the best special deals on the songs you want.

While the test version is now live, don't expect to see as many songs as you will on iTunes.  MSN says loading the store with all the available songs will take a little time. Eventually, the volumes should be about the same.

(MSNBC content is distributed by MSN. MSNBC itself is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

Portable Media Center
A few years back, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs conducted the battle of the keynote speeches. The heads of Microsoft and Apple each tried to impart his personal vision of the future: computers controlling everything throughout the home, especially media.

In real terms, Apple added photo, music and video editing software to its computers. Then came the iPod. The rest is history.

Microsoft’s work centered more on the home computer -- and video -– with a Media Center Edition of the Windows operating system. Currently a second generation product, Media Center allows you to use your computer as a TiVo of sorts: recording and watching TV programs and videos at your leisure.

At the same time, Microsoft was also working on portable hardware. The company wanted its portable device to be an extension of the Media Center OS. Finally, the first generation of those devices is here.

The Portable Media Center is an audio/video playback only device that allows you to take your recorded and downloaded music (hopefully from the MSN Music store) plus your videos (hopefully from something like a Media Center computer) along with you when you travel.

I’ve been playing with the Zen, Creative’s version of the Portable Media Center.  It’s the first PMC to hit the market. At 5.6 by 3.2 by 1.0 inches and a whopping 11.7 ounces, the Zen is much larger than an iPod -- and that's not surprising, given the 3.8 inch color video screen.

Microsoft
Portable Media Center screen.

When you plug your Portable Media Center (via USB cord) into any computer equipped with Windows Media Player 10, the computer will automatically recognize the PMC and begin synchronizing all your music, videos and photos. You can turn this feature off, of course, but the fully automatic feature is the easiest.

As I've stated, the Zen PMC is a playback unit only. It gets all of its information from a Windows XP computer (and only an XP computer).  It cannot record audio or video from an outside source such as a TV tuner or cable box.  Competitor Archos’ products can -- and that's a big plus. But any Windows computer owner who has a tuner card or those with Media Center computers can easily transfer their recorded videos to the PMC.

To help that along, there are a few other announcements accompanying Microsoft's. ATI Technologies, Hauppauge Computer Works, NVIDIA, Pinnacle and software maker SnapStream are announcing that this fall they’ll be releasing new tuner cards and programs that will enable Windows OS users to record television content into Windows Media format and make it automatically ready for transfer to a PMC.

The test Zen's 20 GB hard drive holds lots of music and video, though your mileage will vary. Promised 40 GB versions should hold even more. Note that neither uncompressed music files (despite what they'd like you to believe Microsoft's 'WMA lossless' is a compressed format) nor commercial DVDs can be transferred. The transfer of copyright protected files is also barred unless you download them from an approved source (more about that below).

Installation was pretty bullet-proof.   I upgraded my computer with Windows Media Player 10 and plugged in the Zen. As promised, the PMC was recognized and installed immediately.  Within just a few minutes all of my music and photos were available on the PMC.

The Zen has a small hole on the front panel where sound tries to come out.  I wouldn't really call it a speaker so all listening was done through headphones.  Sound quality was pretty good, especially for compressed music files.  I also plugged the Zen into my home stereo through its "A/V out" jack, and the audio sounded over modulated coming from there. I would stick with the headphone jack for most audio connections.

The rechargeable battery is said to last about six hours playing back videos and nearly double that for music.

The Zen PMC gets points for being quite easy to master. The startup/navagation screen looks just like the startup screen on a Media Center computer -– and that’s a very good thing. Without prompting, my wife picked up the device and was able to navigate through the menus with ease. She likes it. Thinks it’s cute.

I'm not quite as enthusiastic. I think it's way too big and bulky for easy portability.  And I wish there were more recording options other than having to use a computer to add material.  I might change my mind when I have a way (or two) to add videos to watch.

Samsung's YH-999 Portable Media Center, due this fall.
Samsung
Samsung's YH-999 Portable Media Center, due this fall.

As for video downloads, you’ll soon be able to download baseball highlights from MLB.com and entertainment content from CinemaNow.com. Pricing will be $2.99 to $3.99 for a pay-per-view rental and $9.99 to $14.99 for download-to-own titles.

Creative’s Zen PMC goes on sale today at Best Buy and Creative.com.   CompUSA, Amazon.com, Fry’s and Good Guys will be selling them soon.  MSRP is $499.99.  In the next few weeks expect to see PMCs from Samsung and iRiver as well.

Consider this the first part of my review. Next month, I’ll tell you about the other half of the equation (the even more exciting half) and how they’ll all work together.

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