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Portable media

A look at some of the latest high-capacity players

Last Updated November 22, 2006

There's something to be said for having a portable device that lets you watch anything any time, from movies to episodes of your favourite TV dramas — not to mention taking along tons of music and thousands of photos.

The latest hard-drive-based media players pack anywhere from 20 gigabytes of storage space to more than 100 GB into a package roughly the size of a deck of cards.

That kind of capacity is attractive. But unlike the small and cheap flash-memory-based digital music players that have flooded the market in recent years, players with big hard drives are still more of a niche market for consumers, mainly because of the high price tag that comes with them.

The best way to go about buying an item like this is to consider what you'll need it for, and whether the price premium over a smaller flash-memory player is worth it based on those needs. After all, when spending $400 on a portable device with a screen no bigger than a few inches across, you're going to want some significant bang for your buck.

The market for high-capacity players falls into two main categories. There are the people with really large music collections who want the ability to take it all on the road with them, or who want to carry a mix of lots of music and digital photos. But the vast majority looking at high-capacity portable media players are interested in movies and TV shows, or downloaded video clips.

The reason for this is that video eats up a lot of storage space — a gigabyte (1,000 megabytes) or more for a full-length movie, depending on how it is compressed for a small display screen, compared to about four megabytes for an average MP3 song. While flash memory is cost-effective in amounts up to a few gigabytes today, for larger capacities, a player with a miniature hard drive is still the way to go.

Apple iPod

Apple's iPod has been the clear-cut winner in the media player market, dominating sales and almost single-handedly starting a fashion-conscious demand for these portable gadgets. Last year's release of the iPod Video — the first model from Apple to play full-length movies and clips downloaded from a computer — was a big success because it offered these features without taking anything away from the iPod's well-known music and photo playback capabilities.

The newest iPod released by Apple in the fall, which is unofficially known as "iPod Movie," is not all that different from last year's flagship model, except for what's under the hood. The battery life has doubled to about six hours for video playback, with close to 20 hours for music and photos.

The 80 GB model sells for $400 and it's hard drive (there is also a cheaper 30 GB model for $300) is so big that it could fit as many as 50 full-length movies — assuming that you don't have any music or photos on the iPod at the same time. In other words, it's likely that the average person's entire music and photo collections would easily fit onto the 80GB iPod, with plenty of room to spare for video.

But sheer capacity isn't everything. There's also playback quality to consider, and some might find the iPod's 2.5-inch screen a little on the small side for watching more than short video clips. In that case, there are competing products that offer more screen real estate.

Creative Zen Vision W

The Zen Vision W from Creative Labs, for example, is the company's latest hard-drive-based portable media device, in 30 GB ($360) or 60 GB ($480) capacities. It offers a 4.3-inch widescreen display, which is the same size as Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld gaming device. Unlike the PSP, the Vision W is not made for games, but you will be able to watch widescreen movies and TV shows without black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.

You'll also be able to plug in a Compact Flash memory card filled with photos and video and upload them onto the Zen through a slot on the side. Imagine taking tons of snapshots on a trip; you can easily move the photos onto the Zen, then wipe the card clean and keep on shooting. Creative also has an adapter (sold separately) that can accept the other types of memory cards, such as SD, XD and Memory Stick Duo.

But video is still the primary focus for the Zen, because it's what the screen size was designed for. There is one catch — as with the iPod, video files need to be converted into a format that the Vision W can read, so loading up the player with video is not as easy as transferring basic music files. Let's assume that you have three movies and three episodes of a TV drama like Lost or 24. The conversion can only take place on a PC through Creative software that comes with the unit, and you would be looking at 35 to 45 minutes to convert and transfer all six of those video files from your computer to the player.

Toshiba Gigabeat S

The Toshiba Gigabeat S is the one device of the three that bypasses some of these delays because it doesn't require proprietary file-conversion software.

As long as you have Windows Media Player 10, you can just basically drag and drop all your stored video, music and photo files onto the Gigabeat through the Windows player. The Gigabeat will only play WMV files, and Windows Media Player handles the conversion. There's a television feature that will enable you to download recorded TV shows directly to the Gigabeat, too.

Like the Zen, the Gigabeat comes in two models (in white and black) that have 30 GB ($350) and 60 GB ($450) hard drives, respectively.

It's the smallest of the three devices, so it's nice and portable. But it also has the smallest screen (2.4-inches), and it has the shortest battery life, clocking in at just 12 hours for music and barely hitting three hours for video. Both the iPod and the Zen can outlast the Gigabeat on both counts.

The bottom line

A high-capacity portable media player is a handy gadget, but it's also a significant investment. Buying one you aren't happy with isn't as easy to shrug off as picking the wrong low-end digital music player. Each of these players will handle audio, video and photos, but each has unique strengths and weaknesses.

Those with an iPod can fill it up with files using either a Mac or PC, whereas the other two players will only work with a PC. But uploading and converting video is arguably more frustrating with the iPod because of limitations within Apple's iTunes software and with its copyright-protection system.

That's a considerable difference from the user-friendliness of the Gigabeat coupled with Windows Media Player on a desktop PC, although this player could have used a beefier battery to take more advantage of the content stored on its drive.

The Zen, meanwhile, is easily the bulkiest of the three players, but its strength is clearly in the widescreen that allows for great viewing at the standard 16:9 widescreen ratio. The Compact Flash slot is also very much a niche option, but it's a great one if you shoot photos and want quick access to your media player. Plus, the Zen has a replaceable battery, which can extend the life cycle of the unit a fair bit, since all rechargeable batteries eventually stop accepting a charge.

In the end, your best bet is to avoid making a snap decision based on looks or brand names, figure out precisely what you want from a player, and make sure it does everything you need it to before plunking down your hard-earned cash.

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