How Portable Media Centers Work


The iriver PMC-140 has a 40-GB storage capacity. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

In our increasingly mobile society, portability is king. Thanks to easy-to-transport, high-tech products such as cell phones, laptops, personal data assistants and portable MP3 players, many of the tasks that can be accomplished at home on a personal computer can now be done on the road.

With portable media centers, you can store and access nearly all of your digital entertainment files on a single, lightweight unit about the size of a paperback novel. They can handle recorded television programs, movies, home videos, music and digital photos. You can even connect a portable media center to a television or stereo using the A/V-out jack when portability isn't necessary.

In this article, you'll learn about the storage capacity and wide array of advanced features available in portable media centers.

Storage Capacity and File Types

Windows Mobile-based portable media centers currently feature 20-GB or 40-GB storage capacities and can store and play not only music and photos, but also video content. A portable media center with a 40-GB hard disk can hold up to 160 hours of video, up to 10,000 songs or tens of thousands of digital photographs. Archos currently offers non-Windows portable video player/recorders with similar capabilities to the Windows PMCs, but Archos' players feature up to 100 GB (400 hours of video) of storage.

File Types

Windows Mobile-based portable media centers support a wide variety of different file types, including the following:

  • Microsoft Windows Media Video and Microsoft Photo Story files (.wmv and .asf) at a resolution of 320x240 pixels and a bit rate that is less than 800 kilobytes per second (Kbps)
  • Microsoft Windows Media Audio files (.wma)
  • MP3 audio files (.mp3)
  • JPEG image files (.jpg, .jpeg, .jpe, .jfif)
  • Microsoft Recorded TV Show files (.dvr-ms)
  • MPEG movie files (.mpeg, .mpg, mpe, .m1v, .mp2v, and .mpeg2)
  • Microsoft Windows Video files (.avi)
  • Microsoft Windows Audio files (.wav)

Windows Media Player 10 has the built-in capacity to convert oversized Windows Media Video files and JPEG pictures into a format and size that the PMC can handle. Windows Mobile-based portable media centers are not compatible with iTunes music files.

Adding Music and Video to a PMC

The Samsung Yepp YH-999 PMC can store 20 GB of music, movies and photos.
The Samsung Yepp YH-999 PMC can store 20 GB of music, movies and photos.
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Using Windows Media 10, you can transfer files from a personal computer to a portable media center through a USB 2.0 cable. Windows PMCs will accept the following types of files from a home computer or laptop:

  • Music copied from a CD
  • Pictures from a digital camera
  • Home movies from a digital video camera
  • TV shows recorded on a computer running Windows XP Media Center Edition or other personal video recorder programs
  • Videos downloaded from the Internet

Portable media centers can also play premium downloaded digital music and video from various online services. It should be noted, however, that DVDs you own cannot be transferred to the device because of copyright restrictions.

Transferring Files

Files can be transferred from a personal computer to a portable media center using Windows Media Player 10. If the portable media center cannot support a particular file size or format, Windows Media Player 10 will automatically convert the file to a type and size supported by the device. You can set up Windows Media Player 10 to sync the type of media you want every time you connect a portable media center to your PC.

The file-synchronization process using Windows Media Player 10 is fairly straightforward:

  1. Install Windows Media Player 10 on your PC.
  2. Use the USB 2.0 cable that came with your PMC to connect the portable media center to your PC.
  3. Windows Media Player automatically detects that a portable device is attached and asks whether you would like to sync the device using Windows Media Player.
  4. Click OK to run through the setup.
  5. The Sync Wizard opens and gives you the opportunity to configure the sync settings. Accept the default settings if they look good to you, and click Finish.*
  6. If a Security Upgrade Required dialog box appears, click OK to accept the upgrade.
  7. Windows Media Player syncs all selected audio, video, recorded TV and image files to the portable media center, including album art for CDs. Windows Media Player may convert some files into an appropriate format for playback on your portable media center. Syncing takes anywhere from a few seconds to several hours, depending on the number and size of files.**
  8. When synchronization is complete, the "Items to synchronize" panel will show the number of items that have been synchronized.
  9. Unplug the cable. The device returns to the home screen.

*If you like, you can change the sync settings in Windows Media Player so that only specific types of media files (e.g., music files or photos) will sync each time you connect the portable media center to your PC. To change the sync settings in Windows Media Player, click the Sync tab, and then click the Sync Settings button. The new dialog box that appears allows you to choose the files that you want to sync when you connect the portable media center to your PC. The default setting automatically syncs all available media files.

**File conversion may be necessary for some audio and video files to make them compatible with your portable media center. To adjust media file-conversion settings, go to Tools>Options in Windows Media Player 10. The dialog that displays conversion settings is on the Devices tab. To speed up the sync process for large files, you can choose to allow Windows Media Player to convert audio and video files during computer downtime.

Windows-based Portable Media Centers

Creative Zen 20-GB Portable Media Center
Creative Zen 20-GB Portable Media Center
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

There are three major brands of Windows Media-based portable media centers currently on the market:

Creative Zen Portable Media Center

  • Manufacturer: Creative Labs
  • Storage capacity: 20 GB
  • Dimensions: 5.67 x 3.18 x 1.06 inches (14.4 x 8.1 x 2.7 cm)
  • Display size: 3.8 inches (9.7 cm)
  • Resolution: 320x240
  • Weight: 11.3 ounces (320 grams)
  • Battery life: Up to 22 hours continuous audio playtime or up to seven hours continuous video playtime
  • Price: MSRP $499

iriver PMC-120 (20 GB) and PMC-140 (40 GB)

  • Manufacturer: iriver
  • Storage capacity: 20 GB or 40 GB
  • Dimensions: 5.6 x 3.3 x 1.2 inches (14.2 x 8.4 x 3.0 cm)
  • Display size: 3.5 inches (8.9 cm)
  • Resolution: 320x240
  • Weight: 45 ounces (1.3 kg)
  • Battery life: Up to 14 hours continuous audio playtime or up to five hours continuous video playtime
  • Price: MSRP $499 or MSRP $649
iriver PMC-120 iriver PMC-120
iriver PMC-120
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Samsung Yepp YH-999 Portable Media Center

  • Manufacturer: Samsung
  • Storage capacity: 20 GB
  • Dimensions: 3.82 x 4.21 x 0.83 inches (9.6 x 10.6 x 2.1 cm)
  • Display size: 3.5 inches (8.9 cm)
  • Resolution: 320x240
  • Weight: 8 ounces (227 grams)
  • Battery life: Up to 12 hours continuous audio playtime or up to three hours continuous video playtime
  • Price: MSRP $499
Samsung Yepp YH-999 PMC Samsung Yepp YH-999 PMC
Samsung Yepp YH-999 PMC
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Alternatives to Windows Media Players

Archos AV420 Pocket Video Recorder
Archos AV420 Pocket Video Recorder
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

There are also non-Windows-based portable media players currently available -- for example, the Archos AV420 (20 GB), AV480 (80 GB) and the new AV4100 (100 GB) Pocket Video Recorders.

One advantage of the Archos players is the dramatic increase in capacity. Another major advantage is that television programs and movies can be recorded directly from TV, VCR or cable/satellite; with Windows Mobile-based portable media centers, a PC running Windows XP Media Center must serve as an intermediary in the video transfer process. A downside to the Archos players is that you don't have the benefit of Window's Mobile's incredibly simple, automatic file-sync process.

A robust challenger in the portable media player arena is the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP). The PSP is a lightweight, pocket-size gaming device that utilizes a broad range of digital content. The PSP features a 16:9 widescreen display, USB 2.0 and 802.11b WiFi LAN connectivity and the ability to play games, video and MP3 audio.

In addition, there is increased competition between Windows Media-based portable media centers and Apple iPod media players. Apple's latest iPod supports up to 150 hours of video and is available in 30 and 60 GB models. Apple already has network deals to provide downloadable TV shows, and it is in talks with TiVo to allow for coordination between home DVRs and iPods.

The Future of Portable Media

Will portable media centers be a hit with today's on-the-go consumers? Only time will tell. Although Windows-based portable media centers are larger and heavier than MP3 players such as the Apple iPod, they offer larger screens, a familiar Windows-based interface and more diverse media content. The future promises more video and audio content designed specifically for portable media centers. Some of these new features include the following:

  • TiVoToGo - With this new feature, TiVo subscribers will be able to transfer television programs to a Windows XP-based PC. Then, they can use Windows Media Player 10 to transfer their favorite shows to a portable media center.
  • MSN video downloads, including videos from CNBC, MSNBC, Fox Sports and Food Network - These videos, which are stored in a Windows Media Player 10 library, can be easily synchronized with portable media centers.
  • MTV, VH1, CMT and Comedy Central programming for portable media centers, including news content and musical performances

If portable media centers prove popular with consumers, we can expect to see even greater storage capacity and sleeker and lighter designs.

For more information on portable media centers and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Wired: Apple Gives Video the iPod Touch - October 12, 2005
  • PC Magazine: Portable Media Centers Change Everything http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,1641714,00.asp
  • PC World: Microsoft Takes On Portable Video http://www.pcworld.com/reviews/article/0,aid,118015,00.asp