HOME Technology Nov 2006
Media players go mass market
Video pushes portable capacity

MP3 players and the various portable media devices that get bundled under that label are by far the most popular consumer electronics items on the market today, with New Zealanders spending $25 million on them in the first half of this year.

According to consumer electronics market researcher GfK, sales went through an astounding 864 percent growth in the six months to June 2006, compared with the same time last year.

The new breed of miniature multimedia devices is vying for a niche between USB flash memory drives, phones that double as cameras and specialised players such as the iPod and its growing number of rivals.

The latest fashionable, slimline devices aren’t satisfied with providing copious storage for songs and photographs, they’re music players, FM radios, voice recorders and video players as well.

Glorified storage devices that double as MP3 players litter the electronic pages of sites such as TradeMe for around $50 – $100, along with scores of older model iPods and other brand name devices, whose owners are trading up.

The fact that most new generation pocket players are optimised for video is a massive sea change, causing concern among those whose livelihoods depend on sales or rental of DVDs, now comprising half of Hollywood’s revenues.

They no doubt recall, the impact free-for-all audio downloads had on the music industry, when the wildcard MP3 format got loose on the internet, forcing the major record labels to rethink their strategies and get a digital one.

Mobile TV series

Video distributors, mobile phone companies, internet service providers and broadcasters are quickly gearing up to feed this hungry new youth-driven fad, with everything from music clips to on-demand TV series, configured for mobile players, known as ‘mobisodes’.

Meanwhile trusted brand names such as iriver, Creative Labs, Toshiba, Philips, Sony, SanDisk, Samsung, Nokia and dozens of clones, are trying to gain traction in this space. Even Victoronox, the Swiss army knife people, has got in on the game with a knife that’s also a Gb MP3 player.

Entry level devices retail from $100 to $200 giving enough capacity for several hundred MP3 songs (1Gb – 2Gb). Higher end media players, more focused on quality, capacity and video can sell for $500 – $1000 with up to 30Gb capacity (7500 songs), enough content to keep a radio station fresh for months or provide weeks of video viewing.

Portable players typically come with a USB cable for easy uploading of song, videos, photos and other files direct from a PC, notebook, digital camera or other device.

While digital media players have been around for several years, the iPod has more than half of the worldwide market and its music site iTunes accounts nearly 70 per cent of digital music sales where it’s available. Now Microsoft is about to deliver its Zune player which will link tightly with the Windows Media Player software and its own music site.

The 30Gb device with a 3 inch screen will come with FM tuner, and inbuilt wireless networking, enabling people to share their songs, photos and videos with other Zune owners. Microsoft hopes to have its new device on the New Zealand market shortly after Christmas, possibly at around $400.

Colourful and cute

While iriver has had players geared for video with up to 20Gb available this year, it’s latest offering is the 6Gb E10 ($399) which has a 1.5" LCD screen enabling it to be used as a video and flash game player, image or text viewer. It can even double as a TV remote, an alarm clock or photo album. It has an FM radio and can store any kind of data, including up to 1500 music files. The unit supports all major music files and operates up to 32 hours with an internal rechargeable battery.

The company also released the lower cost cute iriver T10 Flash Player in colours that immediately denote capacity red (512Mb), Yellow (1Gb) and black (2GB). They have a built in microphone and offer up to 53 hours playback from a single AA battery and come with a clip to fasten to your belt, bag or clothing.

SanDisk is launching its new Sansa e200 series of media players which supports all video and image formats as well as music and an FM radio. They claim 20 hours of battery life, have an alloy metal casing, a 1.8inch TFT colour screen and a microSD expansion slot . Capacity ranges from the 2Gb – 8Gb and prices from $289 – $529. SanDisk holds second place behind the iPod with 18 percent of the flash memory-based media player market.

Toshiba has launched into the market with its gigabeat S series (30 or 60Gb versions), digital audio and video players which use Microsoft Windows Portable Media Center software, so users can store and watch recorded TV programs and video, view photos and of course listen to music.

Creative Labs has jumped on the video train with its Zen V Plus MP3, photo and video player. The designer device comes in 1Gb, 2Gb and 4Gb models with hi-res 1.5inch OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screen. It has a voice recorder and synchronises with Microsoft Outlook calendar and contacts, allowing direct from CD and line-in recording with a synch-track function to automatically separate CD tracks into separate files,

Sporty MP3 Walkman

Another new entry for the Christmas market is Sony with a sleek water-resistant, aluminium cased MP3 Walkman, able to store up to 2GB of songs, weighing in at only 26g. This sporty little device features the ‘Music Pacer’ sensor technology to detect the listener’s moving pace in order to play pre-set songs. It also has calorie and distance counters, pedometer and stopwatch accessories.

To find the right player for your needs requires a little forethought. How much take away content do you want to carry? If you like to carry hundreds of photos and home movies to show on your viewer along with your entire music collection your obviously need the maximum capacity you can afford.

Navigation is also pivotal. So how much control do you have for managing your music and movies so you can find what you want when you need it? How many pre-set equaliser (EQ) settings; acoustic, classical, electronic, hip hop, jazz, pop, rock or vocal, are there for different kinds of music?

How long will the battery last playing music and or video? Does it have a rechargeable battery, and will it run on AA or AAA batteries as well? Battery life can range from 8 hours to 30 hours depending on use.

Does it support USB 2 for quick uploads from your computer? Does it have a line-in capability for a microphone or to record direct from CD player? How big is the screen for showing your .jpg files or movies? Screen sizes can range from 1.5 inch to 3.5 inches. Screen resolution or quality is something to consider if you plan to watch videos for long.

These portable media devices have spawned their own fashion industry with a host of accessories, including armbands, noise reduction headphones, headphone pre-amps, portable speakers, wireless and wired kits to connect to the home entertainment systems, FM transmitters, extension screens, car chargers, screen overlays and colourful cases.

Expect more sophisticated, stylish, higher capacity 20Gb – 60Gb devices to hit the market during 2007 with a stronger focus on sound quality, but watch out for cheap imitations that are little more than mass produced, bulk imported toys.


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