Portable media players that let you view pictures and movies, or listen to your MP3s are certainly sexy little toys, if a little on the expensive side. But if you are willing to do a bit of tinkering and dispense with brand-name build quality, you can have many of the advantages of a portable media player at a much cheaper price.
The $190 Mediagate portable MPEG4 player distributed by Anyware is a clever device that will let you play multiple media types, including DivX and MP4 formats, by attaching it to a TV and/or receiver. So unlike the more expensive options, you don't get a built-in screen, which means you won't be using it to keep the kids quiet in the back of the car on long journeys.
The Mediagate is essentially a USB 2.0, 2.5-inch hard drive enclosure that comes with built-in software for playing media files, a collection of cables for connecting it to TV and receiver, and a remote control to operate it. What it doesn't come with is a hard drive - you must purchase a 2.5-inch notebook hard drive yourself and install it in the enclosure. These days you can pick up 40GB drives for around $160. You'll need to make sure you've preformatted the hard drive, but other than that, installation is straightforward: pop the lid on the player, unscrew the circuit board, push the hard drive into the slot, screw the board back into the enclosure and you're away. Plug it into a USB port on a Windows XP PC and it shows up as a removable drive (you'll need to connect its AC adapter too, naturally).
With the drive connected to a PC, you simply copy your files over. Since it's a high-speed, USB 2.0 device, copying large files is painless as long as you've plugged it into a high-speed USB port on the PC. To view or play them, you connect the drive to a TV set and/or receiver using the supplied cables, of which you get quite an assortment. These can be connected in different combinations to the two AV plugs on the device to offer S-video, composite or component connections for video, and stereo or 5.1 sound.
The Mediagate supports all manner of standard video formats, MP3 and MP4, and will display still images too. It even supports 5.1-channel sound. Supported video resolutions include 720 x 480p, 1,280 x 720p and 1,920 x 1,080i. A simple menu interface displayed on the TV lets you navigate through options using the unit's remote control. It's not a fancy set-up, but it gets the job done. You also get drivers if you're using it with Windows 98/SE rather than XP (which requires no drivers).
Apart from some idiosyncratic English in the instructions, the device is simple to set up and use, and does a reasonable job. The quality of your video will depend on the media files you are using - garbage in, garbage out, as they say in programming. But when I tried high-quality MPEGs ripped from DVDs - saved at their original resolution and complete with their 5.1-channel soundtrack - the result was quite respectable. So if you want a way to take your movies with you, and providing your travel destination has a TV, it's a decent solution.
Price: $190; Distributor: Anyware; Phone: 1300 269 927; URL: www.anyware.com.au/