Portable media player makers look to digital TV

Portable media player makers at Computex are betting on the addition of DVB digital TV support to drive sales of their devices.

With the iPod having established itself as a hot product, companies at last year's Computex were bullish on the prospects of portable media players in the year-end shopping season. But the season came and passed with few sales and so many of the manufacturers returned to Computex with new models boasting additional features and, again, predictions of coming popularity.

Some of the players on show seem barely changed from last year, based on 2.5-inch drives that are more commonly used in laptop computes, while other models, like Elitegroup Computer Systems's EM-3520, are based on sleeker 1.8-inch drives and have larger 3.5-inch LCDs and manage to offer greater storage capacity in a smaller overall package.

But while some companies have been making progress getting their devices smaller, size might not be the reason why portable media players have yet to ignite the market in the same way as Apple did with the iPod.

"Many people don't have a source for MPEG4 files," said Eric Tsai, manager of the sales division at Hsinchu, Taiwan-based Vosonic Technology Corp., referring to the video file type widely supported by the devices. And without a ready source of compatible video files, who needs a video player?

Vosonic is targeting digital still camera users and concentrating on adding features such as USB On The Go. This enables users to connect their camera to the player and download the images to the player's hard-disk drive without first sending them through a PC.

The same function was present in Comix International's VPS-361 player, which is scheduled to enter mass production in early July. The device has a 3.6-inch LCD panel, FM radio, MP3 audio player, MPEG4 video player and USB2.0 interface was On The Go support. There's space for a 1.8-inch hard-disk drive of either 20G-byte or 30G-byte capacity depending on customer specification, said Tom Kang, managing director at the Taipei company.

Like many companies at the show Comix doesn't sell direct to end users but to other companies which rebrand the devices for sale.

Some exhibitors at Computex, like Koninklijke Philips Electronics, were providing a clue to the feature set of coming players. Philips offers a portable media player reference design, which is an almost-finished design based on one of its chips. The reference design can be quickly customized by device makers with additional features to come up with a finished product.

New in Philips' latest reference design is support for DVB-T, the dominant digital terrestrial television format in Europe and most of Asia.

"You see a lot of portable media players but they all do the same thing -- play back movies on the hard disk," said Marco Dings, a business unit manager for Ordina Technical Automation, which is working with Philips on adding DVB technology to the devices. "You have to decide [what movies you want to watch] before you leave home and, if you forget, you're left with the same movies."

Adding DVB-T reception will provide an additional source of entertainment and should prove especially popular in countries like the U.K. and Germany where digital terrestrial television is being transmitted free-to-air, he said. There are also plans to add support for DVB-H, a version of the technology intended for broadcasting to handheld devices, when it's available.

The Philips reference design also supports high-definition output, so the player can be connected to a television and content enjoyed in a much higher resolution that is typically possible with portable media players until now.

The portable media player market is still in the warm-up stage, said Lancelot Liu, a product manager at Taipei's DigiO2 International.

"All the major brands are wondering when the boom will come," he said. "The fourth quarter this year may be the key point.

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