Portable Multimedia Players

These days, portable media players are everywhere. Devices such Apple's iPhone manage to pack video and picture playback into common everyday devices, whereas units such as the Creative Zen Vision W offer a more dedicated media playback solution.

Generic hard disk PMPs (non-Media Centre)


  • Greater variety of models
  • Greater diversity of features
  • Low prices
  • Support for wide range of file formats


  • Hard disks contain moving parts which will eventually break down
  • Operate slower than flash memory alternatives
  • Display is often too small for proper media watching
  • Battery life lower than flash players

Note:These are your standard everyday media playback devices. They usually come with a 1.5in to 2.5in display, 30GB to 80GB of storage and a bundle of extra features such as games. Devices such as Apple's iPod classic and Creative's Zen Vision M fall into this category and they are typically thought of primarily as digital music players with added media functionality.

The key thing to note here is the size of the display. Rarely bigger than 2.5in, the screens on these devices aren't designed for full blown movie playback. We've tried numerous times to watch feature films and even long television episodes on our iPod and been disappointed. However, for things like trailers and video clips they are perfect.

With this in mind, portable hard disk players such as this are best suited to music lovers who want a few extra playback options with their media player. Video enthusiasts will be better served by a model with a larger display, which will be covered later in the guide.

These days these devices typically use 1.8cm hard drives, which make them relatively compact. Flash players are still by far the smallest portable media solution but hard disk players are still small enough to slip comfortably into your pocket.

You should also note that hard drives use more power than solid state memory, meaning flash players have shorter battery lives. You may only squeeze out five or six hours video playback on such a device, although this will increase when listening to music.

Depending on the model you opt for, some features you might expect to find include a touch screen, an FM radio and/or voice recorders, an E-book reader and the ability to play games. In the near future, you can expect built-in TV tuning capabilities (and direct recording) to complement the existing radio tuner/recording capabilities of some models.

Although it is definitely this diversity in features and constant new developments that make PMPs so attractive, the other major draw card is the support for a greater variety of file formats. Support for DivX and XviD video is pretty much a given. In addition to playing back common file types such as WMA and MP3, some PMPs also support FLAC or OGG (vorbis) digital music files, TIFF photos, motion JPEG and more.

Not all PMPs are made the same or are of the similar quality, however. One device might only playback DivX 4/5 video files while another might playback DivX earlier versions as well as XviD files.

Some may require you to constantly use the supplied transcoding software to convert your files for playback on the device (although you may want to do this to save space); others may not need it all the time.

Note: Most PMPs are firmware upgradeable. The firmware is basically the operating system of the device. If a player doesn't support some MP3, photo, video or audio formats, find out whether its firmware can be updated for future compatibility. You can usually upgrade the firmware via your computer.

Finally, some PMPs also support USB-To-Go or USB-On-The-Go. This lets you connect a digital camera or other devices to the player directly, so you can download information to the player without going via a PC.

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