Video ready to get up and go

Keen to ride on the success of digital music players like Apple Computer's iPod, Taiwanese electronics manufacturers are promoting multimedia players that include video functions, at the Computex trade show currently taking place in Taipei.

Numerous hard-disk drive based portable music and video players were on show at Computex and almost without exception, the manufacturers were telling potential customers that they will be ready to start production during the next three months.

Eager as the companies are to capitalize on what they think is a natural progression from digital music players, the prototypes at Computex contained a dizzying list of specifications, and there was little consensus on which features and formats should be supported, or on the preferred physical size or storage capacity.

The players can be divided into three broad categories based on hard-disk drive size: either 2.5-inch, 1.8-inch or 1-inch drives. The size of the drive helps determine the overall physical size of the product and also the storage capacity. A lot of the players on display were based on 1.8-inch drives, which are manufactured by companies such as Toshiba and currently available in capacities up to 40G bytes.

Players using 1-inch or 2.5-inch drives were also on show at Computex but didn't appear to be as popular a choice for manufacturers as the 1.8-inch drives. The 1-inch drives offer a more limited capacity of up to around 4G bytes and the 2.5-inch drives increase the size of the finished product.

In terms of functions, playback of digital audio and video was common across all devices with some also offering a photo album function, but there was a big difference when it comes to the formats supported.

While digital music in MP3 format is widespread among PCs users, digital video appears to be much less common and so a dominate or widespread format has yet to appear. In the meantime, some of the players support a few formats while others attempt to cover all the bases. For example, the JoyToGo player from AnexTek Global supports MPEG4 and Motion JPEG video while the mPack from Power Quotient International (PQI) supports those formats as well as MPEG 1, MPEG 2, DivX, Xvid and Windows Media Video.

There was some commonality in the area of price. When asked, most companies were quoting end-user prices of between US$500 and $700 for the players, although observers at the show and even representatives of some of the manufacturers admitted that those prices would have to fall by around half before the players become a mass-market product.

Price probably won't be the only deciding factor on whether such products become mass-market replacements for music players, niche products or flops. Lifestyle could play a big part because digital video requires a different usage environment. Music can be enjoyed almost anywhere but video requires a little more concentration. While its suitable for the train or bus, one can't safely watch video while walking along a street or riding a bicycle.

There is also the different way we enjoy music and video, said Kow Ping, country manager for China, Hong Kong and South Asia at hard-disk drive maker Cornice. Music tends to be listened to again and again by people, so carrying the same song around in a pocket is an attractive option, however movies or TV programs aren't usually watched repeatedly, he said.

Cornice produces 1-inch hard disk drives available in capacities of between 1G byte and 2G bytes and Kow says the market for such drives is strong at present because of digital media players.

Toshiba has seen strong interest from companies looking to use the company's hard-disk drives. "You wouldn't believe how many inquiries we've had," said Cindy Lee, deputy manager of Toshiba Digital Media Network company, Taiwan's hard-disk drive division technical department. Toshiba produces a 1.8-inch drive that is used by Apple in its iPod.

Chip maker Texas Instruments, which is selling its digital media processor to many companies making such products, also said it has been getting a lot of attention from its customers and had several prototypes from customers on its booth as proof.

Also of interest at the show is the question of what part Microsoft will or won't play in the sector, an issue which remains to be seen.

The software giant is attempting to get in on the action with its Windows Mobile software for Portable Media Centers operating system (OS) but Peter Duh, a field applications manager at Texas Instruments, said many of its customers are looking to Linux or Micro iTron, at least in first generation machines.

"A high-level operating system means more memory," he said. "Maybe for the next generation (of products) a high-level OS might be effective, but not now."

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