At the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Microsoft revealed that it was working on a portable digital media platform called Media2Go (see my preview) that would do for digital photos, videos, and recorded TV shows what the iPod did for digital music. Later branded as Portable Media Centers (see my CES 2004 photo gallery for images), these devices are just now starting to ship from a variety of manufacturers, including Creative, iRiver and Samsung.

My initial reaction to the Portable Media Center (PMC) was enthusiastic. But as the development schedule lagged from late 2003 into mid-2004, I started wondering whether there was a problem. Early reports weren't enthusiastic. Some complained about the size of the devices. Others ranted about the battery life. One of the truly insane opinions I saw about these devices suggested that PMC would be good for just one thing--transporting pornography--if you can believe that. By the time I got my hands on one for a long-term review, I wasn't sure what to think.

I'm happy to report that these devices are much, much more impressive than I had originally thought. And though the price of the first generation is sure to turn off all but the most dedicated of early adopters, I'm here to tell you that Portable Media Centers are for real. They are truly lust worthy.

The big picture: Why Portable Media Center?

For the most part, I'll leave it to Microsoft and its hardware partners to market Portable Media Centers. But I do find the story of how the PMC came about to be somewhat interesting. There are two aspects to this story: The wider strategy Microsoft has for delivering digital media beyond your PC, and the way in which the company has delivered on that vision, specifically, in this case with the PMC.

Microsoft's strategy--a so-called end-to-end media wave that's code-named Maui--is what sets the company apart from erstwhile competitors such as Apple. In Microsoft's world-view, it's not enough to enjoy your digital media on just PCs and a limited number of portable audio devices. Microsoft sees people creating, consuming, managing, and sharing digital audio, video, and photos in varies ways, and in various places, throughout their lives. Naturally, the center of the strategy is a Windows XP-based PC running Windows Media Player 10 (WMP 10, see my review); for even better experience, you could substitute a Media Center PC, which offers a remote control-accessible user interface for all your digital media tasks, and can be used to record TV shows.

For acquiring digital media, consumers can purchase digital content from a wide variety of online music and video sources such as MSN Music, Napster, MusicMatch, Wal-Mart Music, BuyMusic.com, and the like. Or they can record their own CD- or home movie-based content, and acquire photos from their digital cameras and scanners. Users with Media Center PCs, naturally, can record TV shows and movies.

On the far end of this solution is the consumption phase. To date, users have been forced to consume digital video and photos on their PCs for the most part, while some have chosen to purchase digital audio players for consuming digital music. With a Portable Media Center, consumers now have a new choice. They can consume all of these types of digital media, on the go, from any location on earth. You can watch a TV show you recorded on a flight, or share a digital photo slideshow with your grandparents, even if they don't have their own PC.

This notion of digital convergence isn't fanciful. Today, many people listen to music, take digital photos, and manage contact and PIM information from cell phones. Eventually, as new versions of those devices ship with tiny hard drives, people will begin using them to store their entire digital music collection as well. So the notion of a portable device that's smaller than a portable DVD player but far more useful is, in fact, quite exciting. And that's exactly what a PMC is.

Still don't see the big picture? Consider this: Today, digital video is where digital audio was back in 1999. Back then, less than 1 percent of consumers owned a digital audio player, and only 13 percent of consumers with Internet connections had even heard of the MP3 format. Today, iPods and other portable audio players are pervasive, and consumer acceptance of online music stores is at an all-time high. Digital video, naturally, is lagging: Because of the huge file sizes of most digital video and the unavailability of portable devices that can play back such files (except for expensive and complicated laptops, of course), most consumers aren't participating in the digital video revolution yet. What will change that is broadband penetration--making the delivering of digital video online viable--and a new generation of portable devices--PMCs--that make using video seamless and fun.

For Microsoft, moving to Maui, so to speak, was difficult. The company's original attempts at partnering with an unnamed Japanese consumer electronics giant were unsuccessful, and as the product has come to light publicly, there's been a lot of misunderstanding about what the PMC really is. "We're not competing with the iPod," Marcus Ash, the Lead Program Manager for Portable Media Centers at Microsoft recently told me. "We're trying to capitalize on new scenarios. The Portable Media Center project is absolutely not about competing with audio players. We already have a good story around audio ... Video is the emerging scenario today."

Part of the acceptance problem is that, just a few years ago, there were no good sources of digital media content. Today, that's no longer an issue, of course, and Microsoft is working with its video-oriented partners--like CinemaNow--to ensure that their content runs on the PMC. They have a tag line for the overall strategy called "Buy it, Play it, Take it with me." And today, that little bit of marketing talk is becoming a reality.

Portable Media Center: What it is, what it does

Microsoft had a number of goals for the Portable Media Center. It had to be able to transfer a movie in under 3 minutes. Consumers should be able to watch two complete movies on a single battery charge. It should be easy to get content from your PC onto the devices. You should be able to take your entire Media Library with you on the go (assuming you're a normal user and not some digital media freak with 37 GB of songs on your system). You should be able to share your digital media experiences with others in a fun way. The device should have a simple user interface that anyone could use. And because it would ship with a color screen, that UI should utilize its color capabilities whenever possible.

From a mile-high view, Microsoft has achieved all of these goals, and more, in the first generation Portable Media Center platform. There are glitches here and there, of course: This is technology we're talking about, and nothing is perfect. But overall, the PMC I've tested has vastly exceeded my expectations. Frankly, I'm a bit floored by that. Here's how the PMC works in the real world.

A Creative look at PMC hardware

For this review, I've been using a Creative Portable Media Center, but I hope to receive a Samsung unit soon as well. The Creative unit is the largest of the three PMCs that will go on sale this fall, but it also gets the best battery life as a result. About half again as big as a Pocket PC, the Creative PMC is much larger (and heavier) than a Dell DJ, Apple iPod, or Creative MuVo (Figure). So you won't be jogging with it, or working on with one strapped to your arm. On the other hand, the Creative PMC is significantly smaller and lighter than any portable DVD player, and it offers significantly better functionality and better battery life. Compared to any laptop computer, the PMC is also quite small. And for battery life when playing back digital media, the PMC is on par, or well ahead of, any laptop I've tested.

Like all PMCs, Creative's unit is based on the Windows CE .NET platform, which means that it is extensible and can be upgraded via software updates, just like Windows XP. Microsoft tells me that most of the PMC software is actually encoded onto the unit's hard drive, making the update process fairly straightforward, but since no software updates came out during my testing, I was unable to test this feature. And like other PMCs, the Creative PMC features a 400 MHz Intel XScale processor, a 20 GB hard drive (some units will ship with 40 GB drives), a 4-inch 320 x 240 LCD screen (some will ship with 3.5-inch screens), and USB connectivity. It ships with an interesting variety of cables, including a proprietary USB 2.0 cable, an AV-out cable for connecting the device to an external display like a TV, earphones, and a power cord; you can trickle-charge the device off USB 2.0 if you'd like.

The unit boots up in 1-2 seconds, which is nearly instantaneous, though I've noticed some lag when navigating to the My Photos section of the interface, probably because I have several thousand photos folders that it must display. Navigation is straightforward, with a green Windows button for accessing the Start page; a Back button; a navigational trackpad with up, down, left, right, and OK buttons; a second trackpad with Play/Pause, Back, and Next buttons; and volume up/down buttons. The top of the unit features four programmable function buttons, which I've been unable to figure out because of preproduction units shipped sans documentation. A hold switch is located on the right side of the unit next to various ports.

Battery life is impressive. After receiving the unit in Seattle last month, I loaded up two full-length movies--X2: X-Men United, and Sum of All Fears--from a Media Center PC and watched them on the flights home. Not only did the battery life last for the entire length of the two movies--over 4 hours of continuous playback--but the battery meter showed the batter life to be half full, and I then proceeded to listen to music for the remainder of the 6 hour flight.

Equally impressive is the display quality. As I'll describe below, it's possible to configure the PMC to encode video in a variety of ways, but even the lowest quality setting is fine for "talking head" TV shows like talk shows, news programs, and the like. But throughout the UI, the Creative unit's screen is vibrant and responsive, and surprisingly viewable given its small size. I never felt like I was straining to see the action in quick-moving segments of the movies I've watched, and music album art, photo slideshows, and home movies all display wonderfully.

Setting up the Portable Media Center

When you unpack a Portable Media Center, your first task is to install Windows Media Player 10, which makes interacting with the device fairly seamless. As I describe in my WMP 10 review, PMCs utilize a new technology called Media Transport Protocol (MTP) to install without drivers, communicate its capabilities to the PC, and then transmit metadata in two ways (that is, you can edit media ratings on the PMC, and those ratings with sync back with your PC's media library the next time you connect the device).

Thanks to MTP, set up is a breeze. First, you should install WMP 10. Then, when you plug in the device, it's almost immediately recognized by Windows, and you're prompted to synchronize your media files to the device (Figure). You can also access the PMC file system via My Computer (Figure).

If you elect to synchronize the device with WMP 10, the Media Player launches and you're prompted to automatically or manually synchronize (I cover these choices in my WMP 10 review). I chose to Auto Sync and was blown away with how much content I could fit on there: Because it automatically converts every photo to 320 x 240 (which happens quickly) and transcodes your movies and Recorded TV shows to 80 Kbps to 800 Kbps depending on how you have set up WMP 10, it's possible to copy massive amounts of content to the device. Originally, I thought I'd be hampered by the relatively puny 20 GB hard drive in the review unit, but I was proven wrong: At the time of this writing, I have three feature length films (over 6 hours in total length), 2253 songs (239 albums), 5125 photos, and 18 home movies stored on the device. All this content occupies about 13.29 GB of space, meaning I've got over 5 GB free. That's amazing.

I was curious how much space the movies took up. At 800 Kbps, the highest-quality settings, a 2 hour film takes up less than 600 MB. So you can fit an amazing amount of content on there if you so choose.

Copying content to the device is time-consuming, especially the first time you do a sync, or when you've got video to transcode. When I first copied most of the aforementioned content to the device, it took about two hours, but after that, the device simply inspects your media library, looks for changes, and then only copies over anything new or anything that's changed (similar to a Pocket PC's ActiveSync application).

Video is another story. If you have any large videos or, worse yet, TV shows recorded with a Media Center PC, you can expect file transfer to last an eon. That's because the source material in such a case is typically of very high quality and needs to be converted, or transcoded, to a format acceptable by the PMC. Consider a two hour movie recorded on a Media Center PC as an example. Such a file will occupy about 6 GB of space because it's encoded in an extremely high bit rate MPEG-2 format. That movie needs to be transcoded down to an 80, 264, 528, or 800 Kbps WMV file before it can be transferred to the PMC (the quality level is determined by a setting in WMP 10). And, as anyone who's done video transcoding can tell you, any time you do such a thing, it takes a long, long time.

How long, you ask? On my 2.53 GHz Media Center PC, a 2 hour movie takes about 2 hours to transcode (however, it then transfers to the device in a little under two minutes), making for a roughly 1:1 recording time vs. transcoding time. That may seem excessive to you, and if you're doing some math in your head, hold on for a second. Microsoft has somewhat solved the problem of massive transcoding times by letting WMP 10 transcode content that it knows will eventually be synched to your PMC in the background. That is, depending on how your synchronization rules are set up, if you record a TV show that will eventually be copied to the device, WMP 10 will silently start converting that file as soon as it's done recording. That way, when you plug in your PMC later, it can simply copy over immediately.

If you're going to record TV shows each day, say in a commuting scenario, you may simply want to leave the PMC plugged into the PC when you're not using it. That way, shows you record at night can transcode and copy to the device while you're sleeping. Then, when you get up and go to work each day, your device will be always be automatically stocked with new content.

Overall, I'm pretty impressed with the whole synchronization situation. The video sync could only be faster, but automatic transcoding really helps.

A look at the Portable Media Center user interface

OK, I'm guessing you're waiting for more shots of the PMC interface, so here we go. Modeled after the excellent and time-tested UI found in Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, the PMC interface is simple and easy to navigate. It also offers some interesting advantages over traditional portable device UIs, such as that used by Apple's iPod, which I'll discuss in a moment.

When you first turn on the PMC, you're presented with a familiar Start Page (Figure). From here, you can navigate to any of the device's main sections, My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, and Settings. Each of these sections is fairly straightforward and is described below. But before we get to the contents of each section, I'd like to highlight an innovative navigational feature in the PMC UI that I think of as "horizontal navigation." Microsoft calls it twist navigation.

You may be familiar with the purely vertical navigational schemes of devices like the iPod. In such a device, you're presented with a text menu of choices, through which you can scroll up and down. When you select a menu choice, you're presented with a sub-menu, through which you can also scroll up and down. And as you dive deeper and deeper into the UI, it gets harder and harder to find your way out. For example, to find a particular song on my iPod, I might select Music, then scroll to Artists, hit Select, scroll the to the artist name, hit Select, scroll to the appropriate album name, hit Select, and then scroll to the appropriate song name, and hit Select again to play the song. If I decide to play a different song by a different artist, I then have to hit Menu, Menu, Menu before I can select a new artist. And then, of course, I have to go through the same set of tasks to go find the song. In, out, in out, round and round we go. Each artist is in its own bucket.

The PMC lets you do this if you're a masochist. But it also supports a "home" button that jumps you right to the Start Page, and the horizontal navigational scheme I mentioned previously. Let's use the same example as before to see how this works on a PMC. From the Start Page, you select My Music to see a list of my music. As with the iPod, you do see a list of choices, but this time it presents artist names by default (Figure). You could scroll down the list vertically, as with the iPod, but you can also scroll horizontally to see other choices. In My Music, these choices are Playlists, Songs, Genres, New, Albums, and then aforementioned Artists.

Fine, you're thinking, but the iPod offers some of these choices right in the Music menu. True enough. So let's navigate down into the artist list and choose an artist, like we did on the iPod (Figure). Then, we'll select an album, as before (Figure), and the song (Figure). When we play a song on a PMC, you get a vastly richer experience (Figure)than what's available on any other portable device, but we're going to ignore that for now. Instead, we're going to look at what's available navigationally. So the song is playing, and as before, we want to listen to a different song, from a different artist. If you click Back, you can then move left and right through all of the songs in the current album (Figure). Click Back again, and you can move horizontally through all of the albums by the current artist (Figure). But when you click Back a third time, you can move horizontally through all of the artists on your device (Figure). So why is this better? It's doesn't appear to use fewer steps. But under each artist name, you get choices for playing all, adding to portable playlist, and then a list of that artist's albums. You don't have to go up and down, up and down, to select songs. And you can simply move left and right to get to other artists. Imagine how laborious it would be to create an On-the-Go Playlist with an iPod using a strictly navigational structure. Not only is it easier on the PMC, you get little album art graphics as you navigate through the hierarchy.

These horizontal navigational capabilities are available from everywhere in the PMC UI, and they make it much easier to find and access content, which is hugely important for a device that can hold this much stuff.

My TV

The My TV section currently displays content that was recorded from a Media Center PC, but I understand that Snapstream is working on an update to their excellent Beyond TV software that will integrate with this feature as well. Navigationally, My TV includes Sort by Date (Figure), Sort by Name (Figure), and New (Figure) choices. When you select a recorded TV show, you can resume from where you left off (if you'd started watching it earlier) or play from the beginning (Figure). When the show starts playing, you'll see a timeline along the bottom (Figure), but that quickly fades and the show plays full screen (Figure).

As noted previously, I've been extremely impressed with the video quality of the shows I've watched on the Portable Media Center. They don't translate well in the screenshots--which were taken off a live video feed, incidentally--but in person, the quality is quite acceptable.

My Music

My Music, as I mentioned above, offers Artists (Figure), Playlists, Songs, Genres, New, and Albums. As you navigate into the interface and actually play a song or group of songs, however, the experience gets dramatically better. The default view (Figure) displays album art with group, album name, track number and title, and timeline information. But you can navigate horizontally through other views as well: Album art (Figure), Album listing (Figure), Spartan (Figure), and options (Figure), from where you can quickly set up shuffle play, repeat play, and equalizer options, all without having to Menu, Menu, Menu, Menu back to the main screen like you would on an iPod. There's also a fourth option, called Purchase, which will eventually be used for trial song (or video) downloads: If you like the sample, you can purchase the full song the next time you're connected to the PC, automatically). And, at the top of this screen, you can rate the current song if you'd like.

My Pictures

While the photo slideshows work very well in My Pictures and even offer transitions, this is the one area of the PMC that's not lived up to my expectations. It's partially my fault: I'm pretty anal retentive about the way in which I organize my photos on the PC, and I've created hierarchical folder structures with year folders (2000, 2001, and so) right underneath My Pictures, and logically named event folders (like 2004-03-20 Sledding) below that. I do this so that these folders display chronologically. But my naming and organizational needs don't mix well with the PMC at all.

The problem is that the PMC wants to store all of the photos in its own way. So when it examined by organizational structure, it decided it was too deep, and it renamed folders to match its own structure. So a folder called "My Pictures\2000\2000-06-09 Mark with camera" on my PC becomes "2000 -- 2000-06-09 Mark with camera" on the PMC. And because of the limited screen size of the device, that name is further truncated to " 2000 -- 2000-06-09 Mark with ca" when you see it (Figure) onscreen. Obviously, the important part of this folder name is on the right (i.e. "Mark with camera") and not on the left (i.e. 2000 -- 2000-06-09). Ah well.

In any event, My Pictures offers Sort by Name, Sort by Date (Figure), and New navigational entries. Typically, you'll use this section to display photo slideshows, and this feature works well. If you've got music playing, the album art, song title, and artist name appears briefly when the slideshow starts and then again as the song changes (Figure). And the slideshow even offers clean crossfade transitions (Figure), which elegantly move you from one picture (Figure) to the next (Figure). The overall effect is very similar to what you get on a Media Center PC, and its well done.

However, I do have one other small issue with the My Pictures section. I'm not sure if its my folder structure or the sheer number of photos I've got, but it takes a long time--several seconds--for the photo folder list to appear when I enter My Pictures. It also takes a long time to start a slideshow, though the performance is fine once it starts. But the PMC gives you a version of Mac OS X's "beach ball of death" to let you know you're going to be waiting a bit (Figure). I've come to despise that graphic.

My Videos

My Videos, like My TV, displays video content and it offers up Sort by Name (Figure), Sort by Date, and New navigational entries. And as with My TV, when you select a video to watch, you're prompted to resume or play from the beginning (Figure), and a timeline appears briefly when playback starts (Figure) and then disappears (Figure).

Settings

From the Settings menu (Figure), you can access Equalizer, Display, Effects, and International information, restore the device to its factory settings, and view information about the device (Figure) and its contents (Figure). The Display settings let you reroute the display to a TV set using an included AV cable, and the video quality isn't bad on an older CRT display, though its low resolution suffers somewhat on newer rear projection or flat panel displays.

Compatibility

Not surprisingly, Portable Media Centers are compatible with all modern Microsoft media formats as well as other common formats. These Microsoft formats include ASF, AVI, WAV, Windows Media Video (WMV, up to 320 x 240, 30 FPS, 800 Kbps), Windows Media Audio (WMA, any variety, including WMA Lossless and WMA Voice), MP3, DVR-MS (Media Center Recorded TV files), and PhotoStory (part of Plus! Digital Media Edition and the upcoming revision to Windows XP Media Center Edition). Other compatible formats include JPEG, MPEG, and MPEG-2.

What's missing?

Frankly, the Portable Media Center is a stellar 1.0 product, but like any other piece of technology, it could be improved. I'd like to see wider format compatibility in a future revision (how about GIF format, for starters?) and different photo slideshow transition types, if possible. I'm surprised that no hardware makers have elected to add this functionality to a device that can play back DVD movies. And I'd like to see higher resolution versions (640 x 480 or 720 x 480 with a 6-inch screen would be ideal) in the future. Also, the price is a bit steep, though Microsoft is refreshingly honest about the first generation PMCs being aimed solely at technology enthusiasts and early adopters only.

But these complaints are minor. Overall, I'm impressed.

Conclusions

So. Portable Media Centers have exceeded my expectations, but that doesn't mean they're for everyone. The first generation devices are fairly large and expensive ($500), and they require a fairly new XP-based PC for a decent experience, and a Media Center PC for the best experience. Since I count the number of Media Center users on one hand at this point, we're talking about a fairly small group of people that can totally take advantage of this device. However, that situation will change, as Microsoft recently changed the licensing restrictions for XP Media Center Edition to let white box PC makers ship the product and do so, optionally, without expensive and potentially difficult TV tuner hardware. If you're a technology enthusiast or early adopter, a Portable Media Center is a no brainer; the only question is which one you should get. I'll need to spend more time with the iRiver and Samsung devices before I can comment on that, but my experience with the Creative Portable Media Center has been overwhelmingly positive. It's not often that I can make this claim--XP Service Pack 2 (review) and XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 (review) come to mind--but Microsoft has hit a home run with this release. Let's hope the hardware makers run with it and come up with some truly innovative hardware down the road as well.