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HandHeld Video Players

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State of the Art: Hand-Helds That Offer Video to Go

March 11, 2004


IF you hadn't noticed, audio inventions are inevitably followed by corresponding video versions. Radio begat TV; audio tape begat videotape; CD's begat DVD's.

It was only a matter of time, then, before it occurred to somebody to invent, for want of a better term, the video iPod: a hand-held personal-entertainment gizmo with a color

screen capable of playing movies.

That idea has certainly occurred to Microsoft. At the

Consumer Electronics Show in January, Bill Gates

demonstrated prototypes of something un-catchily named the

Microsoft Portable Media Center. Creative Labs, iRiver,

Samsung, Sanyo and ViewSonic all intend to unveil

Microsoft-based video players by year's end.

But you don't have to wait. Two hand-held video players are

already on the market, each marching to its own

non-Microsoft drummer: the Archos AV320 and the RCA Lyra

RD2780. You can find them online for $336 and $420,

respectively, not bad considering that music-only players

with the same capacity (20 gigabytes) cost about $300.

Now, video players will never be quite the smash hit that

audio players have been. One significant difference is that

there aren't as many times and places for using one. For

example, it's O.K. to listen to music as you drive, jog or

perform surgery, but probably not such a great idea to

watch movies. You have to load your player with video a lot

more often, too; you might listen to a favorite song 100

times in your life, but you probably have a lower tolerance

for repeated viewings of, say, "2 Fast 2 Furious."

Still, the video pod concept has much to offer. Such a

device can turn any airline into JetBlue, with its personal

seat-back TV screens, except that you control what's

available and you don't miss the ending of "Friends" when

the guy in front of you reclines into your lap. When you

finally get to your secluded vacation cabin, you can hook

the video pod up to a TV for a whole weekend of VHS-quality

movie viewing. The Lyra even has a Compact Flash card slot,

so when you've filled up your digital camera with nature

photos, you can empty out the memory card onto the player

and return to the field, ready for more shooting.

In many ways, the Archos and the Lyra video players are two

peas in an electronics store. Each is an 11- or 12-ounce

rectangular slab too big and too heavy for a pocket. The

Lyra is thinner but longer (5.4 inches by 3.1 inches by 1

inch); the Archos is smaller but thicker (4.4 by 3.2 by


The bright, clear color screen measures 3.5 inches (Lyra)

or 3.8 inches diagonally (the Archos). A permanent

rechargeable battery plays video for a little over three

hours; the Archos provides 10 hours of music playback by

shutting off its screen (a feature RCA plans to add to the

Lyra in a software update later this month). Inside, a

20-gigabyte hard drive holds about 20 movies, 5,000 songs,

or 200,000 photos. (The Archos is available in 40- and

80-gigabyte models for those who feel constrained by that

repressive 200,000-picture limit.)

A home screen shows icons for the player's contents: Video,

Audio, Photos, and Files, for example. (Oh, that's right -

you can use a video pod as an external hard drive for

transporting Mac or PC files back and forth.) Using a

cheap-feeling, often-exasperating plastic joystick next to

the screen, you open the "folder" you want, choose a song,

picture or movie, and then press Play.

So how did those songs, pictures and movies get onto the

machine to begin with?

When you hook the player up to a Mac or PC with a U.S.B.

2.0 cable, the player appears on the screen as though it's

a hard drive; you drag your pictures and music into the

corresponding folders. (The Archos can also use a special

FireWire cable, although the company has the gall to charge

$60 for it.)

Getting video onto the player is a more complicated story.

The easiest way is to use the video pod as a glorified VCR,

using its Record button. As your VCR, camcorder or TiVo

plays, the player records its video feed in real time. The

Archos can even record from commercial tapes and DVD's.

(The RCA is designed to prevent that sort of lawyer bait,

although the Web is full of workarounds.)

If you prefer to transfer video directly from your Mac or

PC - a movie you've made, for example, or one you've

downloaded - buckle your seat belts; it's going to be a

geeky ride. These machines require something called

MPEG-4-encoded Divx 4 or 5 files. Converting movie files

into this special format requires special software - Archos

provides it, RCA does not - and a good deal of technical


Nobody ever said that 1.0 versions of anything are perfect,

but that's especially true of the Lyra, whose software is

appallingly half-baked. Many actions - trying to adjust the

brightness of a photo, change the graphic equalizer or push

the joystick up or down - produce only a message that says:

"Feature will be available in future upgrades. Visit

rca.com/lyra for details." RCA has indeed released several

software upgrades since the machine's debut in November,

but Lyra owners online (including some of those posting

reviews at Amazon.com) grumble that they've paid for the

privilege of doing RCA's beta-testing.

Apparently trying to compensate, RCA includes an especially

generous assortment of accessories right in the box: a

carrying case, cigarette-lighter adapter, and even an

adapter that plays the music or soundtrack through your

car's cassette player. You feel as though you've just

bought a car with the most expensive options package and

then, when you step on the brake at 65 miles an hour, a

message says, "Feature will be available in future


Nor is that the only surprising lapse in the Lyra's design.

The whole operating system is, to use the technical term,

dog slow; you'll practically spend as much time looking at

the hourglass icon as at your movies. Dark scenes in movies

frequently fall apart into bursts of pixel crumbs. There's

no Back button, so if you want to change songs or movies,

you must return to the main menu screen and begin drilling

down again. You don't get an instruction book, not even on

a CD. (You're told to download the electronic manual from

the Web.)

In short, Lyra self-help groups are surely forming in

church basements all around the country.

The Archos player lacks those particular inanities, and

even offers perks like a remote control and a built-in

microphone for voice notes, but it's not perfect, either.

It could really use something like the Lyra's kickstand to

hold it upright on a table. The various input and output

jacks on the player's edges are labeled, but on a different

face of the device; more than once, you'll inadvertently

stick the headphones into the identical-looking microphone

jack. Similarly, onscreen labels often appear to identify

the changing functions of the three vertically stacked

physical control buttons, but the labels are arrayed across

the bottom of the screen, rather than vertically beside the

buttons themselves.

Make no mistake: it's quite a technical feat to build a

personal video player that does so much and costs so

little. And compared with, say, personal DVD players, these

early players cost less and take up a lot less space; they

also offer recording features and play a lot more than just

Hollywood movies.

Apparently, adding polish and coherence to this seething

mass of features is an even greater feat, however. RCA

ought to send the young Lyra to its room without supper, so

that it can think about what it means to be a well-behaved

video pod. Archos, on the other hand, has the first truly

usable video pod on its hands - a little rough in spots,

but otherwise ready for prime time.

Alas, that prime time may be only a short time. You know

how, near the end of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of

the King," Aragorn and his tiny band take a hopeless,

desperate stand against the vast Orc armies that pour from

evil Sauron's gates? As RCA and Archos watch Microsoft's

own video-pod armies amassing behind a different sort of

Gates, they probably know exactly how Aragorn felt.


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