The portable video player (PVP) market is percolating, with some manufacturers already releasing second- and third-generation devices such as Archos's AV420. A major offshoot of this fledgling category is the Portable Media Center (PMC), which was first introduced back in January at CES. The Creative Zen Portable Media Center is the first device of many to come to employ Microsoft's Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Center operating system; competing devices from Samsung and iRiver aren't far behind. The 20GB Zen PMC includes a variety of innovative features both on and below the surface, and they make navigating a mountain of music, video, and photos painless. The device is designed to work seamlessly with Windows Media Player 10.0 on any Windows XP computer, but those using Windows XP Media Center Edition will get the most out of the Zen PMC, given the device's ability to play recorded television content. In essence, the $500 device is a portable extension of the Windows media experience. While it plays back video, music, and photos admirably, the Creative Zen PMC is a first-generation product with room for improvement. Sporting a durable, glossy black-plastic face and a metallic backside, the Creative Zen Portable Media Center (PMC) is designed to be used in the old-school, Game Boy-like style. It measures 5.7 by 3.4 by 1.2 inches and weighs 11.7 ounces--significantly bulkier than most audio-only 20GB players. It reminds us of the first hard drive-based audio players, circa 1999. The Creative Zen PMC's most impressive physical trait is its expansive, sharp, and colorful 3.8-inch TFT LCD, which is ideal for viewing video, photos, album art, and the menu. The screen is vivid indoors, especially with the brightness turned up, but it's not ideal for use outdoors during the day. This is in part due to the display's reflective (and protective) glossy face, which attracts fingerprints galore. In direct sunlight, it's better to turn off the backlight, as the sun's rays will illuminate the screen so that it looks like a nonbacklit Game Boy Advance; it'll also save you some battery life.
The Zen PMC's controls are highlighted by the Windows-icon-clad Start button, which instantly takes you to the top menu. Given the feature-laden device's deep menu options, the button is critical for comfortable navigation and will be found on all PMCs and Media Center Edition remotes.
The left half of the Zen PMC includes a circular four-way navigational pad with a nested Select button and an essential Back key. The right half has two dedicated volume buttons and another circular controller for play/pause, forward, and rewind commands. You'll experience a tactile pop with each press, along with an accompanying and strangely appealing system chime, which is on by default. Along with a power button, four numbered keys line the top of the unit and are designated as programmable presets. Pressing one takes you directly to your favorite movie (complete with a bookmark), song, album, artist, or photo. We like this thoughtful feature, as we all know how difficult it is to fish for content in a 20GB sea. Except for the Start key, which lights up green, and the preset buttons, all keys are backlit in a dim and mystic blue when activated. Expect to use both hands for most operations. Once in a while, you'll catch yourself erringly pressing the play button with your right hand instead of the left-handed Select. Aside from this, the controls are extremely intuitive, thanks in big part to the Windows interface (more on this later).
A power port resides on the device's left side, and a hold switch, an A/V-out jack, and an "intelligent" headphone jack line the right side. A dock-style USB 2.0 connector is located on the Zen PMC's bottom side. The silver backside features a removable lithium-ion polymer battery. It's important to note that unlike many PVPs out on the market, the Zen PMC lacks a built-in kickstand to prop itself up. Instead, the device ships with a carrying case with a flap cover that substitutes as a stand. The case is worth bringing along on your travels since holding the Zen PMC to watch a movie for an extended period of time can be taxing on your hands, your arms, and your neck.
You'll also find a tiny speaker on the bottom-right corner of the Zen PMC. Surprisingly, it doesn't sound terrible and tinny. And if your headphones accidentally pull out of its jack, the system saves you from potential embarrassment and mutes the audio.
Our chief design complaint is the Zen PMC's sheer bulk. Granted, it has a terrific screen indoors and Swiss Army Knife-like functionality, but its thickness just doesn't feel right, especially when used for audio. Creative claims that the device is small enough to fit comfortably in your pocket. Our advice: Don't wear tight jeans. The Zen PMC would also be better off with a docking cradle, which will be available as an optional accessory in October.
The Zen PMC ships with an A/V line-out cable, a proprietary USB 2.0 cable, a carrying case with a built-in stand, a pair of earphones, a Quick Start guide, an install CD, and an inconvenient two-line-and-a-brick-style power adapter.There are other devices that can play video and music as well as display photos and store data files, but what sets the Creative Zen Portable Media Center apart is its dependence on Windows Media Player 10.0 (WMP10). The Zen PMC is designed as the portable counterpart to WMP10 and its library; therefore, the majority of content on the device can mirror your PC, though typically in a more compressed form. This includes everything from MP3s to JPEG photos to movie downloads to home movies. Throw a Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) PC into the mix, and the Zen PMC turns into a portable playback-only Tivo-like device, as it will allow you to watch your recorded MCE broadcasts on the road. Those without an MCE PC can still record and transfer TV using a TV-tuner card and third-party software.
All this content may sound nice, but what formats does the Zen PMC actually support? All PMCs support WMV (versions 7, 8 and 9) at 320x240 pixels, 30 frames per second, and with a constant bit rate of up to 800Kbps. Similarly, all PMC devices can play back WMA (including protected WMA, WMA lossless, and WMA voice), MP3, and JPEG files. If you have other types of files, such as MPEG, MPEG-2, DVR-MS (Microsoft recorded TV), TIFF, WAV, AVI, and so on, they need to be transcoded into a compatible PMC format and size. This may sound confusing, but never fear, WMP10 takes care of all the transcoding automatically in the background so that the files are ready to roll the next time you sync the device. The original files remain untouched, and in most cases, you won't even know it's happening. It's important to note that popular file formats such as MPEG-4 and DivX are not compatible with the Zen PMC unless you've purchased a third-party decoder plug-in for WMP10. PMC OEMs can add support for other formats.
While transcoding content decreases quality, that's not necessarily a bad thing in the PMC's case. Imagine trying to transfer 85 hours of video or tens of thousands of photos from your PC to the PMC. Without reformatting, you'll quickly run out of space. Where the decrease in quality will show up is when you hook up the Zen PMC to a TV (NTSC or PAL).