It's been a relatively quiet year for Philips in the portable entertainment category, with the company mostly massaging its touch-sensitive MP3 player line into more compact, flash-based designs. The company's latest device, the Portable Media Center PMC7230 (30GB, $349) is quite a departure from the aforementioned players, in more ways than one. The Philips PMC takes two user-friendly features--direct video recording and the Media Center interface--and wraps them into an attractive, TV-like package. Unfortunately, the device doesn't fully live up to its potential.
Sleek and simple
The Philips PMC has a truly lovely design--it reminds us quite a bit of the now-defunct Samsung YEPP YH-999 PMC, only with better controls. Like the Samsung, it's more square than rectangular--measuring 3.7 x 4.2 x 0.8 inches--so it looks more like a little TV than some other PVPs do. The screen is large (3.5 inches diagonal), and the viewing angles are great; two or three people could easily watch it at the same time. Below the screen are two five-way directional pads: one for navigating menu options (OK and four-way directionals) and one for controlling playback (play/pause, volume, and fast-forward/rewind). A standard Windows Media button resides between the two controllers and always takes you back to the main menu. There's an external speaker below all this, and it sounds about as good as you would expect: tinny, but passable. A power/hold switch rests in the right spine of the PMC, while various ports grace the top: a headphone jack, A/V in and out ports, and a standard mini-USB jack--nice!
As its name implies, the Philips PMC has a Windows Media Center-based interface. That is, the top menu always gives you the same variety of media selections: My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, Recordings, and Settings. The inner menus are organized into tabs designed to help you easily navigate your media. Music, for example, has Artist, Album, Genre, Playlists, and so on. Navigation really couldn't be any easier. Our one complaint is that the first few times we started up the device, neither of the center keys (OK and play/pause) would work, making navigation impossible. This glitch seems to have worked itself out though, and we haven't had any trouble in subsequent uses.
Portable Media Center devices usually aren't known for having a plethora of features. You get excellent syncing from Media Center PCs, playback of the three main media types (music, photo, and video), and that about covers it. The Philips PMC isn't much different: it's compatible only with Windows XP, and it doesn't have an FM radio. Audio and video file type support is also limited, with WMV and MPEG4 being the only supported video types (MP3 and WMA for audio). It is, however, a PlaysForSure device, so it supports DRM-protected WMA files, including those from subscription services such as MTV Urge. And it's compatible with purchased and rented video content from services such as CinemaNow and Vongo.
The Philips PMC can also record video, an ability no other PMC can currently claim. Philips provides the needed cable for this functionality, and it's a simple matter of connecting said cable to the RCA A/V outs on your TV, cable box, or DVD player, then plugging the other end into the A/V in port on the PMC. Then, you can select Recording from the main menu and click Video in the next menu. The device automatically detects the video signal and displays it on its screen, along with instructions on how to start the recording (essentially, just hit OK). Recordings are saved by date and time in the Video menu. You have the option of adjusting the recording time, quality, and resolution, but we wish it allowed for more manual control of recording settings, such as volume levels (more on why below).