We have always appreciated PMC software and its futuristic twist navigation. For example, within My Music, a horizontal list appears with the items Artist, Album, Songs, Genres, Playlists, or New. As you navigate left or right, the contents of each item spill down below it, including a Play All option. Once you select a track or any other item, it appears along with all the other tracks in the horizontal list. To fully appreciate it, you need to use it yourself. We also love that when you scroll through your music library, a graphic of the first letter appears onscreen as you scroll through content. So if you're scrolling from A to Z, you'll see the letter M appear as you are plowing thorugh songs that start with the letter M.
Kudos to the hardware, but the improved PMC software makes the Toshiba Gigabeat S a superb product. The main menu includes My TV (if you have and use a Media Center PC, you'll be stoked), My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, Radio, and Settings. As you navigate, windows zoom in and out, accompanied by a nice chime (you can turn the effects off if you like). When you're on the music-playback screen, you can navigate right or left to introduce new screens, such as full album art, shuffle, repeat, or purchase track (a nice feature for subscription users), as well as view a list of songs in the playlist. The experience is fluid, especially on this smaller device. Older models such as the Creative Zen PMC were useful but bulky; the Gigabeat is both sleek and intelligent.
Improvements to the operating system include more flexible format options (such as DivX support), as well as an option for FM radio and audio/video recording (the Toshiba Gigabeat S does not record). The PMC's screen can be switched to landscape mode for optimal video and photo viewing, and you can pipe out video to a TV. The Gigabeat also works as a USB host so that you can connect a digital camera via USB, then transfer and view pics on the device. Plus, the Toshiba Gigabeat S is one of the first devices that can be connected to and controlled via the Xbox 360's interface. Finally, we love the fact that the Gigabeat S is one of the most affordable ways into PMC land, at $300 for the 30GB version. Previous PMCs retailed for more than $400.
Additional convenient features include easy creation of on-the-go playlists (quick lists) and decent photo slide-show options, and the Toshiba Gigabeat S has the ability to display brightness adjustment and partition up to 2GB of storage for digital photo transfers. It has precise video-playback control, including scrubbing and skipping in 9-second increments, as well as automatic bookmarking of video files.
The Toshiba Gigabeat S has arrived just in time for the initial rollout of the new and vastly improved Window Media Player 11, and many readers think it will offer realistic competition to the iPod. Players such as the S series and the Creative Zen Vision:M will match up very nicely with the new media player. So far, any advantage that the iPod/iTunes ecosystem had over its WMA competitors has been wiped out by the Gigabeat S and WMP 11, only there is no one-click access to purchasable video you get in iTunes--at least not yet. However, if you are an active Media Center user, you'll get your TV shows automatically synced to your player.
In terms of performance, the Toshiba Gigabeat S is overall very good. Navigation is fluid and responsive, and multitasking is no chore at all. FM quality is excellent, and music playback is punchy and bright. You don't get any custom EQ settings, but you get seven nice presets, plus a neat Harmonics option that enhances lossy formats. The 2.4-inch screen is not as ideal as using a 4-incher (as seen on the Archos AV500 and the Cowon A2), but we honestly don't care, because the size of the Gigabeat itself trumps the screen size. Photo and video quality is good--though not as solid as that of the Archos AV500 or the Creative Zen Vision:M--and the screen is easily viewable outdoors.
The only drawback: battery life is rated for 12 hours of audio and 2.5 hours of video (Note: in this review and the video, CNET had originally and incorrectly stated that the Gigabeat's rated battery life was 20 hours for audio and 6 hours for video.) In CNET Labs' drain tests, the Gigabeat maxed out at just a little more than 12 hours of audio. This is somewhat weak for our tastes, but our overall opinion of the Gigabeat is still very high. Video came in at 3.5 hours, during informal testing, quite a bit better than the rated 2.5 hours. We were able to watch two 90-minute movies plus half of another one, which is a good thing to know if you're getting on a plane. (Update: Our Labs testing came in at a surprising 5.7 hours.)