Toshiba's Gigabeat S series--shown off by Bill Gates during his Windows Vista-centered CES keynote last January--looks like a bona fide iPod challenger, as it incorporates an improved version of Microsoft's superintuitive Portable Media Center (PMC 2.11) software into a tiny and attractive 30GB ($300; blue or white) or 60GB ($400; black) portable video player. The Gigabeat S is one of three new PMC devices that emerged at CES 2006 after more than a year of no new hardware releases, and it's the first one we get to review.
After numerous delays--the Toshiba Gigabeat S was supposed to ship in March--the highly anticipated MP3 player/PVP has finally arrived in our hands; Toshiba won't send us units, so we ordered ours online for $280. On one hand, the unit's compact form factor, compatibility with a wide array of media formats, and high-storage capacity should appeal to early adopters. On the other hand, the easy-to-use operating system will make geniuses out of beginners. To top it off, the device is subscription enabled, and it includes niceties such as an FM tuner. Plus, it will be one of the first devices to be compatible with Starz's upcoming Vongo movie-subscription service. The Toshiba Gigabeat S doesn't record audio or video, its screen is still too small for true video enjoyment, and overall rated battery life is weaker than Toshiba had promised, but we still think it's the next great portable media device.
Here's why we give the Toshiba Gigabeat S props: First, it takes the brilliantly simple PMC software and delivers it in a traditional, compact MP3 player form factor. The device measures 3.93 by 2.36 by 0.58 inches and weighs 4.8 ounces. That's smaller than the 30GB iPod in every respect, except for thickness. The 60GB version has the same dimensions but weighs 5.3 ounces (the 60GB iPod weighs 5.5 ounces). The S is also durable, with a scratch-resistant, anodized-aluminum backside and a glossy plastic front. It reminds us of a stacked version of the excellent but discontinued Sony NW-HD5.
The Toshiba Gigabeat S handles MP3, WMA Lossless, and WAV, as well as WMV and WMA. Other video formats, such as MPEG-4, AVI, DivX, and MOV, are automatically transcoded in Windows Media Player 11 (DivX video support was planned but not implemented). It also supports WMA subscription services such as Napster and MTV Urge, and it is compatible with Tivo To Go and Media Center recordings. It can be connected to and controlled via an Xbox 360 and soon the Starz Vongo download and subscription service, which will cost about $10 per month for all-you-can-eat movies. Our Urge subscription-music content, as well as photos and videos, transferred over smoothly and quickly after we plugged the device into our WMP 11 box. One important note: The Gigabeat S is an MTP device, so you need to use Windows XP or XP Media Center Edition. It does not have a UMS mode, so it cannot be connected as a hard drive to Mac or non-XP systems.
Noticeably smaller than the first-generation model, the Gigabeat S boasts a 2.4-inch, 320x240-pixel, 65,000-color QVGA screen; an excellent FM tuner with 30 autoscannable presets; and a video-out jack. Directly under the portrait-oriented display are the Back and Windows Start buttons, which takes you to the main menu no matter what you're doing and, for example, without pausing a video that you are watching. The cross-hair-style, five-way primary controller is tactile and delicate--basic navigation on the Gigabeat S is a breeze, though the controller is placed a bit low, thanks to the elongated screen. The placement of the iPod's Click Wheel is more natural.
Most other buttons are on the Toshiba Gigabeat S's right spine. We criticized an early version of the Gigabeat because the small buttons were unlabeled. Now they are, and they include (going from top to bottom) power, a dedicated volume rocker, and reverse, play/pause, forward. As with the Cowon iAudio X5, the placement of the play controls away from the primary navigation isn't the most intuitive setup, but on the other hand, it's nice to have two distinct controllers: one for playback and the other for menu navigation. iPod users don't get purely dedicated controls.
The headphone/video-out jack and the hold switch are located on the top of the unit. The bottom includes the universal mini USB port, a proprietary dock connector (for upcoming accessories), and a tiny battery on/off switch, which--as with some Sony players--allows the user to conserve juice when the Gigabeat S is not in use. The package includes the player, standard earbuds, a USB cable, a USB-conversion cable (for connecting to digital cameras), an A/V cable, and unfortunately, an AC power brick with two cables. Luckily, you can trickle-charge the Gigabeat S over USB. Also, we'd love to see a case included.