Apex MP-2000 Portable Media Player review: Apex MP-2000 Portable Media Player
Despite the recent influx of portable video players (PVP), the mainstreaming of this complex category is a ways off. Still, companies such as Apex Digital are entering the fray with budget-conscious devices that do just about anything media related. The 20GB Apex MP-2000, which comes with a lower than average $399 price tag, is a video and audio player and recorder, plus a photo viewer and a data storage device. The MP-2000 offers compatibility with a wide range of video compression schemes, including MPEG-4, DivX, Motion JPEG, and unprotected WMV9; but only in specific formats, which, annoyingly enough, aren't listed in the manual. While the device can record video, we ran into problems there, too. In a world where Microsoft's Portable Media Centers are available in stores and ready to deliver protected content from Hollywood and beyond, and where Apex's competitors manage to deliver manuals that are useful, we're not so sure if the MP-2000 is worth your time. The Apex MP-2000's overall design can be described as thin, light, and simple but certainly not extraordinary. Reactions to the MP-2000's 4.7-by-3.0-by-0.8-inch case are mixed, but if you're right-handed, chances are the portable media player will nestle comfortably in your hand. If you're a lefty, well, you'll have to deal with the fact that the thumbstick, the Play/Enter button, and the Stop/Exit button all fall under your right thumb. The top of the plastic, silver-and-black device features a record button, a volume jog wheel switch (which is difficult to adjust with one hand), a Hold switch, a microphone, and the power button. The device's right side incorporates a black plastic grip that has more bark than bite. The only notable feature on the back of the device is the built-in mono speaker, which doesn't sound too bad. A headphone jack, AV in/out plugs, a power port, and a USB port line the left side of the unit.
The MP-2000's large, 3.5-inch, 480x234 screen isn't the best we've seen, and it tends to look dark gray, not black, if it isn't facing you directly. At only 8 ounces, the player is light enough to hold up so that friends can check out your video stash, and the display is visible well past 45 degrees to the side of the player. We managed to crowd about three people around the gadget before folks on the perimeter couldn't see more than a brightly colored blur.
The interface isn't particularly sophisticated, but barring one or two incidents, we found it simple enough to use the thumbstick to scroll through various menu options and select the video or audio that we wanted to play or record. It would be nice if pressing the thumbstick would enter your selection. Instead, you have to use a separate Enter button. This can be annoying, as there is a natural tendency to want to move the joystick left or right into or out of folders and menu options. We wasted quite a bit of time doing this, instead of pressing the separate Enter and Exit buttons. While playing video, pressing up or down on the thumbstick brings up the brightness settings for the monitor. Moving the thumbstick to the left or right engages fast-forward or rewind, while clicking multiple times to the left or right speeds up those functions.
The player, which offers both A/V-in and A/V-out jacks (these require special minijack-to-RCA video/audio cables that ship with the device), can't display on both a TV and the built-in LCD simultaneously. Neither does it autodetect when the A/V output cable is plugged in. So in order to play video on an external monitor, you'll need to manually set the device to use the video-out jack.
Other than a built-in mount for attaching the MP-2000 to a tripod, the unit lacks a method of propping itself up for hands-free viewing. While you could lean it against a coffee cup for extended viewing, some kind of kickstand on the player would have been a welcome extra. The MP-2000 also sorely needs a remote control, an item that ships with Archos's AV420.In theory, the Apex MP-2000 can handle MPEG4; DivX 3, 4, and 5; Motion JPEG; and WMV9 video files along with MP3 and WMA audio. While it handled all of the non-copy-protected audio files we threw at it, getting video to play on it, regardless of the format, was a crapshoot. Why? Because Apex doesn't give any detailed information about what video formatting the MP-2000 actually uses. This is no doubt the most annoying thing about the MP-200: its lack of detailed information, both within the interface and the manual. This is especially problematic when you're trying to play video on the device; regardless of codec, if the format (resolution, frame rate, and so on) isn't compatible, the device simply tells you it's an "unsupported format." Want to know what formats of video are supported? The manual states only this: "There may be circumstances where a multimedia file that is transferred from your computer to the MP-2000 may not work properly. This is not a malfunction." A trip to the company's Web site confirms it: Apex doesn't list the complete video playback specs for the device anywhere.
The MP-2000 is automatically recognized as a hard drive when you plug it into a USB 2.0 port, and transferring files is a simple, drag-and-drop process--just remember to put video in the video file and audio in the audio file. Perhaps the easier method of getting video content onto the MP-2000 is recording directly from a video source, such as a TV. Files are saved in MPEG4 format in a variety of quality and resolution settings, including Standard (240x180, 96Kbps) and Best (320x240, 224Kbps). It will not copy protected DVDs, though, which means that using the A/V output on your DVD player to record your DVD collection onto the MP-2000 simply isn't an option. The Archos AV420 offers the ability to record protected content onto the hard drive and play it back only on the LCD screen, something we would have liked to have seen in the MP-2000. Also, unlike some other PVPs, there isn't a bookmarking feature, nor is there a 24-second Skip Commercial function. The MP-2000 also offers audio recording via line-in or by using the built-in mic for voice recording. Line-in audio is recorded into MP3 at various bit rates, which are designated only as Standard, Better, Best, and so forth.
Back to the main interface: It's extremely low-res, it feels antiquated for a device of this nature, and it screams "Nintendo NES" rather than "21st-century media gadget." Still, it's not a deal breaker--it's efficient, just not elegant. The main menu includes the following clear options: Video, Music, Photo, Voice Record, A/V Record, and Settings. Drilling down into any of the content options (video, audio, photo) opens a Windows Explorer-type folder tree with separate tiny windows for thumbnail images (or video) and file information.
Selecting the Music playback mode kicks up a display that vaguely resembles a stack of components and reminds us of a cheap-looking Winamp skin. The thumbstick makes quick work of drilling through nested folders of tunes, but you'll have a tough time playing more than a folder's worth of music if you don't simply dump them all into a single folder. Even setting the MP-2000 to random playback works only within the folder you're currently in. That might be a feature, if you prefer to listen to one album at a time, but we think the lack of playlist support is a definite fault. We're also less than impressed with the static click that pops though the headphones when you skip back and forth between songs.
Using the MP-2000 to view photos varies from not bad to very annoying. Once you've selected a folder, hit the Play/Enter button to start a slide show. You can select a delay between slides ranging from 1 to 30 seconds and turn music on or off while you're playing slides, though we wish the manual would tell us how to pick a specific background song for a slide show. We expected we'd be able to use the thumbstick to skip back and forth between pictures, and after the slide show had been open for a bit, it did. Moving the 'stick from left to right moves forward and backward through the collection...er, rotates the picture...er, takes us into tiled Pick A Photo mode. We had to consult the manual and practice with the thumbstick to successfully navigate through our collection of photos. The player drags for more than a few seconds when queueing up thumbnails for, say, nine 1.6MB photos, but it works fairly quickly on smaller-size images.
Other than USB drivers for Windows 98 SE/Me systems, no software comes with the MP-2000. This can be disappointing for those who would like to convert their files into a format that the MP-2000 can play. For the most part, you're on your own with the MP-2000, so it's easy to say to beginners: caveat emptor.Complaints about the company's Web site (and the lack of detailed information on supported formats) aside, when the Apex MP-2000 was capable of playing our encoded video, we were pleased with the results, both on the internal LCD and via the output to TV. In cases where video looked choppy or full of digital artifacts, it was the fault of the video compression, not the MP-2000's ability to play back video.
We had mixed success recording video onto the Apex via the A/V in-line jack, which uses special cables to go from the Apex's minijacks to the composite video/stereo-audio output on the back of your video machine. First, it won't record copy-protected video. It simply flashes a message stating "protected video," then shuts down. That happened with every Hollywood DVD we tried. Good for the MPAA, but bad if you want to watch your DVD collection on the road. Second, when we finally found a non-copy-protected video in our DVD rack (Dezert People Triple Down, an outrageous collection of desert-racing footage set to a thumping soundtrack), we discovered that the audio-capture was full of scratchy, digital artifacts at the high end, even when we maxed out the quality settings. That means that the 19 hours of footage you shot at the last soccer tournament might look good but could sound awful if you captured it on the MP-2000.
One other note on recording video: There's a good 5-second delay between hitting the record button and the time that video recording actually begins. You'll have to work on your timing if you don't want to clip the opening of your capture. The MP-2000 also won't handle QuickTime video files, which is a shame since there are so many movie trailers in that format. Frankly, if you want video content for the MP-2000, you'll have to work for it: for instance, waiting around until the TV show you want to record is about to start, since there's no timer in the MP-2000, or spending time transcoding files with an application such as Virtual Dub.
As far as listening quality goes, the Apex offered us some surprisingly detailed sound, at least, once we dumped the cheap, over-the ear 'phones that came in the box. The horn solo that opens Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" was strikingly clear right down to the glissando, and the player managed to reveal much of the detail from the piano and Ms. Holiday's voice. Really cranking the volume up on a rocker such as Concrete Blonde's "It'll Chew You Up and Spit You Out" was problematic; at points, the bass started to distort a bit. That could be due in part to the hefty power demands of our Grado headphones, or the amp might simply get overtaxed on the low end when it's cranked. Voice recording via the onboard mic gave us tinny but still highly listenable audio.
CNET Labs was able to squeeze only 3.5 hours of video from the device's removable rechargeable battery--not so good. The MP-2000 fared a bit better for audio only at 8.3 hours, but that's still on the low side. Transfer times, however, were excellent at 6.2MB per second over USB 2.0.
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(Longer bars indicate better performance)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)