In the past few years, Korea-based iRiver has been a contender in virtually all portable media categories, including flash, microdrive, and hard drive-based MP3 players, as well as portable video players (PVPs). In fact, it's the only company in the world to offer the two prevalent types of PVPs: the open-ended, MPEG-4-friendly ($450) and the user-friendly Microsoft Windows Mobile-based PMC-120 ($500). The two 20GB devices look identical and play back audio, video, and photos. The similarities, however, end there, and our pick would definitely be the PMC, as it has both a better software and hardware interface. That said, because of its average battery life, the iRiver PMC-120 isn't the best PMC out there. Currently there are three Portable Media Center (PMC) devices available. In terms of sheer size, the iRiver PMC-120 fits snugly between the bulky and the slimmed-down . Measuring 5.6 by 3.3 by 1.2 and weighing 10.2 ounces, it's a reasonable size for a PVP with a 3.5-inch color screen. Because of its carved-out backside, it feels smaller than its official specs, though it's not easily pocketable. Designed to be used like a gaming device, the PMC-120's underbelly features two grips that make operating the buttons (located on either side of the screen) effortless. And unlike the PMP-120's confusing multifunctional control array, the PMC-120's tactile buttons are clearly marked and generally have a single purpose.
The primary five-way control pad sits on the left side of the device, a tad lower than we prefer; it should have been moved up a half inch. While the buttons are easy enough to use, all but lefties will feel awkward working their left thumb to perform most navigation duties, though this is similar to the Creative Zen controller. Located above the pad are the Back button and the green Windows logo-laden Start button found on all PMCs and Media Center PC remotes. Both are fundamental to the PMC's ease of use; when in doubt, just press Start to access the main menu, which includes My TV, My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, and Settings controls. Above the Start button is a tiny built-in speaker.
The right-hand side features five big buttons clearly marked as volume and player controls. The USB port is located under a rubber flap on the unit's left spine. On the top spine, you'll find a hold switch, as well as ports for headphones, DC power-in, TV-out, and a proprietary connector (designed for a dock that is, to date, not available). Finally, the backside sports a removable battery, a coveted feature for on-the-go media mavens; in comparison, the Creative Zen has one, but the Samsung YH-99 doesn't. A convenient kickstand is hidden under one of the rubber feet.
In addition to the PMC itself, the box (which stars porn actress Jenna Jameson) includes Sennheiser earbuds, a basic and not very functional carrying case, a USB 2.0 cable, a TV-out cable, an installation CD, and a wall-wart-style AC adapter.All PMCs share the same basic specs, including a 400MHz Intel XScale chip, 64MB of RAM, 2MB of ROM, a USB 2.0 interface for synchronization, and a 320x240-resolution screen. The size of the hard drive may vary, but right now, all models, including the iRiver PMC-120, have a 20GB drive. In an age of 40GB and even 60GB MP3 players, that's already starting to look a little small, especially for a device intended to store video and photos. In fact, you can get a 40GB iRiver PMP for only $50 more than the 20GB PMC. Nevertheless, it should be enough to hold 25 movies, 2,000 songs, and countless photos, once they've been reformatted for a PMC.
Any device that you call a PVP will have numerous features, the basics being playback of MP3, video, and JPEG slide shows. In fact, the PMC-120 can do all this in a clean and efficient manner, thanks to an outstanding software interface. But the PMC-120 doesn't have every bell and whistle, such as the video-recording capabilities of the Archos AV420 or the audio recording of the PMP-120. And while it can handle native playback of MP3, WMA (including Janus DRM-protected WMA), WMV, and JPEG file formats, it won't play back that excellent DivX video you have stored on your PC unless you convert it using Windows Media Player--with the necessary plug-in. Additionally, no PMC device, the PMC-120 included, has the ability to create video playlists.
File compatibility isn't a huge issue, however, considering the PMC philosophy. Since only WMV-format videos are viewable, Microsoft has engineered Windows Media Player 10.0 and up to transcode other types of files to WMV automatically and invisibly, though, again, you must have the necessary plug-in. And the lack of video recording is certainly a downer, but think of the device as a portable extension of a Media Center PC. If all is working properly, you can leave the house with a ton of "TiVo'd" broadcasts, Napster (or Rhapsody) To Go music, and movies purchased from CinemaNow, purveyors of fine PMC-formatted films such as Bumfights 2 and Corndog Man. The same automatic conversion goes for photo files and some music files. Simply put, the PMC is Windows Media Center on wheels.
Much of the kudos that any PMC device attracts has nothing to do with the hardware itself. Instead, it's the software--the PMC operating system--that is the core of the devices' perceived genius. It's simple, graphical, smooth, logical, and smart, unlike the heavier Windows Media Player and the archaic interfaces seen on many non-PMC devices. Much of it has to do with the superb method of navigating through the potentially thousands of songs, videos, and photos stored on your device. Coined twist navigation, menu items such as Artist, Playlist, Songs, and New are accessible along the X axis, while the contents automatically spill below each choice. If you choose albums, you can either play all or drill down into one; then, all the other albums show up in the X axis. Likewise, you can sort videos by New, Name, or Date fields. It's better understood by a screenshot or in person, but you heard it here: Microsoft has created a portable media interface that will see many generations.