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iRiver PMP-120 (20GB) review: iRiver PMP-120 (20GB)

iRiver PMP-120 (20GB)

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
8 min read
iRiver PMP-120
Personal video players (PVPs) have become segmented into two camps: those that run Microsoft's Portable Media Center (PMC) operating system, and those that don't. Witness iRiver's PMP-120, which has a nearly identical PMC sibling, the iRiver PMC-120. So what's in a letter? How does the PMP-120 fare without the benefit of Microsoft's media- and user-friendly OS? Can it compete with the current non-PMC champ, the Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420? Unfortunately, while this PVP offers a stylish, ergonomic design and some compelling features, it comes up short in the one area where a personal video player should excel: video. Because the PMP-120 can't record video directly or sync with Windows Media Player 10.0, you'll have to work overtime to obtain content for the device. What's more, the PMP-120 can't play protected audio content, so you can forget about listening to music purchased online. Add some thoroughly unfriendly controls, and you have one PVP that's difficult to recommend. A mite heavier and bulkier than the Archos AV420, the iRiver PMP-120 weighs 10.2 ounces and measures 5.4 by 3.3 by 1.2 inches--a tad more than pocket-size. Its generally pleasing design is reminiscent of a handheld game console, with rounded, grip-friendly bumps on both ends of the backside. One of these bumps contains the removable battery; the other, a handy two-position kickstand.

Controls flank the 3.5-inch TFT screen, which has a typical QVGA (320x240) resolution. To the left, there's a four-way control pad with a Select button in its center; below it are the power and record buttons. There's also a help button that brings up a control diagram--something you're likely to need quite often, unfortunately.


iRiver PMP-120 (20GB)

The Good

Decent screen; built-in kickstand; includes a voice recorder, a line-in audio recorder, and an FM tuner; stylish carrying case; removable battery.

The Bad

Doesn't record video; doesn't play DRM-protected WMA or WMV files; confusing controls and interface; below-average battery life; won't sync with desktop music managers.

The Bottom Line

With its maddening interface, its missing features, and a lack of video content sources, the PMP-120 needs to go back to the drawing board.

To the right of the screen you'll find four buttons: play/pause, Navi, A, and B. The last three are responsible for many of the PMP-120's navigation headaches--more on that later. Located along the bottom of the device is an audio-line-in/video-out jack, a TV/Hold/LCD switch, and a reset button (which requires a paper clip to press); along the top are a headphone jack and power connector. The TV/Hold/LCD switch presents another irritation: it protrudes, making it easy to switch accidentally.

The PMP-120 includes a pair of USB ports, one for the usual PC link and the other for connecting external devices such as digital cameras. There's also a small speaker just to the left of the screen; it's loud and clear enough for headphone-free viewing in a quiet area, but you'll definitely want to plug in when traveling in a car, a train, or a plane.

While we appreciate the PMP-120's attractive look and relative compactness, its interface needs work. Although it's a simple matter to access video, photo, music, and other modes from the icon-based main menu, navigation becomes a major pain once you're actually in one of those modes. The functions of the Navi, A, and B buttons change depending on what's happening onscreen and whether you press them quickly or hold them down. That's confusing enough; but certain other features are accessible only by holding down the Select button, then limited to certain screens. The aforementioned help button does provide context-sensitive instructions, but the fact remains that the buttons are poorly labeled and decidedly unintuitive. More often than not, we found ourselves extremely frustrated while using the PMP-120. That's entertainment?

Like all PVPs, the iRiver PMP-120 plays audio and video files. Like most, it can display BMP and JPEG images. Like only a few, it can record audio and receive FM radio stations. However, while it has a microphone for recording voice memos and a line-in jack for connecting from external sources, the PMP-120 can't record from its FM tuner--an odd shortcoming.

As a video player, the PMP-120 supports DivX, XviD, and MPEG-4 formats--and comes with an easy-to-use Windows utility for converting existing video files--that is, everything except MPEG-2 and protected WMV files. The problem, as with many PVPs, is finding content you want to convert. Because the PMP-120 can't record video (as does the Archos AV420) or sync with Windows Media Player 10.0 (as does the Creative Zen Portable Media Center and other PMCs), you're left with a choice of recording shows on your TV-tuner-equipped PC, then converting them, downloading content from the Internet, or using third-party software to rip DVDs. The last two options are a time-consuming hassle, to say nothing of legality.

iRiver's Media Converter utility is simple and efficient, although you can't convert MPEG-2 and protected WMV files.

Once you get your content onto the PMP-120, you can watch it on the LCD or output it to a TV; the necessary RCA cable is included. However, because there's no wireless remote--iRiver supplies only an in-line one--the PMP-120 makes for a poor home-theater accoutrement. You can't pause a movie or skip to the next song in a playlist without walking over to the device.

The PMP-120 doesn't allow you to manually set bookmarks but does include an autoresume feature for videos. However, unlike its PMC sibling, it works for only one video at a time; if you switch to a second movie, then try to take up where you left off in your first one, the player fails to remember your spot--not too handy.

As with video, the PMP-120 has content issues when it comes to audio. Although it supports ASF, MP3, WAV, and WMA files, it won't play DRM-protected WMAs--meaning you can't listen to tunes purchased from online stores such as Musicmatch. Speaking of which, the PMP-120 doesn't support Microsoft's WMDM standard, so you can't use the likes of Musicmatch or Windows Media Player to synchronize your songs and playlists. In our tests, the player wasn't recognized by either program. iRiver should strongly consider a firmware patch to remedy this shortcoming.

The PMP-120 does support standard M3U playlists, and it's quite easy to build your own, right on the device; just press the Select button to highlight the desired files and/or folders, then press play. However, we had major problems retrieving playlists we'd created. For starters, each new playlist seemed to overwrite the previous one. And when we tried to play a saved playlist, nothing happened; it turns out you have to "load" it first--you can't just press Play, even though that's a menu option. The PMP-120's incomprehensible interface is largely to blame for all this confusion; it left us wanting to avoid playlists altogether.

Although the screen doesn't display album art, it does provide a plethora of track and playback information: everything from the artist and album names to the bit rate, the file format, and the equalizer setting. The PMP-120 has five equalizer presets and a five-band, user-adjustable setting. All of the usual playback options are here, including shuffle, repeat, and A-B loop.

Compatible with both BMP and JPEG images, the PMP-120 makes for a handy little photo viewer--or rather, it would if it offered a slide-show mode. It doesn't, despite serving up a variety of neat transitions when you manually skip between photos. Using the supplied USB cable, we were able to connect a Casio Exilim EX-S3 digital camera (via its cradle) and copy our photos to the PMP-120, though it was decidedly slow going--about 8 minutes to copy 30 photos. What's more, our copied files inexplicably wound up in the video folder, rather than in the photo folder. To make matters worse, iRiver's own FAQ page says the device isn't compatible with most digital cameras, including those from Canon, Kodak, and Sony.

Ironically, the PMP-120 does its best work as an FM radio. It's fast and effective at autotuning local stations, it stores up to 20 presets, and in our tests, it demonstrated strong reception--too bad the unit can't record from the tuner.

If you're going to spend $500 for the 20GB PMP-120, you should definitely consider spending $600 for the PMP-140, which doubles the available storage. Both models come with all the necessary cables and a snazzy blue carrying case, which even stows a screen-cleaning cloth inside.

Assuming you can get past its interface problems and its feature oversights, the iRiver PMP-120 makes for a decent mobile movie theater. Although it's slow to boot up, requiring about 15 seconds before you gain access to the menus, it played every DivX and MPEG-4 file we threw at it--including stuff that had been converted for playback on other PVPs. Videos looked sharp and colorful, exhibiting good contrast and brightness. We only wish the PMP-120 had a zoom feature to make wide-aspect-ratio movies fill the screen, but that's a minor gripe. A bigger one is that the audio frequently got out of sync with the video when we paused playback or used the fast-forward function, though it usually synced up again within 10 to 15 seconds.

iRiver supplies a pair of Sennheiser earbuds, which produced generally excellent sound for music and movies alike. However, like all earbuds, they tend to become uncomfortable after a while. We think a high-end device such as this, especially one that's not specifically designed for pocket portability, deserves a comfy pair of over-the-ear headphones. The earbuds don't even fit inside the carrying case, so there's no benefit there.

Thanks to its USB 2.0 interface, the PMP-120 affords blazingly fast file transfers. It took just less than 2 minutes to copy about 900MB worth of movie and MP3 files, which we dragged and dropped using Windows Explorer. Because the PMP-120 comes with no application software and doesn't sync with any music programs, that's the only way to copy data to and from the device.

iRiver promises 5 hours of video playback or 10 hours of audio from its battery. In our tests, the PMP-120 came up shy of both ratings, lasting 4.2 hours and 9.3 hours, respectively. That's long enough to watch two feature-length movies but still below average relative to other PVPs we've reviewed. Fortunately, you can always pack a spare battery, though iRiver has yet to set a price for that accessory.

File-transfer speed (MB per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Audio battery-drain tests (In hours)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Video battery-drain tests (In hours)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

iRiver PMP-120 (20GB)

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 7Performance 6