Compared to the overwhelming popularity of MP3 players, handheld video players still only hold niche appeal. There's everything to play for in this market, certainly there's enough room for companies like PQI to quietly mount an assault on the bigger brands like Archos and Samsung.
Previously we reviewed the PQI mPack P800, a much bulkier player than the new P600, reviewed here. Though the P600 retains many of the user-interface idiosyncrasies of the P800, it's a much more intuitive player than the notoriously confusing Archos AV range. Neither manufacturer has nailed the interface on their product, but the bold and clear buttons on the P600 could teach Archos a thing or two about basic design.
It's something of a mystery why both PQI and Archos struggle to provide a coherent set of menus on their players -- it's something that DVD players have been able to do for years, and VHS players before them. Despite a few niggling flaws, the P600 edges out the Archos -- the P600's screen is a masterpiece and a host of output options make the player a worthy travelling companion. However, is this enough to convince us that portable video players are a viable choice for the average consumer?
The P600 has been plucked straight out of an episode of Star Trek from the 1960s -- the mPack's designers clearly sat around taking notes while watching the DVD box set.
It's encouraging to see a manufacturer making such a bold style statement with its products. The P600 looks even more like a sci-fi prop than the Motorola V3 -- both seem to have been dragged back from an era when man dreamt great things of the future -- back in the age of lava lamps and Disney's Epcot Centre.
The mPack opens up like a make-up compact, with an LCD screen in place of the mirror and an attractive-looking control panel instead of powder. This hints at the company's advertised intentions to make this appeal to female consumers, but the overall design is unisex, the reference is merely subliminal.
The buttons inside the mPack are easy to understand, a selection of transport controls let you skip though videos, pause/play or bring up a menu. Wisely, PQI have used the symbols we're all familiar with from DVD and CD players. It may seem an obvious step to take, but Archos invented its own indecipherable hieroglyphs for the company's AV players.
The screen, a 100mm widescreen display capable of a 480x272-pixel resolution, is finished in a relatively tough plastic coating that, while far from invulnerable, will protect the screen from light knocks.
Unlike most other players, the P600 uses a drag-and-drop system for file transfer -- there's no file conversion necessary for formats without DRM (Digital Rights Management). The player happily accepts everything from HTDV resolution AVIs through to raw DVD VOB files (the files your DVD player reads). There's no codec change during the transfer process, so moving files across is only limited by the transfer speed of USB2.
The 100mm widescreen TFT LCD is sharp and vibrant. It's one of the biggest we've seen on a portable player. The screen is capable of displaying 16 million colours and has a resolution of 480x272 pixels. The player can however decode an 800x576 video and feed this to an external display via the bundled AV leads.
You can natively playback video compressed using MPEG1/2/4, AVI, VOB, DAT, XviD and MOD codecs. There is additional support for WMV and ASF files, but these must be converted before you transfer them to the P600. The only significant omission is the QuickTime wrapper, but this is rarely used to encode full-length movies for portable devices. If you do come across such files, third-party software can re-encode these to a format the P600 will understand. Video output via the bundled cable can be transmitted in either PAL or NTSC standard.
Audio formats supported by the P600 include MP3 (CBR/VBR), AC3, WAV and (Linux fans rejoice) OGG. There is also image decoding of JPEG, GIF and BMP. More surprisingly, the P600 supports professional RAW camera formats including CRW, NEF, ORF, RAF, and MRW. This could make it a useful device for previewing digital camera shots on location. The P600 can connect to a camera in the field and download photos using a USB cable and the OTG (On The Go) button.
The P600's 30GB internal hard disk stored just about all the movies we could throw at it. Considering the player's 4-hour video-playing battery life (8 hours with audio), you'll run out of power a long time before you run out of things to watch. Most impressively, the P600 can render movies at full DVD quality on a large LCD screen. If you often have to present high-resolution material in the field, there's not much to beat this.
Other features include a slideshow-maker, calendar, phonebook and Java games. We might dismiss these extras as frivolous for a video player, but the mPack performs its core function -- video -- so well that it's easy to forgive these slightly gimmicky extras.
Video playback on the P600 is, even to our jaded eyes, exceptional. The clarity and resolution of the screen alone is a convincing reason to opt for this player -- it clearly trounces the Archos AV. The menu system remains a little idiosyncratic; many of the options will have the first-timer baffled. What, for example, does 'Caption Sync Start' mean to the average television viewer?
The image is bright and sharp. Watching A Shark's Tale revealed strong, confident colours that were accurate when compared to our reference display. More subtle material, like the movie Love Actually, demonstrated the P600's ability to render muted hues and fine picture detail without any artefacting or stutter.
For portable movie watching the P600 is hard to beat. Especially impressive is the player's ability to feed full-resolution video to a massive external display. This, coupled with its liberal compatibility -- it mounts on any filesystem as a generic USB hard disk -- makes it one of the most advanced handheld video-players out there. We've not seen a video player this fully featured from any other manufacturer yet.
Camera RAW file compatibility is an unexpected and extremely welcome bonus. This is exactly the kind of innovation the portable video player market so desperately needs to draw on if it's to achieve mainstream adoption. For now, the P600 raises the bar to thrilling new heights.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield