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.
We have always appreciated PMC software and its futuristic twist navigation. For example, within My Music, a horizontal list appears with the items Artist, Album, Songs, Genres, Playlists, or New. As you navigate left or right, the contents of each item spill down below it, including a Play All option. Once you select a track or any other item, it appears along with all the other tracks in the horizontal list. To fully appreciate it, you need to use it yourself. We also love that when you scroll through your music library, a graphic of the first letter appears onscreen as you scroll through content. So if you're scrolling from A to Z, you'll see the letter M appear as you are plowing thorugh songs that start with the letter M.
Kudos to the hardware, but the improved PMC software makes the Toshiba Gigabeat S a superb product. The main menu includes My TV (if you have and use a Media Center PC, you'll be stoked), My Music, My Pictures, My Videos, Radio, and Settings. As you navigate, windows zoom in and out, accompanied by a nice chime (you can turn the effects off if you like). When you're on the music-playback screen, you can navigate right or left to introduce new screens, such as full album art, shuffle, repeat, or purchase track (a nice feature for subscription users), as well as view a list of songs in the playlist. The experience is fluid, especially on this smaller device. Older models such as the Creative Zen PMC were useful but bulky; the Gigabeat is both sleek and intelligent.
Improvements to the operating system include more flexible format options (such as DivX support), as well as an option for FM radio and audio/video recording (the Toshiba Gigabeat S does not record). The PMC's screen can be switched to landscape mode for optimal video and photo viewing, and you can pipe out video to a TV. The Gigabeat also works as a USB host so that you can connect a digital camera via USB, then transfer and view pics on the device. Plus, the Toshiba Gigabeat S is one of the first devices that can be connected to and controlled via the Xbox 360's interface. Finally, we love the fact that the Gigabeat S is one of the most affordable ways into PMC land, at $300 for the 30GB version. Previous PMCs retailed for more than $400.
Additional convenient features include easy creation of on-the-go playlists (quick lists) and decent photo slide-show options, and the Toshiba Gigabeat S has the ability to display brightness adjustment and partition up to 2GB of storage for digital photo transfers. It has precise video-playback control, including scrubbing and skipping in 9-second increments, as well as automatic bookmarking of video files.
The Toshiba Gigabeat S has arrived just in time for the initial rollout of the new and vastly improved Window Media Player 11, and many readers think it will offer realistic competition to the iPod. Players such as the S series and the Creative Zen Vision:M will match up very nicely with the new media player. So far, any advantage that the iPod/iTunes ecosystem had over its WMA competitors has been wiped out by the Gigabeat S and WMP 11, only there is no one-click access to purchasable video you get in iTunes--at least not yet. However, if you are an active Media Center user, you'll get your TV shows automatically synced to your player.
In terms of performance, the Toshiba Gigabeat S is overall very good. Navigation is fluid and responsive, and multitasking is no chore at all. FM quality is excellent, and music playback is punchy and bright. You don't get any custom EQ settings, but you get seven nice presets, plus a neat Harmonics option that enhances lossy formats. The 2.4-inch screen is not as ideal as using a 4-incher (as seen on the Archos AV500 and the Cowon A2), but we honestly don't care, because the size of the Gigabeat itself trumps the screen size. Photo and video quality is good--though not as solid as that of the Archos AV500 or the Creative Zen Vision:M--and the screen is easily viewable outdoors.
The only drawback: battery life is rated for 12 hours of audio and 2.5 hours of video (Note: in this review and the video, CNET had originally and incorrectly stated that the Gigabeat's rated battery life was 20 hours for audio and 6 hours for video.) In CNET Labs' drain tests, the Gigabeat maxed out at just a little more than 12 hours of audio. This is somewhat weak for our tastes, but our overall opinion of the Gigabeat is still very high. Video came in at 3.5 hours, during informal testing, quite a bit better than the rated 2.5 hours. We were able to watch two 90-minute movies plus half of another one, which is a good thing to know if you're getting on a plane. (Update: Our Labs testing came in at a surprising 5.7 hours.)