10/5/06 Editor's note: Toshiba has recently dropped the price of its Gigabeat V30 from $399.99 to $299.99. CNET purchased the reviewed unit for $399.99 as soon as it was available September 30.
In 2006, the supercompact Gigabeat S launched Toshiba into the MP3 player elite. The company, which is manufacturing the upcoming 30GB Microsoft Zune, has recently launched the Gigabeat V30, a 30GB Portable Media Center (PMC) device with a big screen and an original new look. As much as I appreciate the intuitive PMC interface as well as the healthy boost in battery life over that of the S, the V30 is disappointing overall. Its lack of A/V recording, a higher-capacity model, and FM radio, plus a subpar display, make the V a mediocre choice in a market full of excellent PVPs.
For the most part, the Gigabeat V30 (announced on September 1) has slipped under the radar thanks to the recent avalanche of new gadgets. Given our love of the S series, we were chomping at the bit to see what kind of true video player Toshiba could bring to a market stacked with good video players.
The V30's design is sleek but unusual. Constructed of a durable and slick plastic, the black and white device has a sloping back that ends in the right-handed grip. It measures 4.9 by 3.0 by 0.9 inches (0.7 inch at its thinnest point) and weighs 7.76 ounces, so it's definitely not the type of device you'd take jogging. Despite the odd shape, the V30 is comfortable in the hand and certainly pocketable. The boxy section of the back looks like it was designed to dock into another device for charging or A/V output. We're awaiting details from Toshiba's press corps.
Featured on the front is the 3.5-inch backlit screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio and a resolution of 320x240. The display sits behind the glossy fingerprint-friendly plastic, so you'll get some reflections (and smudgies). Despite this, the display is bright and colorful, though I think it's too pixelated to match up with the better screens out there, such as those of the Creative Zen Vision:W and the Archos 604. Movies and photos look sweet...from about two feet away. Any closer, and you'll notice screen-door effects and a lack of the sharpness one would expect from the Gigabeat (the S's smaller screen was much sharper). While viewing angle and brightness are sufficient, the screen's graininess will definitely get to videophiles.
To the right of the screen are the main controllers--a good-looking thumb stick and the requisite Windows Start and Back buttons, plus dedicated volume controls below. This is a simple right-hand-centric design that's comfortable, though two-handed use is recommended. The V30's processor is superresponsive, and the Start button will always get you to the simple main menu. Paired with the PMC GUI (version 2.11), the overall interface would be a breeze to use if not for the thumb stick-- it's not tall enough to get precise control, and personally, I think it feels too spongy. Definitely try it out before you buy--you might like it.
On top of the V30, you'll find the Power/Hold switch and tactile media playback controls. The location of these controls (away from the main controllers) makes it a bit awkward to control, though it's not too different from the Gigabeat S in this respect. The left side of the V30 features a standard mini USB port, a headphone/A/V-out jack, and a power port.
Interestingly, the V30 cannot be charged via USB. It even states on a removable sticker that: "This device can only be recharged using the AC adapter... Be sure to disconnect the USB cable when recharging the device." Did I remember to disconnect the USB while charging? No--because it's entirely inconvenient. The nonremovable battery does last a good while, though, at a rated 25 hours for audio (standard WMA playback) and 8 hours for video (at default brightness). CNET Labs got a sweet 26 hours of audio and a subpar, but still good, 7 hours of juice for video. Battery life is definitely one of this device's few strengths.
Being a Windows PMC device, the V30 can handle MP3, WMA (including purchased and subscription), WAV, and WMA Lossless. It supports only native playback of WMV files (including purchased and subscription), so your collection of MPEG-4, DivX, and other popular formats will not play unless it gets converted in Windows Media Player. Our collection of AVI movies (DVD-quality, wide-screen) transferred over without a hitch, though our DivX and XviD files requires a Windows Media Player plug-in. DRM support means you can use subscription services such as Urge and Napster To Go, and video services such as Amazon Unbox and Vongo. Wide-screen material will of course be letterboxed, while outputting to a TV is both easy and effective (though quality depends on source material). Unfortunately, unlike the Gigabeat S, you don't get an FM tuner; likewise, there is no feature to record audio or video.
The advantage to PMC software is that Windows XP Media Center owners can easily get their recorded shows onto the device. After all, the first main menu item is My TV. It's a natural fit, in fact, though I wouldn't recommend this particular PMC 2 device. You also get niceties such as USB host functionality, where you can transfer photos or data directly from a digital camera or USB drive. The PMC, however, does not support Outlook and PIM functionality.
We can say that while video and photo quality are subpar, audio quality rocked our world, with clean, balanced sound with punchy mids and highs, and real-time equalizer presets that can be applied within the multiplaned PMC playback screen. We did notice a tiny clicking sound when switching tracks; otherwise, there was no presence of background noise. The V30 also gets very loud, having no difficulty driving our Grado SR80s. The built-in mono speaker isn't too shabby either.
The V30 ships with a ton of stuff: the player, a bulky power adapter, a USB cable, typical earbuds (replace them!), an AV cable, a USB host cable, and a software CD. You don't get a case.
Overall, I'm not too impressed with the Gigabeat V30, particularly as a follow-up to the Gigabeat S. I think Toshiba missed the boat with this one. Don't get me wrong-- I love the PMC interface, the extended battery life, and its nice sound quality, and I don't even mind the narrow native format support. For me, it's a matter of a subpar video/photo screen and a flawed primary controller (and a bloated $399 price tag; days after its availability, the price has been changed to $299). For consumers wanting a true video player, there are better choices (with better screens), such as the $299 30GB Creative Zen Vision:W, the $350 30GB Archos 604 (or the smaller-screened Archos 404), and the older but still capable 30GB Cowon A2. If you're into PMC, look out for the upcoming Philips device, which is able to record video.