Toshiba's new Gigabeat S series--shown off by Bill Gates during his Windows Vista-centered keynote--looks like a true 2006 contender as it incorporates Microsoft's superintuitive Portable Media Center software into an attractive 30GB ($300, blue or white) or 60GB ($400, black) portable video player. The Gigabeat S is one of several new PMC devices that have emerged at CES after nearly a year of no new hardware releases, though one of the three originals, Samsung's YH-999, has been discontinued.
Here's why we give the Gigabeat S props: First, it takes the brilliantly simple, though somewhat format inflexible, PMC software and delivers it in a traditional MP3 player form factor. Next, it can handle MP3, WMA Lossless, and WAV, as well as WMV and WMA, including subscriptions. Other video formats such as MPEG-4, AVI, and MOV are automatically transcoded in Windows Media Player. Smaller than the first-generation Gigabeat, the S version boasts a 2.4-inch QVGA (320x240, 65,000 colors) screen, an FM tuner, and video-out, as well as support for WMA subscription services (such as Napster and soon MTV/Microsoft's Urge), compatibility with Tivo To Go and Media Center recordings, and now the Starz Vongo movie download and subscription service. The PMC's screen can also be switched to landscape mode for optimal video viewing, and you can connect a digital camera via USB, then transfer and view pics on the Gigabeat. Finally, the Gigabeat S is one of the first devices that can be connected to and controlled via the Xbox 360's interface and that includes subscription audio.
We love the fact that the Gigabeat S is one of the most affordable ways into PMC land, and the overall fit and finish of the device is positive, though we immediately spotted a drawback. While the main crosshair-style controller is decent enough, the numerous small buttons on the side are confusing and unlabelled--it took us a while to master navigation despite the fact that the PMC graphical interface is so easy to use. Also, this and other PMC devices are not for those who appreciate compatibility with multiple video formats such as DivX. The device will be available in March.