<% rating = 1 %>eHomeUpgrade has just posted a review of Creative’s Portable Media Center, the ZEN. ExtremeTech has nothing good to say about it (as I did last month)… I really wanted to post the following review but didn’t want to do so until the device was officially announced and since it is available for preorder from Amazon, I’d like to share my thoughts on Microsoft’s Portable Media Center as well.

The ZEN looks and feels really nice and initially I thought they had a winner. It was love at first sight, like meeting someone you’ve been interested in for the first time… exciting at first, then she turns out to have some annoying quirks, like man hands, or a stomach that says, “Hello-o-o-o! La La La“, all of which you probably won’t be able to deal with for the rest of your life. The same is true with this Portable Media Center. I don’t think this is the fault of Creative, but maybe Microsoft’s Portable Media Center hardware/software limitations. If you check out the product specs of the ZEN, you will notice that it only plays Windows Media Video 7, 8 and 9, Windows Media Audio 8, Windows Media Image, MP3, JPEG and TIFF files. Great, but this is suppose to be a Portable Media Center… right? A device that syncs up and plays the files stored on your full blown media center. That’s what I thought… but the Microsoft Media Center computer only records MPEG-2 files because it uses a hardware encoder. How am I suppose to playback my Seinfeld and Daily Show clips for when I’m on the go? You’re probably saying to yourself, “Microsoft can just change that and let you record shows in the WMV format”. Sure, but then you have the problem that the Portable Media Center cannot play anything bigger than 320×240… I think this is due to lack of CPU power in the devices. In the end, you are stuck using Windows Media Player 10 (in Public BETA now) to convert and sync up your files. Photos and Music are pretty fast to convert to formats the device likes. I copied about 10 photos and 5 songs and it took a few seconds. The problem starts when you want to sync up your video files. I had an episode of TechTV’s ScreenSavers on my HP Media Center that I wanted to copy over. I added it to my “Library” in WMP10 and then added it to the “Sync” list. I clicked the “Sync” button, expecting the copy to take a few minutes… boy was I wrong! The show is 30 mins long and it took 45 mins to transcode and copy over to the ZEN! Unacceptable! There is no way this would fly for anyone on the go, unless you’re very organized and plan months in advance. When I first heard about these Portable Media Centers I was thinking they would have fast CPUs and the ability to play any type of video files. I was completely wrong. I’d rather invest $400 in a PocketPC and do the exact same stuff via SD cards, today. Plus, a PocketPC can do A LOT more than just playback media assets. If you want a device that is small, portable, and can playback anything XP can, plus has the power of a full blown machine, then the only option worth considering is the $2000 OQO. Anyways, this was the easiest break up ever… so long Portable Media Center, I really can’t say,”It’s not you, it’s me“.

P.S. I forgot to mention that the device also has a video out connector. So, they think we are going to want to copy a 320×240 asset and watch that on a 42+” Flat Panel display? Who are the guys in-charge of product development? Geez!

P.P.S So after hearing Bill Gates say that the DVD will be “obsolete in 10 years at the latest“, it made me think of the bigger picture. Ultimately, we will get our videos digitally, in any format and bitrate we’d like to pay for, so it will be easier and take no time to transfer to the Portable Media Center. I am O.K. with that and look forward to the day this becomes possible. But, that is no excuse to create a device today, that can’t playback standard full screen formats like MPEG2… why didn’t they come out with a transitional unit, that does. There must have been reasons why, maybe legal, CPU, battery life, all of which would have probably made the overpriced device more costly. A textbook, “Catch 22”.