Toward the end of 2004, expect Microsoft PVPs from iRiver, Samsung, Sanyo, ViewSonic, and Creative. (Bill Gates chose to brandish the latter model during his keynote, much to the delight of Creative's PR team.) While the devices come in a variety of styles, all get their content by syncing with Windows Media Player--part of Gates's overall vision of the Windows Media Center PC as your home's digital-entertainment hub.
Video sources are crucial
Unlike the Archos and RCA devices we reviewed last year, none of these new PVPs have inputs for recording. Folks who already run Windows XP Media Center Edition won't care; they're already accustomed to using their PCs to record video from television. But for everyone else, this means playing by usage rules laid down by Microsoft and content providers. For instance, you can't record DVDs directly onto these players, although enterprising types will certainly figure out a way to rip DVD content onto their hard drives. Once video is on your hard drive, Windows Media Player can transcode it into the WMV format that's supported by the players. This applies to videos downloaded from Kazaa and other file-sharing networks; after all, the software has no way of knowing whether the content you're attempting to transfer to the device is a Hollywood blockbuster or footage of your last vacation.
Movies to go
Since recording from the television to your computer can be a hassle and ripping legally purchased DVDs is (still!) a felony, a lot depends on the devices' integration with online movie distributors. Microsoft inked a deal with CinemaNow, which already offers more than 1,200 movies for download. Users will be able to purchase or rent WMV movies specially formatted for the devices' 3.5- or 3.8-inch screens. EMI and Napster are signed up to provide music videos as well.
In the queue
The five devices will share a patent-pending horizontal/vertical navigation system that makes it easy to access settings and queue up music from the currently playing artist, album, or playlist. Microsoft also added support for the new Windows Media Lossless format for audiophiles, which compresses CDs by about half while preserving every single bit.
Design is key
Since the PVPs from the five companies listed above feature an identical graphical user interface, competition is sure to be fierce and will center primarily around the issue of design. We like Creative's Zen Portable Media Center, which has blue-backlit buttons arranged on either side of the screen, much like a Nintendo Game Boy. On the other hand, we were blown away by the Samsung YH-999's ultrathin design and optional wireless remote (for use in conjunction with the unit's optional analog A/V output, as well as with your television).
We expect all of the devices to sell in the $500 to $600 range, and if consumers buy Gates's idea that Microsoft can run entertainment in the home, we predict strong sales--especially to the SUV-with-kids-in-the-backseat and frequent-flyer crowds. On the other hand, the fact that two existing PVPs can record video sans computer could cause consumers to shy away from these devices, which depend solely on Windows Media Player for content.
Eliot Van Buskirk is a senior editor for electronics coverage at CNET. Got a question for him? Let us know.