Sunday, March 06, 2005

Creative Zen Portable Media Center

I'm borrowing a Creative Zen Portable Media Center at the moment and thought I'd scribble down a few thoughts. The PMC is essentially a hybrid music/video player powered by Microsoft's operating system of the same name which aims to give you easy access to all your videos, music and photos whilst on the move. Kind of like a Zen Micro on steroids, which turns out to be a rather apt simile when you open the box and try to lift the device out. At a whopping 340g, the PMC is three times heavier than the Micro and will only fit into the most capacious of pockets. Although this is perhaps unsurprising when you bear in mind it's housing a 3.8 inch colour screen and a removable Li-Ion battery with a claimed playback time of 22 hours, it still feels slightly at odds with the 'portable' moniker.

Switching the device on, Windows users will feel immediately at home with the XP colour palette and a Start menu, mercifully consisting of just five options: 'my tv', 'my music', 'my pictures', 'my videos' and settings. Navigating through the sub menus proves fairly straightforward and a after a couple of minutes playing around you've exhausted most of the operating system's options. Unusually for Microsoft, the emphasis seems have been placed on a simple user interface rather than bells and whistles.

Populating the device with content using Windows Media Player 10 also proves a relatively painless process, although I'd recommend the manual transfer option if you have large amount of media on your PC as the automatic transfer will fill up the PMC's hard drive with content as fast as your USB cable can shift it. Which brings me to one of the PMC's most obvious shortcomings - its 20GB hard drive just doesn't go very far when it comes to storing digital media (and video in particular). The "up to 85 hours of movies" mentioned in the press release sounds like plenty, but assumes no audio or photos are also stored on the device. With a RRP of £399.99 the PMC is only likely to appeal to those who are serious about their digital media who are also likely to find 20GB of storage lacking.

Of course, the Zen PMC is only a first generation device and no doubt future generations will feature larger hard drives and improved compression. Likewise, the lack of a radio and the impossibility of recording direct from TV will no doubt be addressed in future iterations. A more fundamental issue for Creative and other manufacturers pushing PMC devices is the strength of the basic proposition and its here that I remain unconvinced. Whilst its iconic design and intuitive interface undoubtedly helped Apple's iPod secure its market dominance, it couldn't have shipped millions of units worldwide without a rock-solid underlying proposition (that people want to listen to their music collections on the move). Likewise, the BBC Radio Player has proved such a success because of the strength of the core offering (being able to listen to any BBC radio programme when you want for up to a week after broadcast). The $64,000 question for PMC manufacturers is whether enough people want to watch video on the go.

Whilst music and radio work so well as secondary media, video does not. A healthy fear of death by automobile means I'm not going to watch video whilst walking or driving (which is when most of my iPod listening takes place) and I wasn't remotely tempted to get the PMC out of my bag on the tube (I'm also scared of death by mugging). On first seeing the Zen PMC a colleague remarked that it bought to mind the mobile televisions so hyped in the '80s. Will the Portable Media Center go the same way? Only time will tell.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Its close to three years after your posting, and the Zen PMC has been swarmed by an attack of morphing pods and zunes and itouches, not to mention playstations and x boxes, and the hordes of audio-video devices out there.
But if I were Creative, I wouldnt worry! The iRiver trumps the Zune, and comes close to replacing the Creative Zen for the second spot after the ipod.
Next stop, iPhone clones!