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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro

Pointlessly, Imperfectly Portable

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page F07

The Portable Media Center -- a new, Microsoft-conceived handheld device that presents video and photos as well as music -- would be a decent idea if there weren't such a thing as lampposts. Or street signs. Or trees. Or other cars.

All those obstacles explain why no sane person tries to walk, run or drive while watching video, even as millions do partake in those activities with music playing.


The Zen, by Creative Labs, weighs in at a little more than three-quarters of a pound. (Eric Risberg - AP)

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A Portable Media Center's ability to display photos and play back recorded TV programs, digital video clips and downloaded movies is supposed to set it ahead of mere digital-music players, but there just aren't that many places where you can make use of it. Everywhere else, a Portable Media Center turns into the world's heaviest, biggest, costliest MP3 player.

One such device is available now -- Creative Labs' $500 Zen, which I've been toting around for a few weeks. It resembles an overweight Game Boy more than anything, with a color display, 4 3/4 inches across, flanked by two sets of controller pads (twice what an iPod needs for same basic functions). An onscreen interface mirrors the clean, refined front end of Microsoft's Media Center edition of Windows XP; inside, a hard drive offers about 18.5 gigabytes of storage.

The Zen is a brick of a device, just over an inch thick and slightly more than three-quarters of a pound. Not all Portable Media Centers are as hefty; Samsung's thinner, lighter YH-999, for instance, is more like a tile or a paving stone.

All Portable Media Centers require Windows XP, Windows Media Player 10 and a USB 2.0 port (you can use one with a slower USB 1.1 port, but it will take hours to copy files that way). When you first connect one to your computer, Windows Media Player will offer to copy your music, photo and video collections to the Media Center's hard drive, then keep everything in sync between that device and the PC.

The sync process, however, ran aground on one of two test systems, when Windows Media Player declined to transfer some songs bought from the Napster site, offering only this explanation: "Windows Media Player has encountered an unknown error."

Portable Media Centers play regular MP3 and Windows Media Audio files, as well as songs purchased off stores that use Microsoft's Windows Media standard, such as Napster and Microsoft's own MSN Music -- but not files downloaded from Apple's iTunes store. They can also play songs rented from Napster's upcoming Napster to Go service; this new option lets users pay a flat monthly fee to download all the music files they want (in return, all these files stop working if you cancel your subscription).

As a digital-music player, the Zen's sole advantage is battery life, estimated by Creative at 22 hours. It's just too big to run with or even to stash in a pocket. Every time I took it on my commute, I spotted other passengers listening to their iPods and couldn't help imagining what they'd think of anybody lugging around such a chunky gadget: "loser."

The Zen came down with another form of sync sickness when I tried copying my digital pictures to the device. On one computer, Windows Media Player synced a handful of graphics from a help file in addition to the photos in the My Pictures directory; on the other, this software went completely off the deep end and synchronized hundreds of unwanted pictures, including cached Web-page files and desktop backgrounds.


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