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Pointlessly, Imperfectly Portable

Once I'd cleaned those extras off the device, I found that I couldn't display the pictures in each folder in the most logical order -- by the dates and times they were taken. Instead, the Zen sorted them by file name, a real pain when you have 200 pictures whose names all begin "image001." There's also no way to zoom in on a photo to see more detail.

The Zen's biggest flaw as a digital photo album, however, is its day-to-day irrelevance. The big reason to carry entire libraries of digital photos around is to share them with other people, and for that purpose a 10-cent recordable CD will suffice.


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

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The Portable Media Center concept faces a different problem when it comes to video use. Most computers can't record TV programs to their hard drives in the first place, while the supply of legal TV or video downloads is also near-nonexistent. Only one site, CinemaNow, offers movies that can be transferred to a Portable Media Center -- a scant 167 films, mostly B-movie rejects.

Nor can you simply plug a Portable Media Center into a cable or satellite box to record directly from that feed -- the only way to load video is from your computer.

You can, of course, grab plenty of video off file-sharing networks. But this may not work smoothly either; a movie download in the popular DivX format took more than two hours to convert to a Portable Media Center-ready form on a relatively new laptop, then played on the Zen jerkily and in the wrong aspect ratio (meaning everybody on the screen looked freakishly skinny).

The Zen and other Portable Media Centers can be plugged into TVs, but on a larger screen the defects of these compressed video files -- a blurry, blotchy, low-resolution picture -- were embarrassingly obvious.

I got about seven hours of battery life while playing video on the Zen, more than enough for a domestic flight. I could also see a device like this getting regular use among workers with lengthy train commutes.

But a portable DVD player will save you a few hundred dollars and provide a much better selection of movies to watch.

The toughest competition for the Portable Media Center, however, is not even that but the latest crop of Palm and Pocket PC handhelds, all of which feature memory-card slots (a one-gigabyte card goes for under $100 these days) and screens almost as big as the Zen's. They require a little more tinkering and can't store nearly as many music, photo and video files, but they also do useful tasks such as remembering your schedule and address book. And they're a lot less likely to wind up in the graveyard of Gadgets People Don't Need.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.


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