iRiver PMC-120 – Portable Media Center Review

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  • Review Price: £400.00

Over the past year Microsoft has clearly been focusing its efforts on strengthening its hold on the place in your home that it sees as its future – the lounge. Several Media Center PCs have made their way into the TrustedReviews labs over the past few months and with the improvements found in the 2005 version of the operating system things certainly seem to be coming together.


The portable version of Media Center is seen as a natural extension of the platform. The idea frequently touted of how it might be used is that you record your favourite show in the evening on your Media Center PC, and copy it across to your portable media player to watch on the train to work in the morning. iRiver even includes a protective case in the box so you can keep it safe in your bag.


The iRiver PMC-120 offers a 3.5in screen with a resolution of 320 x 240 and a 20GB hard disk, providing a theoretical maximum of 80 hours of video storage if recorded at native resolution at 500kps. iRiver has experience of producing portable media players with its PMP-120 and PMP-140 Linux based devices having been available for some months. The PMPs offer support for AVI, ASF, and versions three, four and five of the DiVX codec – without any need for transcoding. By contrast, this unit, the PMC-120, only supports video files encoded in WMV format – though as a Microsoft device that’s hardly a surprise. It also supports MP3 and WMA audio and JPEG images. You can import other video formats aside from WMV, but they have to first be transcoded using Windows Media Player 10. This inevitably means that the PMC-120 doesn’t offer drag-and-drop convenience with many of the video files you are likely to already have on your PC.


For a cutting-edge piece of technology the PMC looks fairly mundane. Riyad described it as utilitarian, which is a fair description. It does a job but you’re not going to be impressed by it in the same way you will be when you hold something like a Sony PSP. The device weighs 10.2oz/289g, which isn’t super-light but feels right for a device like this. The 3.5in diagonal screen sits in the centre with the controls on either side. On the under side of the PMC is a hold key, so you can avoid accidental button presses. Though it’s nothing special to look at, build quality is reasonable, aside from some dubious points like an easily losable flap covering a docking connector. Currently there’s nothing to connect the docking port to but iRiver informed me that it’s there, “for possible future accessories or upgrades”.


Getting to the crux if the matter, it has to be said that there are a couple of major issues with the display. First, it has a 4:3 aspect ratio. Surely somebody should have told Microsoft that widescreen is really quite popular these days. All major TV programmes are now recorded and broadcast in widescreen, so a 4:3 screen is a big disappointment. Things get even worse once you try to import widescreen content but we’ll get onto that particular debacle later.


Quality wise, the screen is decent but nothing to write home about. It is bright enough but it’s not at all vibrant. Though the screen isnt’ that big, at the relatively low resolution you can make out the chicken-wire effect of the LCD on the screen as you watch. Even worse, viewing angles are poor. To get the best from the screen you need to be looking directly at it so if you want to share the viewing experience then both of you will see a poor image. There is a two-position stand at least, so you can rest it on a flat surface in front of you without you having to hold it.


Of course the key advantage of a Microsoft product is that it’s likely to have a decent interface. We have the Linux based iRiver PMP-140 in the office to play with, and the interface on that is really not great at all. Conversely, the interface for Windows Media Center 2005 is fantastic to use, and it’s pretty good on the PMC-120 too.