The key feature for this device though is obviously video. Unfortunately though, this is where the PMC-120 is the most disappointing. All the content I imported from the Tranquil Media Center PC was in widescreen letterboxed format. However, after transcoding, all the footage appeared on the player in an incorrect aspect ratio – with everything squashed at the sides and stretched upwards. It seems that Windows Media Player 10 tries to be too smart for its own good, removing the letterboxed areas and stretching the image to fill out rest of the screen. The result is essentially unwatchable. I tried importing a widscreen DiVX file and an Xvid file but obtained exactly the same results. I contacted iRiver about this and it confirmed that it was aware of the problem. iRiver explained that it was a limitation of Windows Media Player 10 and that Microsoft has yet to correct the issue.
As a consequence, the only content that you can import and view as it’s meant to be is native 4:3 footage. As most TV programming is currently widescreen this is a pretty major flaw. It means that if your Media Center PC is recording from a digital source, such as a Freeview box or a Sky box, it has to be set to output a 4:3 image, which isn’t what you’d want if you’ve got your Media Center PC connected to an expensive large widescreen display.
An alternative source of content is via web sites offering legal files for Portable Media Center as part of Microsoft’s ‘Play For Sure’ program. As it stands though, the only site that offers suitable movies for download is called www.cinemanow.com and though there is plenty on offer there is nothing whatsoever that I’ve actually heard of. Hardly a tempting proposition.
So assuming you’ve avoided the aspect ratio issues, and you’re happy to watch exclusively 4:3 content, you might be satisfied with the iRiver as a video player. The staying power of the Lithium-ion battery is five hours, and I was easily able to watch two movies back-to-back. For audio only the battery life is 14 hours, so on a long plane flight you should easily be able to fit in a movie and a decent amount of music listening.The player also features a TV-Out connector. However, this was also disappointing, as a large screen TV really showed up the low resolution of the content.
To conclude, it has to be said that aside from the interface, being Windows based doesn’t help this player. Not only does it force you to transcode almost everything you copy across, but Windows Media Player does a poor job by messing around with the aspect ratios. By contrast I was able to play DiVX and Xvid on a Dell Axim X50v without issue using a program called Beta Player.
Industry wise, the jury is still very much out on the whole notion of a portable video player. It’s quite telling that despite strong rumours to the contrary, a company like Apple has stayed very firmly away from the portable video player concept and the PMC-120 doesn’t look like a device that will make it change its mind. Apple’s main issue is that there’s no legal way of transferring DVDs to a portable player and iRiver and Microsoft haven’t addressed that here. While I was initially excited by the concept of video on the move, the final product has dented my enthusiasm. As the PMC-120 can’t even import Microsoft’s own Media Center PC files correctly in widescreen, let alone DiVX or Xvid files, the PMC-120 isn’t particularly useful, which for a likely UK selling price of around £400 is a pretty damning verdict.