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Personal video devices to challenge music players

Watch out, iPod - PDA makers, too

Computex Apple may be sceptical of the demand for an iPod that can play video as well as music, but many of Taiwan's hardware developers appear to disagree. While Computex wasn't awash with portable video players this year, there were plenty on display from manufacturers keenly seeking deals with vendors to sell them under their own name ready for 2005.

TwinMOS was touting its X-Frame II, a 600g, 19.2 x 11.5 x 2.8cm unit with a 7in, 754 x 480 LCD on the front and a 20GB 1.8in hard drive inside. The bright-white and grey styling, plus the bundled PC app, DVX-POD, show you exactly from which device the company has taken its inspiration.

The playback controls are located on the top of the device, with a volume wheel and control-lock button on the left, and phones, power, USB 2.0 and TV out ports on the right. There's also an AV in port for recording - the X-Frame II will encode MPEG 4 SP at 30fps and 352 x 288.

In addition to MPEG 4, it will play back DivX 3.11, 4 and 5, QuickTime 6 and WMV files. It will also handle WMA and MP3 audio files, but audio recording is limited to mono - there's a built-in microphone for voice memos. It can display JPEG, GIF and BMP photo files.

The X-Frame II made a second appearance at the show, as the Mobinote's DVX-POD 7010. Mobinote is the machine's originator, providing the device to TwinMOS.

MobiNote DVX-POD

PQI's mPack is smaller - its display is a 3.5in 320 x 240 model, and the device measures 14.6 x 8.2 x 2.6cm - that looks like the back of a digital camera. The screen is placed between two five-way navigator controls - the one on the left-hand side is used to control playback, the other to locate and select files to play.

There's a built-in speaker as well as a microphone, and it too sports AV I/O ports. However, it also contains a CompactFlash card slot. A Copy button will transfer digital snaps from your camera straight to the mPack.

PQI mTrixStorage comes courtesy of an 2.5in hard drive, in 20, 40 and 80GB capacities. Like the X-Frame it will display JPEG, GIF and BMP photos, but it will only encode audio in WMA format. Playback, however, includes AAC, AC3, AIFF, WAV, MP3 and Ogg Vorbis, in addition to the Microsoft format. Likewise, video can only be encoded in WMV, but the mPack will play back MPEG 1, 2 and 4, DivX 3.11-5, Xvid and Motion JPEG, too. The company claims a four-hour video playback time; or ten hours if you're listening to songs.

PQI has looked beyond video and music: the mPack also runs Java games written for mobile phones, and contains its own text viewing and editing apps - though without a keyboard, the latter can't be an easy task. There's also an FM radio in there, and since the device mounts as an external hard drive, you can store other data too.

PQI was also showing its mTrix, a more simple system designed to work with media stored on SD or MMC cards, as well as the built-in hard drive.

Gway's YouGo is a pure-play MPEG 4 SP device, using the format for playback and for recording on to its 4GB micro hard drive. It too plays MP3s and will display JPEG photos on its 2.5in LCD. Clearly designed as a handheld player - there's a iPod-esque control wheel on the front - it nevertheless includes a infrared port and a remote control alongside the usual USB 2.0 and AV I/O ports.

Gway YouGoYouGo is an iPod-sized 10.9. x 7.4 x 2.3cm and weighs 197g.

Kobian subsidiary Mercury plans to add a digital TV tuner to its handheld video player, the IXA777, which comes with a digicam/iPod-style docking cradle, that can hook up to any system with a USB 2.0 port. Mercury even when as far as to tout the unit's Mac OS support - presumably it's a USB Mass Storage device.

The company is offering the machine with a variety of hard drive sizes: 30GB, 40GB, 60GB or 80GB, but all will offer the same 3.5in LCD, and SD and CompactFlash slots. The unit has its own microphone for voice recording.

Mercury ixa777iThe IXA777i can handle the usual formats: MPEG 4, AVI, WMV, Divx 4 and 5 for video; MP3, WAV and WMA for audio; and JPEG for still photography. Mercury claims the rechargeable battery is good for three hours' video playback and double that if you're only playing audio tracks.

These are early days for the mobile multimedia player, so don't expect them to flood the Western market just yet. Machines based on Microsoft's Portable Media Center platform aren't going to be around until next Christmas, which is when the format will start getting promoted more heavily over here. Interestingly, none of the machines we saw at Computex were touted as PMC devices.

Apple has publicly said that it doesn't believe video is a killer mobile app, but the iPod certainly has the potential today to be given photo display capabilities - support is already there in the PortalPlayer engine. And with Sony launching personal video players in Japan this month - probably round the world later in the year - and iRiver readying its own video player, the H300, Apple may be forced down such a path.

Even if it doesn't, the other launches may still be bad news for the PDA. As Sony's decision to quit the market shows, the pure-play PDA business is already being squeezed as smartphones incorporate better PIM features, and it may not be long before the media players do too - the iPod already does. PDAs are increasingly offering personal media storage and playback facilities, but will struggle against devices that contain hard drives.

Of course, the PDAs too will ultimately gain tiny hard drives, at which point they will become indistinguishable from media players, and the two markets will have effectively converged. ®

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