Thursday, January 04, 2007

PMP up the jam

Thursday, January 04, 2007

I didn't think Portable Media Players, mobile cinemas - or whatever you want to call them - would be my thing, but when you're given one as a present you've got to at least have a tinker before leaving it in the bottom of a drawer to gather dust. I think my indifference towards them up until this point can be put down to not wanting to carry an extra bulky device around with me - even the svelte new iPod videos are quite chunky when you have to factor in the size of a mini hard drive.

With mine this isn't an issue as it's flash based - it has 1GB of memory built-in with the option of boosting the capacity via an SD card slot. The unit also supports photo slideshows, MP3 playback and e-book reading so there's no need to have a separate unit for each function. While it does include a camera and even a video camera, you'd be daft to rely on either of them to capture the birth of your first-born or wedding.

It's one of those no-name - and hence no support - models, made in a Chinese sweatshop no doubt. You know, the kind you'd avoid like the plague if you were shopping around for electronic gizmos yourself. Despite this it appears to be a solidly constructed device. The clarity of the screen is excellent, the 'Intoom' GUI is highly intuitive and there's no sign of any 'Engrish' in the menu system (well 'accessory' should really be 'accessories', but that's just me being picky). Several instances of odd sentence structure aside, they (whoever 'they' might be) have made a passable job of translating the manual to English so it's very easy to suss out how everything operates if this isn't apparent through fiddling alone.

The default - and only - movie format the player can handle is DivX video with IMA ADPCM audio contained within an ASF wrapper, so not overly Mac or Linux friendly. These devices don't play nicely with non-Windows systems full stop because they can't be mounted as driverless removable media. While this makes the internal memory inaccessible, you can format an SD memory card in the player and then write to it via an external memory card reader, assuming you can find a video editing tool which will allow you to match the codec specs required by the device. My search has so far been in vain.

For now I'm using the Sunplus PMP Transcoding Tool at work where I'm practically intravenously plugged into my Windows box. Sunplus are the manufacturers of the chips which power a staggering number of these unbranded mobile MP4 devices. This is a massive bonus because the same core software is distributed with them, and therefore updates are easier to get hold of (though not from any single, official source). It also means that more people are using it, and sharing their experiences, tips and tech support online.

The latest version appears to be 0.9.2.0, which is available from Speed Digital. Unfortunately, unlike the older incarnations it's not an all-inclusive, standalone package; three codecs must be installed prior to converting any videos, namely Storm Codec, QuickTime Alternative and DivX.

Other people have had varying degrees of success with Microsoft's command-line utility, VidtoASF, Blaze Video Magic 2, Aplus Video to PMP Converter, the video conversion software which accompanies the kiddified RipRoar MP4 player, Wivisoft MP4 Video Converter, Boilsoft ASF Converter, Xilisoft Video Converter and Lesnar_mk's MP4 Movie Converter.

Something else I've learnt through my research is that you should never-ever-ever flash the firmware on these MP4 devices, unless it's a branded player with a specific model number and an official support web site where you can find a guaranteed-to-work ROM. And even then you shouldn't do it. The problem is that although many PMPs look identical, they are often made by different companies and according to varying internal component schematics. No single firmware ROM can take all this diversity into account, and your chances of finding an 'official' one are somewhere between Buckley's and none. Many intrepid flashers have naively embarked on such a treacherous adventure, and few have returned to tell the tale... or at the very least they've permanently toasted their players and had to buy a new one. Try taking a scrambled PMP back to the computer fair you bought it from for a refund and see what sort of a reception you get! They'll cut and run or change their trade name to avoid offering any after sales support when it's their fault your kit is DOA.

So it looks like I'm a convert; I've joined the video generation! Bus journeys will never be the same again. If I'm ever tempted to unplug my headphones and share the audio output with you, fellow commuters, feel free to lynch and launch me out of the top deck window. It's only fair.

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