Plextor MediaX PX-MPM320U review

£114
Price when reviewed

External hard disks should be part of any PC enthusiast’s toolkit. They’re very cheap these days, allow you to transport large files such as videos and music quickly and easily, carry out swift backups and expand the storage capacity of a laptop or PC without having to get busy with a screwdriver.

They’re not the most exciting of PC peripherals, however: you plug them in, copy files to and fro, job done. Plextor, however, aims to turn that preconception on its head by adding media playback facilities to its latest drive.

The MediaX PX-MPM320U is a 2.5in unit, and one not much larger than the A-Listed Maxtor OneTouch 4 Mini (web ID: 164643). It’s small enough to slip into a (large) pocket if you want, capacity is a generous 320GB and it looks quite nice if you remove the nasty-looking plastic bracket attached to the top (for protection, apparently) to reveal the smart aluminium chassis underneath.

We ran our usual file transfer benchmarks and found the Plextor to be a competent, if not outstanding performer. Our single 50MB file copied from a RAM disk on the test PC to the Mediax in 5.6 seconds and from it in 4.4 seconds, while 50MB worth of small files read from it in a reasonably nippy 7.1 seconds. These times compare reasonably well with the drives we tested in the last external hard disk Labs, but write speed for small files was disappointing. The 50MB set transferred to the drive in a sluggish 31 seconds on average, a good ten seconds slower than any of the drives we tested earlier in the year.

But performance isn’t the be-all and end-all for this drive. At one end of the device, in addition to the usual mini-USB socket, there’s a pair of 3.5mm media outputs – one provides component video output; the other composite video output and stereo audio out – plus a selection of twelve media control buttons. In conjunction with a pair of cables provided in the box, these allow you play video, music and photos directly from the drive to any TV or hi-fi which has the right inputs. It’s a bit like having a very high capacity personal media player, but without the screen. The drive is even supplied with an infrared remote control.

And it all works pretty well. Video can be set to upscale from standard resolution to 720p and the drive supports a decent range of file types: it displays DivX, XviD, MPEG1/2/4, MP3, WAV and JPEG, but not WMV. It made a decent effort at playing back our suite of test files, though it only played the XviD MPEG4 file we tried – other MPEG4 files simply weren’t recognised, and it won’t downscale HD content either. The upper limit for video file resolution is 720 x 576 pixels.

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More cleverly than this, the Plextor plays not only individual VOB files (DVD movie files) but also allow video file folders. Copy the VIDEO_TS folder from a DVD to the hard disk and you can play it back as if it were a full blown DVD. Menus, chapters and so on are all preserved without you having to fiddle around selecting audio tracks and ripping or converting files. The drive doesn’t, of course, decrypt or unlock commercial DVDs – that would be illegal and we couldn’t possibly condone that sort of activity – but it can be done with the right software.

Normally, the ability to play media files directly from a hard disk wouldn’t excite us too much, but the latter feature changes all that. We haven’t used any media player, with or without a screen, that makes it so easy to transfer DVDs from optical media to hard disk while keeping them intact, and the huge capacity of the drive means you can store plenty of video on it before running out of space.

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