iRiver PMC-120 review

Price when reviewed

We looked at Creative’s Zen Portable Media Center last year, and it’s taken this long for Microsoft’s two other launch partners, Samsung and iRiver, to release their products.

iRiver PMC-120 review

Since all use the same operating system to play back photos, music and video (the snappily named Microsoft Windows Mobile for Portable Media Center), the primary task of the manufacturers is to wrap the software up in hardware. They all have 20GB hard disks, 3.5in TFTs and the same basic controls, so the execution of the ergonomics is the key differentiator.

iRiver has gone for a similar package to Creative’s product, with a 139 x 32 x 84mm (WDH) machine that feels similar to portable gaming devices. Samsung has taken the concept further, by designing a svelte unit that feels somewhere between a handheld TV and a PDA. In fact, the YH-999 weighs a paltry 225g – 115g less than the Creative.

When it comes to usability, the iRiver transport and volume controls fit comfortably under the right thumb with the navigation and power buttons under the left. There’s a hold switch underneath, joined by a port for a docking station (not included), and the hard reset button. The headphone socket sits at the top left – the best place to prevent tangles – and the USB connector is on the left side. As with the Creative unit, there’s a single speaker providing loud but rather tinny output.

Samsung’s unit takes a different approach, with the power and transport controls arranged under the TFT, along with a pair of slightly better speakers. When held, it’s marginally less comfortable than the iRiver, but it makes up for it when used with the pop-out desk stand (something the Creative Zen notably lacked). Whereas the iRiver falls over if you give it a slight nudge, the Samsung stands its ground.

The screen quality on all three units is practically identical – a touch lacking in definition, but perfectly acceptable for watching pre-recorded TV or viewing photos. It’s bright enough even at the lowest of the five settings, and can be set to dim itself after one of several timescales. That helps battery life, but it’s here the Samsung falls behind, lasting three hours on video playback compared to five hours from the iRiver at medium brightness. Music playback yielded a decent 12 hours and 14 hours respectively.

The problem affecting all current PMCs, though, is screen ratio. Transfer widescreen video or Media Center recordings and they’ll simply be squashed to fit the 4:3 screen, rendering them all but unwatchable. It’s an amazing oversight in an otherwise seamless process. Apart from this, Windows Media Player 10 is able to transcode from any codec installed on your system, although bear in mind you won’t be able to simply copy DVDs onto it – you’ll need actual video files.

Nonetheless, these are great gadgets for the frequent traveller with cash to spare. The iRiver offers fantastic battery life, but the Samsung otherwise steals the show with its outright stylishness, even down to an attractive and practical travel wallet.

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