Archive for October 2006

POSSIBLE IPOD KILLER???

October 30, 2006

Samsung YP-K5 (4GB)

Fall is an anxiously awaited time of year in the gadget world because it’s when tech companies roll out some of their hottest gadgets in preparation for the holiday buying season. September in particular seems to be the prime month for MP3 player announcements, with last year marking the debut of the Apple iPod Nano. It looks like 2006 is set to continue this tradition, with the sleek Samsung YP-K5 leading the way. This unique flash player, available in 2GB ($210) and 4GB ($260) capacities, may be a bit pricey and thick around the middle, but that’s not stopping it from turning some heads.

In the closed position, the K5 isn’t that remarkable looking–rather reminiscent of the Olympus M:robe MR-100–but its smooth, black body feels good in the hand and its shiny face is eye-catching. Once the device is powered on, the visual experience becomes even more pleasing. Like the M:robe, the K5 features touch-sensitive controls, backlit in pleasing shades of blue. A center circle select key is surrounded by four arrow indicators, while Back and Menu selectors sit kitty-corner to one another on the outskirts. A smallish (1.7-inch) color OLED screen resides above the controls, and along the top edge is the power/hold switch. The bottom edge of the player houses the headphone jack and a proprietary USB port.

 

The K5 is on the large side for a flash player–it measures 3.9 by 1.9 by 0.7 inches and weighs a relatively hefty 3.8 ounces–but there’s a good reason for this. If you flip the player on its side and push up the bottom edge, a built-in speaker slides out. What’s great about this is that the speaker is designed in such a way that it angles itself up, not only propping the face of the player at an ideal viewing angle, but pointing the speakers up and forward so as to direct the sound at the listener. We’ve seen MP3 players with built-in speakers before, but none have shown this kind of ingenuity. What’s even better is that the speakers actually sound OK–tinny and lacking in bass, but certainly passable, and better than any other built-ins we’ve heard. And they get quite loud.

Another cool feature is that the interface automatically rotates when the speakers are pushed out. And we’re totally smitten with the K5’s interface in general. The playback screen is dominated by a large EQ graphic, below which song information scrolls (you also get a battery meter and a time-elapsed counter on this screen). When you don’t touch the controls for a while, this screen fades to a screensaver of your choosing (analog clock, various animation graphics, photos). The music menu offers the usual choices of Artists, Albums, Playlists, and so on, and as you scroll through these options (or any other list, for that matter), a bouncing sphere indicates your position–cute! Our favorite is the top menu, though, which is a bit difficult to describe in words. Its main selections are represented by different images–headphones for Music, a wrench for Settings, and so on–which are made up of animated blue dots. As you shuttle through the options, the dots morph into the next image. It’s just a little visual effect, but it adds a certain flair to the K5 and makes it fun to use.

The K5 comes with a rather decent pair of rubber-tipped earbuds, a USB cable, and a software disc. The last includes Samsung’s Media Studio 5, but it’s not necessary to use this to transfer music to the player. The K5 is compatible with various jukeboxes and services, including Windows Media Player 10 (which is one of the system requirements for the player), Rhapsody, and Napster. Supported audio formats are MP3 and WMA, including DRM-10 for use with to-go services. The device also has an FM radio with seemingly limitless presets, and it displays JPEG photos, though we don’t recommend it as a photo viewer; images were rather dark and had a noticable screendoor effect. As with other Samsung players, the K5 includes various sound effects, such as 3D Sound, Bass Boost, and Concert Hall. You can even use the player as an alarm clock.

Overall, the K5 proved to be a great little performer throughout testing. The touch pad was not overly sensitive, and the device responded immediately to all commands. Even through the included headphones, sound quality was top notch. Through our Shure E4c test ‘phones, tunes coming from the K5 sounded stellar, with rich mids, all-encompassing bass, and a sparkly high end. We got clear, detailed sound across all genres of music. And the sound effects provided some interesting twists, especially Concert Hall. Rated battery life for the player is 6 hours through the speakers or 30 hours through headphones, and CNET Labs was able to eek out a more than respectable 32.7 hours.

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& SINCE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF NEWS…

October 30, 2006

Sony PlayStation 3 (60GB) 

The next-generation Sony PlayStation 3 is a graphical powerhouse and Blu-ray movie player with an impressive array of extra features.

 Even by the considerable standards of past next-generation consoles, the Sony PlayStation 3 has been subject to almost ludicrous levels of prerelease hype and hyperbole. The system was unveiled at E3 2005, where it faced derision for having a glut of unsubstantiated CGI demos of games that weren’t running on any specific hardware. Information trickled out over the course of the next year until the company’s press conference at E3 2006, where Sony presented the system’s final design, release date and price, and first wave of titles–to once again face derision. The PlayStation 3 is due out November 17, 2006 in North America (Japan gets it about a week earlier, while Europe and Australia won’t see it until March 2007) in two different configurations: a $600 model with a 60GB hard drive and built-in wireless networking and a $500 version with a 20GB hard drive but no Wi-Fi–HDMI was originally absent from this model but was added in September. Based on the PS3’s launch details and our own hands-on experience with the console, we’ve collected the positive and negative points for Sony’s third stab at console dominance.Upside: Like the PS2 did for DVDs, the PS3 hopes to give a boost to the nascent Blu-ray movie format. The console’s built-in Blu-ray drive allows it to double as a high-def movie player, making its otherwise hefty $500-to-$600 price tag seem like a bargain compared to that of dedicated stand-alone Blu-ray players, which bottom out at $1,000. Every PlayStation 3 will come with an HDMI port, which guarantees high-def playback of Blu-Ray movies and PS3 games. Blu-ray will be the format of choice for PS3 games, and the high-density discs offer much more storage space than those of Sony’s competitors; Blu-ray discs max out at 50GB and can theoretically go to 100GB or 200GB, while the Microsoft Xbox 360 and (as far as we can determine) Nintendo Wii use standard DVDs, which top out at a comparatively cramped 8.5GB. The end result? The PS3 has the potential to offer more expansive games, with better graphical textures, more full-motion HD video, and plenty of extra content. Sony is also planning to do away with region coding for games, partly because multiterritory releases (with region-specific languages, for instance) will fit all the versions on one disc. The PlayStation 3 will be the first commercial device powered by the ballyhooed Cell processor, a 3.2GHz chip that Sony developed with help from IBM and Toshiba. The chip’s seven synergistic processing elements (SPEs) will work in parallel to churn out a staggering 218 gigaflops, or 218 billion floating point operations per second. In practice, that should make the PS3 especially adept at such processor-intensive activities as upconverting video and emulating past PlayStation games. You’ll be able to play your PlayStation and PlayStation 2 games, right out of the box, on the PlayStation 3. Even though it seems as though every household on the planet owns a PS1 or PS2, it’s still a pretty big coup for the system to have such an extensive backlog available from the start; comparatively, the Xbox 360’s backward-compatibility list is being built from the ground up in a piecemeal fashion, and Nintendo is offering GameCube disc playback but will likely charge for downloading games from the company’s earlier consoles, including the Nintendo 64 and Super Nintendo systems.

Like the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii, the PS3 supports multiple wireless controllers. Sony gets props for supporting up to seven simultaneous gamepads, as well as the Bluetooth wireless standard; the controllers will likely employ an internal battery that can be charged via mini-USB cable. The controllers use the same Dual Shock design as the company’s customary PS1 and PS2 controllers, with a few notable differences–the PS3 controllers utilize motion-sensitive movement as a method of control, much like the Nintendo Wii, while the force-feedback rumble technology has been removed. There will be some connectivity between the PS3 and Sony’s PlayStation Portable handheld system via USB (and possible Wi-Fi). The most novel usage shown so far was for F1 06, a racing title where the PSP acted as an external real-time rearview mirror.

 Downside: As great as a price of $500 or $600 will be for a Blu-ray player, it’s awfully high for a console. It’s twice the price that the PS2 was at launch in 2000, and it’s $200 more than the core and high-end Xbox 360 models. Another pricing flub that Sony’s been fleeced for was the decision to include a neutered PS3 for $500. While the company originally explained the difference as a simple memory disparity, further research has uncovered that the $500 model will lack built-in Wi-Fi and a built-in flash-memory reader. Microsoft caught some flak for releasing a bare-bones Xbox 360 Core System, a version that was easily upgradable to the exact same specs as the more expensive deluxe version with the purchase of a few expensive accessories. The PS3 should be able to do the same, though the upgrade path for the hard drive, the flash-memory reader, and Wi-Fi compatibility remains vague. While the six-direction motion sensitivity of the PS3 controller worked well when we tried it, it pales in comparison to the Wii’s more fully realized 3D motion control. It probably didn’t help that Sony announced the PS3’s new controller the day before the Wii’s playable debut. Moreover, Sony’s Warhawk was the only motion-based game on display at its E3 booth, compared to the two dozen or so Nintendo games that utilized the Wii remote. The PS3 games shown at E3 2006 looked really good, but quite frankly, we expected better. Perhaps it’s a case of the overambitious prerendered videos from last year’s show coming back to haunt the company, but none of the dozen or so PS3 games showcased looked much better than second-generation Xbox 360 titles. Granted, that system is hitting its stride while this one’s still incubating, and the PS3 should be capable of much better visuals further down the line.With nearly all of the specs and release info nailed down, Sony’s been relatively quiet about the PS3’s online functionality, specifically the available downloadable content. Sony will be joining Nintendo and Microsoft in the microtransaction market, but the company’s entire backlog is already playable on the system in its current form. Nintendo’s Virtual Console has garnered an unprecedented amount of hype, and the Xbox Live Marketplace is one of the surprise success stories of the Xbox 360. If Sony’s last in implementing it, the company may have a difficult time establishing an online economy. On the plus side, unlike Microsoft, Sony has indicated that its online service will be free for online competition (Xbox Live requires a $50-per-year fee for Gold membership to play games head-to-head). Once again, launch allocations will be a major problem for a Sony console launch. The company set a precedent by chopping initial shipments of the PlayStation 2 in half roughly a month before the console’s release, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 faced similar shortages. Sony’s PlayStation 3 debut looks to be on par with both botched launches, as the company drastically reduced launch quantities of the PlayStation 3 to 400,000 units. Even more distressing is the attitude Sony has taken post-E3. In what may be the worst case of damage control ever, Sony Computer Entertainment president Ken Kutaragi has made many a distressing prognostication regarding the PS3–one of the more poorly received ones being that he believes the system will undergo evolving specifications. Other execs haven’t been immune either; Sony Computer Entertainment Europe CEO David Reeves claimed that the PS3 will sell out on brand recognition alone, and Sony CEO Howard Stringer assured gamers that their $600 was “paying for potential.” This odd blend of bizarre business practices and cockiness in the face of tough competition could sour the public’s image of the current king of console development.

Outlook: Last time around, the original Xbox came out later than the PS2 and, thus, wielded a significant hardware advantage. This time, PS3 seems to have the technological edge, but Xbox 360 will have a 12-month head start in the marketplace. But the release dates, gigahertz comparisons, and Blu-ray boasts will likely take a backseat to the two most important factors: games and pricing. The Xbox 360 is slowly but surely amassing a roster of impressive titles and will have even more when the PS3 becomes available. Furthermore, the 360 will also be priced at least $200 less than the high-end PS3. The burden is now on Sony to justify the massive price tag (for a gaming console) while it captures an exclusive, must-have freshman title that sells the system. The most likely candidate for that honor lies with Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4. The company didn’t do itself any favors by drawing undue comparisons with the half-as-expensive Wii when it incorporated less impressive motion-sensitive technology in the controller. Sony’s betting that hard-core gamers–and high-def fanatics looking for a sub-$1,000 Blu-ray player–will be happy to run up their credit card debt come November 17. But for parents searching for a holiday gift, the cheaper Xbox 360 and Wii will be tough competition, indeed.

Next Up…

October 26, 2006

The Archos 604 (30GB)

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Archos’s 604 (link to PDF) represents the latest in an esteemed line of gadgets from the king of portable video players (PVPs, or PMPs). Superb construction and design, an all-encompassing feature list, and solid performance should make this übergadget a highly coveted item, particularly because of its shockingly low base price of $350.

The caveats? The 604 is limited to 30GB of storage (though the thicker 504 goes all the way up to 160GB), and you’ll need to buy extra accessory kits to get the most out of the player (namely, using the device as an audio/video recorder). Throw in patchy out-of-the-box compatibility with some video formats and you’ve got reason to pause. But overall, we believe the 604, with its amazing screen, makes a worthy successor to the AV500.

Over the past few months, we have seen numerous blog postings regarding the 604 and its brethren, the 404, the 404 Camcorder, the 504, and the 604 Wi-Fi. Archos in fact has created a PVP design for everybody. The ultraportable 30GB 404 has a smaller screen and a price tag to match ($300), while the 404 Camcorder adds a 1.3-megapixel camera ($350). The 504 adds bulk but offers up to a 160GB capacity; the svelte 604 with its 4.3-inch wide screen and removable battery is the flagship model. For the ultimate gadget geek, the 604 Wi-Fi adds wireless connectivity and a touch screen. All 04 models are based on the same general design.

Designed to replace the AV500, the 604 is slightly bigger than the 30GB AV500 at 5.1 by 3.1 by 0.6 inches and 9.3 ounces, but it’s more polished and has more screen real estate with less bezel (4.3 inches vs. 4 inches). It’s quite a bit thinner and lighter than its chief competitor, the 0.87-inch, 10.5-ounce 30GB Cowon A2, which is more contoured and softer than the blocky 604.

Though it’s not as pocketable as the 4 by 3 by 0.5-inch 404, in addition to other video-playing MP3 players, its big screen and removable battery are more than enough reason to make it a mobile companion. The built-in kickstand is also a sweet little extra. We’ve read some comments about the design being “ugly” but in person, the device is pretty hot.

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The 604’s brushed metal casing is extremely scratch resistant, and even its gorgeous 4.3-inch 480×272 pixel/16-million-color wide screen can withstand some punishment (though it does attract fingerprints). Like on its predecessor, the primary controllers line the right-hand side of the screen, though this time around the buttons are more intuitive. Unlike the AV500, which featured sets of unlabeled buttons of varying sizes (think Tetris), the 604’s buttons are uniform and marked. Personally, I didn’t mind the AV500’s controls, but the 604 is much better.

Each button is designed to be pressed in either the left or the right direction, including the special set of diagonal buttons that act as page up/down when browsing and skip/reverse about 30 seconds when playing content. Like with the last version, the controls work in harmony with the GUI, with context-sensitive menus and submenus appearing on the expansive screen mapped to a specific button. Despite its simple control panel, the Cowon A2 can be a bit more difficult to use, though the 604 is very difficult to operate smoothly blindly or in the dark. Backlit buttons would have rocked.

Speaking of the GUI, it’s been revamped, with slick animated icons and a more modern feel. Backgrounds as well as text and accent colors are customizable, and everything from the audio playback screen (with album art) to the photo thumbnail page (where pics magnify as you scroll over them) is refined. Archos manages to pack lots of info onto the screen without making it feel crowded.

The main menu includes Video, Music, Photo, Browser, Resume, TV Scheduler, VideoCorder, and AudioCorder options. Even without an FM tuner, the 604 is feature rich, though you’ll need extra accessories to record video and audio (more on that later). You do get a good voice recorder out of the box, and the built-in mono speaker is decent, though not as crisp as the A2’s stereo speakers.

Video playback is where the 604 shines. According to the specs, it’s compatible with MPEG-4 ASP up to 720×480 at 30fps, AVI file container with MP4 file format, WMV9, and protected WMV. Unlike the Cowon, it’s not DivX certified, and it doesn’t play MPEG-2. However, many of our DivX files played without a hitch. You can also download plug-ins that will let you play H.264 and MPEG-2 files–they will be available soon at about $10 each (there’s mention of AAC and AC3 support too). Though it doesn’t cover the same ground as the Cowon, the 604 can handle your files, which in part will be transcoded via Windows Media Player, the de facto jukebox for the Archos. Though we’ll comment on video performance later, the 604’s screen is amazing, and video controls are superresponsive.

Recording video and audio is a snap, and the results are worth your while. As long as you have the recoding adapter, you can record (MPEG-4/AVI with maximum 640×480 30fps) from a wide variety of sources such as DVD (it’s Macrovision compliant, so you can’t watch recorded files on any other device), cable, and satellite. Audio recording (PCM or ADPCM WAV) is similarly intuitive and effective.

Though the built-in recording scheduler works well enough, and you can download show schedules via My Yahoo, the process is not as smooth as you’d think. We’d love to see more integration (as Archos has done with Dish Network) so that you could get content more automatically and more intelligently. Still, the ability to record gives you a free source of good content.

The 604 can also play MP3, WMA, subscription WMA, and WAV files. Support for album art, bookmarking (for videos, too), ID3 tag-based browsing (via the ARC Library), gapless music playback, and the solid playlist creation highlight the 604’s audio features. We were, however, disappointed with the quality of the newly added EQs. We do like the fact that upon connecting to a computer, the 604 gives you the option of UMS (PC hard drive) or MTP (Windows device) modes. Transferring to and from Mac (drag and drop) and Windows (autosyncing) were clean and quick.

The 604’s revamped photo features are neat. One method for browsing is the thumbnail mode, where you get 54 thumbnails, which magnify as you pass over them. Slide-show transitions are professional, and you can zoom in multiple steps. I would say it’s a great photo viewer.

 

How did the Archos 604 get so affordable? Part of the reason the 604 comes in at $350 while the AV500 is currently $450 is the 604’s lack of accessories. In order to record audio or video, you need to purchase one of two optional kits. The first is the Archos DVR Station, a dock designed to fit in with your entertainment system. This $100 kit (with a nice remote control) can record virtually any video source including cable TV, DVD player, camcorder, and so on, as well as line-in audio. It features virtually every input and output you’d care for, including S-Video in and out, component out, standard USB, and even SPDIF out. The other option is the more portable DVR Travel Adapter Kit ($70), which includes a four-inch adapter that snaps onto the 604’s dock connector. It’s easy to use and transport, but it lacks the depth of ports of the dock. The AV500 actually shipped with a docking pod, making it record-ready out of the box. So you’re actually paying about the same if you add the recording hardware–not a bad move by Archos, since you can save some cash if you don’t want to record. However, recording is one of the prime features of this “DVR,” and our advice is to get one of the two kits when you buy the main unit.

What you do get in the package is pretty weak–a proprietary USB cable, earbud headphones, a 604 dock module (for use with the DVR Station), and a sad excuse for a case. Just the basics–you don’t even get a power adapter as you are expected to power via USB. If you want AC power, you’ll need to spring for the $30 Docking Adapter Kit, which includes an adapter that allows you to transfer photos to the 604 from digital cameras. So in order to match the $420 30GB Cowon A2’s recording and photo-transfer features (not to mention an AC adapter), you’d have to spend a total of $450 (604 + Docking Adapter Kit + Travel Adapter Kit).

 

The Archos x04 series is modular, which helps keep the base price down. Here’s what you get and what you don’t get: The 604 comes bundled with a case, earphones, a USB cable, a Quick Start guide, and the DVR saddle (used with the DVR Station). Attached to the 604 is the DVR Travel Adapter ($70), to the right is the Docking Adapter Kit, and above is the DVR Station ($100).

Sound quality is decent at higher volumes (bright highs, average low end, punchy mids). In our original review, we noted that the 604 had a layer of electric noise especially noticeable at low volumes–and it didn’t have anything to do with the display. We have since updated the firmware to version 1.2.05, and it eliminated most of the noise, though we can still detect a tiny bit. Archos even added gapless playback of music files. Let’s hope Archos continues with aggressive firmware updates.

Video piped out to a TV looks good (depends on your original file), though the presence of compression artifacts lead me to believe that the docking station with its fancy outputs might be overkill.

Processor speed is responsive–especially scanning through video, though there are some light pauses in the menu, like with the Cowon. Photos and videos load quickly. Battery life may not approach Cowon A2 levels, but we’re still impressed with the rated 14 hours for audio and 4 hours of video. In informal testing, we got plenty more than 14 hours for audio. We’ll update with our official battery-life results when they come in. The removable battery makes a huge difference–replacement batteries cost $30. The removable battery is a nice touch.

ENTER…THE BEAST!!!

October 26, 2006

Maaaaannnnn,

I’m excited about this product. It launched early in the year and I finally saved up enough pennies to get one. If you’re looking for an mp3 player, this is not for you….but…if you’re looking for a complete Video & Musical experience…

I present to you the ARCHOS AV500.

Now check out what this “BEAST” does…

The Archos AV500 is a miniature entertainment centre capable of playing both audio and video files. It’s controlled through an easy-to-use menu system, with icons to select all of the different audio and video playback functions. There are two control pads, which takes a little getting used to; one to control the main menu and playback and volume, and the other to control the sub-menu for system and playback settings. av500 1There are also two ways to get content onto the AV500. In hard disk mode, the player simply appears as a hard disk in Windows, and you can drop your video or audio files into the corresponding folders. We found the AV500 would play DiVX and XViD files at the standard DVD resolution of 720 x 480 pixels, but it would crash if the files were too large – 700MB was the biggest file size it could handle av500 2

The AV500 also plays WMV files, but only at a maximum resolution of 352 x 288. Strangely, the common MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 formats are not supported. Video quality from DivX and XviD is impressive, and is good enough to enjoy a film on the bright and high-contrast screen

av500 3

If you are not a video-encoding expert, there is an easier way to get video onto the AV 500 and making sure that it plays. If you set the player to ‘Windows Device’ mode, Windows Media Player will recognize it as a media player. Now all you have to do is choose a file to synchronize with the device and Media Player will automatically convert the file to a format compatible with the player and copy it across. The AV500 will also record video directly from a composite video source using the supplied A/V cable. The player records in real time, and while the picture is slightly grainy it is certainly good enough to catch up on last night’s TV on the commute to work. av500 4The AV500 also works well as an audio player. The player supports MP3, WAV and WMV files, and you can organize your music by artist, album, title, genre and year, and also create your own playlists. Audio quality from the supplied headphones is reasonable, but music will sound much better through a good pair of headphones.av5oo 5

To simplify the connection of the AV500 to your TV or home stereo, Archos supplies a TV docking pod. This disc-shaped unit provides A/V-in, A/V-out, S-Video-in, power, and IR-blaster ports, the last of which is used for attaching an included sensor to your VCR or cable/satellite box. However, the dock doesn’t cradle the AV500, and its curved top makes a poor platform for the unit. Cowon’s new A2 PVP also records video but doesn’t require the A/V breakout pod. Whether or not the dock is connected, you can control the AV500 via the included full-size remote, which seems almost comically large compared with the AV500 itself.

AV500 6

Archos will soon release the $200 Mini-Cam, a lipstick-shaped video camera that plugs into the AV500’s main A/V socket. The camera’s cable has an in-line remote control for easy MPEG-4 recording and a built-in microphone; the camera itself is mountable. The Mini-Cam, despite its cost, is way cool; it can be used in a variety of situations, such as extreme sporting activities. In terms of sharpness and low-light performance, video quality on this color CCD camera is decent too.