Home > Media Center > Portable Media Center Review (Creative Zen)

Portable Media Center Review (Creative Zen)

I’ve been testing the Creative Zen Portable Media Center (PMC) for about a month now under my own “real world” conditions.  I am a travelling software account manager, so I spend alot of time on trains and planes.  I anticipated awhile back that PMC would fit the bill for a road warrior like myself, and by most accounts I was right.

At a high-level, I’m a huge fan of the Portable Media Center concept as an extension of Windows XP Media Center Edition.  Now that I’m hoarding all of my digital media in one location, the ability to start taking it with me is quite simply awesome.  That said, the Creative Zen certainly does take several opportunities to remind you that it’s a version 1.0 implementation of a new platform.

Use Case #1 – Toronto to Phoenix flight

Within a day of getting my evaluation unit from Microsoft, I flew out to Phoenix for our week-long user conference.  I took this opportunity to quickly synchronize all of the media on my MCE machine so that I could enjoy it on the flight (and show off pictures of my daughter to all of my customers).  I dove right into the synchronization engine to get things set up…

The PMC platform relies on Windows Media Player 10 for synchronization to media on your PC.  This new version of Media Player allows you to organize and view your TV Recordings and Pictures, so all of your media is now available via the WMP library.  Media is selected for synchronization via a prioritized listing of playlists that the user can set up – the synchronizer will run through your list from top to bottom and add media until the device is full.  In my case, I created a playlist for “All episodes of The Daily Show recorded in the last week” and put that on the top of the list.  I then added ”All Photos taken in the last 30 days“, a few more of my favourity TV Shows, and finally at the end of the list was “All Media“.  That should allow me to always have the latest episodes of my favourite shows available, and then fill the device up with the rest of the stuff that I might eventually want access to.

Synchronization occurs when you plug the Portable Media Center into the USB port of your computer, WMP begins copying all of your media over to the device based on the priorities that were defined earlier.  Music and pictures copy over in their original format, and video is converted to a smaller format that more closely matches the screen size of the Creative Zen.  This size conversion along with Windows Media Video compression crunches the video down to a very thrifty size and allows for up to 80 hours of video to be added to the device.  (I have some concerns about conversion, which I will talk about later in the article).

So, now I have all of my media on the device and it’s off to the airport with me!  As soon as I pulled out the PMC during the flight, I noticed several onlookers were checking me out.  Checking my ego for a second, I quickly realized that it’s not me they’re interested in but the PMC.  I found a good chunk of time during the flight was dedicated to demoing the unit and talking about Windows MCE in general with the masses.  As I expected, the segment of the population who spends alot of time on an airplane is also very interested in the portable media concept.  Sure, sure, there are movies on the plane but after a couple of flights you’ve seen everything that they have to throw at you – and if you have the displeasure of flying Air Canada then you’re just about ready to strangle the guy who does the French entertainment report.  There’s something uniquely personal about television that business travelers miss out on – the ability to check in every week with your favourite shows, to set aside some time to chat about the latest new series, to buy in to storylines that are interesting to them as individuals.  When you’re in a different time zone every week, you miss out on these simple pleasures that everyone else has been enjoying since the early 1900s.

So, I’m on the plane watching CSI:New York and showing it off to all of the people around me.  What things do I notice in this environment:

  1. Holding the device for several hours on the tray table causes some fatigue in my hands
  2. The view of the screen is very good in this environment – no glare, good backlight
  3. Image quality is more than acceptable and lets me do exactly what I set out to do – take my favourite shows along with me and watch them on the plane

I got to the point where there wasn’t enough time to watch another episode, so I flipped over to My Music to take in some tunes for the remainder of the flight.  I couldn’t help but notice that the PMC was awkward for this task – it wasn’t easy to leave the device on the tray table or sitting in my lap for unattended listening.  This is mostly due to the relative bulk of the device, which I didn’t even notice when watching TV. However, the album display was particularly cool and gave me something to stare at.

At the conference, I engaged in the normal chitchat that skirts the line between work and personal life.  Inevitably, this turns to conversations about our respective families and in this specific case about how much fun Halloween is with an 18 month old child.  How cool was it to be able to whip out the PMC, within a couple of clicks turn on a slideshow of Halloween pictures, and hand it to my client?  Very impressed (actually my gadgets have since come up in follow-on meetings and I was forced to pass the PMC around the room again). 

For usage on the airplane and on the road, the PMC was great.  In this case, I had about a week’s worth of my favourite shows available on the device and the most relevant family pictures available for me to use.  I could envision a traveling consultant or sales-weasel (a term of endearment) coming home on the weekends, re-syncing with the new shows from the week, and taking them back on the road with them on Monday morning.

Use Case #2 – The daily commute from suburbia

The next set of tests involved my daily commute from my home town of Milton to downtown Toronto where several of my customers are based.  It’s about a 50-minute train ride from the time I sit down to the time I arrive at Union Station.  Again, I’m thrilled to be able to take my TV shows with me on the train so that I have something to do, but the PMC didn’t fare so well in this use case.

My plan was to keep the same prioritized playlists on the MCE machine, and to resynchronize every day so that the newest shows are available to me.  Specifically, I’m interested in the late-night talkshows on a daily basis now and not so much the prime-time shows that I took with me on the plane.  I’ll be home in the evenings now, and will watch prime-time with my wife (this is what is referred to as “quality time”).  In the evenings I’d plug the Zen in to charge and synchronize, and in the mornings I would throw it in my laptop bag to take with me on the commute.

One would assume that this wouldn’t be an issue, but it definately was an issue for my family who had to suffer through severely degraded performance back on the Media Center PC so that I could enjoy my Recorded TV on the train.  Once again, I’ll defer my performance concerns to later in the article but will note here that they are much more evident when you are trying to synchronize information on a daily basis.

So I’m on the train now watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien, here are the things that I notice in this environment:

  1. The bright flourescent lighting in the train causes an annoying glare on the screen that made it difficult to view the playback.
  2. After about 30 minutes, I find myself struggling to locate a comfortable position to hold the PMC for viewing (no tray table here to rest on).  I would much prefer a one-handed device in this environment whereas the two-handed approach was find in the plane.
  3. The background noise in the train makes it difficult to listen to dialog (not the fault of the PMC, I now have some noise cancelling headphones on my Christmas list as a result of this though).
  4. It’s difficult to figure out what episode I want to watch.  For some reason I now have multiple episodes of the late-night shows on the PMC, even though the MCE system is set to keep only 1 episode.  The PMC doesn’t provide any show descriptions, so I need to play a few minutes of every show to see if it’s the one I want to watch.  Inexplicably, some of the shows have dates associated with them but not all. 

For daily usage on the commuter train, the PMC was still wonderful to have available but frustrating to deal with for many reasons.  The UI itself didn’t make it easy to navigate daily TV shows, and synchronization problems caused marital strife (even moreso than the fact that I consider television watching to be “quality time”).

Concerns to be addressed in v2

Let me reiterate how much I love being able to take my media with me wherever I go – I’m willing to put up with alot of glitches in order to get that functionality and right now this is the only way to get it (that I am aware of).  That said, there are alot of things that need to be addressed as Microsoft and its partners move forward into version 2.  (Now would be the appropriate point to complain that I wasn’t in the v1 beta, as I honestly believe that I would have caught many of these in time for v1 release).

Synchronization of video – performance

WMP10 and PMC work together to deliver an incredible quantity of video to such a small portable device – that functionality is awesome!  I specifically believe that the combination of Windows XP Media Center Edition and the Portable Media Center platform is a killer combination that is unlikely to be met by any other mainstream provider.  I have all of my media, including TV, available on one comprehesive system that can deliver it for consumption to a PC, a TV, and a mobile device.

The problem in v1 is that actually synchronizing this library of video causes severe degration of the native MCE experience.  WMP10 provides a few options for converting the video.  Out of the box, it converts video on the fly when you synchronize the device which causes synchronization to be measured in hours, sometimes days for an initial sync.  They also have made “background encoding” available as an option to take advantage of unused CPU cycles to proactively convert content even when a device is not connected.  When it comes to my usage of PMC and synchronization, I’ve tried everything:  synchronizing at night, background encoding, limiting my playlists; nothing seems to work properly.  I understand that transcoding video takes up alot of time and CPU cycles, and I’m comfortable with setting aside some of my horsepower for converting video to be used on the PMC.  However, I do have some very specific recommendations to the design team:

 

  1. Ensure that background encoding behaves itself as a background application should.  I’ve checked the process list, and the encoding process is listed as “background” priority, but it is not behaving as such.  When background encoding takes place, the Media Center Extender complains that it cannot connect due to high activity on the host PC, the Media Center native interface becomes very slow or unresponsive, and the PC in general becomes unusable.  This is not acceptable behaviour for a background application – it should give back CPU and disk cycles to applications that are in the foreground as needed.
  2. Turn on high quality encoding as a default.  When this option is deselected (as it is out of the box) the resulting video is unwatchable.  It seems to drop frames to achieve target bitrates, which is again unacceptable.
  3. Allow background encoding to be scheduled.  I would be okay with the MCE machine being dedicated to encoding between the hours of 1:00am and 7:00am, but haven’t been successful in achieving this.  Tied in with this request is the ability to encode in the background as a standalone service, without the need to always have Windows Media Player running.
  4. Allow foreground encoding (ie real time synchronization while connected to a device) to run as a low-priority process.  There may be other people in the house using the MCE machine via extenders and I don’t want their experience to be impacted just because I plug in a PMC for synchronization.
  5. Clean up items that are no longer needed on the PMC first.  In my test case above, the MCE machine had 1 episode of Late Night with Conan Obrien available at any given time, however the PMC would store 2 or 3 episodes of this show.  I assume that this is because the synchronization process never completed fully as something was churning away on conversion for hours when I unplugged the device.  Cleanup is a relatively cheap operation to perform, take care of it before attempting to convert video content so that I can maintain data integrity.

 

User Interface – Leverage MCE metadata

The interface in PMC is obviously influenced by Windows XP Media Center Edition, but does not inherit most of the functional utility of that UI.  Case in point:  Recorded TV files have loads of useful metadata embeded in them which MCE displays when you select a specific episode whereas the PMC UI simply displays “resume” or “play from beginning” when you click on an episode.  Specific recommendations for the Recorded TV UI:

  1. Output the recorded TV list in the same way that MCE does – group series into a sub-menu for simplified browsing.  If only one episode of that series is available, clicking onto that line item takes you directly into the episode’s metadata.  If multiple episodes of that series are available, clicking onto that line item takes you to a listing of all available episodes for that series.  Users can click on the play button if they want to start playback immediately.
  2. When you click on a show in the Recorded Tv list, it should bring the user to a display of the metadata.  This includes a description of the episode, when it was recorded, what channel it was recorded on, etc.  All the metadata that MCE displays.  If it is a movie, it would be great to show the movie-specific metadata that MCE displays (including cover art) but based on some other research I am aware that this info is not necessarily part of the metadata stored against the file.
  3. Provide resume functionality for shows that have been started on the MCE so that I can easily finish them on the PMC.  Currently, all recorded TV syncronized to the PMC starts from the beginning and has no resume functionality.
  4. Synchronize metadata changes back to the MCE environment (example:  watched or not for a show).
  5. Allow me to delete shows on the PMC, and ask if I want to delete the show on the host PC as well at next synchronization.  In my case, I generally delete a show when it has been watched – PMC forces me to go through a cleanup process on the MCE every once in awhile and remove shows that I know I watched on the PMC.
  6. The home page should be implemented as a full-screen menu like every other page on the PMC – an exception to make the home page a popup really just confuses things.
  7. The timeline indicator on television is very primitive, it should be updated to match the MCE style.

Video playback quality

Overall, I was very impressed with video quality.  I wasn’t sure how the video would look, but my expectations where quite honestly very low – when you combine small screen size with heavy compression you never know what is going to happen.  Boy, was I shocked to find that the video quality was more than adequate for my needs.  I really have only one suggestion regarding video quality, and it should be fairly easy to meet:

  1. Colour saturation seemed a little off, with most shows having a bland feel to them.  I wouldn’t have noticed had it not been for my Media Center Extender, whose brilliant picture quality and saturation have really spoiled me.  This should be at a minimum something that the user can control (colour or saturation controls to tweak the output).

Creative Zen specific

The Creative Zen is all battery, which is pretty cool when you’re on a long flight – my laptop always seems to run out of batteries 10 minutes before the end of a movie when I try to take it with me on the plane.  The 6-hour battery life comes with a price however, and that price is the bulk of the device itself which should really be trimmed down in the next version.  There are a few other suggestions that I have for the next version of the Zen:

  1. Reverse the placement of the buttons.  Currently, the cursor buttons are on the left of the device and the play, fast forward, rewind buttons are on the right.  Without exception, everyone who I have handed the device to had expected the cursor to be on the right.
  2. Make it mountable on the back of an airline seat and/or carseat.   This might be accomplished by something as simple as plastic pins on the back of the device (although I can certainly see airport security having an issue with that).  Crfaning my neck downwards all the time gets uncomfortable.
  3. Choose a less reflective surface material for the screen – it was very difficult to use under bright fluorescent lights.
  4. Be careful of the screen surface design – my demo unit has some dirt trapped between the screen and the plastic cover which I can’t figure out how to clean.
  5. I love the ability to lock buttons when it’s in my bag, great little feature!  However, this creates a minor yet very frustrating issue when synchronizing.  If you plug in the USB cord when locked, the device turns on and begins synchronization.  When unplugged from the USB cable it remains on and is impossible to shut off without toggling the key lock switch.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, I am delighted that this device is out on the market and I would be a happy man if I could keep this device for a bit longer (indefinately would be good).  I can’t help but describe the Portable Media Center platform as a great paradox:  PMC needs MCE for engaging content, but MCE absolutely dies when a PMC is connected to it.  That is the biggest issue right now with the PMC platform, and one that I think they can fix with a software update to Windows Media Player.  Once that issue is resolved, I’ll take my PMC with me everywhere I go!

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