A pricey portable player that's easy to view

Plugged In

September 21, 2006|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

With 75 percent of the market - more than 60 million sold - Apple's iPod dominates the world of shirt-pocket media players. But that still leaves 20 million non-iPod players out there. And they include some that aren't designed around the notion that (small) size matters.

The demand for these larger players is likely to grow as movie studios and TV producers release more content online - and audiences wake up to the fact that a 2-inch screen isn't the ideal venue for a two-hour movie.

That's why I was intrigued by the oddly named Picture Porter Elite. I say "oddly" because the manufacturer, Digital Foci Inc., markets this pricey but versatile multimedia player primarily as a portable storehouse for digital photos. And it does that well, thanks to slots that accommodate virtually every type of flash memory card.

Travelers can use this feature to offload photos from their digital cameras to a 40-, 80- or 100-gigabyte hard drive. It's a feature my wife and I appreciated earlier this month on a vacation in Europe, where we snapped close to 1,000 shots.

But you can shoot still images for years without filling up this gadget. In fact, my entire digital photo collection, which dates back almost a decade, fits snugly into a corner of the 80-gig drive on my test unit. For still photographers, it's overkill.

But suppose you're into movies and recorded TV shows - which gobble disk space faster than a football team at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Now the PPE makes sense - it's a great medium for watching, storing, and sharing videos. Many of these come from enthusiasts who record movies or TV shows on their computers and exchange them over the Internet - much to the dismay of the copyright owners.

My son the attorney immediately spotted this potential. And he suspected that a device like this might attract attention from the entertainment industry's legal myrmidons - who display great hostility to file traders and those who abet them.

Calling the PPE a photographer's tool is an insurance policy of sorts, he suggested. It establishes a primary use for the gadget that doesn't infringe on anyone's copyright - and that, in turn, could provide a shield against a courtroom challenge.

Meanwhile, everybody knows what it's really good for. And that's delivering crisp, smooth video on its 3.6-inch screen - considerably larger than the iPod's and large enough for adults to watch comfortably on an airplane. You can also hook PPE directly to a TV for full-screen playback.

Unlike most of its competition, the PPE can also record video from standard sources - including a TV or cable box output, DVD or VCR, or an analog camcorder feed.

As a music player, the Picture Porter Elite handles most unprotected tracks, including files recorded in MP3 and Microsoft's WMA format. But it can't play copy-protected files purchased from Apple's iTunes store or other online music outlets unless they're converted to unprotected files.

For most users, this is a two-step process - write the protected album tracks to an audio CD and re-import them to your computer as MP3 files.

The PPE includes a small speaker, a voice recorder with built-in microphone, and an FM radio receiver. Hooked directly to a computer's USB port, the PPE shows up as a standard external hard drive -- making it easy to transfer music, video, photos or any other kind of data in both directions.

With its large screen, heavy-duty hard drive and a variety of slots and ports for memory cards and cables, the PPE is not what you'd call svelte.

It's 5.3 inches long, 3.1 inches tall and just over an inch thick. It also weighs 11 ounces - or a bit more if you include its well-finished leather case. The case has a belt clip, but the device is beefy enough to create a trousers disaster if you use it. If you really want music while you're jogging, buy the iPod.

Given the PPE's size, the life expectancy of its slide-out, lithium ion battery is reasonable. Digital Foci claims 12 continuous hours of music or 4 hours of video on a charge. I got close to that on two long flights and a couple of day-long journeys by boat and train.

Accessing its features is also easy -- thanks to a start-up screen with icons for pictures, music, videos, recordings and other functions. Navigation is based around a mini-joystick button and three rocker switches that control menus and volume. It's not as slick as iPod's dial-a-wheel, but the controls' integration with the PPE's larger screen means it doesn't have to be.

Surprisingly, this jack-of-all trades was reasonably competent at all but a few tasks. The VGA screen (640 by 480 pixels) was adequate for browsing photos, with pan, zoom and slide show capability and only a bit of fade when viewed from a moderate angle.

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