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11/16/2004
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For Geeks on the Go

Mobility rules, so don't leave home without these gadgets.

The downside? A proprietary operating system and quirky hardware interface. Once I became accustomed to the PMP-120, however, I quickly found myself dreaming up new and inventive uses for this capable unit.

The first thing you'll notice about the PMP-120 is its ergonomic design. Two curving bars beneath and on either end of the unit work double duty, providing a stable grip and a removable Li-Ion battery on one end and, on the other, a picture-frame stand that lets you prop up the unit on your desk for hands-free viewing. The device is easy to handle, even one-handed.

iRiver

On the other hand (as it were), the hardware navigation frustrated my early efforts to perform even the most mundane tasks. You won't be able to use the PMP-120 out of the box--expect to read and reread the user manual. For example, the four-way selector, power, record and play/pause buttons made perfect sense on initial inspection. But when I tried to select and display images or movies, I was forced to learn to click the play/pause button quickly or slowly to perform very disparate actions: short click to play or pause, long click to stop a current selection. Worse, the same button doubles as a forward and backward button for menu navigation. If you open a preference item using the play/pause button and you want to return to the previous menu, for example, you must hit and then hold the same button. Many of the buttons (select and record, for instance) require this same nuance (nuisance?) of short and long clicks. I'm waiting for Samuel Morse's estate to file a patent lawsuit.

There are also two buttons clearly labeled A and B, the meaning of which was, unfortunately, lost on me. Thankfully, there's a contextual help button to show you the way, depending on where you are in the OS. Obviously, the folks at iRiver found the hardware navigation difficult as well. (For a device with better ease of navigation, see our review of the Creative Zen Portable Media Center at ID# 1524rd1.)

I was most impressed with the PMP-120's ample ports and included cables. Out of the box, it can display movies and photos on a TV via a composite AV cable, share files with any USB-equipped machine, rip audio from any line-in stereo or record live audio through an external microphone.

I liked the simple USB 2.0 method for transferring files, for instance. Just plug the machine into your desktop, and presto, you've got a new hard drive to which you can drag your media files. I would have preferred a FireWire interface, but for most applications outside of transferring a 600-MB movie, files flew between the unit and my desktop quickly.

Read On, Geek!

Also included is a unique USB 1.1 Host cable, which lets the PMP-120 act as host machine for any USB 2.0 device, such as a digital camera or an external hard drive. That feature alone may make the 120 worth the money and learning curve. The one oddity I found with the unit's USB connectivity was that when I dragged the PMP-120's hard drive to the trash on a Mac or removed the remote USB unit on a PC, the unit didn't know it had been disconnected. To finish disconnecting, I had to live on the edge and unplug the USB cable.

Regardless of how well a device like this can interact with external hardware, the real test is its ability to support varying media formats. After all, what good is a media player that can't play media? I was pleased to discover a broad range of supported formats, including ASF, AVI, BMP, DivX, JPG, MPEG, WAV and WMA. I tried out many of these, with great success. But just as I had decided to expense the device as a remote end-user training tool, I learned I had to be careful with video: If I chose a resolution larger than 640x480, my video sometimes didn't play back properly.

All audio recorded on the PMP-120 is stored in MP3 format, which I could tailor to fit the situation and my remaining disk space through sample- and bit-rate settings. Surprisingly, the built-in mic worked very well for omnidirectional recording, so get ready to relive every sneeze and candy-wrapper crinkle during meetings.

A wider array of supported audio formats, perhaps AAC and Ogg Vorbis, would be useful. With luck, and with a fully upgradable codec (via firmware), iRiver will support these and more up-and-coming formats for recording and playback in the future. Still, even with its current list of supported formats, the PMP-120 is flexible and capable, difficult hardware navigation and all.

PMP-120, $499.99. iRiver America, (800) 399-1799. www.iriver.com

--Bradley F. Shimmin

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