Features

Eye to eye

26 Feb 2008 by Mark Caswell

With new video technology on devices from phones to laptops, watching movies on the move has never been easier. Mark Prigg gives the next generation of mobile offerings a screen test.

The world of portable entertainment has perhaps undergone the most radical changes of all technology in the past five years. Whereas once the idea of watching video on the move was an impossibility, and using your laptop to watch DVDs was the only option, today things are very different. There are a plethora of mobile entertainment devices, ranging in size from laptops to mobile phones, and all capable of playing video and music in high-definition formats.

For the seasoned traveller, it may really be possible now to have a large-screen mobile phone such as Apple’s iPhone as your only device, as it can manage music, video web-surfing, email and even the odd phone call. And while Apple has grabbed all the headlines, manufacturers such as Nokia and Archos have been quietly turning out incredibly well-specified devices, which offer great music and video playback on the move.

When choosing a device, screen size is the obvious first choice – while a mobile phone is fine for the odd You Tube clip, for a feature-length film it’s a different story. Even film director David Lynch has spoken out against the viewing of movies on phones, claiming it simply isn’t a good experience. However, for TV shows or the occasional film, these devices will certainly ease those long flights. One key thing to do with any of these players is to dump the supplied headphones as soon as possible – all the models we tried were supplied with disappointing headphones, and we’d recommend investing in a decent pair from someone like Shure or Etymotic. But here are the best portable entertainment options out there, from phones to laptops…

ARCHOS 605 WIFI
£129 – £179 depending on capacity
archos.com

Archos is undoubtedly the unsung hero of the gadget world, and for years has been battling the glitz and glamour of Apple with a range of big-screen portable video players, perfect for the long-haul traveller. The 605 Wifi is its latest and greatest, and boasts a large 4.3-inch 800 x 600 pixel resolution touchscreen display. It’s very impressive, and movies really do benefit from the larger screen size. It’s still not really an all-encompassing experience, but it’s bearable to watch a few films on, and will certainly be better than any in-flight system. (For real film buffs, there is an older brother, the 705, which has a 7-inch screen.) The 605 can play almost any kind of media you throw at it – photos, video and music are all covered, along with all the major formats of these.

Crucially, Archos also has a neat take on the problem of how to get video onto your device in the first place. With the included cables, you can easily transfer programmes you’ve recorded direct from your television – a brilliantly simple idea. There’s also wifi, so you can link to your computer easily or to Archos’s online store, where you can buy videos (although the selection is limited).

There are four versions available, with memory from 4GB to 160GB, but we’d recommend the 160GB one – that’s enough for all of your music and several full-length films. The interface on the Archos is a little clunky, particularly after playing with an iPhone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a contender for the ultimate traveller’s video player. The 605 is a superb all-round device, and really delivers on the promise of being able to take your DVD collection with you.

PROS Huge capacity.
CONS Poor interface.

APPLE IPHONE
£269 + 18-month O2 contract
apple.com/uk

Apple’s already iconic iPhone is perhaps the ultimate indicator of where the future of mobile entertainment lies. Its large colour touchscreen is stunning, and it’s incredibly simple to get video onto it through the iTunes software. However, as a true mobile entertainment device it sadly falls short on memory – 8GB just isn’t enough to store anything more than a few TV shows and your movie collection – although there is a superb You Tube viewer on it which gives you unlimited access to almost every clip imaginable.

There’s also the music side, which is the best we’ve ever seen on a mobile device – as Apple boss Steve Jobs frequently claims, the iPhone is the best iPod ever made. However, as a do-it-all entertainment device, it is ultimately let down by the meagre amount of memory.

However, the screen does help matters – it may only be 3.5 inches wide, but it’s incredibly clear and bright, making video an absolute pleasure to watch for small periods of time – we do think you would struggle to watch more than one film on the go though. But for the odd TV show and You Tube browsing, it’s perfect. So while it may not be ideal for the long-haul traveller as an entertainment centre, it could well be the commuter’s best bet.

PROS Stunning interface, great playback.
CONS Limited memory and not ideal for watching movies.

NOKIA N82
From free with contract
nokia.com

Nokia’s N82 is the latest all-singing, all-dancing multimedia handset from the mobile phone giant, and it’s a superb one. There’s almost no feature it hasn’t got – from a great little GPS application complete with worldwide maps, to the latest HSDPA high-speed network capability.
One of the surprises of the N82 is the 5-megapixel camera, which is superb – possibly the best you’ll find on a phone at the moment in fact.

There’s also a reasonably good music player, although sadly Nokia does seem to have let that aspect of its phones stagnate recently.
Video playback is pretty good, although you’ll need to invest in a high-capacity memory card if you want to watch anything too long. The screen is sharp and bright, but we’d say for anything other than viewing You Tube videos it’s probably best to look elsewhere for video playback.

It’s also not really the most attractive handset we’ve seen, and given Nokia has been releasing some really stylish phones lately, it’s a shame the design team was obviously on holiday when this was approved. That said, it really can pack a powerful punch in terms of features, so if size really does matter, this could be the gadget for you.

PROS Do-it-all handset with everything from GPS to a decent camera.
CONS Small screen size makes watching videos tough.

ASUS EEE PC
£229
eeepc.asus.com

The Asus Eee PC has become the must-have gadget for the discerning nerd over the past few months. It’s a cut-down, simple and straightforward laptop running a Linux operating system. It measures just 225mm across and 170mm deep, and including its power adapter weighs only 1.12kg. The device on its own is 928g, making it an easy machine to carry around. It’s also perfectly suited to airline tray tables, and although the keyboard does take a bit of getting used to, you’ll soon be typing at normal speeds.

Instead of a hard drive it has 4GB of built-in memory. Obviously, for multimedia this is a problem, but aficionados of the machine have taken to using USB sticks to store films. Playback is flawless, and the screen quality is superb. As it’s running Linux, it’s also incredibly easy to customise, and all manner of MP3 and video-playback software can be loaded. However, this does mean your IT department may struggle to support it, even if they do probably own one themselves.

As a mini laptop, it’s invaluable, and with enough memory sticks the relatively large screen (compared to phones, anyway) makes it a great alternative to a laptop and something you really can carry anywhere. There’s also a webcam sitting above the screen, making it a good video-conferencing tool. As an entertainment device, however, the lack of storage does put it at a bit of a disadvantage – although with built-in wifi there’s always the option of watching video or listening to music over the net.

Overall, the Eee PC is probably something which will appeal more to enthusiasts at the moment, but the idea of a low-cost cut-down machine is one that could really offer technology buyers some interesting new options in the future.

PROS Small size and low price.
CONS Can be tough to integrate into corporate environments.

APPLE MACBOOK AIR
£1,199
apple.com

If you don’t want to give up a big screen, Apple’s new Macbook Air is an absolutely stunning piece of design for a “traditional” laptop. At first it appears impossibly thin. However, open the magnetic catch and, despite the size, the keyboard and 13.3-inch screen are both excellent – they are exactly the same size as on a “normal-sized” laptop and feel great in use. The machine has an aluminium case and rounded edges add to its slick looks. There’s a small flap at the side with limited ports (you’ll need a USB hub as there’s only one port, for instance).

In use it is extremely fast, and the latest version of Apple’s operating system runs flawlessly on it, as you would expect. High-definition videos are particularly impressive, although to watch DVDs a separate drive must be plugged in. However, the 80GB hard drive is enough to store several downloaded films. It’s an interesting idea for travellers, as Apple thinks many buyers won’t bother with a DVD player – after all, apart from watching films, how many times have you needed one? There’s also a neat piece of software which allows you to wirelessly use another computer’s DVD drive, although you can’t watch films this way.The large trackpad also allows users to navigate around pictures and other programmes using their fingers, in the same way they can on an iPhone. For example, to zoom in on a screen picture, you simply pinch two fingers together on the trackpad. It takes a little bit of getting used to but is exceptionally useful.

However, the Air is not perfect – the battery is not replaceable by the user, meaning the machine would need to be sent away to be replaced. This is also by no means the fastest machine available, although only the biggest game-players will probably ever find it slow.

As a multimedia player, Apple’s OS X operating system works brilliantly, and the screen makes films look amazing. However, there is an element of style over substance here, so it’s worth considering whether you might not be better off with Apple’s bulkier Macbook Pro, even though it’s not going to attract such admiring glances from your colleagues.

PROS Stunning design and tiny size.
CONS No user-replaceable battery or DVD drive.

COWON IAUDIO D2
Around £120
cowon.com

This is a surprisingly slick and really good-looking little player, despite its budget price tag. The Cowon is controlled through a well thought-out touchscreen interface on the 2.5-inch screen, although it can be a little annoying getting through large numbers of items. There’s an SD card slot for expanding the 4GB memory, which is definitely worth doing. Video playback is impressive, and a lot of formats are supported.

However, because of the limited memory, it’s likely this will serve as a music rather than a video player for much of the time. There’s an FM tuner, and also a line-in recording feature for using the player as a recorder. The software supplied is adequate, although we preferred using Microsoft’s Windows Media Player. The rated battery life of 52 hours for audio and 10 hours for video is also impressive. Overall, it’s a pretty good little player, but it does struggle in the face of competition like Creative Zen…

PROS Great interface, sharp screen.
CONS Limited memory.

CREATIVE ZEN 32GB
£249
creative.com

Creative’s tiny Zen is a sleek, slick little video player which is a worthy rival to the iPhone and the iPod Touch. It’s got a simple, easy-to-use interface and a very good quality 2.5-inch screen. It’s piano black, and the buttons are easy to understand. The version we used had 32GBs of memory, but players are available in capacities from 4GB (costing around £80). Crucially, there’s also a memory card expansion slot, so unlike the iPods you can expand the memory at a later date – a crucial feature for a media player.

Getting around the menu system is very easy, and it’s well thought-out. Thankfully, Creative has abandoned the finger-scrolling system of previous players for a simple button to scroll through songs or films, and it works really well. There’s also an FM radio and, more importantly, support for a lot of file formats, including the DivX format often used for online video – practically, this means if you download a TV show online, there’s a good chance it will play. Because of the screen size, the Zen doesn’t quite cut it for watching too many films, but it’s perfect for the odd TV show. The music player is also good, and pictures look superb as well. It may not be as slick as the iPhone, but if you’re on a budget it really is an excellent alternative.

PROS Reasonable price and ability to play almost any file format.
CONS Limited memory capacity.

Mark Prigg is the Science and Technology Correspondent of the London Evening Standard

TRANSFERRING YOUR VIDEOS

One of the biggest problems you’ll face with any media player is the problem of getting video onto it in the first place. However, there are some new services that will make this a cinch:

Apple’s iTunes music store has recently been expanded in the UK to offer dozens of TV shows, which are excellent quality, as you’d expect, although they will only play back on an iPod. The company has also launched a superb video-rental service offering downloads of full-length films, although at present it is unfortunately only available in the US. The company has also updated its great Apple TV box to watch these movies, which simply plugs into your living room TV and copies all of your films and music from your computer.

ISPs have also been quick to jump on the film download bandwagon, and Tiscali’s film service in particular is well worth having a look at. It’s got a full range of films for download, both to buy and rent. Pricing is calculated on how old the film is, with prices from 99p to around £3.49 for the latest high-definition versions. A similar service is available from lovefilm.com.

The humble DVD has also been given a makeover thanks to Apple, and the latest Fox DVDs now include a digital version of the film you can copy to your media player or computer. The idea is only available in a few new releases at present, but it is set to expand to all Fox DVDs in the future.

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