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Video players go portable

IPod prompts multiple mobile multimedia devices

Keen to ride on the success of digital music players like Apple Computer's IPod, Taiwanese electronics manufacturers are promoting multimedia players that include video functions at the Computex trade show currently taking place in Taipei.

Numerous hard-drive based portable music and video players are on show at Computex and almost without exception, the manufacturers are telling potential customers that they will be ready to start production during the next three months.

Eager as the companies are to capitalize on what they think is a natural progression from digital music players, the prototypes at Computex contain a dizzying list of specifications, and there is little consensus on which features and formats should be supported, or on the preferred physical size or storage capacity.

In terms of functions, playback of digital audio and video is common across all devices with some also offering a photo album function, but there is a big difference when it comes to the formats supported.

While digital music in MP3 format is widespread among PCs users, digital video appears to be much less common and so a dominate or widespread format has yet to appear.

In the meantime, some of the players support a few formats while others attempt to cover all the bases. For example, the JoyToGo player from AnexTek Global supports MPEG4 and Motion JPEG video while the mPack from Power Quotient International (PQI) supports those formats as well as MPEG 1, MPEG 2, DivX, Xvid, and Windows Media Video.

There is some commonality in the area of price. When asked, most companies were quoting end-user prices of between $500 and $700 for the players, although observers at the show and even representatives of some of the manufacturers admitted that those prices would have to fall by around half before the players become a mass-market product.

Price probably won't be the only deciding factor on whether such products become mass-market replacements for music players, niche products, or flops.

Lifestyle could play a big part because digital video requires a different usage environment. Music can be enjoyed almost anywhere but video requires a little more concentration. While it is suitable for the train or bus, one can't safely watch video while walking along a street or riding a bicycle.

There is also the different way we enjoy music and video, says Kow Ping, country manager for China, Hong Kong, and South Asia at hard-drive maker Cornice. Music tends to be listened to again and again by people, so carrying the same song around in a pocket is an attractive option, however movies or TV programs aren't usually watched repeatedly.

Cornice produces 1in hard drives available in capacities of between 1GB and 2GB and Kow says the market for such drives is strong at present because of digital media players.

Also of interest at the show is the question of what part Microsoft will or won't play in the sector, an issue which remains to be seen.

The software giant is attempting to get in on the action with its Windows Mobile software for Portable Media Centers OS, but Peter Duh, a field applications manager at Texas Instruments, says many of its customers are looking to Linux or Micro iTron, at least in first generation machines.

"A high-level operating system means more memory," he says. "Maybe for the next generation [of products] a high-level OS might be effective, but not now."


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