The Big Picture on Small Screen Players

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Care for some personal portable media, Hollywood style? We're talking Pocket TiVo, Portable Media Centers, audio players that also play movie files, and Video IPods (no, they don't exist--yet). And in this story, we're referring to the latest small-screen gadgets, which plug into a PC or TV near you.

About the size of a small paperback book, portable media players (or audio-video players) come in two flavors: Some use a proprietary operating system to power the device; others, typically marketed as Portable Media Centers, are billed as such because they use Microsoft's Windows Mobile-based Portable Media Center operating system.

Regardless of what these handheld devices are called, they all let you watch movies and TV, listen to music, and store a gazillion files on a single device. They're great for commuting, traveling with kids, or catching up on TV on business trips. Companies like Archos, Creative, IRiver, RCA, and Samsung are currently offering these players, which cost anywhere from $400 to $800 (read more about these products here).

You'll find two distinct ways for the content to get inside the hardware. Portable Media Centers from Creative, IRiver, and Samsung, for example, use a Windows XP PC or Windows Media Center PC as its digital multimedia "mothership"; you transfer files the way you would sync a PDA with your PC. All of these devices can store and play--but not record--content.

The more generic category of portable media players (that is, devices not running Microsoft's Portable Media Center operating system) can typically record content as well as import it from your PC. For example, models from Archos, AMA Technologies, Ovideon, and RCA, plug into the back of your TV, cable or satellite box, VCR, or DVD player, and all can record, store, and play content. (To read a hands-on review of one of these devices, see "First Look: Ovideon's So-So Media Player.")

Just as you might pit Star Trek against Star Wars or Superman against Spider-Man, each player's handling of content input, storage, and retrieval has its strengths and weaknesses. We'll discuss both kinds of setups and explain how these players operate. Here's what you need to know before you put one in your pocket.

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