Having made itself comfortable on home and office PCs around the globe, Microsoft has now set its sights on mobile entertainment, releasing its new Portable Media Center software platform.
The PMC software, created to power a burgeoning class of handheld music and video devices, is already available on one shipping unit, the $499 Creative Zen Portable Media Center. Devices using it can play audio and video (including TV shows and movies), and can display still images. Samsung and IRiver have promised to deliver their own similarly priced PMC units in time for the holidays. The software is based on Microsoft’s Windows CE 5 mobile operating system, and offers digital media technologies found in the Windows XP OS and in XP Media Center Edition.
Microsoft requires that all PMC devices must have a hard-drive capacity of 20GB (the size of the Zen’s drive) to 40GB; a screen measuring 3.5 to 4 inches diagonally, with a 320 by 240 resolution; enough battery life to play 5 hours of video or 14 hours of audio on a single charge; and a “clean, simple design.”
Via USB 2.0, PMC devices can download media from PCs with any type of Windows XP. As long as your media files are in a supported format (including .wmv, .wma, .mp3, and .jpeg), you can transfer them to the units for later playback. The devices have no wireless capabilities and cannot stream audio or video.
I downloaded a 3-hour game from Major League Baseball’s site to my PC, and then in about 4 minutes I transferred it to the Zen (both MLB.com and CinemaNow.com provide PMC content). Using the Zen was easy–the interface is like that of Media Center Edition, and simple to navigate. With a few clicks, I was watching my game; details were clear even on the smallish screen. At roughly 12 ounces, the device is twice as heavy as an IPod, but its added features more than make up for the extra weight.
To coincide with the PMC debut, Microsoft has launched a beta version of its long-awaited MSN Music store. Like Apple’s popular ITunes, MSN Music offers single tracks for $1 and albums for $10. Microsoft also has updated Windows Media Player to version 10, which sports a revamped interface and a drag-and-drop feature that lets you transfer content directly to a PMC device. Both Media Player and PMC support the updated Windows Digital Rights Management technology, formerly code-named Janus, which lets users play music from a subscription service such as Napster for as long as the subscription is active–a scheme Microsoft hopes will spread to other services.