Video on the move could be the next big craze, and the devices that play it are sure to be the next must-have luxury toy. Digit checked out what’s already out there.

Personal portable media is the hot new technology. The iPod and digital music has achieved ubiquity – the next step is portable video. Video iPods don't exist yet, but we’ve looked into the latest small-screen gadgets, which plug into your PC or TV.

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About the size of a small paperback book, portable media players (or audio-video players) come in two types – 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

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, travelling with kids, or catching up on TV on business trips. Companies like Archos, Creative, iriver, Thomson, and Samsung are already in the market.

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, 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.

Portable media centers

For years, Microsoft has been trying to crowbar its way out of your PC and into your living room. Late last year, Microsoft introduced a portable version of its Media Center operating system. Devices running Portable Media Center have a look-&-feel that's consistent with systems running Windows XP Media Center, but they work with both Media Center and Windows XP PCs

PCs running the Media Center OS are optimized for capturing audio and video content – for example, all Media Center systems have a built-in TV-tuner card for recording TV. The Media Center OS also makes it easy to manage your digital media library, and to use your PC as a home server that can send audio and video over a wireless network to any XP-powered notebook or Windows Mobile-based device such as a PDA or smart phone.

While Creative's £340 plus VAT Zen Portable Media Center, Samsung's £315 plus VAT YH-999, and iriver's £290 plus VAT PMP-120 differ in style, features, and functions, each one shares a common and very familiar graphical user interface, explains James Bernard, lead product manager for Windows Mobile Group.

These units use Windows Media Player 10 to organize, store, play, and transfer content. You don't have to learn or install any other programs. "Any digital file that can be played in Windows Media Player 10 – music, video, or a still image – can be synched to a Portable Media Center," says Bernard.

In addition to sharing a common operating system, all the Portable Media Centers lack the ability to record directly from a TV, cable or satellite box, DVD player, or VCR. In fact, the units don't even have a video-input jack. Microsoft's feel that if you already have recording devices, such as a VCR, you don't need another.

Instead, all video content comes from a Windows Media Center PC or a Windows XP PC. With both the Windows Media Center PC and the Windows XP scenarios, electronic programming guides record and store programs, which can be played on a computer or transferred to a Portable Media Center.

Portable media players

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In the second group, you

While Microsoft-based Portable Media Centers all share a common operating system, each of these companies uses its own OS. The result is each unit comes with its unique sense of identity. For example, each comes with its own interface, support for a wide variety of video and audio formats, and its own set of idiosyncrasies – especially when it comes to converting video into a format the player understands.

A major selling point of this class of players is that they can also record TV programs directly from a TV, or from another digital video recorder. They can also be used like a VCR or video recorder to schedule and record programs – assuming, that is, you can make sense out of an octopus of composite-video and audio-input and -output cords. However, once you figure it out, the scheduling and recording process is relatively easy. You will get some – but not much – guidance from the enclosed support materials.

Since these devices are different by definition, they handle specific tasks in various ways. For example, the PVR software in the Archos AV420 can schedule up to five recordings. You can also go online and remotely schedule two weeks' worth of programming using Yahoo Calendar and Yahoo TV.

By comparison, the MobiNote DP7010's PVR software can pre-schedule only a single recording from an external source, and it doesn't allow online remote scheduling.

How to pick the right player

So how do you decide which format is best for you? Simple, says Michael Gartnerberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research. The biggest question to answer is, where do you want your content to come from – a TV or a PC? If you own (or plan to buy) a Media Center PC or an XP PC with a TV tuner, and you like the idea of Microsoft's more intuitive software to sync content, go with a Portable Media Center.

If you want to record content directly from any video source – TV, cable box, satellite receiver, VCR, DVD, or camcorder – or if you have either a PC running an older version of Windows or a Mac, a portable video player is the your best format choice.

Once you've picked a format, the hard part is over. Selecting the player is no different than deciding which notebook or MP3 player to buy.

To cram so many features into a portable device, manufacturers were forced to make specific design choices. To find out what they look like first-hand, and to get a feel for image quality, sound, and the button and menu options, take a shopping trip, and see what works for you.

Deciding factors

Storage is one aspect you’ll need to consider. Most portable video players sport 20GB hard drives, but larger storage options are starting to appear. Archos's AV480 comes with an 80GB drive (for £425 plus VAT), and the AV4100 (for £475 plus VAT) is the first 100GB model we've seen.

You’re not going to get theatre-style sound from speakers the size of a 10 pence piece, so don't get too hung up on sound quality. You’ll be better off investing in some decent headphones. Keep in mind, though, that a lot will depend on the sound quality coming from your original source material.

Screen burn

The screen size and resolution will make a big difference to your experience with your player. The 20GB models from Archos, IRiver, RCA, and Samsung all have 3.5-inch screens. Archos's AV480 and AV4100 have the same 3.8-inch display as Creative's Zen Portable Media Center. These screens are Lilliputian compared with the 6.5-inch wide-screen on the AMA Technologies' DP7010.

Portable Media Centers come standard with QVGA 320-x-240-pixel screens. All Archos AV400 models have 704-x-480 screens. AMA Technologies MobiNote DP7010 uses a more DVD-like 720-x-480 screen. Keep in mind, the higher the resolution, the better the picture, but the faster it gobbles up storage.

Of course, DP7010's massive 6.5-inch LCD screen sucks up battery power much faster than any of the other players, and it certainly can't touch Microsoft's requirement that all Portable Media Centers achieve at least seven hours of video playback.

As with notebooks, the battery life depends on what you're doing. So far, only the Creative Zen PMC, the IRiver PMC-120 and PMC-140, and the Archos AV420, have removable batteries – a boon that lets you just pop in a replacement rather than worrying about recharging on the fly.

You can expect these players to weigh in anywhere from a low of about 8 ounces for the TV-shaped Samsung YH-999 to a high of 21 ounces for the AMA Technologies' DP7010. The rest weigh a respectable 10 to 12 ounces.

But weight has very little to do with looks. Archos’ players look more like PDAs, Creative's Zen PMC feels more like a gaming device, RCA's Lyra RD2780 is the thinnest of bunch, and the beefier MobiNote DP7010 bears more than a striking similarity to Apple's IPod.

The market is likely to grow, as content becomes available for a variety of devices. If the meteoric rise of digital music is anything to go by, TV on the move will soon be as commonplace white headphones.