Microsoft is making a major push into the entertainment world with the launch this week of its Portable Media Center platform. The software, which will be available first on a device from Creative, allows you to play audio and video, and to view still images on a handheld device.

Also this week, Microsoft is launching a beta version of its long-awaited MSN Music store -- a rival to Apple's popular ITunes -- as well as version 10 of its Windows Media Player software.

The Portable Media Center platform resembles Microsoft's Windows Media Center OS for PCs, with a very similar user interface, but it's designed to be used with a small-screen device. Portable Media Center devices, which will be designed and manufactured by Microsoft's hardware partners, have hard drives for storing and playing back media files.

"This is an entirely new category of devices," says James Bernard, lead product manager with Microsoft's Portable Media Centers group. "They are not meant to replace audio players. There will always be people with audio players."

All of the devices will have screens that measure at least 3.5 inches diagonally, Microsoft says. In addition, devices that conform to the Microsoft spec must have a hard drive with a capacity of 20GB to 40GB as well as a clean, simple design. They must also offer sufficient battery life to play two full-length feature films back to back, Microsoft says.

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Samsung and IRiver will manufacture competing Portable Media Centers that will be available later this year. In the US, Samsung's YH-999 will be available with a 20GB hard drive for $499 (around £275), and IRiver will offer 20GB and 40GB versions, for $499 and $549 (£275 and £300) respectively. All of the devices will be available in time for Christmas, Bernard says.

Portable Media Centers connect to your PC via USB 2.0, and work with any Windows XP or Media Center PC. You can transfer any audio, video, or still image stored on your hard drive to the portable device (after converting the file to a supported format); and according to Bernard, you can transfer a 2-hour movie in less than 3 minutes. If you have a Media Center PC or an XP PC with a TV tuner card, you can record any television program you choose and transfer it to the device for viewing when you're away from home.

Portable Media Centers also connect to a TV via the composite jack. You can't record content directly to one of these devices, but you can use the TV to view content stored on the Portable Media Center. For example, you can display a slide show of your digital images, or you can hook the device up to the TV in your hotel room to watch a movie you transported from home.

Portable Media Centers are likely to appeal to frequent travelers and commuters, according to Microsoft. "This is about getting your entertainment off the Internet, and taking it with you wherever you go," Bernard says.

But the devices have some limitations. "I'm not going to strap a Portable Media Center on my arm to go jogging, but I am going to use it while I'm going home on the train," Bernard says.

Let the MSN Music Play

Users looking for audio content to play on a Portable Media Center have a new option in Microsoft's MSN Music store. A beta version of the music service is available to try now.

Because the service is Web-based, there is no need to download anything in order to access content or buy tracks. Alternatively, you can use Windows Media Player 7.1 or higher to access the service.

At launch, the service holds more than 500,000 tracks, which you can download directly to your PC. By autumn, the service will have at least 1 million tracks available for download, says Rob Bennett, senior director of MSN Entertainment.

The beta service's appearance was simple, with minimal graphics and an emphasis on search and browse options. "We are making it extremely easy for people to sign up with MSN Music and get started discovering, downloading, and listening to the music they love," Bennett says.

Each song includes a short free preview and is encoded using the Windows Media Audio (WMA) codec up to 256 bits. According to Bennett, WMA supports higher-quality audio than does Apple's ITunes service, which encodes using the AAC codec at 128 bits.

MSN Music requires no subscription fee or software purchase. All you need is a PC running an Internet Explorer 5.0 browser or better on at least the Windows 98 SE operating system. In the US, tracks will cost $1 each on average, and some entire albums are available for $10 -- about the same pricing structure as other digital music services. You can burn tracks to disc and transfer them to digital audio players.

Macintosh and IPod users won't be able to use the service, however. MSN Music only works on the Windows operating system, and music downloaded from MSN Music won't play back on IPods without performing an undocumented workaround.

Apple's ITunes service uses only the AAC codec and converts music saved in Windows Media Player (unprotected WMA files) to AAC format when you transfer digital music files to the IPod player. Because the WMA files downloaded from MSN Music have digital rights management (DRM) associated with them, they can't be converted directly to AAC.

The undocumented workaround involves burning MSN Music files to a CD disc, which strips music tracks of their DRM limitations. You can then rip the tracks from the CD and transfer them to an IPod.

Restrictions on use of songs downloaded from MSN Music are comparable to those associated with ITunes downloads. You can store the music on only five PCs at a time, and you can burn a playlist a maximum of seven times, after which you must alter the playlist before burning it to CD again. The purpose of this limitation is to prevent mass duplication.

Other enhancements include a monthly radio subscription service, music reviews, additional music-related editorial content, and RSS feeds of top albums and downloads.