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Sony HMP-A1 Media Player Review

Highs

  • Stylish design; lightweight; plays videos
  • pictures
  • and music files.

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 7

Lows

  • DRM files need to be converted with two separate applications.
Operation of the A1 is so simple that many intermediate or power users may even be discouraged by its use.

Summary

Sony’s HMP-A1 media player is tiny, fashionable, and surprisingly useful. Anyone considering the A1 should first consider how they will get video content, and what they will do if that method is shut down. If that doesn’t faze you, you’ll enjoy one of the first PVPs on the market. The simple, straight forward interface will appeal to many first-time users, as will the overall build quality and aesthetics. The battery life is acceptable, the screen bright, and the software simple to use.

The Sony HMP-A1 could have been the video iPod if it weren’t for the requirement to convert the video and audio files into a different format, which makes transferring files an annoyance. At a whopping $700, the 20GB A1 is vying for customers who would consider multimedia intensive PDAs, portable DVD players, and higher capacity digital audio players. If you’re a fashion conscious commuter, the A1 is sleek, small, and offers great picture and sound quality. Just don’t forget your headphones.

Introduction

The big gadget buzz word over the past year has been Portable Media Players; handheld devices with an integrated screen and the ability to playback music and video files. The HMP-A1 is Sony’s first offering in this category. Even though the A1 is only available in Japan, it can be imported from various companies that specialize in language conversion, such as Dynamism.

Unlike many of the other similar devices coming to market, the A1 does not run Windows Media Player Edition. Sony opted to use a proprietary operating system that crosses the border between ‘simple’ to ‘too simple’, lacking many, if not all power user features. Aesthetically, the A1 sports a nice glossy plastic finish and offers a glimpse of the design and build quality most likely seen in the upcoming Playstation Portable.


The HMP-A1 features a proprietary OS – not Windows Portable Media Center.

Features and Design

Sony’s HMP-A1 is a media player designed to play audio, video, and image files as well as act as an external storage device. Unlike other Sony audio players, it doesn’t require that audio files be transcoded into Sony’s proprietary ATRAC file format – a big change of direction for the company. It plays .MP3 audio files and MPEG video files, as well as displays JPEG images stored on its 20 GB hard drive.

The unit itself measures 129.6 x 75.6 x 22 mm (5.1 x 3 x .9 inches.) and features a 3.5-inch screen, which is just slightly smaller than the Clie NX80V PDA. We found the screen to be surprisingly easy to view, with vibrant color and good contrast. Daylight viewing was comparable to a high end PDA. Sony advertises the playback at about six hours per charge with regular usage or about four hours of video playback and eight hours of audio playback. Booting up the device takes approximately three or four seconds, while launching video clips can take 10-20 seconds, depending on the size.


The design of the HMP-A1 reminds us of the upcoming Sony PlayStation Portable.

As mentioned earlier, the A1’s build looks surprisingly similar to the upcoming PSP. The screen sits a millimeter or two under the glossy, clear plastic covering. The buttons on the front face are non-moving, touch sensitive pads, similar to the Apple iPod’s touch wheel. These include the next/last, up/down, back, and play/pause buttons. Around the edges are chrome-covered tools, power/hold and volume buttons. The opposing edge is partially covered by a flexible rubber patch, hiding the audio/video out, with the exposed portion for the headphone jack. The orientation of the screen can be flipped for lefties in the options menu, in which case the front buttons flip in functionality. In the package, Sony supplies an inline remote with a pair of remarkably junky headphones, a soft pouch, and all the necessary cables. Don’t forget to bring headphones when you walk out the door – there’s no built in speaker.

For outputs, the A1 features an A/V mini jack which is a three jack connector with RCA connections for video and left and right audio. This allows you to view files on the A1 through your TV or hook it up to a car or home stereo. The HMP-A1 connects to your Windows computers only with a USB 2.0 connection. It can be charged with the included AC adapter or through the USB cable. Besides the remote and headphones, also included in the retail package is a USB cable, an A/V cable, a hand strap, a carrying case, instructions and a software disc.

Importing Media

While Sony says the HMP-A1 natively plays .MP3 files, they still require some kind of transformation before they can be recognized by the player. Only JPEG image files can be copied directly over to the HMP-A1 – any other media files will not be recognized without conversion.

Musicmatch Jukebox is included with the A1, and it handles the transferring and converting of MP3 and WMA files to the format the A1 can read. Musicmatch makes this relatively straightforward, but it is quite a time-consuming venture and can be rather inconvenient when you just want to throw a couple new songs on the unit.

The HMP-A1 will not allow you to play purchased downloadable music because of digital rights management restrictions. This means even files purchased at Sony’s Connect online music store will not play on the A1.

Transferring non-audio media files is handled by a different program, the included HMP Image Transfer Manager, which handles both video and image files. The Image Transfer Manager converts TIFF, BMP, GIF, and PNG files to JPEG, and WMV, AVI, DVR-MS files to MPEG 2 and 4 formats.

The unit cannot be powered on while connected to the computer, so you won’t be able to listen to music while you transfer your files.

The software allows the user to specify various quality settings during the transfer, which can prove to be a strange process. Because it requires transcoding certain formats, a compressed file can turn out to be a much larger file size after the conversion process.

Usage and Testing

We used a 525MB sample clip to test the video playback options. In the conversion properties, we were given the options of High Quality @ 3.1GB, Normal @1.6 GB, and Long Play @ 424MB. We tried the custom settings to get the size down further while still keeping stereo sound and 320×240 resolution. The resulting file was 194MB, taking around 50% of our processor resources of our test system’s 3GHz Pentium 4. Converting and transferring the file over USB 2.0 took 19 minutes. We then tried a 700MB, 576×304 XviD encoded file using each of the settings, including our “Ultra-Low Quality” custom setting. Our options were High Quality @ 5.6GB, Normal @ 2.9GB, Long Play @ 746MB, and our custom setting @ 340MB. Transfer times were, one hour, 50 minutes, 27 minutes, and 28 minutes respectively. We could honestly not tell the difference between the four clips on the small screen. There were very slight artifacts in our custom clip, but it was not distracting.

Operation of the A1 is so simple that many intermediate or power users may even be discouraged by its use. The main screen is divided into four sections: Video, Music, Photo, and Setup. Pressing the Tools button brings up section specific options, like time between the images when viewing your JPEGs in a slideshow. The A1 remembers the timestamp when play is interrupted, allowing you to resume at the point you left off. The user is prompted to continue or reset play when selecting the video later. In general, there are very few customizable options. Music playback lists tracks by artist, album, genre, year, playlist, and title. There is no ability to create playlists on the fly, but the usual audio options apply – shuffle, track/album repeat, adjust bass and treble. The display can be set to turn off during audio playback to conserve battery life. Video clips can be fast forwarded and rewound at 1x, 2x, 10x, 30x, and 120x.

One thing the reader should keep in mind is that MP3 players became such a hit because of rampant pirating of content before all the major file sharing programs were shut down. They have remained popular because of simple software for ripping personal collections, and online stores to download more content. Video has not seen the initial piracy ‘boost’ of MP3s, mostly because of the RIAA’s legal actions in shutting down networks and the sheer size of movies available for download. Add to that the lack of software to rip DVDs, and the MPAA’s legal actions against DVDXCopy, and you have a severe lack of content and means to create it. Anyone thinking of purchasing a personal media player such as the HMP-A1 should keep this in mind.

Conclusion

Sony’s HMP-A1 media player is tiny, fashionable, and surprisingly useful. Anyone considering the A1 should first consider how they will get video content, and what they will do if that method is shut down. If that doesn’t faze you, you’ll enjoy one of the first PVPs on the market. The simple, straight forward interface will appeal to many first-time users, as will the overall build quality and aesthetics. The battery life is acceptable, the screen bright, and the software simple to use.

The Sony HMP-A1 could have been the video iPod if it weren’t for the requirement to convert the video and audio files into a different format, which makes transferring files an annoyance. At a whopping $700, the 20GB A1 is vying for customers who would consider multimedia intensive PDAs, portable DVD players, and higher capacity digital audio players. If you’re a fashion conscious commuter, the A1 is sleek, small, and offers great picture and sound quality. Just don’t forget your headphones.

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