First Looks Special: Nyko Movie Player

First Looks Special: Nyko Movie Player 1

Seventy-five movies in the palm of your hand? With the upcoming Movie Player accessory for Dock Connecting iPods, the answer could be “yes” by November, 2005. Over the iPod’s short lifespan, accessories have already evolved Apple’s digital music player into a mini-PDA, voice recorder, photo box, laser pointer, and walking iGuy. Now video game accessory maker Nyko plans to take a giant evolutionary step forward: its Movie Player morphs any iPod, iPod mini, or iPod photo into a full-fledged video player and recorder. Plus, thanks to a high-resolution color screen, it also displays considerably more detailed digital photographs than even Apple’s own iPod photo. pic

In offering iLounge a demonstration of prototype Movie Player hardware, Nyko recently answered a wide range of open questions regarding the unit’s features and performance. What follows is an extended first look at the Movie Player prototype, and not a review of any sort, with the express disclaimer that any and all of the details we point out are subject to change. For example, the unit’s price and release date are not yet set in stone; the company is considering options in the $199 to $249 price range, and targeting a release for late October or early November.

Design

As suggested by Nyko’s surprise announcement of the product at January’s Consumer Electronics Show, the prototype Movie Player resembles a white book with 50 pages of thickness on one interior side, 400 pages on the other. However, it has undergone cosmetic surgery since then – now clear acrylic is as liberally used in the unit as white plastic, generally matching Nyko’s earlier iPod accessories such as iBoost and iBoost mini in style. pic

The thinner half opens to reveal a 3.6”, 4:3 (standard) aspect ratio LCD screen with approximately 640×480 resolution, 65,000 colors, and a bright backlight that runs evenly from corner to corner. Movie Player’s thicker half includes a hole in which you dock any 3G, 4G, mini or photo iPod – bottom first, back down – such that its headphone port and hold switch become part of the accessory’s right side. (A spacer will be included for iPod mini units.) Above the iPod’s top are two separate headphone ports, a feature designed to let two people listen and watch at once, and what appears to be an iPod eject button or external volume slider.

On the unit’s back are two 3.5mm video ports – one for video out to a television, and one for video in. Read that again: video in, as in “plug a video source into the Movie Player and it’ll record in real time,” and “oh wait, that means I can use the Movie Player to record live TV or direct from a camera.” Yes on both counts. The unit’s back also includes a USB port – presumably to permit iPod-to-computer synchronization when the iPod’s docked – and an AC power port. Its bottom housing includes a rechargeable battery pack that allows the Movie Player to run for six hours in movie playback mode. It won’t charge the iPod, which will still need to have a working battery in order for the combined hardware to operate. pic

At least at first glance, the Movie Player’s control system seems complex, but the features make sense. Immediately below the unit’s screen is a gray pad with a set of three concentric circles, the outer one with play/pause, forward, backward, and stop at its north, east, west and south positions, the middle one with up, right, left, and down buttons, and the inner circle as an iPod-like “action” button. You navigate movies with the outer circle, menus with the middle circle, and make selections with the inner one. Above the control pad are two buttons, the first a “back” button to reverse through menus, and the other a power button. Small stereo speakers sit to the left and right of the control pad, facing upwards.

Menus and Basic Functions

Thankfully, Nyko realizes that one key to Movie Player’s success or failure is its ease of use, and has kept the unit’s features simple and straightforward. The main menu provides only three options: Movies, Pictures, and Settings, the latter of which currently lets you control volume for the speakers, TV output, and video capture. The company may add a brightness control for the screen as well; no word yet on iPod music playback while docked inside.

Select either Movies or Pictures and you get pretty much the same screen: four thumbnail images on the left side of the screen, and a larger preview window in the center and right. The name of each file is currently shown at the screen’s bottom; movies appear in ASF format. A slideshow feature is also planned for photo display. Selecting any photo or movie is as easy as pressing the middle circle’s up and down buttons, then the inner circle to display it. Within a second, the screen is filled with the still or moving image.

Audio-Video Quality

On one of the sample movies we saw, specifically a demo filmed by the company’s engineers from a live video camera, the frame rate looked pretty close to superb – likely between 24 and 30 frames per second, give or take a couple of frames. No ghosting of images was evident on the screen, a fact attributed by Nyko to its use of a relatively expensive LCD that doesn’t compromise image quality too dramatically. Though it’s a hint or two shy of Sony’s PSP larger widescreen display overall, we thought that the screen’s viewability in normal and direct lighting (through a window) was surprisingly good, and the screen’s resolution (level of apparent detail) was better than the iPod photo by a substantial amount. (Editors’ Note: All images on the Movie Player screens above and below are simulated.) pic

Each of the sample videos we watched used Movie Player’s full screen – either completely filling it with video content or with letterboxing at top and bottom. A full-screen version of the French film Immortel transcoded from a DVD showed some compression artifacting, as did a sample of Dreamworks’ Time Machine in letterboxed widescreen. It wasn’t enough to bug average viewers, but wasn’t as clean as in a comparable PSP film, and Time Machine’s widescreen imagery became quite small given its sizable anamorphic-formatted letterboxes. A zoom function of some sort could help tremendously. While we were impressed by the fluidity of the directly encoded engineered videos, neither computer-transcoded movie was totally smooth, showing stuttering that most likely will be eliminated by tweaks to the encoding software and the Movie Player hardware before release.

We weren’t able to hear audio output from the prototype Movie Player, as it wasn’t implemented in the unit. However, Nyko’s work on Sony PSP audio peripherals, plus Movie Player’s two speakers and two headphone jacks, strongly suggest that typical users won’t be disappointed by its performance.

Software

On the software front, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Nyko will be heavily customizing X Software’s PC program Video Vault for Movie Player video encoding and management, and will bundle the software for free with every unit. As currently shipped, Video Vault is described by its vendor as “a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for the digital video age, enabling you to convert DVD’s, VCD’s, Tapes and Downloaded videos to virtually any device …. The amazing part is you don’t need to know anything about codecs, formats, bit rates, frame rates, or any other technical information, simply select your device from a list and Video Vault does the rest!”

The bad news: there’s no Mac support for Movie Player planned until February of 2006. Nyko estimates that the installed userbase of Mac users on the iPod platform is considerably smaller today than ever before – 15%, give or take – and does not want to hold up the accessory’s release while a Mac version of Video Vault is developed.

In its presently available ($120 retail) form, Video Vault boasts encoding compatibility from “DIVX, WMV, ASF, MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, DVD, SVCD, VCD, VOB, AVI, [and] MS-DVR,” video formats, with audio support for “WMA, MP3, MPEG1 Layer II, WAV, PCM, LPCM, [and] AC3.” How much of this functionality will appear in the Movie Player version of the software is presently unclear; but X Software clearly has plenty of already-developed codecs to choose from.

Nyko has confirmed that files will be output into ASF format, and users will be able to choose from three initial quality settings – best, medium, or low quality – with more advanced features in menus only for advanced users. The company says that a two-hour video such as Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith at best quality with fluid action will consume 800mb, while medium quality (say, for movies such as Sideways) will use 500mb for two hours, and low quality will take 300 to 400mb over two hours. Television shows and shorter movies will obviously consume proportionately less space. pic

Nyko notes that it’s committed to preventing piracy of content stored on the iPod, and will both lock out iPod to iPod movie transfers, and support digital rights management. It is also working with content partners to create Movie Player-ready video files that will be available for download at or around the time of the accessory’s launch.

The most exciting part of all of this is that the Movie Player and Video Vault together will turn your iPod into a portable video library – with films that are of sufficient quality to be watched on a standard resolution television set via video-out. Because of the transcoding software – assuming it’s tweaked to make totally stutter-free imagery – you’ll be able to fit five high-quality (or ten low-quality) two-hour films on the lowest-capacity iPod mini, with as many as 75 (or 150) on an empty 60GB iPod photo. Because of the Movie Player’s video output, you’ll suddenly have the equivalent of a portable DVD player – and recorder – with a collection of your favorite discs to enjoy anywhere. Does this sound at all familiar, iPod lovers?

Parting Thoughts

If its final form is as polished as we expect it to be, the Movie Player will give millions of third-generation, fourth-generation, photo, and mini iPod owners the opportunity to enjoy high-quality videos and better-than-iPod photo-quality photos using their existing iPods as storage devices – a killer idea that could be the must-have accessory of the holiday season. Whether Apple releases its own video-enabled iPod hardware between now and then remains an open question, but for the ten million-plus people with Dock Connecting iPods, Movie Player may wind up being a more affordable alternative. We look forward to seeing it in final form.

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