It seems like every year around this time, I'm in exploration mode on the new gadget in my portfolio. This year is no exception and there were some unexpected surprises with my testing results. If you look back at last years post, you'll see we had the PSP, iPod Video, Zune 30 and Zen Vision W in the mix.
This year the Zune 30 has been replaced by the Zune 80 and I added the Archos 605 WIFI. The Zune 30 is a Microsoft asset so I gave it to Bryan Von Axelson and it not included in this years test round. The iPod and PSP were dropped from the testing. Which of course leaves the Zune 80, Archos 605 WIFI and Zen Vision W as the three players that made my cut for testing.
I cut the PSP because I am no longer interested in dealing with memory sticks. I cut the iPod Video because the screen is too small and the only reason I keep it around is to test iTunes podcast integration. Keep in mind the iPod isn't the iPod Touch.
So Which is my Favorite?
I might as well cut right to the chase. There are two answers. For audio, the Zune 80 is a strong favorite and it isn't just because I work for the evil empire. I like the new device, I like the new Zune software, and I like the Zune Marketplace Pass all-you-can-eat audio buffet. I would like for Robert Plant and crew to make some of the Led Zeppelin tracks available as part of Pass collection for "free" but I guess if you helped define rock, you can pretty much call your shots.
For video, the Archos 605 WIFI is the hands down favorite. This essentially unseats the Creative Zen Vision W because the Vision doesn't support the higher bit rates I would prefer. The Archos player is thinner, smaller, supports more video playback formats, has longer battery life (with the extra battery), is touchscreen, etc. Basically you'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands. It's a keeper.
What were the surprises this year?
I set out this year to see if I could move my transcoding to the H.264 standard. The Zune 80 adds additional video playback and output support for that format and others. Nope, no can do. I would need to buy plug-ins for the Archos, and the Zen Vision W doesn't support H.264. Since the Zune 80 doesn't support DivX AVI, it meant I need to move back to Windows Media Video (.WMV). The problem with moving back to Windows Media Video is that the Creative Zen Vision W doesn't support bit rates above about 768 on the video side. Drat. There's an upside and downside to that. The upside is that the video file plays on all of the players. The downside is the loss of resolution and that the WMV transcodes take quite a bit longer than going to DivX AVI or some of the other formats supported by my utility.
The Zune 80 screen is very forgiving with videos encoded at lower bit rates. The Archos and Zen are less forgiving because of their 4.3" screen size but thankfully the lower bits rates are still good enough. If the Creative Zen Vision W dies or I sell it, then I will probably double the bit rates. In the end I was able to come up with some settings and therefore output that would run on all three players in the test. This means I can transcode a DVD one time and use it across my main three players.
Tools and Formats Used
Like last year, I am still using the Xilisoft conversion tool. It has been updated and includes support for Apple TV, H.264. Zune, etc. It's pretty easy to use and it's faster than the version I was using last year. I like this utility because it creates video for a variety of popular players and formats. The other aspect I like is the ability to clone an existing profile in the tool and modify it for your needs. I usually test a variety of video sizes so I like lots of choices from the profile. My only complaint about the tool I'm using is it's cropping support. That really needs to improve if you want to chop black bars.
Here are the settings I am using for video conversion:
2.40:1 Widescreen - 480x270 video size, 768 video bit rate, 128 audio bit rate, Pan and Scan zoom.
1.85:1 Widescreen - 320x180 video size, 768 video bit rate, 128 audio bit rate, Pan and Scan zoom.
4:3 Fullscreen - 320x240 video size, 768 video bit rate, 128 audio bit rate, Pan and Scan zoom.
As you can see, I dropped support for a couple of players this time around and it helped reduce the requirements for video support. I am a bit disappointed in the Creative Zen Vision W player supported video and audio. I should have paid more attention to the lack of detail in the specs for that device before I bought it. The Zen makes up for it by having a great screen with rich color and contrast. My wife likes that player so we'll still use it for another year or two. Windows Media Video (WMV) is king this year so we'll use it as the playback format on my media players. I'll be writing a review shortly focused on the Zune 80. Until then, happy holidays.
[UPDATE 1] I think I posted this too quickly. I am already seeing an issue I don't think I can live with, so I need to make a decision. The tool I'm using is taking WAY too long on the WMV transcode. All of the testing above was done using short five minute clips so I didn't see how drastic a difference there was. I can take a couple of paths. I can still move to H.264 which would mean I can build a repository on that format the Archos and Zune 80 can play. This cuts off the Zen and would mean I would still need to transcode DivX AVI for it. Or, I can look for a new tool that does WMV very quickly. Time to write Xilisoft for their suggestion. If you have a tool you like, let me know. Thanks. Sad. Bummer. Back to the drawing board...
[UPDATE 2] The tool I'm using has three encoder settings. wmv1x, wmv2x and wmv3x. wmv3x is the one that is the default and takes forever. For instance, one DVD took 4 hours to convert. It worked perfectly after the conversion (the Zune 80 doesn't need to convert), but it takes much longer than I had anticipated. wmv1x and wmv2x both take a little over an hour, but the Zune 80 does a conversion on the sync. It would appear the conversion on the sync would eat any time gained by using the other settings. I'm more seriously considering a two format approach. H.264 for the Zune 80 and Archos 605 and DivX AVI for the Zen Vision W. This will be the easiest method since the Zen will be used infrequently by my honey. I'll wait to hear back from Xilisoft Support, but I'm guessing that's going to be the final solution.
Can we all just get along? :?)