At the first day of the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose, Sonicblue showed off a co-designed prototype intended to do for video what portable MP3 players have done for music.
The unnamed unit, around 25 by 10 by 5 centimetres in size, has a four-inch colour LCD screen, a 20GB PC Card hard disk and lithium batteries: it loads movies through USB 2.0 or Ethernet and integrates closely with the company's Replay TV hard disk personal video recorder. As well as playing backup to 70 hours of video from the internal hard disk onto the LCD screen, the portable unit connects to an external monitor or TV.
"We'll be concentrating on getting the first model right," said Mikhil Balram, VP of Connected Home at Sonicblue, "and then we'll do price-performance." He added that as the unit could also play still pictures and MP3 music, it was better to think of it as a portable media player.
Based around Intel's XScale processor and using Intel's video software on the Microsoft Windows CE operating system, the first production units are due sometime in 2003 and are expected to cost "less than $1000 (around £640), but we'll put the price up rather than compromise the first product," said Balram. The company was considering adding FireWire, but had no plans for models that worked with European television standards. Battery life was currently around four hours, but this is not going to be typical of the final product.
A handful of prototype units were on display at the launch, showing movie clips, captured TV and other content.
The quality of the display, with its very high contrast and saturated colours, more than compensated for the small size of the unit. Sonicblue says that despite its pocket dimensions, the unit will be enjoyable to watch for many hours at a time, and this seems highly possible. The experience of playing with one is seductive: although there is no reason why similar features couldn't be included in personal digital assistants or portable game consoles, the simplicity and convenience of portable video players may make them into a very desirable gadget in the years to come.
Rupert Goodwins reported from San Jose.