Getting The Most From Your Portable Media Player

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The portable media player, including its previous incarnation, the portable audio player, has effectively been available for 25 years or more, but has undergone significant evolution during that time. For many people the terms “portable media player” and “iPod” are synonymous, but the iPod in its various forms is a brand of portable media player, designed and market by Apple Inc., Portable media players are available from many different manufacturers. Portable media players nowadays, are typically capable of storing and playing back thousands of individual audio tracks, or many hours of video, depending on the format and compression ratio of the audio or video files concerned. A storage capacity of 30GB for example, may be sufficient for 15,000 audio tracks, or 25 full-length films at a resolution equivalent to that of DVD (“Digital Versatile Disk”). Even the most basic portable media player typically allows music, video and other media to be transferred from a computer, and includes software to convert data to a format compatible with the player, while more sophisticated players may include the facility to record television programmes, an FM tuner, a voice recorder and/or WiFi connectivity to the Internet.

Portable Media Player Tips, Tricks & Techniques

Ripping CDs & DVDs

The process of copying audio or video data from a CD or DVD to a computer, and hence to a portable media player (otherwise known as “ripping”) is typically straightforward, and there are a number of software tools such a Windows Media Player, iTunes and various DVD ripping utilities designed to help you complete the process.

It is important to understand the concept of “bitrate”; the number of “bits” of information that are processed per second, and the effects this has on audio and video quality, and on the size of the data file produced. A standard commercial CD for example, is typically recorded at 1,411Kbps (“Kilobits per second”), but music available from the many download sites on the Internet typically has a bitrate of 128Kbps, 192Kbps, or perhaps 320Kbps in some cases. Generally speaking, the higher the bitrate the higher the quality, but equally, the larger the size of the file required to contain the data.

You may of course, need to convert data files from one format to another, for a variety of reasons. You may for example, have a music file in AAC (“Advanced Audio Coding”) format (similar to the MP3 (“MPEG-1 Audio Layer-3”) format, but not as widely used) which needs to be converted to MP3 in order to be compatible with your portable media player, or you may need to convert video ripped from a DVD to AVI (“Audio Video Interleaved”) and then to MPEG-4, so that you can play it back. Again, there is any number of software utilities to help you accomplish these tasks, some which are available free of charge. Ripping video from DVD, or downloading it from the Internet (akin to downloading music files in MP3 format) can provide a convenient alternative to carrying a collection of DVDs with you, but if you are ripping video from a commercial DVD or downloading from a website that imposes DRM, or “Digital Rights Management”, be aware of the physical and legal consequences of this protection.

Battery Life

Portable media players by their very nature, are required to operate away from a source of mains power for long periods, but do tend to consume standard alkaline batteries very quickly, particularly if used exclusively for playing video. Rechargeable batteries (in the form NiMH (“Nickel Metal Hydride”), Li-Ion (“Lithium Ion”) or Li-Po (“Lithium Polymer”) batteries) may therefore be a more economical solution in the long term, although they are understandably more expensive initially. Rechargeable batteries can be charged and discharged, many hundreds of times, if properly cared for, so it is advisable to perform a full charge/discharge cycle at least once every two or three weeks.

Recharging the battery in a portable media player typically involves plugging in an AC adaptor or possibly a USB cable from a computer. You can expect between 10 and 20 hours of playback for audio and between 5 and 7 hours for video (due to the additional screen, and processing requirements) from most modern portable media players, but there are one or two things that you can do to conserve battery life. If you are transferring audio or video data to a portable media player from your computer for example, plug the player in to the mains supply, rather than relying on battery power. Generally speaking, keep the power switch locked in the “off” position to prevent the player from being activated accidentally in your pocket or bag, turn off the backlight, and keep skipping back and forth between tracks to an absolute minimum.

PC Connectivity

Portable media players can usually be connected to a computer via a USB or “Universal Serial Bus”, cable of one form or another; the latest revision of the standard USB 2.0, allows data to be transferred at speeds up to 480Mbps (“Megabits per second”), but the older USB 1.1, standard specifies only 12Mbps, so if your computer only has a port of the older type, you may need to transfer data between the two devices overnight, or look at upgrading your computer with a faster USB 2.0 card.

The method of transferring data files from a computer to a portable media player may vary from device to device, but is typically as simple as dragging and dropping the files from one device to the other; much like you would if transferring files between folders or devices using a standard Microsoft Windows interface, although you may need to place them in specific folder locations. Certain portable media players sometimes referred to as “Portable Media Centres” (PMCs) are designed to integrate fully with Windows Media Player, and can be configured to automatically synchronise the contents of the player with all or part of your collection on a computer, or allow you select individual data files, manually. In addition, if Windows Media Player encounters a file type that it supports, but which is incompatible with the portable media player, it will convert that file into something more appropriate.

It may also be possible to have your computer recognise the hard disk drive of your portable media player as just another hard disk drive, and to store backup data or even programs on it. If you have a portable media player other than an iPod, you may already be able to see its hard disk drive in “My Computer” for example, and it is straightforward to enable “Disk Use” in iTunes to allow an iPod to be used in the same way. The iPod does however, use a FAT32 rather than an NTFS file system so it is not possible to copy files than 4GB to its hard disk drive.

Other Considerations

It is not uncommon for a portable media player to “freeze” or become unresponsive from time to time, but this is not necessarily indicative of a major problem and it may just be that a player (like a computer) periodically needs to be reset, and restarted. Like restarting a computer, this process is straightforward and poses no threat to your data files or preferences. If resetting a portable media player fails to bring the device back to life, you may need to completely drain and recharge its battery, or possibly perform a factory reset or restore (if the problem is to do with the firmware in the device) in which case your music and video files will need to be transferred from your computer once again.

Bear in mind that a portable media player is not limited to playing back music or video for entertainment purposes. There are an increasing number of informative podcasts, or “vodcasts” (video podcasts) available for download from major institutions and government departments, covering a range of topics. HMRC (“HM Revenue & Customs”) for example, offers a guide to self-assessment tax returns, the FSA (“Financial Services Authority”) offers information on preparing for retirement, insurance policies, etc., and much more content from many more providers is likely as other bodies embrace the new technology. 

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