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Sound Vision Here To Stay(HKTDC Electronics, Vol 03,2008)

Portable AV Recorders & Players

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The digital world is gradually coming to grips with the audio and visual revolution that began some seven years ago

The October 2001 launch of a tiny device that allowed consumers to carry around their music in a digital format brought about far-reaching changes even its inventors never envisaged.

The original iPod opened the floodgates, and the deluge continued when the iTunes service allowed American consumers to download individual songs from the Internet.

These developments marked the end of Sony's dominance of the audio field with its Walkman series, though even Apple CEO Steve Jobs initially said nobody wanted video on a small screen.

However, he had to eat his words in 2005: Apple inevitably bowed to consumer pressure and launched the video iPod, with the result that some of today's hottest items fall into this category.

Research group Gartner Dataquest calls this burgeoning sector the Portable Media Player (PMP) market and notes it has been growing at a tremendous rate since 2005.

Gartner Analyst Jon Erensen said the trend for PMPs would definitely be to add video and predicted a short time ago that by 2010, 64% of all PMPs would have video playback capabilities. "Nearly all with hard disks in them will have video and 60% of those based on NAND flash memory will be able to handle video," he predicted.

Mr Erensen also saw October 2005 as the main turning point. "High-end portable video players have existed for several years, but it's only recently that video capabilities have begun to appear in midrange PMPs as SoC [system on chip] controller vendors add these capabilities to their products," he noted.

"The introduction of the fifth-generation Apple iPod with video playback capability in October 2005 started a trend that will make video playback a feature of nearly all PMPs that use a HDD for storage in 2010."

As with so many innovative ideas, the big companies at first missed this opportunity, and that made it possible for many smaller companies - especially those in Asia where most of these devices are manufactured - to grab the lead in production.

"Initially, large semiconductor vendors stayed away from the PMP semiconductor market because of the association of digital audio players with music piracy," Mr Erensen explained. "Their absence allowed smaller vendors to dominate - firms like Actions Semiconductor, SigmaTel, PortalPlayer and Telechips."

Video and wireless technologies play to the strengths of big names like Texas Instruments, Freescale Semiconductor, Samsung, Broadcom, Nvidia and ATI Technologies. "These firms now have more desire to compete due to the size of the market and the rise of legal Internet download services," he said.

The 'Big Boys' are beginning to wake up, with Sony for one putting a lot of effort into recovering the image it once had as the company of choice for small, well-designed electronic gadgets.

Steven Chu, the Department Manager for the digital imaging and mobile entertainment product group at the consumer electronics marketing division of Sony in Hong Kong, said that the most popular products the company sells included audio and video and also had wireless capabilities.

"Sony's Walkman MP3 player NWZ-A820 series are the most popular products in the portable AV player market," Mr Chu claimed. "In addition to its music/video/photo playback function, this series features Bluetooth technology and high-resolution TFT colour display LCD, as well as built-in flash memory."

Mr Chu believes the trend for such products is clearly in the direction of small, high-capacity devices. "We expect that portable AV products will be getting smaller and slimmer for maximum mobility," he said. "Higher picture quality and other added-value features will enable customers to enjoy the best AV entertainment anytime, anywhere."

This prediction is already being borne out at the production level, with Eston Technology Ltd manufacturing flash and hard drive portable media players at its 4,000-square-metre factory on the Chinese mainland.

Marketing Manager Fosco So said a digital voice recorder is the most popular product Eston produces, but he expected things to change in the future. "I think you will be seeing many more devices that have some kind of Internet-related functions, no matter what else they may do," he predicted.

Mr So also believed there were differences between the European, Asian and US markets. "Asians tend to want things that are small, and the colour and design are very important," he observed.

"Those products we are selling successfully in Europe and the US tend to feel good in the hand - they seem to be more interested in how to interact with the devices."

Mobile magic

One Eston innovation that looks likely to meet the demands of all these markets is the new 4.3-inch Touch Screen Mobile Internet Device that supports Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0.

The MID-01: Mobile Internet Device features Word, Excel and a PDF reader, Internet Explorer, email, Skype, MSN and ICQ, Internet TV, an electronic dictionary and electronic card reader. "The device supports voice reading, PDA software and some online games," Mr So added.

Most products such as these have traditionally been manufactured in China for export, but the mainland's own domestic market is growing fast and it is set to become a huge consumer.

Gartner Analyst Tina Tang said China produced 131 million PMPs in 2006, of which about 10.1 million were for local use. "There were, however, more than 400 brands, with the Chinese dominating the low-end market and foreign companies grabbing the high-end," she added.

Another major impact to be felt by the portable AV recorder and player sector will come when thinner, brighter organic light-emitting devices (OLEDs) that use less power become more widespread.

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will also have an impact on PMPs, with devices such as Apple's iPhone already capable of obtaining data from numerous sources, including 3G networks, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

This latter trend is likely to blur the lines between all kinds of small devices and mobile phones, as companies like Nokia, Sony, Ericsson and Samsung are producing devices that can be used to listen to music, watch videos and handle email as well - all on a mobile phone.

It is to be expected that Apple's big lead in the portable AV recorder and player category will slowly be whittled away by other companies, both the Korean and Japanese giants as well as small Chinese enterprises.

One possible innovation that could spring major surprises in future is the Google mobile device initiative known as Android, which has seen the Internet search giant create a Software Development Kit (SDK).

This means that Google will give programmers the ability to write any kind of software they like, effectively creating a 'generic' mobile device that can easily be tailored to meet the needs of specific markets.

How this will affect the time-honoured approach taken by Apple and many other followers is unclear, but this free SDK could radically challenge the traditional way such devices are produced.

Developments such as these will be well worth watching in coming years as the demand for mobile devices that combine sound and vision will only continue to grow exponentially in future.

TEXT BY DANYLL WILLS