Thomson has finally released the personal video player that it announced almost a year ago: the 20GB Lyra PDP2860. While it lets you enjoy music and movies wherever you go and has a slicker design than the competing Archos AV320, the PDP2860 offers fewer extra features and won't load as many types of video. We also would like this device more if all its functionality were active, but Thomson had to release it early to catch the Christmas shopping season.
Compared with the Archos AV320, the PDP2860 has a few design advantages: you can pry a stand from its back panel to angle the screen perfectly for desk and tray-table viewing, and the player is lighter (300g) and shorter (80mm). Its other dimensions are 135 by 24mm.
The PDP2860 has two soft, depressable joysticks. They're comfortable and their functions work well, except for access to the top menu level. You should be able to get there by holding the navigation joystick to the left, but you have to press the Menu button on the side of the device.
One-handed operation is difficult; the volume, Menu, Stop and Record buttons are a bit hard to press and scattered along the player's sides. But we appreciate being able to adjust the volume without halting playback -- a feature missing from the AV320. Another very welcome design point is the internal CompactFlash slot; the AV320 houses media cards in a separate module.
One advantage the PDP2860 has over an MP3 player is a large, colour screen, which greatly eases menu navigation. It really comes through in this department, displaying brilliant graphics on a 65,000-colour, 89mm (3.5-inch) LCD. Additionally, intuitive menus integrate well with the two joysticks.
Unlike the AV320, the PDP2860 has no remote, so if you're watching its content on your television, you'll have to get up from the couch and walk across the room to control playback. This isn't an issue, however, if you plan to do most of your viewing on the go, and Thomson does include other accessories. You get a padded case with a clip and a strap for belt attachment, adaptors for a car's radio and cigarette lighter, earbud headphones and two cables with dual RCA jacks for connecting the unit to TVs and stereos. The case affords access to all controls, but limits full joystick use. The transparent plastic that covers the LCD occasionally adds glare, but we'll gladly sacrifice some viewability for screen protection.
The RD2780's 20GB hard drive can store 40 hours of video. You can record directly, add ripped tracks to the video directory, or transfer downloaded content to the device.
The first method is easy: you simply connect the player (as if it were a VCR) to the source's composite-video output. Upon detecting the incoming signal, the PDP2860 records at one of three settings: the 1500Kbps HQ is for television viewing, the 1000Kbps SP is for playback on the device's LCD, and the 768Kbps LP maximises your recording time. The second option is quicker and renders better quality. The PDP2860 supports AVI MPEG-4, so you rip DVDs to that format and transfer the resulting files to the player's hard drive.
In the third approach, you download content from the Internet. If you plan on going this route, you'd better know how to convert between various video codecs using, say, VirtualDub; unlike Archos, Thomson doesn't include video-conversion software. The manual claims that the PDP2860 supports movies encoded with DivX 4.x and 5.x, but the unit sometimes froze while playing ours, which we'd downloaded from the DivX site.
Unfortunately, the PDP2860 adheres to the rules of Macrovision and other DRM technologies, so it won't record most DVDs and VHS tapes. The Archos AV320 ignores such copyright protection. Unless companies start offering videos preconfigured for the PDP2860, loading it with movies will continue to be a hassle. But once you've managed it, you can view the player's content on its LCD or any television with a composite-video input.
As for audio playback, the PDP2860 serves up the regular selection of shuffle and repeat modes, and you can browse by artist, album, song, genre, year or filename. The screen displays loads of information, including any album art in your audio files' tags. You can transfer tracks onto the device using Windows Explorer, but you'll then have to profile the hard drive so that it can recognise the new songs. That process will require a computer until Thomson posts more comprehensive firmware on its Web site. The current firmware also cripples other features: the equaliser; on-the-fly and standard playlists; song ratings; programmed playback; bookmarks; and brightness, colour and contrast adjustment.
On the same line-in jack that receives A/V signals, the PDP2860 captures audio to the MP3 format at constant bit rates of 96Kbps, 128Kbps or 192Kbps. The unit does not record to WAV, and since there's no recording-volume control, it's not ideal for live or semipro applications. The lack of a built-in mic means that you don't get voice-memo capability, either.
Finally, the PDP2860 can accept your digital camera's memory cards. You can view the photos on the player's LCD or any television individually or in a slide show, for which you can choose accompanying music. If your camera uses media other than CompactFlash, you'll need to transfer shots from your computer to take advantage of the slide show function.
An HQ file looks slightly sharper on the PDP2860's LCD than on the AV320's, but the difference is negligible. The "Preparing hard disk drive for saving settings" message occasionally appears during screen transitions and stays for up to 30 seconds; it's annoying, but at least it pops up only once per session.
The PDP2860's HQ video looks like high-grade PVR on a television, and SP approximates slightly pixellated VCR output. Even LP isn't that bad; it shows less pixellation than the AV320's equivalent setting. In fact, in terms of quality per kilobyte of disk space, this Thomson's video compares favourably with the Archos's. But MP3 soundtracks rang tinnily in our ears.
We first listened to the PDP2860 with its included earbuds. Audio files sounded clean, with a passable signal-to-noise ratio of 85dB. The volume was just loud enough, although in some environments, we had to use headphones with passive noise-cancelling technology to hear properly. During video playback, we caught encoding artefacts, which became more noticeable when we switched to our reference headset, the Shure E3c.
When powering video playback, the AV320's battery lasts more than an hour longer than the PDP2860's, but the Lyra does give you 2.3 hours, enough for one lengthy movie. On a single charge, you can listen to audio files for just past four hours -- the same amount of time required to charge the cell. This relatively poor battery life is due in part to the fact that the LCD lights up as each song starts. There's no charging indicator light.
Additional editing by Nick Hide