Music and video enthusiasts looking for a pocket-friendly iPod alternative will be tempted by Toshiba's sleek Gigabeat S. Powered by Microsoft's improved Portable Media Center software, this player supports cool new subscription services like MTV's Urge (for music) and Vongo (for movies). You also get a 2.4-inch color screen you can view in portrait or landscape mode, an FM tuner, and intuitive touch-sensitive controls. It's not quite perfect, but this device is a top contender.
The Gigabeat S impresses the moment you open the box. Available in 30GB (white) and 60GB (black) versions, the device features a glossy plastic front and scratch-resistant back. Even though it doesn't match the iPod's 0.4-inch thickness, the 0.6-inch-thick Gigabeat S is slightly shorter and narrower than its famous rival. You navigate the player in landscape mode, and then turn it sideways and hold it like a camera to watch videos.
Power up the Gigabeat S and you're rewarded with a near-instant boot-up time. The new PMC 2.0 interface--which is very similar to Windows Media Center--is easy to use, with options like My Music, My Videos, My Pictures, etc. Its menus match up well to the Gigabeat's front-mounted, five-way controller, which is a cinch to use. Eschewing Apple's touch-sensitive Click Wheel approach, Toshiba's controls operate more like a directional game pad. The Gigabeat S requires more button presses than an iPod, but it still feels simple and well designed. The right side of the device is where you'll find the volume controls, and the power, reverse, play/pause, and forward buttons.
The Gigabeat S' sound quality is a big step up from the prior model, which Toshiba bundled with poor-quality earbuds. On the Red Hot Chili Pepper's "Dani California," the detail in John Frusciante's guitar sound came through clearly with a wide soundstage. The Gigabeat S' earbuds sound more forward and aggressive compared with a 5G iPod we had on hand. However, we were disappointed to find out that we couldn't modify the audio much. There are seven EQ presets with names such as Acoustic and Classical, and that's it. We would have appreciated at least bass and treble controls.
We tested the Gigabeat S using Windows Media Player 11 Beta with Urge, the new music service from MTV, which is very fast and a breeze to navigate. Using Urge's subscription service, the albums we downloaded (in high-quality 192-Kbps WMA format) synched automatically with the Gigabeat S. The Gigabeat S' FM tuner locked tightly onto stations with virtually no background noise. When connected to an Xbox 360, the Gigabeat S shows a list of your albums and tunes, letting you listen to your favorite tracks while playing games.
We also tested the Gigabeat S with Vongo's new movie download service, which as of press time included 1,600 movie and video selections and cost $9.99 per month. Downloading the portable version of Stealth took about 30 minutes, which when then transferred the Gigabeat S in less than two minutes. Movies looked stunning, with no apparent digital noise or stuttering.
We ran into some trouble getting Vongo to recognize the Gigabeat S, requiring technical support to reset our account. Vongo told us it was working with Microsoft to resolve the issue.
You can also use this device to watch TV shows that you've recorded with your Media Center PC or TiVo; WMP 11 handles the transfer over USB. Howver, unlike some other PMPs, you can't record shows directly from your cable or satellite box.
The Gigabeat S particularly excels as a photo viewer. We synched our photos automatically in WMP 11 and were able to view slideshows with musical accompaniment. Each time a new track began, the player displayed the title and artist at the bottom of the screen without disturbing the slideshow. Photos displayed good detail and vivid color. We even transferred photos directly from our Sony camera using the supplied USB cable.
All of this audio and video goodness takes a toll on battery life, but this pint-size Portable Media Center held its own. Playing back a loop of MP3s, the Gigabeat S lasted 10 hours and 41 minutes, which is less than the 12 hours of rated battery life. On the video side, the player almost made it through The Bourne Supremacy twice before shutting down at 3 hours and 17 minutes, which is better than the rated 2.5 hours.
If you're looking for a digital media player that's a cut above the current crop, the Gigabeat S will do the job. It's slimmer and easier to use than the Creative Zen Vision:M, even if the Creative's screen is more colorful. Our enthusiasm is tempered by the Gigabeat S' inability to go the distance when playing music, but otherwise it's a winner.