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GBA SP Movie Player Review

GBA(SP) Movie Player Adapter.buy yours from

Divineo UK
Divineo USA

Divineo China

Divineo Germany

Japanese company, AM3, were the first to announce a licensed movie player adapter for the GBA. When plugged into a GBA/SP, the adapter, known as the 'Advanced Movie Player' or 'AM3 Player', allows the GBA/SP to display multimedia content like movies, music and e-books that are recorded on Smart Media Cards (SMC). AM3 has already released some pre-recorded movies for their player and will in future, also make available content that can be downloaded on-line and recorded onto blank SMCs.
This is all well and good, but unfortunately for the consumer, the 'AM3 Player' will only play licensed content that must be purchased. Although I might be wrong, it's doubtful that AM3 will ever release their encoder to the public. Without this program, users will not be able to encode or convert their own personal movies and music for the 'AM3 Player'.


Luckily for us, however, a third party manufacturer has just released their own unlicensed movie player adapter for the GBA/SP. This adapter, known as the 'GBA(SP) Movie Player' is just like the 'AM3 Player'. The only difference is that it uses Compact Flash Cards (CF) instead of SMCs. More importantly, the adapter also comes with its own encoder software which gives the user free reign to encode any movie or music he wants.

Features of the GBA(SP) Movie Player
Below is the feature list for GBA(SP) Movie Player:

- Comes with its own software to convert any 'Windows Media Player' compatible video and music files to the GBA format used by the adapter. Current list of supported files are: AC3, WAV, MP2, MP3, RA, RM, RAM, RMVB, Mpeg, Mpg, M2V, AVI, ASF, WMA, WMV, DAT.

- Uses any size Compact Flash Cards as storage medium. Once a file has been converted on your PC, simply copy it to the CF card and the adapter will play it on the GBA. The adapter also supports folders which allows easy sorting of multimedia content.

- Depending on the compression setting used, approximately 60 minutes of video with audio can be stored on a 128MB CF card.

- Able to display E-Books in standard text (*.txt) format.

What's In The Box
The only thing you'll get with this adapter is the adapter itself and the encoding software on CD. As such, you'll need to buy two things if you want to use it.

Things To Have Or Buy
First is a CF card of course, and secondly, a CF card reader. If you've got the cash, go for the highest capacity CF card that you can afford. CF cards are quite cheap, but since I'm broke, I could only afford to buy a Kingston 128MB capacity CF card for USD$35.

CF card readers are also cheap and I managed to get one that could read 8 different types of flash cards for about USD$24. If you don't know, the reader is used to transfer files from your computer to the CF card.


Compact Flash Card & Card Reader.

Using The Encoding Software
Once you've got your CF card reader installed and ready to use on your PC, then you're all set to start encoding some video and audio for your GBA. As I've mentioned, the encoding software comes on a CD, so you'll need to install it on your PC first. I'm using Windows XP Pro, and the program installed without a hitch. The encoder is actually two separate programs - one for video files and another for audio files.


The movie encoding program.

Encoding Video
For the novice, the video encoding software will appear initially overwhelming. There are no wizards to help you, although there is a 'guide info' box that displays basic instructions on how to encode your first movie. Since I am novice, I decided to read all the instructions first. After reading it, I realised that it was quite easy to encode a file just by using all the basic defaults. The software actually has a lot of options to tweak your video, but it's always best to start with the default settings when you're just starting out.

Fast Compress Mode, Stereo Sound
According to the guide, using the 'Fast' compress mode together with '8:1' stereo option will result in high quality video and stereo sound. For testing, I decided to encode a 1:06 minute high quality Mpeg movie.

On this setting, it took my old but trusty Pentium 3, 550Mhz computer exactly 5:30 minutes to encode the movie. As you can see, the encoding isn't in real time, but with a faster computer, I'm sure that the encoding times will be reduced.

After the encoding was done, I discovered two files in my save directory. One is a video file, which has a GBM (M for movie) extension and the other an audio file, which has a GBS (S for sound) extension. Unlike standard movie files, movies encoded for the adapter are split into their respective video and audio streams, as such, you must copy both these files to the CF card.

In 'Fast' compress mode, the GBM file was a whopping 17.9MB while the GBS file was 1.41MB. In comparison, the actual Mpeg file was only 11.1MB. 'Fast' compress mode uses less compression which results in a bigger file but shorter encoding time.

Normal Compress Mode, Mono Sound
Using the same Mpeg movie, I next used 'Normal' compress mode. According to the guide, using the 'Normal' compress mode together with the '11:1' mono option will result in standard quality video and mono sound.

On this setting, it took my computer longer at 16:27 minutes to encode the file. This time, the GBM file was a lot smaller at 4.97MB while the GBS file was 1.05MB.

As you can see from the results, 'Normal' compress mode uses more compression which results in a smaller file size but at the expense of a much longer encoding time.

Encoding Music
The music encoding program has a much simpler interface and anyone will be able to figure it out since there aren't that many options.


The music encoder program.

For my music test, I ripped a song from a music CD in PCM WAV format. I chose the '8:1' stereo option and converted it. The music encoding was really fast and it took less than 5 seconds to convert the file to the GBS format. The original WAV file was 58.6MB in size, while the converted file was only 7.38MB. This isn't too bad, although not as good as MP3 compression.

Preparing An E-Book
The adapter also supports E-Books in standard TXT format, so no converting is necessary. E-Books in RTF or Microsoft DOC extensions are not supported, so remember to convert them first to the standard text format without any special formatting before copying them to the CF card.

Sending The Files To The CF Card
Once you've got all your files ready, you can now copy them to your CF Card. The adapter supports folders, so you can easily sort all your files in folders and separate them according to music, movies and E-Books.

Using The GBA(SP) Movie Player Adapter
Using the adapter itself is easy. There are two slots in the adapter. One slot is where you insert the GBA cartridge and the other slot is where you insert the CF card. The adapter will not boot without a game cartridge installed since it uses the boot-up code from the game cartridge. Once you've inserted the game cartridge and CF card into the adapter, you can then insert the adapter into the GBA/SP. There is also a switch at the side of the adapter that allows you to conveniently toggle between game and movie mode.


The GBA(SP) Movie Player Adapter.


The adapter plugged into a SP.

The Player Menu - Watching Movies
When you turn on the SP with adapter switch set to movie mode, you'll soon see the menu for the movie player. It's a nice, colorful interface with five self-explanatory icons. The icons are: Movie, Music, Book, About and Help. You can scroll through the icons using the direction pad and pressing the 'A' button to select your choice.


The Player menu icons.

I chose to see my movies first and so I selected the Movie icon. Immediately, I was taken to the next screen where all my folders were displayed.


Unfortunately, the player doesn't support long file names and will truncate whatever you named your files to just 8 characters. I chose the folder where my music videos were stored. I selected the file I wanted to watch and pressed the 'A' button and suddenly my video appeared on the small but clear and sharp SP screen. I tell you, it was a wonderful surprise to actually see full motion video with sound playing on the GBA. In movie mode, you can use the direction pad to jump either one minute forward and backward as well as pause by hitting the 'A' button. I fiddled with the controls a while and read through the help file on the various controls in video mode.


MTV video playing on SP.

The Player Menu - Listening To Music
Next, I jumped to the Music icon and selected the folder where my music files were stored. Again, I chose the song I wanted and pressed the 'A' button and immediately music started blaring from the SP's small speaker. I plugged in my headphone and was happy to hear music that sounded crystal clear. As you can see from the screen shot below, when you play a music file, the menu will display information like the title of the song, compression mode used, total time of the song and time elapsed. You can also pause, reverse and forward your song using the direction pad.


Playing a song.

The Player Menu - Reading E-Books
Next, I chose the E-Book icon and selected the folder where my text files were stored and selected the title I wanted to read. The text file displayed in full landscape with 10 lines a page. The text displayed was sharp and legible. The player automatically numbers the pages and you can flip to the next page by pressing the 'A' button or 10 pages at a time by pressing 'right' on the direction pad. You can even listen to music at the same time while reading an E-Book by activating a music file first.


E-Book on the player.

Movies On The Player - The Good And Bad
The Good: As I mentioned before, I encoded two videos from the same movie clip. One used 'Fast' compress mode for high quality videos and the other, 'Normal' compress mode for standard videos.

The high quality video looked simply stunning on the SP screen. The colors were rich and vibrant, and thanks to the lower compression rate and the SP's high resolution screen, artifacting and pixelation was almost non-existent. The frame rate was also impressive and although it definitely wasn't full frames, it was fluid and quite smooth. Sound was also good, particularly with earphones. It's a pity that there isn't a way to show the actual high quality video.

The standard video using the 'Normal' compress mode was also quite good. The colors were obviously down sampled and there was also noticeable artifacts and pixelation, but it was still clear and vibrant on the SP screen. Frame rate was still fluid but the sound wasn't as good because of the mono stream.

The Bad: Strangely, when playing the high quality video, none of the controls for pause, reverse and forward worked. Worse of all, audio synch was totally out of whack and always played faster than the video. According to the built-in help guide, this is a normal occurrence and you can supposedly synch the sound with the video again by pressing the 'left' and 'right' shoulder buttons. Doing this will either forward the sound 1/5 of a second forward or backward to match the video. But like I said, none of the controls worked and so I couldn't synch the sound at all. The Standard quality video, however, didn't have this synching problem.

I'm not an expert, but I would guess that high quality video uses most of the SP's processing power to decode, and since the video and audio streams are separate, video decoding will ultimately drag behind the audio decoding thus causing the out of synch problems. Standard video quality, however, wouldn't take as much processing power to decode, and so I guess will have less synching problems.

Music On The Player - The Good And Bad
The Good: Music ripped directly from CD and encoded for the player sounds really good, especially with earphones. I have no complaints about the sound quality.

The Bad: When I encoded an MP3 file, however, and used it in the player, the music sounded terrible with lots of background noise and audible hiss. From this, I gather that it's a bad idea to encode MP3 files since they are already in a compressed format. The additional conversion to the GBS format for the player only makes it sound terrible and doesn't decrease the file size at all. In fact, when encoding MP3 files to the GBS format, most of the time the file was either the same size or even bigger.

E-Books On The Player - The Good And Bad
The Good: Reading text files on the player was really quite good. The wide landscape mode of the screen and the sharp and clear font used made reading very easy. The fact that you could also listen to music while reading is also a cool feature.

The Bad: Although the reader was good it has one crucial flaw - there is no option to bookmark a page which makes reading large tomes almost useless, unless of course you care to remember the page each time you stopped and jump to it when you want to read again. This is really a bad oversight on the part of the developer.

General Observations
After using the player for a few days now, I find that it is indeed one hell of a gadget and really does well to extend the multimedia capabilities of the GBA/SP. I've also discovered that this is one gadget that not everyone can buy. To make my review simpler, please read my recommendations below to see if you have what it takes to really enjoy the GBA(SP) Movie Player Adapter.

1. If you suck at computers and are severely IT challenged and don't want to learn, then don't get the adapter.

2. If you don't already have one or are too cash strapped to buy a high capacity CF card and reader, then don't get the adapter.

3. If you're impatient and don't have a fast computer that's at least a Pentium 4, 2.0GHz and above, then don't get the adapter. Encoding video files is very processor intensive especially for full length movies. On my slow Pentium 3, 550MHz computer, it takes approximately 16 hours to convert a 1 hour video.

4. If you really can't be bothered to actually test every setting in the encoder software to get the best quality movie at the best compression rate and file size, then don't get the adapter. Like I said, the encoder software is quite confusing for the novice. There are so many options and no wizards at all, so everything you attempt initially will be by trial and error.

5. If you primarily want to read E-Books then don't get the adapter. The reader function doesn't have a bookmark option which makes reading a book extremely difficult.

6. If you don't like anything sticking out from your GBA/SP, then don't get the adapter. Also, if you only have a GBA, you should forget about the adapter since without a built-in frontlight, watching movies will not be as enjoyable.

These are just a few points to note if you're considering buying the adapter. The adapter can do three things, but it's only very good in one - and that is playing movies. As a music player, the software is sorely lacking in a lot of functions that a cheap MP3 player has. As an E-Book reader, it's even worse, since it doesn't have a bookmark option.

Tips On Encoding Movies And Music
As I've said the adapter is very good at playing movies, although I should add that like the 'AM3 Player', most of the video processing is actually done by the GBA/SP's processor itself. To get good quality video you should always remember this saying, "Garbage in, Garbage out". What this means is that you should always strive to get the best quality video as your source before encoding it for the player. If you use a bad quality video source, then you'll definitely get a bad quality video on the SP. Whenever possible, try to encode a source file that is in a non-compressed AVI format and at high resolutions.

The same goes for music files. Converting a compressed format like MP3, RM or WMA results in music that sounds really bad on the GBA/SP. Use music files in raw PCM WAV format for the best sound quality.

Also, try to experiment with all the different settings in the encoder software. I haven't tried it yet, but according to some reports, cartoons and anime look really good on the player. Since the software doesn't as yet support or save profiles, write down and keep all the settings you've used that produce the kind of quality video and audio you want.

Final Comments
Personally, I like the GBA(SP) Movie Player Adapter. Despite the lack of an in-depth help file in understandable English, the encoding software can produce some pretty good quality videos at acceptable file sizes. Sadly, the music and E-Book functions are rudimentary at best, and there is no doubting the fact than they are sorely lacking in a lot of functions. Still, nothing beats that wow! factor when you see your first movie playing on the GBA/SP. Aside from movies and music videos, watching home videos or even photographs in the form of a movie slide show is something that never wears off in novelty.

Yes, there is a steep learning curve, but with patience and the right hardware, making movies for the player will soon be as easy as ABC. I'm not sure as to the legality of the software, but I really hope that the developers will release further upgrades to make it easier to use. There is a lot that needs to be done to make the player really good, but unfortunately, in its present state, I can only give it 3 out of 5 stars, mainly because it isn't easy to use out of the box and also because of some of the control problems I've encountered when playing video files in 'Fast' compress mode.

Last Minute Additions
I've just learned from the manufacturer's web site that the adapter firmware is upgradeable and that they are already working on improving the encoder software. As soon as a new firmware or software upgrade is available, I will re-test the adapter to see if any of the bugs have been rectified.

Suppliers

Heres a rundown of who supplies

Divineo UK
Divineo USA

Divineo China

Divineo Germany

 

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