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Though personal media players have been dominated by one manufacturer whose name starts with "A" (not Archos), not everyone needs a touchscreen or Wi-Fi to be entertained. When it comes to enjoying videos, slideshows, and music, there's something to be said for an inexpensive portable. With its generous 8.9-inch (1024 x 600) screen, kickstand, remote, USB and SD inputs, and HDTV output, Cinepal from aspiring A-lister Aluratek could turn a few heads.
Powered from its AC adapter, Cinepal can be used at home as a digital photo frame replete with a dozen transition styles, adjustable time intervals, five levels of zoom, 90-degree rotation, and music. You transfer content from a PC or Mac via the included cable into Cinepal's mini-USB port. I used Windows Explorer to copy a variety of photo, music, and video files into the root directory of Cinepal's 4-Gigabytes of internal flash memory. (Memory can be increased with an SD/SDHC card or flash drive.) Despite the dearth of folders, Cinepal played compatible files for each media type I chose. Unfortunately, rather than the directory showing all the files you've transferred, Cinepal reveals only ones with extensions that are playable, at least in theory. So, for example, clips in the unsupported Windows Media Video (WMV) format are invisible squatters just taking up space. Next time I connect Cinepal to my PC, I'll see them and delete them.
Using the mini-to-USB adapter cable, I plugged in a series of jump drives. If you hold down the play button along the top edge of the screen or on the remote while viewing a folder or file name, you're prompted to copy the file(s) to Cinepal's internal memory. Otherwise, you play them directly from the inserted memory. It works the same way with a memory card. However, I was unable to get Cinepal to recognize a Western Digital Passport USB hard drive. According to Aluratek technical support, an attached USB hard drive must have its own power source, which leaves out any number of truly portable drives.
Video formats that worked for me included AVI, MPG, and MOV. The latter comprised both standard-def content captured on a Canon point-and-shoot camera as well as 720p video recorded on a DXG camcorder. Other video formats Aluratek says Cinepal supports are VOB, DAT, MPEG, H.264, MKV, RM/RMVB, and DivX. Cinepal isn't compatible with protected content like the type you might purchase from the iTunes Store, but Aluratek says it plans to support protected DivX files in the second half of 2010. Cinepal shows JPEG and MPG type images; I successfully displayed BMP screen captures, too. In terms of music, I played MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files. Besides an onscreen graphics equalizer there are settings for normal, jazz, pop, rock, and classical. Whle playing a song, the amount of time elapsed is indicated but not time remaining.
Though Cinepal has built-in stereo speakers, they're located on the back. (You can make them out near the bottom of the player in the image, left.) Aluratek says the unconventional design is to save space. Pointed in the opposite direction of your ears, the tiny speakers created reflected or muffled sound, depending on whether the player was positioned on a hard or soft surface. The awful audio encouraged me to insert the earbuds, which actually produced decent sound.
Included in the box are the earbuds, a 3 1/4-inch long remote with 3-volt lithiium-ion disc battery (CR2032), mini USB to USB adapter, USB cable, AC adapter, carrying pouch, manual, single-pin to 3-plug component video cable, and single-pin to stereo cable. (There is no HDMI output, so a one-plug connection isn't possible.) The A/V cables enable you to attach Cinepal to your HDTV set for up to 720p or 1080i viewing. Pressing the Mode button on the remote or the player switched the display too easily from Cinepal's LCD to an external display -- whether or not one was connected. Without an "Are you sure?" prompt, I found the screen going black at inopportune times. When I did have my 50-inch TV and its superior speakers attached, I was able to enjoy slide shows and videos from the couch. Size difference aside, my TV offered much wider viewing angles. A problem with Cinepal's choice of screen technology is that bright viewing is confined to someone catching the picture at just the right angle. Viewed off axis -- below, above, or to the side -- the picture dims. Even for personal viewing, I found the sweet spot a bit too constricting.
Cinepal calls itself an eBook reader. But complete with color, backlighting, and background music, it's not likely people will use the device for reading. While the resolution and screen size fall just shy of an iPad, the contrast is superior to a Kindle or Sony Reader, which both use monochrome, non-backlit displays. You can adjust the text to one of three sizes and four colors. For screen background, you can choose from nine wallpaper colors. But forget about PDF or proprietary eBook formats. (Even the onboard instruction manual is JPG, not PDF.) Cinepal supports only the TXT format, which aside from Word files you save that way (plain but proportional characters), pretty much limits you to such non-commercial sites as Manybooks.net. Typical of the type of books I was able to download for free was An Unsocial Socialist, nearly 91,000 words written by George Bernard Shaw in 1883. Unfortunately, line breaks are arbitrary, with no regard to syllables.There's a defeatable auto page-ahead feature (Cinepal wrongly refers to it as "auto scroll') that actually jumps the text to the next screen at one of three timed intervals you set. More likely, you'll read at your own pace by pressing the fast forward button on top of the player or using the remote.
Even after using Cinepal for a few days, I found the interface confusing. I was never sure whether to press one of the <</>> or +/- rocker buttons to move the highlighter left or right or go deeper. Because Cinepal is inconsistent on how those buttons are used, it's too easy for the user to be error-prone, resulting in such accidents as turning English menus into Chinese ones. Regarding the embedded battery, I found Aluratek's claim of "up to 6 hours continuous use" overly generous. Four and a half hours was more like it when I ran a continuous slide show.
While Cinepal is no substitute for a well thought-out touch screen or a player with Internet connectivity, you can't beat Cinepal's low price. In a one-pound player you're getting a relatively large screen with vivid colors and the flexibility of viewing photos and videos from internal memory, SD cards, or USB flash drives. You can leave the screen running on your desk or bedstand, stage an impromptu show on the go, or copy external media to Cinepal's internal memory to free up camera memory. If you're looking for an inexpensive way to entertain the kids with video in the back seat, Cinepal does the job. You can also turn the device into an HDTV source component with all the cables you'll need included and a remote control. In the end the Aluratek Cinepal offers a lot of value and flexibility for a fraction of the price of personal media players that get all the attention.