January 22, 2006

Review: MediaReady Flyboy

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The MediaReady Flyboy is a Linux-based portable media player. It handles video, MP3s, pictures, and doubles as a portable data story device. On paper, it sounds pretty good. In practice, after a few weeks of playing with the Flyboy, I'm not convinced that it's worth the price tag.

After getting the Flyboy out of its packaging, I began playing with its music and audio capabilities. The sound from the internal speakers is pretty good. I was surprised, because the speakers are tiny. Granted, you do have to be fairly close to the Flyboy to actually listen to and appreciate music.

Playback sounds good through headphones as well. One problem I've had with some MP3 players is that, even at full blast, the audio output is somewhat quiet. This is not a problem with the Flyboy. Quite the opposite, really -- I had the Flyboy cranked up after listening to music through the onboard speakers, and when I plugged in the headphones it was loud enough to make my ears bleed. I tried several different types of music, from contemporary alternative rock to Ehren Starks, and it all sounded great on the Flyboy.

Flyboy (next to an iPod for size comparison) - click to enlarge

The Flyboy handles a limited number of music formats, however. The Flyboy uses the Real One Player to play video and audio, so it's not shocking that it doesn't support Ogg, but one would hope that a Linux-based player could support Ogg.

It takes the Flyboy a long time to sort through music files -- even with only a handful of MP3 files on the device, it would take several seconds for it to scroll to the second "page" of the listing. I shudder to think how long it would take to get to an MP3 if you were storing hundreds of them on the device. I have an iPod and a Rio Karma with the same capacity as the Flyboy (20GB), each with about 3,000 songs stored on it. If they were as slow as the Flyboy, it would probably take me two or three minutes to scroll from 'Til Tuesday to XTC.

The Flyboy also lacks the ability to sort MP3s by artist, album, genre, and so forth -- so its usability as an MP3 player is seriously limited.

The Flyboy can also be used as a voice recorder, and it does a passable job there, though it does pick up a lot of background noise. I doubt anyone is going to plunk down $350 for the device just to use it for capturing voice, though I suppose it could come in handy in a pinch if you just happen to have one on hand. I have a $40 device that holds up to 14 hours of audio that's much smaller, lighter, and far more convenient to use.

Pictures and copying files

Like many portable media players, the Flyboy also does duty as a portable hard drive. To use it for storage, just connect it to the computer with the included USB cable and tell the Flyboy to connect.

The Flyboy uses USB 2.0, and performance for copying files via USB seems to be in line with other USB storage devices that I use, so the Flyboy gets a thumbs up in this department -- though, again, this is mostly an incidental function rather than a primary use for the device. Portable USB storage is pretty cheap, so if you need something to hold data rather than media, I'd recommend looking into a USB flash drive or USB hard drive.

I copied several test images to the Flyboy, including some I took on using my Treo's built-in camera, others with a digital camera, and a few random JPEGs that I had lying around. For some reason, the Flyboy refused to recognize any of the JPEGs that copied to it. I tried copying images from Linux and Mac OS X to no avail.

The device also comes with a few test images, which display just fine. They look okay, but the resolution of the screen is fairly limited.

Video on the Flyboy

The next test was video recording and playback. The Flyboy comes with cables to connect it to a DVD player or other device to record media, and to connect the Flyboy to a TV for playback.

I recorded episodes of Family Guy, and also copied Jurassic Park to the Flyboy. I recorded to the Flyboy for best quality, rather than optimizing for size. Even at the Flyboy's top quality, the picture is mediocre at best.

The Flyboy's video screen is grainy, and the quality of the picture is poor. The 3.5-inch screen has a resolution of 320x240 pixels, which isn't anything to get excited about. By comparison, my Treo 650 has a screen resolution of 320x320. The Flyboy is not so bad that it's unwatchable, but it certainly isn't good. Family Guy seemed to suffer the worst from the conversion process, with noticeable pixelation and washout. Jurassic Park looked pretty good, particularly in the darker scenes -- the screen doesn't handle brightness very well.

As with audio playback, the sound from recorded programming is fine. You won't be getting 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound out of the device, but it's good enough for watching a TV show or movie on the go.

One thing that's a show-stopper, at least for me, is that video content is copied to the Flyboy in real time. Want to bring a season of Family Guy with you on the Flyboy? You have to copy the episodes over manually, which is a bit too time- and labor-intensive to be worthwhile. I'd rather bring along a portable DVD player and a small set of DVDs for trips.

It's worth pointing out that you're not limited to copying DVDs. You could hook up a camcorder, for example, and copy over home movies. Perhaps in the future, parents and grandparents will be able to go from carrying wallet-sized photos of their kids, and upgrade to carrying home movies. Strangers beware.

When playing from the Flyboy to a television the picture is markedly improved, but it still suffers from artifacts and mediocre quality. I wouldn't recommend the Flyboy as a major part of anyone's home entertainment setup.

One interesting side effect of recording content to the Flyboy -- you can copy the files over and play them back on your Linux box, if you like. I copied the Family Guy episode over to my computer using the USB connection and was able to watch the video there using the Xfmedia player. It skipped something awful in Totem and Kaffeine, but I suspect the problem is with the GStreamer backend, since both Totem and Kaffeine use GStreamer in Ubuntu, whereas Xfmedia uses Xine. Oddly, the video didn't play back correctly using the Real One Player on Mac OS X. Audio was fine, but there was no video.

Flyboy interface and design

The initial interface consists of six icons. You can navigate the interface using two buttons on top of the Flyboy, one for sideways, one for up and down. I think it would have been more intuitive to be able to navigate across and then down using the same button. You use another button (which doubles as the play button) to select options.

The capacity of the device is reasonable -- at 20GB, you can fit a fair amount of video and music. Battery life is about average for this type of device. The specs say the Flyboy can do three hours of video playback, which is in line with my tests. If you're on a short flight, you'll be fine. You might be able to watch The Godfather all the way through on the battery, but you won't get through parts I and II without a recharge.

The Flyboy is a bit on the clunky side. Its interface is much slower than comparable media playback devices. Once it begins playing a file, it's fine, but waiting for it to cue up a file is annoying. Granted, we're talking about a wait time of several seconds, but I'd expect that a device of this nature should be able to cue up media almost immediately.

The Flyboy is five inches wide, three inches high, and less than an inch thick. It weighs less than a pound, and seems fairly sturdy. I have to laugh, though, at the description of the Flyboy as "ultra-slim" -- it's nearly twice as thick as my 20GB iPod, and the current models of iPods are even thinner. If they're going to shoot for "ultra-slim," the device needs to be much smaller.

It's too big to be a good MP3 player, at least for the way that many people use their MP3 players. I wouldn't want to try to take it to the gym, for example. It's small enough to be convenient for airplane trips or situations where you'll be sitting for a while, but if size isn't a major issue for a video device, I'd recommend just buying a small portable DVD player instead.

One final annoyance -- the mechanism that covers the input ports is awkward. It's a strip of plastic that plugs into each of the input/output holes, and you have to peel it back and then swing it 180 degrees to access the input/output slots.

Should I buy one?

After using the Flyboy for a few weeks, I'm not impressed enough with the unit to want one permanently. The concept is good, but the execution leaves much to be desired.

There are a few major downsides to the Flyboy. It takes far too long to copy video content to the device to make it useful as a portable video player. The device is slow, and the video playback just isn't good enough to justify the high price tag.

It's a neat little device, and an improved second generation Flyboy might be worth the investment, but the Flyboy in its current state isn't exciting enough to justify the $350 price tag.

Purpose Portable media device
Distributor Video Without Boundaries
Market Video and audio enthusiasts
Price (retail) $350
Product Web site Video Without Boundaries
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