[This article was originally written for and published in Trigames.NET by MrCHUP0N]
"A good and cool device for your GBA" is what the GBA Movie Player claims to be. But by reading that, right off the bat you can tell that you might be in for something that's less than... legitimate. Delving into the device's instruction manual, complete with broken Engrish, further solidifies this fear of getting an equally broken device. However, the GBA Movie Player may appeal to some who are willing to forego high quality results for the benefit of launching movies, music, text files, photos, (illegal) NES ROMs and homebrew applications all from your Gameboy Advance (or Nintendo DS) ... for a mere $25.
The GBA Movie Player we're looking at today is actually the CompactFlash version of the second of three current releases. The first version was bulky and uncomfortable to use. The third version is said to take full advantage of the Nintendo DS hardware to mend some of the problems we'll be looking at with this version, but is in very low distribution and sells for a whopping $100. Both the second and third revisions are said to come in a CompactFlash version and a SecureDigital version. This second version, which is also known as the M2, combines a small form factor with a very appealing price. There are imposters on the market, of course, so be wary when making your purchase decision.
The GBA Movie Player is about the size of a Gameboy Color cartridge, and similarly juts out about 3/4s of an inch from your GBA, GBA SP, GBmicro and DS when plugged in. The CompactFlash card fits snugly into the player, and fortunately users can tell when they're inserting it incorrectly since the correct method nets you almost no resistance. After all is said and done, if you use the GBMicro you've got what is possibly the world's second smallest portable multimedia player. Only Nintendo's own Play-Yan produces a smaller footprint, and it currently costs three times as much to import. (Notice how I conveniently leave cell phones out of the picture, even though the GBmicro itself is as small as many cellphones today.)
You're probably asking yourself, "Well, how does it all look and sound?" Unfortunately, with devices as homebrew-ish as these, the first question you need to ask yourself is, "Well, what do I have to go through to get things to see, hear and read on this device?"
The conversion software for this device (which you should upgrade to the NEWEST version before you even buy the thing) seems simple enough, but to get quality results you're going to have to put on your Windows hat and tool around on your computer.
First, the latest version of the software isn't even available on the official website for the GBA Movie Player M2 - it's actually on the M3 (the third version) website at M3Adapter.com. Lord knows why the company chose to host the sites for two versions of its own product at two totally distinct, almost unrelated sites. (It took me a while before I was convinced that the M2 and M3 were made by the same people.)
Second, the conversion software works on DirectX 9 which means that it can encode any video you can currently play via your system's codecs. However, possibly because of this, installing the conversion software might do unsightly things to your existing codec drivers. Using the G-Spot Codec Application to see which codecs one of my video files used, I noticed that the GBA Movie Player software actually replaced my existing Xvid codec. This might wreak havoc on any other encoding applications you use on your PC.
Third, optimizing the quality really takes lots more than the conversion software - and there's still heinous degradation when compared to the source material. Browsing the forums at Lik-Sang reveals very knowledgable folk who have figured their way around the device, but it required the use of no less than 7 pieces of downloaded freeware to get optimal quality from a ripped DVD movie. If you've already got an episode of 24 or Family Guy on your PC, it will still require at least two other freeware applications and up to an hour of your life just to get things right. If you care to be frightened, details on this process follows near the end of this review.
Finally, as with all computer software - especially software from seedy Engrish-manual writers - the converter is prone to crashing, and you'll be absolutely hard-pressed to find out why the damned thing crashed. I've experienced many, many instances where everything freezes. No error messages, no reboots - the screen just freezes in place and you don't realize anything's wrong until you try to move your mouse pointer. Reinstalling the software rarely fixes the problem. Sometimes you have to find out if a rogue codec is causing the issue, and if you're not a savvy computer user, consider yourself hosed.
That said, here's a quick and dirty breakdown of each of the Movie Player's functions and how satisfactory they are.
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= Movies =
The most notable feature of this device is that it plays movies on your GBA for $25 (and however much your CompactFlash card costs). Unfortunately you pretty much get only a little better than what you pay for. The biggest kick in the nuts from this device is that all movies play back at a measly 10 frames per second. To put it into perspective:
That's more than twice as choppy as your typical movie theatre experience.
That's three times choppier than the normal framerate you get while playing Halo or Halo 2.
That's six times choppier than the normal framerate you get while playing Metroid Prime or Dead or Alive 4.
It's not that terrible. For us video game fans, a shaky framerate is at its worst when we notice the change from smooth to choppy. If it's a consistently slow framerate, it's not as distracting. This sort of applies here, too. Watching something that constantly goes at a slow 10 frames per second is something you tend to get used to over the course of your viewing, and while it's jarring at first, it's something you can live with when keeping in perspective how much you paid. Sometimes, though, there is no solace - watching Ikaruga (a 60 frame per second game) superplay videos at a dinky 10 frames per second almost brought tears of sadness to my eyes.
What's more distracting is the splotchy dithering that's common to live action and modern videogame footage. Assuming your computer monitor is set to 24- or 32-bit color depth, try watching a downloaded high-definition gameplay video or a DVD. Now, turn that down to 16-bit. Chances are you'll notice how much less smooth coloring you get. That's like what your videos look like after they go through the conversion software, except even worse. Again, for $25, it's something you can live with. But if you're a real videophile, you'd better be REALLY desperate to save money to live with this quality. If I'm in one of my snooty high-maintenance moods, there's no way I'm watching that episode of 24 on this thing even if my subway ride is 45 minutes long and I left my PSP at home.
Animation, however, looks much better. You'll only notice low quality coloring on Family Guy, for instance, when there's a scene with the sky or a large amount of gradient color. Seeing as most of the coloring on Family Guy consists of solids, the result is much smoother and more pleasing image quality. Even when considering the animation is 10 frames per second, it looks alright.
Sound is a big problem no matter what type of video you're watching. If you don't take the proper effort to optimize your encoding and instead just find it more comforting to slap in your file directly into the conversion software, there's a very high - perhaps 80% - chance that your video and audio will gradually lose synchronization over time. When watching the Family Guy episode where Peter and Lois take a second honeymoon, leaving Brian to watch over the kids with Stewie's help, the opening was more or less on point. Midway through, when the show pulls a Honeymooners gag, the sound of Ralph's punch comes about a quarter of a second before you see it happen on screen. By minute 22, you hear Ollie's punishment forecast almost a full second before he actually comes on screen to say it.
Aside from that, the 240x160 resolution of the GBA screen is surprisingly sufficient for viewing video. The M2 unfortunately can't display video at the DS's higher resolution, something the M3 supposedly does when you plug it into a DS and not a GBA. When watching 24, you can easily make out the opening credits. On Gamespot gameplay videos, you can just as easily make out the name of the game and type of video when it flashes at the bottom of the screen during the opening. However, the text for dual-screened DS gameplay vids are nearly illegible, since Gamespot squishes the label on the bottom of the top-screen. I tested this with gameplay footage of Tao's Adventure from the Konami summit, and the dialogue was so illegible that it was almost invisible.
It all comes down to whether or not you're someone who just wants to casually watch video and not have to tote around something the size of a PSP or the cost of a Creative Zen Vision or Video iPod. Serious videophiles who will sacrifice portability and affordability for high quality video will laugh at the quality presented here, and since I have moodswings that put me at either end of the spectrum, oftentimes I find myself wondering why I haven't thrown this thing out.
= Music =
Music fares much, much better than movies. There's some disappointing loss in quality, even when encoded at the highest available quality. At this level, the quality loss is very, very minimal. If your source material is encoded at a high bitrate like 320 kbps, or - even better - is an uncompressed WAV file, the worst you'll get is a rare, tiny bit of hiss at some high notes and bass. I converted the Ridge Racer 4 soundtrack from 320 kbps MP3s to the highest quality .GBS sound files that the player accepts, and I was able to notice only very small bits of quality loss while saving about 5 - 10% on file size.
(Bear in mind that this decent quality is obtained by using the highest quality setting in Stereo. I say this because the next highest setting slaps it into Mono with an annoying hiss in the background, and the last two settings are absolutely horrendous. Try listening to an FM radio broadcast with nasty, loud hissing - that's what it is.)
The problem with the music is that the user interface is nowhere near as practical as that of your normal MP3 player. You can't sort by artist, album or genre dynamically. If you separate - for example - each album into a different folder, and you set the player to Randomize, it'll only be random for all the songs in one folder. To hear another album, you'll either have to switch to another folder through the interface, or dump ALL of your individual songs into a single Music folder.
Thankfully, the player does include a lock function with a press of the Start button so that accidental presses of L (skip) and R (pause) won't do anything. Even better, you can listen to music while watching photos or reading text files. Not half bad.
= Text =
Text seems easy to do. However, given the large font and the relatively small screen of the GBA, it would take about 300 "pages" of scrolling to get through this review. (In fact, I'll update this review after I upload it to my CompactFlash card.) Also, when uploading GameFAQs text - which usually tends to be formatted to only span a fraction of the page horizontally - you'll see funny things such as every other line being half the length it should be. This is due to how much the GBA screen has to squeeze all the text in, but if only the software could have used a smaller but still legible font. It doesn't help that scrolling down an entire page takes a brief second, and holding down the d-pad to scroll down many pages results in many seconds of waiting before you see a result. It's still a nice feature to have and saves printing up guides. Imagine having a FAQ with you in the dark, illuminated by the GBA screen. Useful, indeed. (You cheater.)
= Photos =
This is, to me, a throwaway function, one that's there because everyone's doing it. The problem is that photos come out grainy, because taking a high resolution picture and squishing it into a 240x160 space - already a bad idea - is a worse idea when the device that converts and displays said picture does it cheaply and ineptly. I can forgive the sacrifices made for something as complicated as video for a $25 device, but photos should be really simple. At least the software could have provided some interpolation to make things smoother. As it is, you're going to likely have to shrink a picture in Photoshop first, then convert it, and even then you may see some color dithering.
= Homebrew NES / Famicom Files =
Let's call it what it is - they're illegal ROMs. To be fair, there are legal, homebrew ROMs that you can use. However, the resulting visuals are a tiny bit squishy. I'd imagine they're no worse than the "squishiness" of the Classic NES Super Mario Bros. cart for the GBA, so if you're used to that, you'll be ok here. The problem is that there's NO saving whatsoever. These guys apparently couldn't figure out, or didn't want to figure out, how to save states in the Flash memory. What's more is that files of over 200kb are NOT supported. If you dabble in the illegal arts of ROMmage and you've got a popular game that's over that file size, you're screwed. (Note: The M3 version can actually handle bigger ROMs, I've heard, because it uses the Nintendo DS's larger RAM capacity. Go figure. You can go ahead and drop $100 on the device, but it still plays movies at 10 frames a second. Boo.)
One bright spot is that the homebrew community will definitely come up with decent stuff for this. Though it's nothing like what they've got for the PSP, I've got a homemade version of Lumines called Luminesweeper that works very well. There's no music and I don't believe I've seen a skin change in the beta version I've tried, but it does serve as testament to how fun the core gameplay of Lumines is. (It also goes to show how much the presentation ties into the game; as fun as the core gameplay is, you'll find that it's not so groundbreaking without the glitz.) With more quality offerings like this, the GBA Movie Player might prove to be better suited to homebrew experiments in the future.
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Do NOT buy a GBmicro, CompactFlash card and this device thinking that you are going to "PSPwn." To effectively do that, you will have to pay a premium. The quality you get from here can no way rival the quality you'll find in the Play-Yan, a PSP, an iPod Video, a Creative Zen Vision: M, an Archos Gmini, or what have you. It's the lowest common denominator out there when considering devices that aren't so bootleg that it'll destroy your flash card.
On the other hand, if you already have a high capacity CompactFlash card and a version of the GBA or a DS, and you've got $25 to burn, it's possibly a no-brainer. At worst, you'll be paying $25 for a novelty or an experiment to see how low-quality movies look on your GBA. And to be positive for a second, the music functionality may be sufficient enough to warrant sacrificing two to three movie tickets.
My final recommendation? If you're somewhat serious about your portable audiovisual quality, have got the money and are willing to spend for something better, I'd suggest you get that. If you're really not all that serious about portable media and just want something to dabble in for cheap, it's a passable purchase. Just make sure that you're not a spoiled videophile, or that you're not one 100% of the time. If you are, what you'll see will scar your eyes for life.