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Joystiq presents

DS Fanboy vs. GBA Movie Player

Deep within the recesses of the DS Fanboy labs, the SD version of the GBA Movie Player has been enduring poking, prodding and occasional squeezing for quite some time now, up until the point where failure to post a review would be deemed by many as inappropriate and downright offensive. Doubly so considering that said labs don't actually exist. Compelled by the logo prominently emblazoned all across this site, we mainly tested the device on the Nintendo DS and the DS Lite and were pleased to find that the device performs surprisingly well.

There is a caveat, however, one that should loom over your online purchase like an owl slowly circling a confused mouse, waiting for the opportune moment to swoop down and devour a furry feast. Once you look up and become aware of the bird of prey, you'll be better equipped to determine whether or not the Movie Player is worth your money. Ignoring it will only lead to disappointment which, going by this ill-conceived allegory, means you will get eaten by an owl. A big one.

Essentially, the problem with the GBA Movie player isn't a problem with the GBA Movie player at all. It's that thing it plugs into. As a media playing device, the DS is a bit crap.

"This one goes here, that one goes there!"

Stepping away from the whole being eaten alive by a hooting creature thing, someone should explain how this thing works.

Oh, right. That would be our job. Within the non-threatening packaging, you'll find the Movie Player in the form of a GBA cartidge, a tiny CD-R containing the software and a suprisingly Engrish-free manual. An SD card is not included.

The Movie Player works with any device that has a GBA slot, and the only reason there isn't an old GBA in the picture is because we sold ours to a little girl ages ago for more money than it cost to purchase a GBA SP. Ha, take that little girl!

The GBA cartridge boasts a tiny slot on the side for you to slide in the SD card containing the media (more on this later) you want to play. As you'll note from the picture, provided you can take your eyes off those hideous fingers, the Movie player is also compatible with Mini-SD cards housed in a converter.

Once you've slotted in the SD card, you simply plug the GBA cartridge into your handheld and turn on the power. For those sensitive to public cartridge exposure, note that the Movie Player is quite large and sticks out a little in the GBA SP.

It visibly tries to escape the confines of the DS Lite.

The Windows-only software allows you to convert the movies, music and images on your computer's hard drive to a format that the GBA and DS can understand (technical gobbledygook). Unfortunately, with no USB support, it's largely left to you when it comes to transferring those files to the SD card -- it can be done via a card reader or, if you don't have that, a device that can hold your SD card and connect to your PC via USB (like a digital camera).

Lights, camera, compression

There are two different programs designated for movie conversion. The first is beta software which claims to convert your legitimately purchased DVD movies for portable viewing, but in actual fact it accomplishes little more than to annoy and deluge you in non-sensical error messages. Since it was clearly programmed by a monkey assaulting a keyboard with a spatula, be sure to use your own DVD conversion software instead. That way, you can convert the resulting files with the second program, a general video converter which is infinitely more reliable.

The interface isn't terribly complicated and allows multiple files to be lined up for conversion. Just about every relevant video format is supported, including AVI, MPEG, WMA, MOV, RM and RMVB. An added bonus is that if any of your videos use seperate VOB subtitle files, the converter will automatically incorporate the text into the video. It's also possible to set different time segments and compression qualities for files in the list, with high quality video being roughly double the size of low quality. The 512MB size cap is a little odd, though it should only pose a minor quibble to those with 1GB and up SD cards. If a video goes over the limit you've set, a new file containing the rest of the clip is automatically created.

It's not my specialty

Once you've leaped through the conversion hoops, you'll be in prime position to play the video back on your handheld. The playback quality seems to be identical on all platforms, with the only differences being in regards to the quality of their screens. The video is surprisingly good, but there's no way we can end the sentence without using the phrase, "at least for the GBA and DS."

We suspect the GBA and, to a lesser degree, the DS' technical limitations are more to blame than the actual Movie Player kit. These platforms simply aren't equipped to provide high quality media playback, and the sooner you accept and understand that, the easier it becomes for you to figure if this is something you want. Noticeable compression artifacts, a lower framerate (seemingly just below a film's 24 frames per second) and somewhat raspy sound make it a weak movie player, though it's unlikely that you purchased either machine with the idea that you'd spend a lot of time watching videos on it. If you wanted that, you would have gotten a video iPod or a PSP, both of which far outclass Nintendo's machines in this particular area.

Therefore, the GBA Movie Player only becomes truly appealing when you have no other portable media players available to you or are willing to put up with less than stellar video playback because you're simply going to use it as a bonus feature. Only then can we easily recommend this device which, to be fair, does a great job of making something out of a handheld's more notable weaknesses.

Screening the suspects

The original GBA SP playing a movie is a lot like a cinema that doesn't turn off the lights. It's hard to make out darker scenes and things look a bit washed out. Even so, it's still reasonably watchable and those with the newer model SP won't have as much of a problem.

On the DS Phat, things are much better. Colors are a good deal brighter and darker scenes require far less squinting, though a drawback comes in the form of only a portion of the screen being used for playback. Since it taps into the DS' backwards compatibility, the movie player uses the same amount of (single) screen space that GBA games do. Bad news for subtitles, then.

As you might expect, the DS Lite and its frighteningly bright screen yields the best results. Apart from the aforementioned issues, the video looks quite good here and certainly gives animated shows a very vivid representation.

Hopefully, a movie player exclusively designed for the the DS and its features is in the pipeline, as that would certainly address many of the issues inherent to one currently being held back by an older handheld.

"Yes, alright! You sound like a broken MP3 player!"

The Movie Player can also play MP3s, something which adds a great deal to its value, especially if you've got a Game Boy Micro. The music conversion software is solid and will convert your MP3, WMA or WAV files into GBA sound files. Depending on your music tastes, you're free to create your very own Play-Yanni with this thing. (We've been planning that joke since the beginning.)

We tested the music on a stolen pair of Bose QuietComfort 2 noise cancelling headphones and noted that, apart from some loss of sound depth, the DS makes for a fair MP3 player (though it's not exactly in the same league as a dedicated device like the iPod). Quite pleasingly, the DS won't go into sleep mode when you fold it shut and will continue playing music, allowing you to switch tracks with the L and R buttons.

A thousand bad words

Images (which also need to be converted first) can be read by the Movie Player and displayed on your DS screen, though it's tough to recommend such a feature when the pixels forming the image seem to be actively running away from each other. A photo with few colors and minimal detail turns out okay, but once things get busier it turns into a horrible, pixelated mess. If you thought you weren't photogenic before, this will only deal a further blow to your frail self-esteem.

This review is too damn long

The Movie Player is also able to display text files for those that absolutely must read The Da Vinci Code on a tiny screen and, thanks to a nebulous "games" menu option, it can load and play NES files. Homebrewers are sure to be interested in that one.

With the GBA Movie Player now thoroughly dissected, it should become apparent to you that, given the limitations of the platform, it isn't the ideal media playing solution. It is, however, a very good device if you're just trying to get that little bit of extra mileage out of the DS. In-between those Phoenix Wright sessions, it might be nice to listen to some music or watch a movie. The Movie Player serves it function quite well ... just don't expect the world from it or your DS.

Final verdict: A solid movie and music player on a platform that's not particularly suited to doing either.

If you're suddenly filled with the desire to get one of these, know that they're available at Lik-Sang for $24.90. There's also a Compact Flash version available for the same price. If you have any further questions about the GBA Movie Player, be sure to post them in the comments section.

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