We put the 4GB hard drive to the test. Is it worth the price of admission?
With all of us here at IGN suffering from the summer-time blues, there's no better time to explore alternative ways of using the Nintendo DS hardware than right now. After all, we all know and love the DS as an amazing gaming system, but as storage devices of all shapes and sizes are beginning to pop up across the net (and now in retailers as well), we're just as curious as the rest of you about what else this little system can do. The most recent addition to the mass storage device market is the Max Media Player from Datel, which happens to be the only DS hard drive actually sold in major stores. While the device doesn't exactly offer everything we were hoping for, the hardware still opens the Nintendo DS to all-new forms of portable entertainment, and it's hard not to get excited about that.
We'll get into what the package includes in just a second. To kick things off, however, it's important to note that the Max Media Player is currently retailing for $149.99 in major retailers everywhere. Getting into mass storage devices on mainstream systems like the PSP or DS is a huge undertaking, so while the system does offer as much storage space as an iPod Mini, it comes at a price higher than the DS Lite itself. Yikes. Whether it's worth the hefty price tag or not will be up to you though, as the hardware/software combo offers a ton of options. Also, keep in mind that Max Media also sells a 4GB PSP hard drive at near $200, so dropping the product $50 for the DS version is definitely appreciated.
Though the price is incredibly high, Datel did its best to ensure that the package itself is still worth the demanding investment DS owners are expected to make. The product includes the 4GB Max Media hard drive (which plugs into the GBA slot), Max Media Player cartridge (which plugs into the DS slot), and a USB 2.0 cable for transferring files from DS to your Mac/PC. When plugging the unit into the DS, it runs its very basic (yet user-friendly) interface. The program displays a generic Max Media Player title across the top screen, as well as the date and time, and uses the bottom screen for icon display. From the get-go, users can access Audio, Video and Games folders, as well as edit the system's Shell file and Moonshell (open-source video player) content as well. On the surface, it seems like Datel has put everything together in a nice little package. When it comes to performance though, things get a little sketchy.
Contents: 4GB hard drive, USB 2.0 cable and Max Media Player cart. Disk no longer needed.
Posted directly on the box, the Max Media Player claims to allow storage for up to ten full-length movies, over a thousand MP3 songs as well as thousands of digital photos. Not too shabby right? In truth, consumers looking to get a true "media player" might be in for a grim surprise, as Datel is still working as we speak to get everything up and running. As it stands right now, audio can be played out of the box in an amazingly simple drag-and-drop style, which is actually easier to work with than iTunes can be. You literally open a folder, drop the files and enjoy. In addition, a new "MP3 Player" program can be added to the firmware to increase the file formats supported and provide a better touch-screen display for the music, all of which can be found on the Max Media Player website. To test out the MP3 player we dropped nearly a gig of music onto the system, as well as a few IGN podcasts. While the audio quality is pretty decent (if not a little quiet out of the DS speakers), the player does give off skips in the music occasionally. True, this is an annoying issue, but it happens on a very minimal level and Datel seems to be constantly updating support for its product as well. It's still a bit of a let-down to hear skip issues in a $150 product, but again this is the first version of the MP3 player program, and updates are definitely expected. As a side-note, the DS will not go into sleep mode when closed during MP3 mode, though the backlight is turned off after three seconds by the program itself. This allows users to listen to music even when the DS is closed, and conserves power by keeping the system's light off as well.
Though the audio side of things is relatively strong, the Max Media Player is seriously hurt by a lack of strong video support. For starters, there's no video player program yet for the Max Media Player, so rather than having a Datel proprietary program (just like the MP3 Player listed above), the system depends on the Moonshell player included along with the system to handle all video playback. Getting video to run on the media player is still very difficult, however, as Moonshell only plays its own video file, so downloading a Moonshell video converter from the net is essential. The entire ordeal took us about 20 mins to find the program and learn to convert video files, and even then the program is very low in quality. We converted video in various sizes, and the best quality we could get was the Datel suggested settings, which are as follows: Audio: 64Kb/s, Video Width: 128 pixels, Video Bit rate: 128kb/s, and a frame rate of 15fps. Even in these low settings the video would lag out and skip for up to a full second at a time, rarely playing with a perfect 15fps at all. Again, this is a 3rd party program that just happens to be supported by Datel, and a proprietary video program will certainly be on the way very soon. Also, the hard drive itself allows for any .NDS program files and is entirely open-source, so all it takes are a few homebrew programs to make good on the video playback. It's still pretty low of Datel to imply that the media player could support "ten full length movies" in its current state, as the quality is far too weak out of the box to be desirable for common use.
MAX with a DS Fat. Note: Cart sticks out on the Lite.
Despite how the audio/video playback may perform on the Max Media Player currently, the hardware add-on will still justify itself in a huge way for homebrew fans, as the drive is completely open-source as we mentioned. There are currently tons of awesome programs out there, as the DS homebrew community continues to grow at a huge rate. DS owners can already grab real-time strategy games, palm-like organizers, email and chat clients, or even run classic games like Wolfenstein 3D and Heretic using a little trickery and a ton of readme.txt files. Whether or not you're up to the challenge of working with homebrew software is going to have to be a judgment call, however, as it takes a ton of time to read forums, download odd-job programs that other software is dependant on, and go through version after version of unfinished/unpolished content until you find games or applications that are actually worth the effort. Supporting the community can be as much work as actually developing in it, so we offer this word to the wise: track down homebrew content and forums before even considering a purchase. Doing it right takes some serious commitment, but there are some awesome programs out there for those that can stick with it.
In the end, the Max Media Player makes a ton of promises to consumers, but delivers only some of them. Keep in mind, however, that the Max Media Player isn't necessarily your only choice when looking at storage devices. There are a ton of different options out there depending on your needs, so we encourage you to check out all the options before rushing out to nab the first product you see. At the same time, Max Media Player provides a good chunk of space (4GB is a ton of space for DS homebrew and audio at least), and it's currently the only player readily available at retailers. The interface is easy, though some of the aspects (such as video support) aren't up to speed yet. DS Lite fans will also have to deal with the cart sticking out as well, and that teamed with the general size of the unit could be a downer for some gamers. For what it offers it really isn't that big of an issue though, and it is still an above-average package despite the current shortcomings in the initial software. We're anxious to see how much support Datel gives to its hardware, and will continue to provide updates as new firmware and features become available. The potential for this product is huge, and the options it opens up are immense. You'll just have to decide if the hefty price tag and hours it will demand are truly worth it. It's no small investment.