Neuros MPEG 4 Recorder
Make movies for your mobile device
Review I was so disappointed when I first tried Neuros' MPEG 4 Recorder (NMR). I knew this amazingly compact PVR's size came at the cost of a hard drive, dropped in favour of memory cards, but I figured I could easily copy the files to a computer for archiving.
Then I saw the picture quality. I should have known better: MPEG 4 was developed for mobile devices, not standard TVs, let alone HD displays. But I should also have figured out that Neuros' little gadget isn't a PVR. Yes, it records TV broadcasts into a digital format, but there the similarity ends.
When you stop thinking of the NMR as a PVR and see it as a way of getting video content onto mobile devices, it's stops being a disappointment and becomes a desirable item.
The 140g NMR is, at 11.8 x 8.7 x 1.8cm, a little larger than your average Pocket PC and is cunningly shaped to sit flat or vertically on its end. Kitted out in patent black with silver trim, there are two memory card slots on the front, one for CompactFlash cards, the other for SD cards, alongside the remote control IR port. Round the back, there's a USB 2.0 connector, AV in and out jacks, and the power socket.
There's a switch on the back to, which flips the unit between PC and TV modes. The former forces it to work like any other memory card reader, interfacing with a PC or Mac via USB, and with any inserted cards mounting as USB Mass Storage devices. Switching to TV mode activates the AV ports. Both use identical cables, two of which are included in the box, terminating at a trio of RCA jacks, for composite video, and left- and right-channel stereo sound. The NMR supports the European PAL TV standard and NTSC for North American and Asian users.
Being based in Europe, my TV, DVD, VCR and FreeView digital TV receiver all interconnect using SCART cables, which I've rigged through BlueDelta's rather good SmartSCART intelligent signal switch. Fortunately, my DVD player has RCA jacks on the back.
Neuros doesn't ship the NMR with a memory card, and given the rapidly falling prices of solid-state storage, that's probably a wise move, if a little inconvenient for the buyer. I tried the unit with a handy 64MB SD card, but you'll probably want to make sure you have at least a 512MB job ready.
Connecting the power to the NMR brings up the icon menu, from where you can play video or music files, view photos and record video. It's not a particularly attractive UI, but it works. The unit handles MP3 files and, depending on which parts of Neuros' website and the manual you read, it's said to play AAC-encoded tracks too. MP3 playback is fine, but the unit didn't recognise the .M4A files I copied over from my iTunes archive.
Viewing photos isn't satisfying either. The series of five megapixel snaps I loaded my SD card with appeared blocky when scaled down, interlaced and pumped through the TV.
But these are peripheral uses - the NMR's really about recording video. The unit compresses video and audio on the fly, using MPEG 4 for the picture and G.726 for the sound. The latter goes from stereo down to mono, encoded at 32Kbps with an 8kHz sample rate. You can't change the sound setting, but the NMR offers a range of video compression settings, from 1536Kbps (aka 'Super Fine') down to 384Kbps ('Economy'), allowing you to reduce the picture quality to increase the recording time. A 512MB card, for example, will yield over 45m of video in Super Fine mode, or almost 178m using Economy.
The picture is reduced to 352 x 240, though you can knock it back to half that to get more video on your memory card. That's why it looks so rough on a TV - that resolution is about half that of a standard DVD picture. But play it back on, say, a Pocket PC and it looks just fine. Take a look at the sample shots on the next page .
I encoded the opening four minutes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day first in SuperFine mode, then again using Normal mode. While the sound's the same dull mono on both - the audio codec was designed for voice telephony, not movies - you can clearly see the difference between the two rates on a TV, but even in SuperFine it's not going to look any better than VHS - worse, in fact.
The results are better when you copy the files over to a computer and run it in Windows Media Player - the NMR saves its MPEG 4 data into .ASF files. WMP under Mac OS X played the files without a hitch, but I had to download the G.726 audio codec from Sharp's website before I could play anything on a WinXP SP 2 box. If you don't like Microsoft's code, the VideoLAN Client (VLC) media player had no problem with either video or audio data.
Codec problems also hindered my efforts to play the video on a Medion Pocket PC. The Windows Mobile version of WMP 9 handled the video flawlessly, but didn't produce any sound because it doesn't support G.726. I was unable to try Windows Media Player 10 for Pocket PC, but I understand the third-party BetaPlayer 
handles MPEG 4 and G.726 out of the box.
Think of the NMR not as a PVR but as a handy MPEG 4 conversion tool, and you're well on your way to seeing its value. Top-of-the-range PCs may be able to convert MPEG 2 to MPEG 4 quickly, but even encoding in real time is a big step forward for those of us with older machines. With its memory card support, the NMR is potentially one of the best ways of getting video onto a mobile device.
The downside, for now, is the device's choice of audio codec and file format. G.726 doesn't make for good audio quality, and it's not a common codec. That, and the choice of the .ASF, may limit the NMR's applicability, particularly as not only Pocket PC but Palm and PSP users seek to get more video on their handhelds.
Indeed, handheld console maker Gizmondo is preparing to offer the unit for £150 - rather more than the $140 (£74) Neuros is asking - to owners of its WinCE-based device. ®
|Neuros MPEG 4 Recorder|
|Pros||Convenient size; real-time encoding; storage capacity limitless.|
|Cons||Files stored in Microsoft .ASF format rather than a more generic one; mono sound only from an obscure audio codec.|
|More info||The Neuros MPEG 4 Recorder site |
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Super Fine Mode
Super Fine Mode