This handy little accessory lets you play digital movies, music, and even text on your Game Boy Advance.
Have you ever wanted one of those cool portable DVD or MP3 players, but just couldn’t handle the high prices? A new third-party accessory from China lets you use your Game Boy Advance in place of those devices, and it is much less expensive, even factoring in the cost of the GBA.
The Movie Advance GBA Movie Player is surprisingly easy to use, and it provides an impressive set of features. The device plugs into the cartridge slot of the GBA, and from there provides two of its own slots. The lower one is a pass-through for a game cartridge; you have to have one inserted or the system won’t recognize the Movie Advance. The upper slot is for a Compact Flash memory card (sold separately), which stores your media files. A small switch on the device lets you switch between the game and the device interface, but you can’t hot-swap between the two. The whole thing sticks out about two inches from the GBA, much like the Game Genies and GameSharks that have been released for Game Boy systems over the years. The extra bulk of this device sticking out of the GBA is offset by the fact that you don’t have to remove it in order to play your games.
The Movie Advance ships with a mini-CD containing two Windows programs, one for converting music and the other for converting movies. Both are simple to use, though I would have liked more quality settings in the music program. You can either drag-and-drop or browse for media files you want to convert. Supported input formats are fairly exhaustive, including .wav, .mp3, .wmv, .avi, .mov, etc. Real media formats are also supported, though they aren’t selectable in the software by default. (Choosing to browse “All File Types" fixes the problem.) Then choose a destination folder and hit the Convert button. MP3 files are converted almost instantly, while movies convert at about one-half real-time. (So if the movie file is fifteen minutes long, it may take about half an hour to convert.) The resulting .gbm and .gbs files are then ready to be loaded on your Compact Flash card via a multi-card reader or some other flash memory transfer device. The Movie Advance reads standard .txt files for e-books, so no conversion is usually needed.
Reading books on your GBA might seem odd, but it’s actually a pretty cool feature. The GBA SP’s lighted screen makes it better for this function than even some dedicated e-book readers. Some people might have trouble reading on the small screen, but the text is at least as large as the average game text. The controls for turning pages are limited, as you can only go forward one or ten pages at a time, but that’s probably not a big deal unless you’re trying to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its 6000 pages of glory. (Yes, I tested it, but only as a joke.) Considering the wealth of free e-books on the Internet (Project Gutenberg) and the ease of converting any other kind of document into a .txt file in Notepad, this is a simplistic but powerful feature that casual readers will enjoy.
I wouldn’t recommend it as a complete MP3 player replacement, but the Movie Advance also handles digital music pretty well. Stereo music files tend to be somewhat larger than a corresponding MP3, though you can reduce file size by selecting a compressed mono .gbs conversion. The sound quality in stereo mode is perfectly acceptable, just a notch below what you would get from the MP3 format. However, the GBA speaker is definitely not suited for high fidelity music, so using headphones is recommended. One of my favorite features of the music player is that you can listen to your songs while reading e-books in the text mode. The music skips slightly when you turn the page, which is a real shame, but hopefully that little bug can be fixed in a future firmware update. Another slick feature is included especially for GBA SP owners. You can fold up the system and use the L and R triggers to pause, stop, or advance tracks. This clever inclusion allows you to slip the system in your pocket with only headphones remaining visible, and you can just reach down to easily access the controls while jogging, driving, etc.
But of course, the primary reason to own the GBA Movie Advance is that it plays movies. The movie converter creates two files, one .gbm with just the visuals, and a .gbs with the audio track. (Yes, you can play the audio track by itself in music mode.) The two files combined are smaller than most digital movie formats, probably because the video resolution is being reduced to fit on the GBA screen. In order to test the video quality, I used a 17MB DivX-compressed .avi of someone blazing through level 6 of Ikaruga. The game’s graphics are somewhere between realistic film and anime styles, so it seemed like a good choice to test the file converter’s “Film" and “Anime" conversion types. The Film version was about 15MB total with great picture quality, easily clear enough to see and distinguish all the crazy stuff going on in Ikaruga. The Anime version was about 11MB, with the only noticeable loss in quality being less definition for sharp edges and a slightly lower frame-rate. Hardcore video-philes could probably find more to gripe about, but if you demand pristine video quality, you probably shouldn’t even consider watching movies on the GBA in the first place. I was impressed by the quality of both formats, though it’s easy to see that Anime is mainly intended for animation, where its quality disadvantages will be minimized for the sake of better file sizes. The many other video files I tested performed just as well, though I didn’t do side-by-side tests on most of them. So, to answer the main question, this device does a great job of displaying digital movie files on the Game Boy Advance screen.
Just how big the movies can be depends entirely on how much you want to invest (or already have invested) in a Compact Flash card. The cards are sold separately from the Movie Advance, but many people already have CF cards for their digital cameras or PDAs. It’s certainly one of the most common types of flash memory, and you can find several sizes at widely varying prices all over the Internet and in electronics stores. I’ve seen cards as small as 64MB and as large as 2GB, the latter being enough space to store several feature-length movies or dozens of hours of music. How much you should get depends largely on what you want to use the Movie Advance for. On my 128MB card, I was able to simultaneously store several short movie clips, about an hour of stereo-mode music, and hundreds of pages of text. The same card could alternatively hold about an hour of Film-mode video or roughly 90 minutes of Anime-mode video. You’ll also need a CF card reader, or the more common multi-card reader, also sold separately. These USB devices connect to a PC and act as portable disc drives. So being able to use the Movie Advance has certain equipment prerequisites, though there’s a good chance that you already have a card reader and at least one CF card. Otherwise, the cost of these items has to be factored into the total cost of owning the Movie Advance.
If you’ve already got some of the necessary equipment, and if you would get sufficient use out of a portable media player, the Movie Advance GBA Movie Player is a slick little device and reasonably priced around $40 plus shipping. I hope the manufacturers will provide software and firmware updates in the future, because the conversion tools and interface could be perfect with just a few more features and tweaks. Nevertheless, this product is easy to recommend to anyone who’s into digital movies and music, as well as anime freaks who want to watch Cowboy Bebop on the bus. You can order it from Lik-Sang, along with any CF cards and multi-card readers you might need.