If you go everywhere with your GBA SP and would like to listen to MP3s and watch videos, the Play-Yan does a fine job of it. However...
You wouldn't think that the Game Boy Advance would make a good media player, but somehow Nintendo came up with a device that can turn it into one. The Play-Yan Media Player lets you listen to MP3s and watch video files using your Game Boy Advance SP. While it doesn't come close to the quality of the PSP's multimedia capability, if you take your SP with you everywhere and wish you had something else to pass the time, Play-Yan will make you happy... if you're willing to jump some hurdles.
The Play-Yan package is pretty bare. All that's included with it is an instruction manual and the Media Stage software, both of which are entirely in Japanese. (This causes some problems, which I'll get to later.) Using the thing is pretty self-explanatory, as the slot to insert an SD card is clearly marked. Once the unit boots up on the GBA and the title screen clears, you have the option of either watching video or listening to music.
Listening to music on the Play-Yan couldn't be easier. It recognizes virtually all types of MP3s, and all you need to do when transferring them to an SD card is drag and drop. It can see file folders and ID3 tags, so transferring your existing folders is a breeze. When you want to start listening, the controls to navigate are just as simple. The A Button plays a selected song, and then you can pause the song with Start or stop it with the B Button. Select toggles the different song repeat options. Left or Right on the D-Pad skips to the next or previous MP3 in the current folder, or you can hold down the R Button while using Left or Right to rewind or fast-forward through the track currently playing.
The sound quality coming out of the GBA's single speaker is nothing close to the stereo quality that you'll get if you plug a pair of headphones into the Play-Yan's built-in headphone jack. Most portable music players are designed to be used with headphones, so it makes sense that the Play-Yan is as well. The quality of audio when listening through headphones is comparable with any other MP3 player, which is a nice surprise. Also surprising is how long you can listen to music, since the music still plays with Sleep Mode enabled (through the headphone jack). With no power being used for the display or front-light, you should get at least ten hours from a fully charged battery, which should be plenty for a day's music.
The small size of the GBA SP makes it an ideal portable music player. You can put it in your pocket and not have to worry about it getting in your way. The only problem with it is that if you want to change folders, songs or any other settings, you'll need to take out the GBA, open it up, and wake it up before making the adjustments, then reverse the process to enjoy the music again. Music tends to make time go by quickly, so you may notice yourself taking the GBA out more than a few times if you use a lot of folders to organize your songs. It would have been nice if some of the navigation functions were mapped to the L and R Buttons, but since those might get accidentally pressed, perhaps it may have been more frustrating than convenient.
The Play-Yan also does video. Included with the unit is Panasonic's Media Stage software, which allows you to convert any AVI, MPEG or WMV file on your computer into the ASF MPEG-4 file format, used by the Play-Yan. Once in the proper format, the files can be put on an SD card along with MP3s. Then, selecting the video option from the main menu will bring you to a screen with the titles and thumbnails of each video clip on the card. However, getting the video in the proper format is a pretty big hurdle to leap if you're thinking about importing.
Media Stage is a Japanese computer program, designed to work with Japanese PCs, used by people who read Japanese. In other words, it doesn't work too well with your English computer. If you try to launch the program, it won't load. The only solution is to change your computer's region and language setting to Japanese, requiring you to dig out your Windows CD. Even after you manage to get the program running, there are still the tasks of trying to get it to see the folders you put your video files in, and encoding the files to the Play-Yan's format. If you can do all that, it's still no guarantee that the encoding process will be successful. On both of the computers I have, although the Media Stage installed and loaded fine, the Play-Yan setting would cause the program to freeze. This is not something you want to have happen when all you want to do is watch video on your GBA.
Other people have had this problem, and thankfully have come up with ways to get other (English) programs to encode video for the Play-Yan. (More information on this can be found over at the Lik-Sang Play-Yan forum.) After getting one of these programs working, the videos were up and running on the small little GBA screen. While the video quality isn't going to come anywhere close to that of the PSP, you'll be very surprised at how well the Play-Yan does video.
I tried out some film-quality footage first, specifically the Star Wars Episode III trailer. It looks almost as good on the small screen as it did the first time I saw it on a computer monitor. While there are artifacts and occasional color glitches, they don't hinder the overall quality of the video. The fast sequences also look good, since the Play-Yan can play video at thirty frames-per-second. This helps to make the video look that much better, as things are always moving smoothly. I also tried putting some anime TV shows on the Play-Yan. Animation has fewer colors than live action, so it looks very good on the GBA. The quality is even good enough to read subtitles without difficulty. Since the GBA's screen resolution isn't as square as a TV's 4:3 shape, though, the top and bottom of the show you're watching will sometimes be cut off, which is a hassle if the subtitles are set too low. Of course, if the video was fit to the resolution of the screen, the quality would probably take a dive, so it's a fair trade-off.
Most video is watchable with the GBA SP's front-light, but you're going to wish it were brighter. Nintendo figured this in, and added a brightness control. While watching, hitting the L and R buttons can artificially brighten the video, but even then, it could be better. You'll be satisfied if you're in an area with plenty of outside lighting, but if there's only moderate lighting or too many moving shadows, you're better off switching back to the music. The bigger negative about video playback is the audio quality. It only plays in mono, and it sounds pretty bad if you try to listen to it through the GBA's single speaker, almost to the point of being inaudible in some instances. You'll definitely want to use headphones when watching something, but even then, the quality doesn't come close to matching the MP3 goodness you're used to.
In addition to the movies and music, the Play-Yan can also play games... sort of. The Garage Games are available to download at the Play-Yan website. These little games (and I do mean little) have file sizes small enough to fill out space left over from everything else put on an SD card. They can be accessed through the video thumbnails, and when selected, the game will start right there in the thumbnail window (the "garage"). They're nothing more than simple A button and D-pad games. One has you hit balls with a bat, and another has you avoid little dots that appear on all sides of the thumbnail screen. They appear to be time-killers more than anything else. It's neat that the Play-Yan can do this, but the least they could do is have game take up more space than the thumbnail.
While the Play-Yan is officially a Game Boy Advance SP accessory, it works just fine on the original model GBA and Nintendo DS. For the regular GBA, you can't really watch video without the blazing sun, since there's no light to illuminate it. If you have an Afterburner, you should do just fine. Otherwise, it plays MP3s just the same, though the unit’s size might be an inconvenience. The same goes for the DS, since carrying around a brick in your pocket to listen to music isn't fun. On the plus side, the DS plays video great. The backlight makes all the difference. The speakers are better too, so audio is a little better during video playback (but still in mono). The trade-off for better video quality on the DS is the lessened portability as an audio player.
Remember that hurdle about the Japanese software compatibility issue? Well, there's another hurdle you'll need to jump before you get to that one: Price. The Play-Yan itself goes for about $80 imported. Then, you need to buy a decent-sized SD card, since one doesn't come with the package. If you want video and music, you're going to want 256MB at least, which you can find for $30. Then, if you don't already have one, a USB card reader for getting files from your PC to the Play-Yan. That's another $20 right there. Plan to spend $130 minimum, on top of what your SP cost. You will enjoy the end product if you decide to take the plunge, but that's asking a lot considering that there's a much, much better media player out there in the form of the PSP.
The Play-Yan isn't for everyone. I can only recommend it those who take a GBA or DS with them everywhere, have a devotion to music and would like to watch some TV shows or other Internet video on the go. Of course, if you already have a devotion to portable games, music, and movies on the go, you probably already have a PSP or will soon get one. If you're interested in the Play-Yan, the best bet would be to wait and see if NOA brings it to North America. Otherwise, I find it hard to see the total cost and setup hassle worth it to recommend the import, despite the overall quality of the Play-Yan Media Player.
For those who would like to import the Play-Yan, it is currently available from our partners at Lik-Sang.