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Archos AV420 20GB Video/MP3 Player
Compact and oh so cool, portable video players let you download, store, and view television shows, movies, and photos, on a single take-it-anywhere device. You can also organize and play your music files, as well as back up and view other digital documents (such as text files and e-books) on these devices.
Portable video players are available from companies including Archos, Creative, IRiver, RCA, and Samsung. The devices cost anywhere from $400 to $800. IRiver and Creative, for example, use Microsoft's Portable Media Center software platform to run their devices. Other companies, including Archos and RCA, create their own proprietary platforms.
For a detailed look at the world of portable video players, see "The Big Picture on Small-Screen Players." And for a review of a player that uses Microsoft's Portable Media Center, check out "First Look: Creative Zen Portable Media Center."
Are these pocket-size entertainment devices ready for prime time? To find out, I tested the $500 Archos AV420.
Setup and Configuration
The Archos AV420 is a slick, pewter-colored handheld, measuring 4.9 by 3.1 inches. It's less than an inch thick, too (0.8 inches precisely), making it ultracompact. Using the player--and setting it up--is easy and intuitive. To the right of the AV420's screen sit two sets of silver navigational control pads. The upper one is a circular, four-way directional pad that moves the cursor exactly the way you'd expect: up, down, left, and right. A button in its center turns the unit on and doubles as the Enter key and the Play button. Jutting stylishly out of the cursor pad's lower-left side, like the tail of a letter y, is a combination Escape/Stop/Standby button. The lower control pad consists of three navigation buttons that correspond to current on-screen menu selections.
The opening screen consists of nine friendly icons, including Video, Music, Photo, Setup, and Help. Thumbing the navigational keys, I was able to quickly browse through Help, watch the two instructional demos, readjust Power Settings, turn the sound on, and increase the bass boost.
There are oodles of features to configure--such as sound settings, LCD brightness, and recording quality--but you don't have to do a thing to start loading or playing content right out of the box. The AV420 comes preloaded with video clips and music so you can quickly see--and hear--this bad boy in action. It offers four different screen-viewing formats, including full picture and wide screen. You can set each one manually or let the default auto setting determine the best viewing angle.
Archos's TV Cradle (included in the price) is an essential piece of equipment: It connects the AV420 to your entertainment setup. However, setting up the TV Cradle, which doubles as a charger, is another story. At first glance, the octopus of eight cables had me racing for the manual and quick-start guide. Once I realized that the composite A/V-in and A/V-out cables were smartly banded together, labeled, and color-coded, I calmed down. There's also an S-Video-in cable, so you don't even have futz with the A/V-in cable.
You also need to line up another wire-thin cable, called an IR blaster, to the IR receiver located in the front of your VCR or set-top box. This lets the Archos change channels for scheduled recordings. It's not exactly plug-and-play; if you can't set up a TiVo, VCR, or universal remote, the TV Cradle connection can be challenging. Plus, the TV Cradle may not work with equipment that's more than six years old. The hassle, however, is well worth it. Once properly connected, the TV Cradle makes the AV420 compatible with just about any home-theater video source--TV, cable box, satellite receiver, VCR, and DVD player, so you can transfer content from your VCR or DVD player or TV to the Archos. It also allows the included wireless remote to control the Archos, and for a single TV/LCD button to switch video output to an external TV, say, in a hotel room.
Content In and Out
How easy is it to get content onto the device? And when you do, what can you do with it? Archos handles these chores in a number of ways--and once the cradle is hooked up correctly, it's relatively easy to move the content to the device. With the AV420 in its cradle, three quick button clicks can record live television or grab content from a VCR or DVD (though you still may need to change the TV station, depending on your particular setup).
The AV420 lets you schedule four recordings for those times when you're not around. Scheduling recordings on the device is a piece of cake, requiring nothing more than tapping the navigation keys to scroll for the date and time. A soft key touchpad even lets you type in the title.
Unfortunately, there's no downloadable or built-in program guide, like that offered by TiVo or Gemstar, to help you find shows. You can, however, use Yahoo TV to save your favorite shows to your personal calendar, which, in turn, you can save as HTML files, and then you drag and drop them to the AV420. Granted, it's rather inelegant, but currently the Archos is the only player that can do this.
Still, the easiest way to load content--video, music, photos, or text--into the Archos is straight from your PC. Connect the AV420 to your PC using the included USB cable, and the AV420 appears as an external drive called Jukebox.
The drive has eight preconfigured folders, including Data, Music, Photo, Playlists, and Video.
The Photo viewer can show JPEG and BMP image formats individually or as a slide show. (Note: In the case of JPEG images, the Archos cannot handle progressives--those high-intensity images that are generated on professional-grade digital cameras.) A built-in CompactFlash reader can store, view, and transfer photos. Archos's optional 4-in-1 CompactFlash adapter for other memory cards costs $40.
Strong enough to compete and beat many stand-alone audio players, the AV420's music player effortlessly handles MP3, WMA, and WAV files, and it displays track information and album art, when available. You can browse by artist, album, track title, genre, or year. You can also create and manage playlists right on the device or import playlists from Windows Media Player 9 and Musicmatch 8.1. You can even use the AudioCorder to record live and analog audio, or as a personal recorder for classroom lectures, interviews, or notes to yourself. Missing, however, is the ability to multitask: You can't listen to music while looking at pictures or during a slide show.
The device records and plays back video only in the highly compressed MPEG-4 format. Getting other video formats like AVI, VCR (for ATI PC TV tuners), and even some MPEG files off the Web and into the Archos isn't always easy (or possible) since they must be converted--or transcoded--before you can watch them.
The Archos installation CD comes with two programs--Virtual Dub and MP4SP Translator--to help you handle the transcoding. However, in some cases, you will need to install another program called a codec that allows you to playback these transcoded files on your PC and the Archos. The required codec software is free, but neither DivX nor XviD is included with the Archos. If you want them, you have to go out and get them.
Initially, I thought that not including those codecs was a big deal, but after testing the unit for several weeks, I rarely needed to take the conversion route. If you're using the Archos only to record content, you'll never need any of these transcoding tools. Still, if they are needed, and even when a three- or four-step file-transfer tango works, it is asking way too much from novice users.
One giant step away from this nonsense is the Archos's future compatibility: It is expected to become Windows Media Player 10-compliant sometime this month. When it does, you'll be able to download specially formatted content from CinemaNow and future providers directly to the device, without any required transcoding. This should dramatically increase the product's value and audience appeal.
How does the Archos perform? In a word, bravo. The 3.5-inch screen looks great. In fact, it feels like you're watching movies on something bigger than a 3.5-inch screen. There is some glare and reflection, however. I found that the darker the environment (or room) I was in, the better it looked. And you have to position the screen at an angle to get the best picture. As expected, color accuracy and overall image sharpness depended on the original source. The higher the resolution, the better the quality, though the flipside, of course, is that you can record and store more content at a lower resolution.
Watching BattleStar Galactica recorded straight off the TV looked much sharper than a recording of Lost taken off a VCR. Spider-Man 2 looked fantastic, though at times reds and blues blurred during fast-paced action scenes. More surprising was how terrific black-and-white films like Casablanca played. Of course, the Archos won't replace going to the movies or even watching them on your TV, but for a flight, it's fine, and it's better than draining your notebook's battery.
Considering how much the AV420 does, features like video recording, music playback, and transferring JPEGs are easy to access and generally well-documented. I tended to avoid the black-and-white printed manual and consulted the expanded color PDF version on the installation CD instead. (If you have a color printer, print out the PDF manual. It's well worth the ink.)
I was able to watch two movies and most of a Seinfeld episode--kissing 5 hours--before the battery winked out. This beats many notebooks. (Interestingly enough, Archos lists minimum battery life as 3.5 hours for video and 12 hours for audio.) A removable pop-and-swap battery pack makes spending $50 more a no-brainer.
The AV420's sound was remarkably clear, especially when you consider that the built-in single speaker is about the size of a nickel. Archos's included earbuds are nothing special, but the volume control wheel came in handy. If you're thinking about buying a replacement set of earbuds or a fancy headset, I would recommend that you get the volume control option. You could also spring for external speakers such as the $50 Creative TravelSound 200.
While the AV420 comes with a carrying case, it does not stand upright for hands-free viewing needed on an airplane tray table. (The company says that one is coming soon, but as of this writing, no price or date was set. In the meantime, when you're up in the sky, you'll either have to hold the device or lean it against something like a hardcover book. The TV Cradle, which acts as stand, is not suitable for travel. For one thing, it's connected to eight cables, so you'd have to disconnect it from all that before you leave (and you'd have to reconnect everything again after you get back). The cradle is also a bit bulky. So you'll need to spend an additional $20 for Archos's travel cable if you want to record content on the go or play stored content (except for that made from encrypted or copy-protected DVDs) on a larger TV. Otherwise, the travel charger is just fine.
The $500 AV420 handles a lot of things--and handles them well. It does the job of--and could replace--a digital video recorder, a VCR, an audio player, an external hard drive, a thumb drive, and a digital photo album. Plus, it eliminates the need to schlep DVDs and CDs around. It's simple to use and it fits in your pocket (literally). I think it's worth the price for frequent-fliers, mass-transit commuters, road warriors, picture-happy vacationers, gotta-have-it gadget early adopters, and certain professionals--such as actors, directors, salespeople, and photographers--who need to carry video and digital stills around to present them on an external display. Sure, the TV cradle setup and the transcoding hassles are downsides, but they are manageable.
Using PC World's Product Finder, you can find the AV420 for at least $50 less than the company's list price. That's not much more than many MP3 players. How much more compelling does the device have to be?
Archos AV420 20GB Video/MP3 Player
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