FRENCH FIRM Archos has released the next generation of its portable media player, but this time it runs Android, kind of.
The successor to the Archos 5 Internet Media Tablet, this latest offering is called the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. Given the fairly substantial difference between the two devices, we would have thought a less confusing name for the new device would have been in order.
The Archos 5 is a great looking device and its design follows on from that of its predecessors. The front the dominated by a 4.8-inch TFT LCD touchscreen, while the gadget's edges are adorned with a 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB port, microSD slot, docking ports and just three buttons, namely volume up and down and power. There is also a kick stand on the back, which folds in next to the battery, and incidentally the stand also works in portrait mode although it's a little unstable.
On the hardware side there's nothing much new here but a few additions are worth mentioning compared to the Archos 5. The ARM Cortex A8 processor has been bumped up from 600MHz to 800MHz, the RAM has been doubled to 256MB, 802.11n, GPS and Bluetooth 2.0 support have been included, a microphone and FM transceiver have been built in and the aforementioned microUSB and microSD slots have been added.
Unfortunately there is not going to be a 3G version as there was with the Archos 5G, but it's possible to tether the device to your phone over Bluetooth and access the Internet that way.
There are two main flavours of the Archos 5 available, those with a storage capacity of 32GB and below which use flash memory and are 10.4mm thick and weigh in at 182g, while the 160GB and 250GB models use traditional hard drives, making the units twice as thick at 20mm and nearly twice as heavy at 286g. This means that, while our 32GB review unit was easily pocketed in a jacket, the larger capacity devices are much better suited to transporting in a bag.
It's on the software side that the biggest change has been made as Archos has opted for its own, somewhat tweaked version of Android for the operating system. Primarily this opens up the device to a wide range of applications and widgets although, because it's a modified version of Android, Archos has created its own apps store, called the AppsLib, which currently has around 750 apps in it, so you should still be able to find a raft of useful additions.
The change to Android means that the Archos now takes a little longer to boot, about 45 to 50 seconds, but it can easily be suspended with a tap of the power button, from which it resumes almost instantly, however this mode still slowly consumes power, so you'll want to power it off completely if you're not going to be using it again soon and don't want to be faced with a flat battery the next time you try to switch it on.
Anyone familiar with the Android interface will be right at home. There are the three customisable home screens with the standard Archos media controls to access video, music, photos games and the Archos Media Club now done as widgets. Unfortunately it's clear that there is still some work to be done on the Android port as we experienced a few glitches and the occasional freeze, particularly when trying to perform network tasks. In general its operation worked fine and most of the hiccups were infrequent and minor, but the on-screen keyboard was particularly annoying, being slow and unresponsive meaning that even when trying to type in a website or email address there were a lot of errors. It has to be said that this seems to be a problem with Android rather than the Archos hardware, so hopefully it will be fixed in a future Android software update.
In the quest to make the Archos a more rounded device, Archos thankfully hasn't lost sight of the fact that it's still first and foremost a media player. The 800x480 display is crystal clear, great for watching movies, browsing the web and reading emails, and the audio is up to its usual high quality as well although, as always, the quality of the output is largely dependent on the quality of the source media files.
As well as playing content stored on the device, it's very easy to copy and stream content over Wi-i across a network as well, a great feature if you like to store your movies and music on a central repository like a server or NAS box.
As with all of its predecessors, a massive number of the most common codecs are supported, but as we've seen with the last couple there are a few of the HD ones that have been left out and which are available through a downloadable plug-in which costs £12.22. Archos has defended the move by saying that it has to pay a license fee for these particular codecs and as a result it is only passing on the cost to those who want them, rather than having to increase the price of the unit.
The same argument was rolled out when the company decided to stop bundling the docking station in with the player. We can see Archos' point but it's still rather disappointing to have to fork out a wodge of cash for the player and then keep doling out more money for each extra feature.
Speaking of the DVR docking station, nothing has changed here so we're only going to gloss over this briefly for those who may be unfamiliar with the Archos range. As well as being a portable media player, the Archos 5 can be connected to a docking station plugged into a TV, and not only does this allow content on the device to played back on the big screen, but it also allows you to record shows as well. The Archos has its own TV program guide which is updated over WiFi, so recording is as simple as selecting the show you want to record from the menu and making sure the unit is docked when the time comes. The DVR docking station accessory also includes a pretty nifty remote complete with a full miniature keyboard - useful if you're using the Archos to surf the web from your TV.
Other optional accessories, such as a smaller and more limited DVR snap-on, battery dock, mini dock and car mount are all available as well.
As you would imagine, battery life depends largely on your usage pattern. Archos reckons the device will give you about seven hours of video or around 22 hours of music and we're pleased to say that these figures are about right. As you would expect, things like streaming video over WiFi or browsing the web using a Bluetooth connection to your phone are going to kill the battery a lot faster, but even still we were happy with the performance.
Prices range from £280 for the 32GB version to just around £350 for the 500GB model, making it quite pricey, but still pretty good value for money given what you get.
Archos has continued to evolve its product and the move to Android is a welcome change as it adds a lot more versatility to the device. There are still a few glitches that will need sorting out, but with regular firmware updates and an upgrade to Android 1.6 due out soon, it's apparent that Archos isn't ignoring the issues. Ultimately this is still a media player, so if you're hoping for the ultimate all-in-one device you'll be better off waiting for one of the slew of tablets, slates, smartbooks, ultraportables, smartphones and what have you that are hitting the market at the moment. But if you're looking for a media player that you can also use just to grab your email, check the weather or hit up IMDB then the Archos should definitely be on your list of potential candidates. µ
Excellent screen, Android and apps.
Occasional freezes and glitches, on-screen keyboard is very slow.
No built in 3G support.
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