Reviewed October 7, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The video-centric portable media player market isn't exactly a crowded place these days. At least not in the US, where the iPod and iPhone dominate. Players like the Creative Zen Vision W seem old and bulky, Cowan isn't exactly a household name and Microsoft has yet to produce a Zune that's optimized for serious video watching. Archos hasn't given up, instead they've come up with their answer to the iPod Touch with the Archos 5 and Archos 7.
The Archos 5 builds on the features we liked in their last generation Archos 605 WiFi: a web browser, WiFi, broad codec support for lots of video formats, plenty of storage, a wide variety of useful accessories and a reasonable price. Better yet, they've taken Apple's cue and made heaps of improvements to the user interface (Archos used to be synonymous with arcane) while improving the hardware in two key areas: looks and display. The Archos 5 is really stunning looking with its smoked bronze metallic finish, and it's extremely thin too-- the 60 gig version is only a half inch thick. Granted, not as thin as the vanishingly-thin iPod Touch 2nd generation model, but it has a lot more storage inside and a larger display which necessitates a larger battery. Suffice to say it looks plenty thin and sexy. Even the 120 and 250 gig models aren't bricks at .75 inches. The drawback to that attractive finish? The player attracts fingerprints like flies on an abandoned Big Mac. Archos includes a small cleaning cloth, and you will need it.
The Archos 5 has a 4.8", 16 million color touch screen with 800 x 480 resolution. That large, high resolution display is wonderful for watching video and surfing the web with the included Opera web browser (there's no longer an extra charge for the browser). You can actually easily see actors' faces and dark scenes aren't as obscure. The display is extremely bright, impressively saturated and sharp. The iPhone and iPod Touch are hard to beat, but Archos does it.
The iPhone 3G top, and the Archos 5 below.
The touch screen works well and even scrolling is controllable. The new user interface is simple, intuitive and there's no need to resort to buttons, though we're glad there are hardware volume controls. One thing we could do without are menu items for features one must pay for to activate and use. These feel like blatant upsell and are as likely to frustrate new Archos owners as it informs them of add-on features. That said, we're glad that the excellent Opera web browser is now included, as are web TV plugins and web radio. The Archos supports perhaps the widest selection of video formats and codecs out of the box, but you've got to pay $20 for the podcast plugin that also supports AAC, which is the standard iTunes format and is also used in a variety of videos on the web. With that plugin installed, we were able to play unprotected AAC music files (.M4A) and MP4 files with H.264 video and AAC audio (again commonly used by iTunes and applications/services that save YouTube files), AVI, DivX, WMV (video encoded with Windows Media Player 8 codecs and older won't play though) and MPEG. There's also a $20 plugin for playing unconverted DVD files (VOB and MPEG-2), and another for playing 720 HD format (HD playback works with the $99 DVD Station dock with HDMI output to an HD TV or monitor).
With the DVR Station and $79 DVR Snap-on dock, the Archos 5 can record TV. There are connections suitable for most cable, VCR and Satellite TV boxes. For those interested in VoIP, there's the $129 Helmet Camcorder which has a webcam and mic. We didn't receive the Helmet, so we can't attest to what it can do in terms of VoIP or videoconferencing.
Now that we've complained about having to buy plugins separately, we'll praise the Archos for its broad video support-- we couldn't find a file in our fairly diverse library that the Archos 5 couldn't play except a 6 year old WMV file encoded with Windows Media Player 8. We had the Podcast (AAC and H.264 and the DVD format plugins installed, to qualify that statement. The Archos 5 scaled videos at a variety of resolutions gracefully to full screen or near full screen without annoying stretching or distortion. It can handle up to DVD (640 x 480) files natively without any conversion (higher res files are supported with the 720 plugin). In contrast, our Creative Zen Vision W didn't scale videos automatically, and we had to try a variety of settings to find the best output for each movie.
The Archos can play full desktop YouTube; no need for the mobile version and it can handle other Flash-based video sites like Daily Motion. To view youtube video, simply visit the site with the web browser. Video's will open in a separate player window and not play directly from the web page. Archos created a separate icon under the web media section for Daily Motion video, and it also handles a large number of "web TV" channels/sites from around the world that have video feeds for news.
Here's a video that shows the web browser, Flash playback and many other features of the Archos 5:
For those who wish to record TV, there's the separately sold DVR Station, which has a full array of inputs and outputs, including HDMI and SPDIF out. The Archos 5 has a TV guide grid and a scheduler so you can set it to record programs automatically. The DVR Station comes with a remote that not only has AV controls but a QWERTY thumb keyboard. The recording feature obviously trumps the iPod Touch, which has no such feature.
Bottom edge: two Archos proprietary connectors for syncing, snap-on hardware accessories and charging.
The iPod Touch and iPhone win for add-on applications, thanks to the iTunes App Store. While the Archos comes with a contacts application, photo viewer (no RAW support), PDF viewer (slows down for large files), beta email client that handles POP3 and IMAP email, and a pay-for selection of just OK games, the App store's selection of sophisticated games, useful applications and freeware dwarf what Archos offers. If you want only to watch video, play music and surf the web, then the Archos is a fantastic player. But if you want to game and in general do more with your multimedia handheld, the iPhone and iPod Touch win.
The Archos 5 has a standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack on the left side.
Both players lose points for their lack of a user-replaceable battery. The Archos 5 manages 4 hours of video playback or 12 hours of music playback time on a full charge. That's decent given the device's fast 600MHz ARM Cortex processor and large, bright display, but not stellar. There's no extended battery snap-on at the moment-- Archos offers only a battery dock with a secondary battery embedded in the dock (not terribly portable, though you could take it on trips if desperate). We also don't like the absence of a standard charging port, nor the fact that a charger isn't included in the box (you must charge over USB). The charger plugs into a dock that mates with the 2 proprietary ports on the player's bottom edge. The Archos 7 that's due out at the end of October 2008 (7" display, same resolution as the Archos 5) does have a dedicated charging port and charger.
The Archos 5 can act as a USB hard drive, and it supports straight removable storage mode and media transfer mode (required for Windows Media DRM content). That means Mac users can mount the Archos as a hard drive and copy files to it-- no need for a Windows PC. Since the Archos 5 doubles as a USB hard drive, you can also use it to store and transfer any sort of file you wish. Take that iPhone!
In terms of hardware expansion, the Archos 5 is impressive. Archos sells a wide variety of snap-on hardware accessories from a variety of docks, to the Helmet Cam to GPS, HSDPA and Euro TV tuner (the TV tuner doesn't work in the US). The bad part is that the connectors are different from prior Archos models, so you can't use older snap-ons with the Archos 5.
As a video player and web surfing tablet, the Archos 5 is the cream of the crop. The screen is absolutely fantastic, and large enough to really enjoy a movie and read web pages without constant zooming. Yet the player is small (albeit heavy) and slim. There's plenty of storage, ranging from 60- 250 gigs to hold a large video and music library. Youtube addicts will love the full desktop youtube support and news junkies will likely spend hours viewing the hundreds of worldwide video news sites. With broad codec support (assuming you buy a few Archos plugins), the player handles most common video formats, and it plays them well in terms of frame rate and scaling. The screen is lovely for viewing photos (there's even a dock, sold separately, that adds USB host for copying images from a card reader or USB hard drive), smaller PDFs work well and the TV recording option is attractive (though it too comes at the cost of an additional accessory). The Archos 5 is very reasonably priced for what you get, but the challenge is not spending several hundred dollars more on tempting accessories.
If you hate the cult of Apple, want to record TV, or just care only about video, music and web browsing, the Archos 5 is an excellent choice. However, for the overall portability and fun factor of affordable and sophisticated games, the iPod Touch and iPhone still win.
Display: 4.8" color touch screen. 16 million colors. Resolution:
800 x 480.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable.
Claimed music playback: 12 hours. Claimed video playback: 4 hours. Charges over USB, AC charger sold separately.
Performance:ARM Cortex 600MHz superscalar core CPU. Additional processor: 32 bit 430MHz DSP. 128 megs DDR RAM. Firmware upgradable over WiFi directly to the device, or can be downloaded using a computer then transferred to the Archos. Linux OS (not open source).
Audio hardware:Built in speaker and 3.5mm stereo headphone jack.
Audio formats:Stereo MP3 decoding @ 30-320 Kbits/s CBR & VBR, WMA, Protected WMA, WMA pro 5.1, WAV (PCM/ADPCM). With optional software plug-in: AAC3 and AAC+ stereo audio files. AC3 stereo audio and 5.1 sound files (via SPDIF output of DVR Station).
Storage:60, 120 and 250 gig versions available (all using hard drives).
Size:60 gig: 5.02
x 3.08 x 0.50 inches. Weight: 8.82 ounces. 120 and 250 gig: 5.0 x 3.10 x 0.76 inches. Weight: 10.58 ounces.
Networking:WiFi 802.11b/g. Optional GSM 3G HSDPA dongle adapter available in the future.
Photo Viewer:JPEG, BMP, PNG and GIF.
Video Playback:MPEG-4 (ASP@L5 AVI, up to DVD resolution)
WMV (MP@ML, up to DVD resolution) included WMV protected files
M-JPEG (in QVGA resolution)
With optional software plug-ins:
HD support: MPEG-4 (ASP 720p) & WMV HD (MP 720p)
MPEG-2 MP@ML up to 10 Mbps (up to DVD resolution) and AC3 stereo sound (5.1)
H.264 up to DVD resolution with AAC
In the Box: Archos 5, USB cable, cleaning cloth, stereo earbuds, DRV Station adapter, Quick Start Guide.