Reviewed February 17, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Some gadgets inspire keen lust at first sight. The Archos 7 is one of those. Even if you don't need or want a portable media player it looks fantastically futuristic (think of Star Trek's cool all-purpose handheld digital tablets) and shiny in the right way. It's thin, the screen is huge and the bezel is oh-so thin. The smoked bronze metal finish exudes quality and sturdiness. This thing is darned cool.
But what is it? It's a portable media player (video, music, photos) an Internet tablet, and it's the Archos 5's bigger brother. The feature set is nearly identical with a few key upgrades that answer our hardware-related complaints about the Archos 5: the 7 adds a removable battery and a dedicated charger port, there's a charger in the box and runtimes are significantly longer than the 5 since there's room for a larger battery.
The Archos 7 features a 7" touch screen capable of displaying 16 million colors. It handles a wide variety of video and audio formats, though in the Archos tradition, some of the codec packs required to play popular formats like AAC and H.264 will set you back $19.99 each. It has stereo speakers flanking the display, a 3.5mm stereo jack, hardware volume controls and can act as a DVR if you spend even more money for the Archos DVR station or DVR Snap on. This is not a light device, at 23 ounces your hands will get tired of holding it. Hence the built-in kickstand that pops out from the back.
Like the iPod Touch, the Archos has WiFi 802.11b/g and an excellent web browser. Opera is on board along with Adobe Flash Player 9 (you must register your device to download these for free). The web browser is a pleasure to use in conjunction with the very large, 800 x 480 resistive touch screen. There's no multi-touch a la Apple, but you can drag pages with your finger, tap to zoom and enter URLs using a good on-screen keyboard. Thanks to excellent desktop-style page rendering, Flash support and a fast CPU, the Archos lives up to its "Internet Media Tablet" name. Touch support in the browser is good overall, but some small links might require two tries or a zoom and short scrolls are sometimes hard to control. Drop-down text boxes likewise can be a little hard to maneuver. Outside of the web browser, we had no major complaints at all since the user interface is optimized for fingers and all elements are large and easy to select. In terms of hardware, the screen is a little soft and requires a decent amount of pressure compared to the capacitive iPod Touch display.
The Archos 7 and the iPod Touch.
The Archos has a few other online tricks up its sleeve: it supports UPnP (streaming supported media files from a computer on your network over WiFi), has upgradable firmware (the Archos can check for new versions and downloads them directly to its hard drive), plays desktop youtube videos, Daily Motion and web TV channels. There's a POP3/IMAP email client that's passable and a link to the Archos online store that sells videos at a pricey $19.95 for most titles.
The Opera web browser showing Amazon's web site.
Local features include mass storage mode so you can use Windows, Mac OS X and Linux to transfer files to and from the device, USB Host functionality with the optional Mini Dock and DVR Station (this means you can plug in a flash drive or digital camera and transfer files to the Archos), USB 2.0 High-Speed with fallback to 1.1, and MTP mode for Windows Media Player transfer.
Video and DVR Goodness
In the Archos tradition, there's lots more you can do with the device if you spend money for "Snap on" accessories. The FM remote has a mic and turns the Archos into a portable recorder, the DVR Station turns the player into a DVR and more, the Helmet Cam turns it into a webcam of sorts and the not-yet-released GPS turns it into a navigation device. By far, the most fun and useful for a video-centric device is the DVR station and a selection of codec packs. This turns your Archos into a high quality DVR that records TV in VGA quality (DVD quality). The DVR Station has RCA and S-Video input and outputs and cables to connect to a TV, cable box, VCR and pretty much anything else that outputs or accepts audio and video signals. There's an on-screen TV guide that makes it easy to record TV shows (most major US cable, broadcast and satellite providers are supported) directly from the grid. You can queue up a long list of programs to record this way, and you can record manually by pressing the record now button too. The DVR Station's IR transmitter is strong enough to control a cable box it's not facing or close to, and it can turn the box on and off as well as change channels. Just set up your timed recordings, leave the Archos in the home screen or in standby (if it's in an application or in use it won't interrupt to record) and it will turn on the cable box and change to the proper channel to record. Unfortunately, some cable boxes go into standby but don't completely shut off and the Archos thinks they're already on and thus doesn't turn them on for a recording. Our Motorola HD digital cable box is one of those and we had to leave it on as a result. The DVR Station also has component video-in connectors (cables not included) and HDMI out (best used with the 720p optional codec). Be warned that if you're recording an HD channel, you'll want to use the RCA connection method since the Archos doesn't handle HD-in over component input. We tested output of TV recorded at 1,500kbps 30fps to a 42" LCD HD TV over S-video and the picture quality was nearly as good as the original 480 broadcast. Impressive since most mobile players don't offer the resolution and quality to make big screen TV-watching enjoyable. You can also copy recorded TV shows (MPEG4 AVI format) from the Archos to your computer using the USB cable.
Video playback quality is excellent and the Archos automatically resizes and stretches video to fill the screen. It handles a very wide variety of formats including WMV, protected WMV and MPEG4 AVI out of the box. With the optional codecs it can handle 720p MPEG4, WMV HD, H.264 (unprotected iTunes video and podcast format), MPEG2 (DVD format) and AC3 5.1 sound. Audio is MP3, WMV OGG Vorbis and WAV out of the box with optional codecs for AAC, AAC+ and AC3 5.1 (you'll have to use the DVR Station's SPDIF output to render 5.1).
The Archos 7 handles high bitrate VGA resolution files easily and can record (with DVR station) up to an impressive 2,500kbps with 1,500kbps as the default setting. We had no problems playing a wide variety of video formats and saw no dropped frames or loss of sync except DVR Station recorded video where audio sometimes lagged a second behind video even at lower recording resolutions. The gorgeous 7" display is bright and vibrant-- perfect for video playback, though as with the Archos 5, blacks aren't quite as black as on the iPhone and iPod Touch. We'll still take the Archos 7 and 5 which make the otherwise capacious iPod Touch display seem tiny.
PDFs, Photos and Games
The Archos wants to do a little of everything, and in some cases more than a little (full-featured video and audio playback, strong web browsing). In addition it acts as a PDF viewer and a photo viewer for JPEG, PNG, BMP and TIFF (sadly no RAW support for serious photographers who might want to use it as a mobile proofing station). The image browser is responsive even when the device is loaded with a hundred 1 to 4 meg JPEG files, and again the large and vivid screen is wonderful for image viewing. Archos sells a variety of Flash-based games that you can purchase directly on the device, but these won't compete with the hottest iPhone titles (Suduku, golf, bowling, break-out style games and the like).
The photo viewer.
While the Archos 5's battery life wasn't a strong point, the Archos 7 is a champ. Archos claims the player can handle up to 10 hours of video playback on a full charge, and we managed 9. They claim a whopping 39 hours of music playback, more than enough for a week's worth of transatlantic flights. You won't have to worry that the Archos 7 won't make it through 2 feature length movies on a long flight, or a road trip in the car with the kids in back watching their favorite shows. We're thrilled that Archos includes a charger with the 7 and there's a dedicated charging port (no need to fuss with slow USB charging using the proprietary cable). The battery is user-replaceable and lives on the back of the device. This is a large screen road warrior for video and music playback.
At $450 to $550 list, this isn't a cheap device. But it's unique thanks to the 7" display, excellent video format support and powerful CPU. Throw in the DVR station and you're spending $100 more, but it adds valuable functionality in the guise of high quality TV recording and playback to a TV (even large TVs). If you're interested in serious video playback and are tired of the cramped view on other portable players, the Archos 7 is enticing, and with 160 and 320 gigs of storage, it will hold a large library of videos. The web browser is quite good and Flash 9 keeps youtube flowing when in range of a WiFi access point. Archos offers a 3G module for the Archos 5 but not the 7, so WiFi is the only method of getting on the Net. As a photo viewer it's superb and PDFs flow well too. With the economy tanked and Netbooks selling for so little, budget conscious shoppers might wonder if the Archos 7 makes sense. If mobile video is your primary interest, the Archos certainly wins: it's instant-on, has much longer battery life than Netbooks, has a better display (albeit a bit smaller), handles high bitrate VGA video better, has more internal storage and can act as a DVR. It's also much smaller and lighter than a Netbook. If you're looking for a mobile web browsing tool, a Netbook will win: not that Opera on the Archos isn't good, but there are more browser plugins for Windows and Linux Netbooks and these are easier to update (e.g.: there's not way to upgrade the Archos to Flash 10 at the moment). In the end, the Archos does many things well, but its raison d'etre remains mobile video, and that's where it excels.
Pro: Handles a variety of video formats well, handles high quality VGA video at high bitrates well, lots of storage, fantastic 7" display, excellent battery life, slim, solid, really good looking (until the fingerprints set in), excellent DVR features with optional dock, very good photo viewer and web browser. Flash games will keep the kids amused on trips.
Con: Some of the most desirable codecs cost extra, shows fingerprints like mad, heavy. Add about $140 for the DVR Station and those codecs. The new Archos 5 and 7 connectors aren't compatible with older Snap ons like the old DVR Station.
Display: 7 " color touch screen. 16 million colors. Resolution:
800 x 480.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Claimed music playback: 39 hours. Claimed video playback: 10 hours. Charges over USB or using included AC charger.
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:160 and 320 gig versions available (both using hard drives).
Size:7.48" x 4.33" x 0.629" . Weight: 23 ounces.
Networking:WiFi 802.11b/g. USB 2.0 High speed port(supports mass storage mode and MTP mode). USB host with optional mini Dock and DVR Station.
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
Video Recording: Requires optional DVR Station ($99.99) or DVR Snap on ($79.99), records in MPEG4 AVI format in stereo at VGA resolution, 30 fps.
In the Box: Archos 7, USB cable, charger, cleaning cloth, stereo earbuds, DVR Station adapter, Quick Start Guide.