Just For the Record
By now, you've probably realized that you can use it to watch movies and listen to music. However, it is actually somewhat inaccurate to call the AV 700 a mere "media player;" Archos actually refers to it as a portable DVR (digital video recorder), because you can capture content on the device, in addition to playing it back.
By connecting the Archos to the included TV Pod, you gain the ability to use composite (RCA) jacks as input to the Archos, or the higher-quality S-video connection, if your video output device supports it. The device records incoming video as an MPEG4 AVI, with the capability to reach up to 30 fps with a resolution of 640 x 480. Although I'm still satisfied with my Neuros Recorder 1, I must admit that the recording features of the Archos almost make the Neuros look like a toy by comparison. The video created by the AV 700 is crisp and high-resolution (by non-HD TV standards, anyway), and the frame rate, clarity, and accuracy are impressive. While the Neuros is great for catching up on your favorite shows while you're waiting at a bus stop, the Archos takes it a step further, becoming a viable option for converting important videotapes into digital format for archival purposes.
Using the included adaptors, you can also output video from the Archos to a TV screen (except for Macrovision-protected DVD content), which helps solidify the AV 700's image as a real DVR, rather than a PDA accessory like the Neuros.
The AV 700 supports a fairly impressive variety of formats for a dedicated media player. For video, it can play back AVI movies with MPEG4 compression (such as the ones it creates when recording) as well as Windows Media Video; for audio, it supports MP3, WAV, and Windows Media Audio. The photo viewer, meanwhile, can display JPEG and BMP formats. The unit supports protected Windows Media audio and video, which means that you can purchase online content (from stores like the Yahoo Music Store) and use it on the Archos. This feature is, unfortunately, only available to Windows users. However, since Microsoft won't open its media protection system to other operating systems, and Apple won't open its FairPlay protection to third-party devices (except the Motorola ROKR and SLVR), Archos didn't really have much of a choice, since there just aren't any options currently available to third-party vendors that would allow the use of protected media on both Mac and Windows. Here's hoping that the DRM wars get resolved in a way that actually benefits consumers.
Notably absent from the list of supported formats are QuickTime and MPEG movies, AAC and OGG audio, and GIF images. Fortunately, these formats are easily convertible to formats that the Archos does support, assuming the original file does not have DRM. However, one class of file types is missing altogether: eBooks and text formats. Since the Archos doesn't support PDF, TXT, MS Word, any eBook formats, RTF, HTML, or any other similar format, it would not really be suitable as an eBook reader. Although the Archos has never been marketed as an eBook device, and would probably be overkill for reading basic text anyway, this is likely to be a disappointment to at least a few users.
The "Host with the Most" (with apologies to Mr. Trebek)
The Archos AV 700 has one feature that I found so amazing that I think it deserves an entire section of this review: USB host. Although users who are not technically inclined may not know what that means, it is likely that they have longed for and maybe even requested this feature for other devices, without even realizing it.
Virtually all PDAs and media players can function as USB slave devices. This means that they connect to a computer and act as a peripheral, and are essentially "subordinate" to the computer. However, in order to take on USB peripherals of its own, a device must be able to function as a USB host, which is a capability found on virtually all modern computers, but very few PDAs, and no previous media players that I know of. The AV 700, however, can function as a USB host, and it even comes with a small adaptor that gives it a standard USB "A" port (like the kind you see on your computer).
So what does all this mean? Since the AV 700 has a built-in driver for USB mass storage devices, it means that you can connect a standard USB flash drive (like the Imation I reviewed here [link if possible]), a USB hard drive, or even most USB card readers straight to the Archos and read files from them. The files on these devices can be played on the Archos if they are in a supported format (see above), and you can also copy files back and forth. This is a tremendous advantage if you have friends with flash drives or other storage devices, and you want to share files with them without having to go through a computer. It also allows you to transfer pictures directly from many digital cameras, either through a card reader or by connecting the camera itself as a USB peripheral, if the camera can function as a USB mass storage device (most digital cameras can).
The AV 700 does still have USB slave capability as well, and when you connect it to a computer with USB, it acts as a zippy USB 2.0 High Speed hard drive.
Apples and Oranges
I think many users will wonder why they should pay $599 or $799 for the AV 700, when they could buy an iPod video 30 GB for only $299. Now, the iPod does not have any recording capabilities whatsoever, and I am not suggesting that they are even in the same category of devices. Still, you could couple the iPod video with a Neuros Recorder 2 (which is more advanced than the version I reviewed, and is designed to partner well with a video iPod) and then buy a video-out cable for the iPod, and you'd still pay a lot less than the Archos costs.
Obviously, the iPod has a smaller screen and lower capacity, but it is also easier to carry and offers better cross-platform capability. Using the iPod with a separate recorder also, importantly, enables you to watch videos on the road while simultaneously recording more video at home, whereas the Archos obviously can't be in two places at once. Although the iPod's gaming ability is even more limited than the Archos, people looking mainly for a gaming device would probably do better to get a PSP for about $250 (which also works well with the Recorder 2). For that matter, you could even buy a portable DVD player and inexpensive recorder (like the Neuros models) and burn video CDs on cheap blank CD media, which would enable you to watch recorded videos anywhere you go and cost even less.
However, the above just isn't the point of the AV 700. It is not aimed at users who are ultra-budget-conscious, but rather, users who want the very best. Although other devices may have some similar capabilities, no other device has the AV 700's stunning screen, or its combination of all these features into one purchase. Taking these into account, the price tag is certainly reasonable.
Consumers on a budget who don't need or want a huge screen and the extra capabilities will probably still want to look at other devices, but for high-end users who want the very best, the AV 700 is not a question of the "most (or least) economical" option, but, rather, it is more like the only option. The fact is that it simply achieves quality levels in some categories that no other device has even attempted. In short, for consumers whose primary concern isn't price, the Archos AV 700 is a fantastic choice. (Hey, wait a minute... isn't the iPod usually at the other end of this line of reasoning?)
The AV 700 comes with four installers for Windows programs directly on its hard drive: Adobe Reader and Windows Media Player, plus two video editing programs called Virtual Dub and MPEG4 Translator.
Virtual Dub is a popular freeware video file converter that is also available from www.virtualdub.org. It provides the ability to edit and convert certain types of AVI files. Although not a pro-level tool, it is optimized for speed and features a batch processing mode, and is certainly helpful to Windows XP users who buy the Archos.
MPEG4 Translator is Archos' own tool for converting videos on your computer into MPEG4 format so that you can play them on the AV 700. Again, it is Windows-only.
In a refreshing and surprising move, Archos has also included one piece of software that is Mac OS X only: an iTunes plugin. On my PowerBook, I was able to install the plugin and view the AV 700 as a source in iTunes, which enabled me to copy music to the device, and also create playlists, from within iTunes. The connection to iTunes worked similarly to PDAs connected via Mark/Space's The Missing Sync (both Palm and PocketPC). As with other plugin-based devices, though, there is unfortunately no built-in ability to update podcasts automatically or use other "iPod-like" features.
Don't Believe The Hype! Well... okay, Believe The Hype.
This is one device that certainly lives up to the expectations created by its specs and pictures. In testing it, I was floored by the screen quality, and I was able to rip my Toy Story DVD using HandBrake on my Mac and watch it full-screen on the device without converting it to any special, proprietary format. The video capture was also simple and effective, and the resulting file was comparable in quality to the original tape I had recorded from.
The device's connectivity was also effective. I was able to plug it into my existing TV/VCR system without any unusual or unexpected issues, and the USB Host feature worked flawlessly with my flash drives. The AV 700 worked equally well as a USB slave, acting as a fast hard drive when connected to my Mac.
I found myself learning my way around the AV 700's user interface quickly and effortlessly. For example, the device's easy-to-navigate main menu gives you access to the photo viewer, movie player, movie recorder, audio player, audio recorder (the unit features a built-in microphone), recording scheduler, file browser, help feature, and games. That's right: you can actually purchase video games specifically made for the AV 700, load them onto the device, and play them. The games start at only $8 and feature 3D graphics, but currently only six games are available for purchase from Archos' site. Still, I'm inclined to think that users looking mainly for a gaming device could probably find a more suitable (and affordable) option than the AV 700. The review unit did not appear to have any games loaded, so I will not comment on the quality or playability of the games themselves.
As the LCD screens of portable devices have become optimized for indoor use, through transflective technology, users have discovered that many PDAs and similar devices are becoming increasingly difficult to see outside or in direct sunlight. Where other devices have failed, the AV 700... pretty much also fails. Although its excellent brightness made some improvement compared to most transflective screens when used outdoors, I still experienced massive wash-out when I tried to use the AV 700's screen under direct sunlight, making the image much tougher to see. Perhaps it is not even possible to design a screen that is beautiful both inside and outside, but for some reason, it seems to me that a "media player" is even more likely to be used outside than a "business-oriented PDA," so I found this issue to be especially frustrating in this case.
Scheduling recordings using the AV 700 was also fairly straightforward; it includes a simple, VCR-like programming interface where you can set times and channels for future recordings. Although it is capable of holding a very large number of scheduled recordings at once, it does not support repeating programs like "record every weekday" or "record every Monday."
So how does it change the channel of your VCR (or other video source)? One of the included cables ends in a small infrared lens, which you can attach to your VCR's remote sensor using the included ring pads. This prevents you from having to program both the Archos and your VCR, since the Archos will activate your VCR automatically according to its own scheduled recordings. If you use Yahoo!'s calendar service for tracking programs you wish to record, you can also import your programs to the Archos from Yahoo!.
However, the Archos doesn't have an "Auto Record" mode like the one my humble Neuros has. Such a feature would've enabled it to start recording automatically any time it detects an input signal. This has been a handy feature on my Neuros, since I can use my existing VCR programs (including the repeating ones) without having to duplicate the programs on the Neuros, and without having to connect an infrared sensor. On the other hand, the AV 700's method does spare you from having to actually record two copies (one to a videotape and one digitally), which is a side effect of the Neuros' Auto Record feature, but it might've been nice to have an option like Auto Record available on the Archos for users who prefer it.