Archos 5

When we think of media players, most of us tend to point a finger at the family of iPod products from Apple. But not everyone wants an iPod, so what do they have instead?

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Curious as to what else is out there beyond the iPod bubble that I live in, I decided to give the Archos 5 Internet Media Tablet a try for a few weeks and report back on my findings. Archos are not new to the media player market, they’ve been producing portable devices for as long as I can remember.

Let’s take a look at the design. Archos are branding this as a tablet device which gives its design goals a slightly different meaning, although I think many will still see it as a portable media player. The Archos 5 weighs in at 250g for the 60GB model or 300g for the 120/250GB models.

A nice bright 4.8-inch screen comes standard on the Archos. Delivering a super-sharp picture at 800 x 480 resolution, the Archos 5 is very good at delivering a crystal clear picture.

Build quality of the device is very solid. Although it has a weighty feel, the quality of the materials used in the Archos 5 feel substantial with a good ratio of metals to plastics. A nice touch to the physical design is a little kick stand that pops out of the back of the device, allowing you to prop it up on a flat surface for watching your videos. I can see a large number of people that would buy this device purely for this kind of integration, making it perfect for travelling.

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Like with my iPod Touch, what I wasn’t so keen on, is that the back of the device is made of a highly polished and reflective metal that acts as a mirror, but also acts as a scratch and fingerprint magnet. Nobody likes to see their well spent money scratched to pieces after a trip out.

The other critical factor when deciding on the best media device for your needs, is the usability of the software. This could be a deal breaker if the user interface is complicated or performance is slow or it just doesn’t deliver the experience that you expect.

Archos have got a few things right and wrong with the interface. What I did like is the large clear buttons and the nested menus for quick and easy access to different parts of the device. You can very simply jump from playing music to your web browser without jumping through a series of back buttons. The menu system is responsive and the touch calibration out of the box is accurate enough to deliver on a usable first-time experience. Although this is one of the positive points, having all possible menu options on display didn’t work so well. There were a bunch of functions that couldn’t be accessed unless you bought optional upgrades and extras such as GPS, 3G, etc. A better approach would have to have these options hidden until it detects that I’ve upgraded, just so that the menu options remain relevant to me.

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Native support for Adobe Flash content is available in the Archos 5, which unlocks the ‘real’ web. If you’ve used devices such as the iPod Touch or iPhone, you soon run in to sites that can’t playback the video you want to watch or isn’t displaying the content of the web page properly since Apple has yet to implement Flash support on their devices.

The Archos 5 has a a multitude of applications and functionality built right in. The core elements that I was interested in most was the ability to play video and web browsing. Video playback is accessible through its simple menu for navigating your files. Even the larger video rips that I tried out on the device loaded quickly and I was able to get decent volume out of the headphone jack. For the testing, I used my own set of headphones.

The built-in web browser is as quick as other devices at loading up complex websites. What the web browser lacks is the ability to easily zoom in and out of pages. There’s no multi-touch functionality on the Archos 5 so you have to operate the web browser using the standard ‘push-the-button’ method.

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Another unique feature of the Archos 5 is the ability to record video directly from an external source. This is a first for a portable device I’ve tested, but it does understandably require an optional dock upgrade in order to get it to work. A killer feature for the Archos would be to include this functionality as standard. The ability to just plug my media player in to the output from my TV straight in to a media device and recording content on the go would be very useful for capturing some video for playback later on.

Archos has just released the High Definition playback software upgrade for viewing crystal clear video on that high-resolution screen. Similar to the other options, you have to pay £12 for the plugin to enable HD playback on the device or output via HDMI.

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I think it’s useful to identify where this device fits in the world of gadgetry and electronics. I personally couldn’t see the Archos 5 being my everyday media player. It doesn’t have the right form factor, battery life or applications to replace my iPod Touch – it just doesn’t have the all-round polish to its features and interface to take that crown from Apple. However, the Archos 5 would be my number one choice for video playback on the move. If I wanted to bring with me a collection of videos with me on my next plane ride, I’d choose the Archos 5 over my iPod Touch. Why? Because it has more storage, better screen and that handy kickstand, making it perfect for viewing on the plane. The Archos 5 is the device that is an ideal replacement for the portable DVD player.

My main concern is that Archos has gone all out on putting as much functionality in to this product and I almost feel like giving it the cliche tag line of jack of all trades, master of none. However, the video playback experience and overall build quality gives it the edge and enough to earn itself a place in the market.

2009-05-07 Onwah Tsang

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