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Review: Archos AV700 By Jørgen Sundgot, Thursday 18 August 2005
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Archos AV700
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Archos AV700
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Archos AV700
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Archos AV700
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Jørgen Sundgot salivates over the multimedia monstrosity that is the do-all Archos AV700, finding a product that puts the competition to shame. Who the hell needs a video iPod?

Despite all predictions to the contrary (including one of the rather steadfast variety from a certain turtleneck-loving CEO), portable media viewers are widely anticipated to front the next stage of the portable media revolution. As opposed to the status quo of mobile music, a proper framework enabling the delivery of video on the go is prominently absent - yet looking at Archos' new A700, one cannot help but think someone failed to mention this little niggle to them. And thank God for that.

Somebody, slap me

Although if you could, please not with the AV700. At 590 g and 209 x 107 x 19 mm, this portable media viewer could easily be confused with a solid slab of aluminum - yet manages to look impressively suave despite its sizeable footprint. Unless your name is Shrek, you can forget about stuffing it in your pocket - but then again, that's what its hot little number of a carrying case is for.

A larger-than-life 7-inch display with 262K colours and an oddly low resolution of 480 x 234 pixels graces the front in all its widescreen glory, sporting a handy layer of anti-reflective coating. At its maximum setting, brightness levels are very good indeed, but the screen doesn't have the best contrast - and although its horizontal viewing angle is impeccable, the vertical leaves something to be desired.

Against such a large backdrop, the navigational array of the AV700 looks amusingly tiny, but nevertheless offers good tactile response and clear markings. The standard approach to assigning multiple commands to buttons is present, and we're particularly pleased to find buttons that lets one jump quickly forward and backwards in small steps to skip commercials or help alleviate the impact of brief attention lapses whilst on the tube.

Attach part A to part B, then glue to part C

Moving our attention to functionality harboured outside the device itself for a moment, the AV700 comes bundled with a TV Docking Pod which is required for interaction with external video sources - regardless of whether the signal is going in or out. The dock allows for the recording of video from Composite and S-Video (sans audio) sources, but unfortunately not directly from an analog RF source, which could cause issues for those not in posession of cable boxes or VCRs to convert the signal as TVs commonly do not integrate video out ports.

Video out is another matter entirely, however, as the vast majority of TVs will be able to accept the dock's Composite video out - although to bring this functionality on the road, the sizeable and AC-powered dock will have to come, too. A nifty feature, however, is the inclusion of an wired infrared extender that attaches to the receiver of a cable box, satellite receiver or VCR to allow users to control these by means of the Infrared remote control also bundled with the AV700, thus reducing the number of remote controls in play.

Relying on MPEG-4 for recorded video, the quality produced by the AV700 is more than adequate for viewing on its 7-inch display of the AV700, with the ability to schedule up to 20 shows for recording ahead of time a nice bonus. Compatibility with Yahoo! TV is also present, but requires far too much fiddling as it among other things involves saving a HTML page and copying it to the device manually; an amateurish concept at best.

On the upside, recorded video can be cropped at will, although due to the inherent characteristics of the MPEG4 codec, cropping can be unprecise in the one-to-four second range. No matter how much is cropped, however, there is a hard limit to the amount of video that can be recorded due to the limitations of the FAT32 file system: 2 GB, or approximately two hours of video in a single file. Cleverly, though, the AV700 will just create a new file and continue recording if this limit is reached, which users can then merge with the appropriate tools afterwards.

Popping the hood

Available with either 40 or 100 GB of storage space, the AV700 is supremely spacious. Our review unit, a 100 GB version, in fact proved spacious enough to keep an entire music collection along with two weeks of extensive TV recordings and five years worth of digital pictures without even being half full - utterly impressive. The list of formats supported is also quite extensive, with MP3, WMA and even WMA DRM - also known as PlaysForSure - on the slate for audio as well as JPEG and BMP for pictures.

What's more, though, Archos has licensed technology from Microsoft to enable the AV700 to pass for a Windows Media device - or to be more exact, a portable media center. This allows for use of the impressively clever 'smart playlist' synchronization feature as introduced in Windows Media Player 10, and also means the AV700 supports WMV9 SP and WMV9 DRM SP video files as automatically converted from DVDs and other media by WMP 10.

At a resolution of 352 x 288 pixels and a frame rate of 30 FPS, however, WMV9 SP video isn't all that appealing despite excellent performance - which is where support for MPEG4 SP comes in. Supporting both DivX 4.0 and 5.0 as well as XviD, the AV700 is broadly compatible with some of the most efficient video codecs available, supporting playback at 720 x 480 pixels and 30 FPS in NTSC as well as 720 x 576 pixels and 25 FPS in PAL format.

Extensive testing proved video performance to be very good indeed, albeit it with a couple of snags; a lot of detail is lost due to the low resolution of the display, and unless proper care is taken when encoding, audio can get as much as 3/4 of a second out of sync due to the limited processing power of the AV700. This aside, audio quality proved quite good, although the bundled earphones should be avoided at all costs, and the video is certainly good enough for an on-the-go viewing experience.

Lest we forget, the matter of transferring media to the AV400 is a straightforward one: an integrated USB 2.0 mini jack lets the device mount either as a USB Mass Storage Device or as a Windows Media device (as part of its ability to synchronize with Windows Media Player 10), rendering it compatible with virtually every computing platform in existence. Also present is a USB host connector, which lets users transfer media directly from compatible devices such as digital cameras or other audio/video players - extremely handy.

Let's get technical

Provided users don't already have ready-made files that will play on the AV700 or wish to use it solely to record TV, Archos also bundles the well-known VirtualDub software complete with a simplified front-end adapted specially for the AV700 dubbed (get it?) MPEG4 Translator. Unfortunately, a certain amount of technical prowess is required to understand all aspects of converting files such as downloading and installing codecs, configuring settings and understanding how aspect ratios and more comes into play - but in the name of fairness, a bit of trial and error should leave the vast majority of users with acceptable results.

Navigating the AV700 is a fairly simple procedure, with the unit providing an informative and colourful interface that has a quite comfortable learning curve. Once media has actually been placed on the device, users are presented with thumbnail views of pictures and video to ease navigation, whereas music is traversed either by means of ID3 tags or a folder structure. The former is indexed into a database following every update of the file system of the unit, and offers speedy and intuitive access to music in a clever manner eerily akin to Microsoft's Portable Media Center platform.

Playlists for music can be created both on and off the device, although they aren't dynamically updated as files move - a minor drawback. There's also an iTunes plug-in which interfaces the AV700 with Apple's music flagship, although the benefit is minimal as DRM protected files can not be transferred to the AV700; MP3 only, unfortunately.

With such a broad feature set, it's no wonder the battery of the AV700 is as much of a behemoth as the device itself. Archos' claims are up to 4 hours of video playback and up to 30 hours of music playback; not too far off the mark, it turns out, as at maximum brightness we were able to crank out video for 3 hours and 40 minutes and music for about 25 hours. Needless to say, however, the higher the resolution and bitrate of the video file, the more resources are drawn and the shorter battery life gets.

Availability

The Archos AV700 is at the time of press shipping worldwide in configurations of 40 and 100 GB in the €600 and €875 EUR price ranges, respectively.


Pros:

Gobs of storage; super-size display; chock full of features; PlaysForSure compatibility
Cons:

Screen resolution mediocre; lacks integrated video out; average battery life
Conclusion:
Boasting a highly impressive feature set, the Archos AV700 is currently the most capable portable media viewer on the market. It does, however, require a certain amount of technological prowess from its user to operate at its full potential given the lack of polished media delivery solutions. Highlights include its massive screen and storage capacity along with support for the most widely adopted audio and video formats, with its ability to act as a Windows Media device and tag-based audio navigation particularly worthy of praise. In short, the AV700 offers a lot of bang for buck, as long manually transcoding video doesn’t present an issue - or isn’t needed.
85%
Very good


Price and availability

Available in the U.S. in June 2005, the Archos AV700 is priced at $475 to $650.

 

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