Before the smartphone revolution, Archos used to make the best PMP (personal media players) around. They were basically MP3 players with good video codec support and, usually, large enough screens to watch a movie on. Like hard drive MP3 players, PMPs have all-but bitten the dust, but the G9 101 boasts several fantastic benefits of its heritage.
The Archos G9 101 is the best Android tablet at playing video, bar none. It handles almost all of the most popular codecs used online, including DivX, XviD and MKV - missing from all of the cheaper top-end tablets including the Asus Eee Pad Transformer and Motorola Xoom. We fed the tablet reams of video types and it never failed. It played our challenging 42mbps 1080p MKV flawlessly, cementing its position as the class leader in this respect.
There are two minor quibbles with the overall video experience, though. The first is that, good viewing angles aside, you'll find better displays elsewhere. Archos also charges a premium for its Cinema plug-in, which enables AC3 5.1 audio and the MPEG2 HD video codec. This is only worth worrying about if you intend to make the G9 101 a home media player, using the miniHDMI output - because 5.1 audio isn't much use when being pumped out of weedy internal speakers or a stereo headphone jack. The video output mirrors what's displayed on-screen, which is the simplest and easiest way to go about a tablet video out.
Archos has given its media player a complete overhaul alongside the launch of the G9 series. The same menu look is still here, which we're not huge fans of, but it now also sports a neat cover flow-style video select system. This grabs a still from each video, using it as a preview image, and displatys them as an animated carousel. Flicking through this visually flash video browser is smooth and fast - and you can filter your videos to include only recently-added files, or those not yet watched. You can also link movies to their respective IMDB listings, integrating loads of details such as cast members, official artwork and so on.
Like its codec library, the media player is simply much better than what you get in almost every other Android Honeycomb tablet. Some might argue that the limited video support of other tabs can be remedied with third-party apps, but in our experience the lack of proper hardware acceleration means they tend to struggle with even 720p content. The G9 101 sails through most 1080p videos. Battery life when playing video is good too. It lasted a solid eight hours off a full charge when playing back a standard definition Divx video on loop.
The Archos G9 101 handles music in a similar way to films, offering the same nav interface, complete with natty cover flow system. Codec support here is also very good, including FLAC and OGG on top of the standards MP3, WAV and AAC. These are often left out of £100 dedicated MP3 players, and it's great to see them show up here. We would argue that the G9 101 is almost useless as a portable MP3 player, though. It's far too big, and even with a large-capacity microSD card installed, the size-to-storage ratio is awful.
Just as its microHDMI slot makes it handy as a home movie hub, there are some features that make it worth considering as an at-home audio player, aside from the decent format support. Built-in Bluetooth lets you connect to a compatible wireless speaker or audio sender, the Archos Remote app lets you control playback on the tablet using a smartphone and - failing the wireless option - the output from the 3.5mm headphone output is nice and clean.
Some other tablets we've tested, including previous Archos models, have audio outputs very prone to interference - and hence tend to sound rubbish. For a real multimedia powerhouse, it's worth waiting for the 250GB editions of the G9 tablets - the premium you have to pay isn't too painful. The 8GB of internal memory matched with a 32GB microSD card gives a potential storage of 40GB, which doesn't get near to matching this slightly chunkier hard drive edition.
A strength of the new G9 range is that it differentiates itself from the competition conspicuously with several of its models. The Archos G9 101's issue is that we're not quite sure it necessarily has enough to make up for its drab looks and cheap-feeling body. If it had come out alongside its rivals earlier this year, when the Eee Pad Transformer cost £379.99 (sans keyboard) and the Motorola Xoom a solid £449.99, the Archos G9 101 would have seemed like undeniably cracking value.
Its problem is that both these early Honeycomb entries now sell for £329.99 - just £60 more than the Archos. And recently, the BlackBerry PlayBook and Acer Iconia A500 have been on sale for less than the Archos G9 101. This tablet beats them all with its video support, but then both have much more of the desirability factor that's become a key part of the tablet allure.
And what of proper budget alternatives? The outlook is pretty bare at present, but several promising contenders are on the way. Viewsonic's ViewPad 10e offers a 9.7in IPS screen, just like the iPad, a 1GHz (single core) processor and Android Gingerbread for £199.99, while the Amazon Kindle Fire won't cost more than £199.99 given it's set to ship in the US for $199.99 in just a few weeks. Archos's G9 101 isn't going to seem very cheap for very long.
This is the most capable Android Honeycomb video player. Format support is excellent, the screen's decent and battery life compares fairly well with more expensive tablets. The power's there too - its dual-core 1GHz processor able to handle high bit-rate 1080p content with ease. What's wrong, then? It's the design and general performance. The plastic body just doesn't feel as nice as any of the pricier models, and several on-body bits get in the way while you're holding it. Plus there are just too many buggy bits to make it particularly enjoyable to use. When much more luxurious tablets like the Acer A500 and BlackBerry PlayBook are now available for less, the G9 proposition just isn't that convincing. It's just a bit too late.