- Review Price: £275.00
Best Portable Media Player(/centre)
You may be wondering why it has taken so long for me to review the Archos 5 Internet Tablet, and considering that I attended the launch event back in September, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I’d forgotten about this device. The truth however, is that I have been using the Archos 5 Internet Tablet for the past couple of months, but it is only now that I feel it is worthy of a review.
Why so? Well, to be perfectly frank, when I first received this device it simply didn’t work properly – it refused to output audio properly via headphones, it locked up and crashed all too frequently, it stopped playing video files mid flow, stating that the file format wasn’t supported when it clearly was, and it had a nasty habit of spending hours checking the hard disk (which is actually solid state memory by the way), leaving me with no media player for my entire train journey.
However, a couple of months and many firmware updates later, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet is finally a device that’s worthy of its specification. In its current state I can honestly say that this is a very impressive personal media player with a feature set that other devices can only dream of. Unfortunately the early teething problems that I experienced with the Archos 5 Internet Tablet are not unusual for the brand, which is why I chose to wait a little while before tackling the review.
Of course I could have reviewed it with the original firmware, but experience told me that there would be numerous updates in the early life of this device that would, for the most part, solve the litany of problems that plagued it in its formative days. Looking at the big picture though, where this review will stand forever, it made more sense to give you an idea of what this device was really capable of. That aside, Archos as a company really needs to start shipping products that are stable and usable from day one, rather than leaving it to early adopters to perform quality assurance duties!
Looking at the hardware, it’s clear that this is a serious portable media player. There was a time when Archos devices were all about features, with design seeming like a distant afterthought, but the Archos 5 Internet Tablet looks fantastic and feels great in the hand too. The device is dominated by the 4.8in screen, which is a real beauty – the colours are rich and vibrant, while blacks are surprisingly deep, making this a truly excellent movie machine. Add to that the excellent viewing angle, and the Archos 5 Internet Tablet can happily entertain more than one person.
On the downside, this is a resistive screen rather than a capacitive one, which means controlling it with your finger isn’t quite as easy as it could be. To be fair, Archos has produced one of the best resistive screens I’ve used, but it still falls foul of being slightly sticky, and I often find myself selecting something random when I’m trying to scroll down a list. This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but it does make the Archos 5 Internet Tablet slightly frustrating to use at times.
Another frustration is the accelerometer, which is somewhat erratic, to put it mildly. The orientation is supposed to switch from landscape to portrait as you turn the device, but I constantly find it switching randomly for no apparent reason. To be fair, this problem has improved significantly after the many firmware updates, but it’s still there, and still annoying when I find myself having to turn the device through 90 degrees for no good reason.
While I’m on the subject of issues with the hardware, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet can also be incredibly slow in operation. I often find myself waiting for what seems like an age after making a selection. Even something simple like pressing the Back or Home buttons can leave the Archos 5 thinking for a while before responding. Considering that there isn’t much on my device other than the core applications, I can only assume that this will get worse if you start to install more apps.
It has never been easier to install new apps to an Archos device, because this is the first PMP that the company has produced that runs Google Android. Just like the plethora of mobile phones that sport the Android platform, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet can access and download a whole library of apps via the AppsLib store. It comes with a base suite of Android apps installed, some more useful than others, but the real win is the ability to download apps that suit you, just like with an iPhone or iPod touch.
If you’re an Android user you’re probably wondering why this device doesn’t use the Android Market to download apps like every other Android device. Well the answer is that the Archos 5 Internet Tablet can only use Android apps that are specifically designed for it, which kind of limits the usefulness of the Android implementation in the first place. As things stand, the level of Android support on offer for the Archos 5 is fairly limited, and while this will no doubt improve with time, I doubt it will ever compete with what’s available via Android Market.
It’s the media functionality that really makes the Archos 5 Internet Tablet worth considering. That 4.8in screen makes this a fabulous device for watching video, whether that be catching up on your favourite TV shows, or watching a classic movie for the 100th time. I’ve never been totally sold on serious video watching on the move, but with the Archos 5 Internet Tablet you simply forget that you’re sitting on a train or plane. Over the past couple of months I’ve watched three seasons of The Wire while travelling into London and back each day, and the journeys just flew by as a result.
As is usually the case, codec support is simply brilliant. I’ve ripped my entire DVD collection to my NAS box, leaving them all as VOB files, and copying a few to the Archos 5 resulted in a superb movie experience. Not only is the image quality excellent, you can choose to leave the aspect ratio as it should be (the best choice), or adapt it to fit the screen. The Archos 5 had no problems playing back DivX or Xvid files either, while high definition MKV files also posed no problem to this hardcore handheld.
One thing I will say about watching HD content, is that with the screen’s 800 x 480 resolution, you can’t really see any image quality improvement over SD video. That said, you can purchase a TV out module for the Archos 5, which will then allow you to pump 1,280 x 720 HD content to your high definition TV, which could be quite handy if you don’t have a media streamer that supports MKV. While I’m on the subject of HD footage, the Archos 5 won’t playback h.264 files until you’ve registered the device. This is slightly annoying, but you only have to do this once.
You can buy a TV tuner module for the Archos 5. Not only will this allow you to watch TV on the move, but you can also turn the device into a PVR, thus recording programmes directly to the Archos 5 for viewing at a later date. You can also hook it up to a set-top box and record from that using the TV dock. You can stream video from a PC or NAS appliance on your network, using the built-in Wi-Fi adapter. This worked flawlessly in my house, streaming Xvid, VOB and even MKV files from my Netgear ReadyNAS NV+.
One interesting point about video playback is that according to the Archos website, this device won’t playback MPEG2 or VOB files without first installing the optional Cinema package, but I had no problem playing back both formats without installing anything.
Audio codec support is excellent with the Archos 5 Internet Tablet supporting MP3, WMA, WMA with DRM, non DRM AAC, AAC+, Ogg Vorbis and Flac! While having Ogg support is nice, it’s the inclusion of Flac that will make this device appeal to audiophiles. OK, so the Archos 5 isn’t really small enough to be used as an every day, pocketable digital music player, but if you do happen to have it with you on a long journey, you won’t be disappointed by the sound quality it produces. Coupled with a decent set of earphones (a set of Shure SE530s in my case), this Archos is an above average music player, especially if you happen to have ripped all your CDs to Flac.
Inside the Archos 5 Internet Tablet is an ARM Cortex processor running at 800MHz, along with a secondary 430MHz DSP processor. The integrated Wi-Fi adapter supports 802.11b, g and n, while you also get Bluetooth 2.0. The latter supports A2DP for streaming stereo music to a suitably equipped receiver, while also allowing the Archos to get online using a tethered mobile phone. There’s also an FM transmitter included so that you can stream your music to any FM radio – handy if your car stereo doesn’t have an auxiliary input of any kind. There’s also a built-in GPS receiver, although you only get a seven day trial of the GPS application, after which you’ll have to stump up some cash.
The integrated Wi-Fi makes the Archos 5 Internet Tablet a great, well, Internet Tablet. The built-in browser is very usable, as is the software keyboard, making web browsing a breeze. In fact, when I’m at home on my sofa watching TV, the Archos makes a great browsing tool when I get bored or have a burning need to look something up.
Archos is keen to push the gaming aspect of the Archos 5 Internet Tablet, but on this score it’s clearly outgunned by the iPod touch. There’s support for basic Flash games, and of course with Android in residence, there’s the prospect of downloading games from the AppsLib. However, when you compare this to the sheer number of games available on the Apple App Store, Archos simply can’t compete.
Personally I don’t see the somewhat poor gaming experience as a problem, since I didn’t buy an iPhone to play games, and likewise, I have no intention of using my Archos 5 Internet Tablet for gaming either. If I really want to play games on the move, I’ll throw my Nintendo DS in my bag – compared to a proper handheld gaming console, even the iPod touch doesn’t cut the mustard.
The Archos 5 Internet Tablet comes in many flavours, with both solid state and hard disk storage options. The version I have here is equipped with 32GB of solid state memory, while the microSD card slot allows for storage expansion. Here the Archos beats the iPod touch, in that the storage can be easily and cheaply augmented, while the only way to get an iPod with more storage is to buy a new one.
Of course if you want more built-in storage, you can get a 64GB solid state version to match the top capacity iPod touch. There’s also an 8GB solid state version, but that seems slightly underspecified for a device like this. If you really want to carry a huge library of music and video with you, you’ll probably want to opt for one of the hard disk based versions. The hard disk devices are slightly larger and heavier, but having up to 500GB of storage in PMP is pretty compelling. There’s no microSD card slot in the hard disk versions, but you’d be unlikely to need one.
While I’m on the subject of storage, another major advantage that the Archos has over the iPod touch is drag and drop. Even the most enthusiastic Apple users surely must lament having to use iTunes for absolutely everything. It’s that constant syncing with your registered iTunes computer every time you want to add or remove something from your iPod that drives you mad, making you wish that you could simply just drag and drop files from any computer onto your device. Luckily for Archos users, that’s exactly what you can do.
Battery life depends on what you’re doing with the device. Archos quotes 22 hours of music playback, which is pretty impressive at face value, but let’s not forget this is a large device, so has a large battery. I can’t see myself using the Archos 5 Internet Tablet as my primary music device simply by virtue of its size, but as a mobile video player it excels, so video playback battery life is far more important. Archos quotes seven hours video playback, but in use I found that around five and a half hours was more realistic.
It’s worth remembering with video playback battery life will also depend on what codec you’ve used. If you’re watching a 720p h.264 video, it’s going to be pushing the processor far harder than if you were watching a bog standard MPEG2 DVD rip. In fact you can tell just how much harder the Archos is working when watching an MKV HD file by how hot it gets in the hand – it’s not going to burn you or anything, but it will definitely keep your paws warm on a cold day.
With a price of £275 for this 32GB version, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet is more expensive than the iPod touch that Archos sees as its main competitor. I’m not sure that I agree though. I see the Archos 5 as a very different device to the iPod touch. I see this as primarily a video device, where as the iPod touch, despite its video capabilities, is still, in my mind, primarily an audio device.
I carry my iPhone with me everywhere since it’s my phone and my primary music player. My Archos 5 Internet Tablet comes with me when I know I’ll be sitting on a train or a plane and will have the time to watch some video. And there lies the differentiation – the Archos is a bit too big to sit comfortably in your pocket, but if it were any smaller, it wouldn’t be the excellent portable video player that it is.
Putting aside the teething issues with this device, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet is a very well featured portable media player, that is, in many respects, a joy to use. The 4.8in screen makes this a first rate video player, while the extensive codec support means that you’ll be able to playback pretty much any files that you have in your video library. Music playback is also impressive, while support for both Ogg and Flac should make audiophile types happy.
However, despite the plethora of firmware updates since launch, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet is still far from perfect. The resistive nature of the touch-screen is no match for the capacitive screens favoured by Apple. The result is that navigation of menus and lists isn’t as easy as it should be. Likewise, the accelerometer is somewhat temperamental in its operation and I still find my device randomly switching from landscape to portrait for no apparent reason. Then there’s the general speed of operation, which is nowhere near as swift as I’d like it to be. To be fair, it’s no slower than my iPhone 3G running the 3.0 firmware, but being as slow as a previous generation iPhone is hardly something that Archos should be shooting for.
Whether you want the Archos 5 Internet Tablet really comes down to what you need from your portable media player. If you see yourself watching a lot of video, and you want to be able to playback pretty much any file format without conversion, then there’s a lot to like about this device. The drag and drop nature, coupled with expandable storage thanks to the microSD slot also make this Archos appealing. Those benefits alone go some way to making up for the device’s shortcomings, and if you’re willing to look past those shortcomings, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet is an excellent portable media player.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8