- Review Price: £175.00
It seems that the key to a successful digital audio player is high-capacity combined with small form factor. The Creative Zen Micro that we reviewed a few days ago does a pretty good job of combining the aforementioned desirable features, but the 5GB capacity may be too small for some users. Enter the Archos Gmini XS 200 – a device that’s not too much larger or heavier than the Creative, yet it has a capacity of 20GB. Realistically though, I shouldn’t really compare the Gmini XS 200 to the Zen Micro at all – it’s real competitors are the Apple iPod, Sony NW-HD1 and Rio Karma.
Before we get too bogged down with comparisons, let’s cover the basics. When I first saw the Gmini I couldn’t believe it was a 20GB device, it just seemed too small. But then I compared it to the Sony NW-HD1 and realised that if Sony could squeeze 20GB into something so slim, Archos could squeeze 20GB into the Gmini. With dimensions of 73 x 58 x 20mm the Gmini is very pocket friendly, and weighing in at only 122g, you’ll hardly notice you’re carrying it. To be fair to Sony, the NW-HD1 is a much more stylish and sexy player, but the Archos is undoubtedly the better device of the two.
The Gmini XS 200 is finished in brushed aluminium with a chrome band surrounding it – it looks pretty good, but it’s not what I’d call a style icon. The front of the device is dominated by the large 2in (diagonal) screen. The screen is one of the major features of the Archos, and it’s surprising how big it is, considering how small the unit is. You can fit a massive amount of information on the screen, which makes navigating and controlling the Gmini reasonably easy. The 128 x 128 pixel display can display nine lines of characters, while the green backlight makes it easy to use in pretty much any environment.
Below the screen are the main controls, all three of them. Yep, that’s right, there are only three controls on the Gmini XS 200. The right hand button turns the device on, the left hand button switches it off, and the four-way joystick in the middle controls navigation. OK, it’s not quite that simple – when the device is switched on, the right hand button brings up a drop down menu, and the left hand button acts as a cancel control. Also, holding the right button will lock the controls to avoid inadvertent button pressing while the Gmini is in your pocket.
Now, although the control method on the Gmini XS 200 works well enough, it feels a bit clumsy when compared to the iPod or Zen Micro. However, those two devices have superb control methods, and the controls on the Gmini are no worse than on the majority of other MP3 players out there. In the top left corner of the fascia are three indicator lights – the On light shines blue when the device is operational, the HDD flashes red when the hard drive is being accessed and the CHG light flashes blue when the Gmini is charging. On the right hand side is a power socket and a standard mini USB port, and finally there’s a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the top.
When you turn the Gmini XS 200 on you’re greeted by four icons labelled Music, Browser, Resume and Setup. Music obviously takes you into the music library, Browser allows you to brows the contents of the disk as files and folders, Setup takes you into the setup menus and Resume will continue playing the music from the point where you left off when you powered the device down.
There’s no convoluted music manager with the Gmini XS 200, and music can just be dragged and dropped onto the device. You can decide on the file structure for your music, but you don’t have to navigate it by folder – once you’ve copied music to the Gmini you simply run the ARCLibrary update utility and all the music is integrated into the ARCLibrary. This allows you browse your music by Artist, Album, Genre, Title or Year.
One of the major criticisms that I levelled at the Sony NW-HD1 was that it was near impossible to create playlists on the device, but this is definitely not something that I can complain about with the Archos. Now, although most MP3 players use the bundled music manager to create playlists, the Gmini XS 200 makes it easy to create playlists “on the fly” using the device itself. When you edit a playlist on the XS 200 the screen is split down the middle, allowing you to select the tracks you want from your library on the left and add them to the playlist on the right. This means that you can be sitting on a train creating a playlist, rather than having to be sitting at your computer to do it – the Gmini even has a virtual keyboard so that you can name your playlists, tracks or albums.
When you’re playing music, the four-way joystick will control the playback and volume. Pressing the joystick in will pause/play the track, flicking it left will skip backwards and flicking it right will skip forwards. Pressing the joystick up and down will increase and decrease the volume – the volume level rises from 0 – 99, but strangely it jumps in increments of three, so realistically you have a volume range from 0 to 33.
One thing that I did find a little annoying is the sluggishness of the track navigation – skipping backwards and forwards through multiple tracks can be a slow procedure, and the hard disk light seems to spend a lot of time flashing. This could be because the data buffer in the Gmini XS 200 isn’t as large as an iPod for instance, but I have used the Gmini while jogging and it didn’t seem to have any access problems, even between tracks. There’s also no remote control with the Gmini XS 200, although the supplied headphones do come with an in-line analogue volume control. Unfortunately the volume control has no clip, so it hangs off the headphones – the result being that the ear buds are pulled out of your ears while you’re walking.
In the box you’ll find the Gmini XS 200, a mini USB to USB cable, the headphones and a power supply. There’s a very brief quick start guide, but no manual or documentation CD – the reason for this is that the full PDF manual is sitting on the Gmini itself, so you’ve always got the manual with you. Archos claims a battery life of around 10 hours and I wouldn’t argue with that. This puts it a couple of hours behind the fourth generation iPod, but given the Gmini’s dimensions, this is understandable.
Unlike the Sony NW-HD1 and the Apple iPod, the Gmini XS 200 will playback both MP3 and WMA files, instantly making it a more versatile device. Sound quality is pretty good, but nowhere near the quality of the Sony NW-HD1 playing 256kbit/sec ATRAC3 Plus content. The supplied headphones are nothing to write home about, and investing in a good quality pair of headphones will improve the sound quality no end.
When you’re playing back music, good use is made of the large screen. On display is the artist name, album name, track name, file type, stereo/mono, encoded bit rate, track time played, track time remaining and overall track time. You also get a track progress bar, and left and right channel level indicators. Oh yeah, at the very top of the display is a separate bar that displays battery life, volume level and play/pause status. If there is any more information that you’d want to have on an MP3 player display, I can’t think of it.
Of course the Gmini XS 200 doesn’t come with some of the bundled extras that you get with an Apple or Sony device, like a carry case or a docking cradle, but with a street price of only £175 including VAT it can easily be forgiven for its sparse list of extras.
The Archos Gmini XS 200 may not be as stylish as the Apple iPod, or have navigation that’s as slick. But it is smaller, lighter and a fair bit cheaper. You also get native WMA playback, which is definitely something that will appeal to PC users.
It’s impossible not to like the Archos Gmini XS 200. Despite it’s slightly clumsy navigation and lack of carry case and docking cradle, this is a fantastic little digital audio player at a truly amazing price. For the cost of a 4GB Apple iPod Mini, you can buy a 20GB player that’s about the same size, the same weight and plays back WMA as well as MP3. Ultimately, the Gmini XS 200 is in no way perfect, but when you combine the size, weight, capacity and price, it’s impossible not to recommend this little Archos.
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