Archos

I commute 2 hours a day by train and also frequently fly coast-to-coast, so I’m always looking for a good portable entertainment device. My laptop is fine to use once in a while, but for my daily commute I just don’t want to bother lugging it around. I have a portable DVD player and an iPod, but neither quite does the job…the iPod is great for music, but nothing else. Same for the DVD player and DVDs. Carrying them both at the same time is worse than having a laptop. I haven’t been impressed enough with portable video players to actually buy one. Then I came across the Archos AV420. Now that I’ve had it, I’m surprised I don’t hear more about them.

The AV420 is made for watching videos, playing music and viewing photos, and it’s pretty good at all three. Music-wise it’s primarily made for MP3s (and WMAs), which is fine by me since I’m not a fan of Apple’s DRM on iTunes. For video it uses MPEG-4 SP, which is not my first choice but is serviceable. And it will store and view any size JPEG for photos.

Since the MP3 player part works like most others based on MusicMatch, I won’t waste time on it, other than to say it’s fine for what it is. Same for photo viewing and storage. Video is where it gets interesting, since the AV420 is really a pocket-sized VCR with some fledgling Tivo-like abilities. Hook it up to your TV and you can record whatever is on, and you can also schedule recordings, including having the AV420 change channels with its IR suction cup attachment. You can do some rudimentary Tivo-style scheduling through a My Yahoo! Account but, since I have a Tivo and can dump recorded files directly into the AV420, I haven’t bothered with it. The AV420 has 20 GB of storage, enough for about 40 hours of video.

You can also record DVDs to the AV420 for playback on the built-in LCD screen, a brilliant 3.5 TFT. Unfortunately the AV420 will pick up macrovision encoding from standard DVD players, meaning you can’t play recorded DVDs from the AV420 to an external device like a TV. Since I bought it to watch on the train, this isn’t an issue for me, but could be a deal breaker for some. On the plus side, if you’re only going to playback the video on the built-in LCD, you can record the file at a lower resolution to save space. It will still look great on the LCD, since the screen is lower resolution than a TV.

You connect the AV420 to your computer via USB2, and since an XP machine will see it as an external drive, you can store anything you want on it (though it will only display the previously mentioned files). Very handy. It also has a CF card reader that can take an adapter so it can read most digital camera storage cards. I plan to use this on vacation to free up my meager 256K SD card when it’s full rather than carrying extra cards.

The AV420 has a docking cradle that is a bit of a nightmare in terms of design — a total of six 2-foot-long composite cables and an S-video cable dangle out the back, in addition to the power cable — but is perfectly functional otherwise, though I wish it had component inputs/outputs. That, aside from the macrovision, is the only real drawback for me. Battery life for video is 4 hours, but on the 20BG version the small rechargeable battery can be switched out so you can buy a second one for long trips. For me, 4 hours is fine for video, and that goes up to something like 12 for audio if you don’t use the LCD screen.

The street price of the AV420 is $450, and it tends to get two reactions. Either, wow, that’s pricey, I can buy a Mac Mini for that. Or, wow, that’s only $100 more than a photo iPod — what a bargain! I obviously fall in the latter category.

Manufactured by Archos

-- Craig Engler  

[*Newer models with more memory have since been released, such as the Archos 5, which offers 250GB for $300. -- SL]

Archos AV400
$467 (now $200)

Available from Amazon