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Archos 5 Internet tablet with Android Review

by The Review CrewJuly 11, 2010

On paper, the Archos 5 touch-screen Internet tablet comes across like an Apple iPod Touch on steroids. Every spec is designed to be over-the-top, from the 720p HD video playback and 4.8-inch screen, to the integrated GPS, Bluetooth, and FM transmitter. The capacities on offer are also beyond belief, starting with a $249 8GB model with a slender body and microSD slot, all the way up to a chunky, hard-drive-based 500GB version selling for $489.

In short: every aspect of the Archos 5 is made to lure hard-core digital media nerds away from products like the Zune HD and the iPod Touch. Wish the iPod Touch had GPS? Try the Archos 5. Disappointed by the relatively small screen and limited video codec support of the Zune HD? The Archos 5 is a video junkie’s dream come true. Even the open-ended appeal of the iPhone App Store is addressed with the inclusion of a handful of Google Android applications and a built-in Archos download store where a limited selection of additional applications can be installed.

And while the barrage of features included on the Archos 5 are sure to feel liberating for technically demanding users, we suspect that the majority of people will prefer the more refined qualities and characteristics of an iPod Touch or a proper Android smartphone with full application support.

Design
This isn’t the first time around for the Archos 5. In 2008, a nearly identical version of the Archos 5 hit store shelves; the device shared many of the features of this 2009 model, yet lacked compatibility with Android applications. The complaints we held with the design of the 2008 model still stand: the whole thing is a smudge magnet; the headphone jack is placed right where you would hold the device; and the reflective screen is a step backward from the matte finish used on the beloved 605 WiFi.

That said, there’s plenty to appreciate about the Archos 5’s design and the improvements made to the latest models. For example, we love the built -in metal kickstand that hinges out from the back–a brilliant feature, especially for watching movie-length video content. The dimensions also make us happy, with the thinner 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB models measuring 5.5 inches wide, 3 inches tall, and a relatively svelte 0.4 inch thick (hard-drive models are twice as thick). In real-world terms, that means the Archos 5 is just small enough to fit into the front or back pocket of your jeans.

Aside from the Archos 5’s notable distinction as the company’s thinnest portable media player to date, the device is also one of the first from Archos to use a Micro-USB PC connection. Compared with the proprietary cables used on most Archos players in the past, the adoption of Micro-USB is a step in the right direction in terms of convenience, making it easier to acquire generic replacement cables. Proprietary dock connections on the bottom of the Archos 5 help to maintain compatibility with accessories such as AV media docks and battery packs.

Hardware features
The Archos 5 is crammed with so many features, that to make sense of them all, we’re going to break them out into separate sections for hardware, media playback, and Android. The most notable hardware features of the Archos 5 include Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, but lesser features such as an FM radio/transmitter, microphone, speaker, and accelerometer, are also worth mentioning.

If you’re going to call your product an “Internet tablet,” you can’t skimp on Wi-Fi support. Fortunately, the Archos 5 juggles 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi bands with ease and handles hot-spot sign-on pages with a dexterity befitting of its name. Advanced users also have the capability of tethering the Archos 5 to their cell phones, allowing the device to piggyback on a cellular data connection. In practice, however, setting up phone tethering involves a complicated dance of carrier access point names and Bluetooth pairing that is not for the faint of heart.

Next up, we have GPS, a feature Archos offered with last year’s Archos 5 but required an extra $130 for a car dock. Even then, Archos’ previous dance with GPS was a car-only system that you couldn’t walk with. In the latest Archos 5, GPS is built right into the hardware and users will only need to pay a one-time fee of $39 to activate the maps for a complete NDrive GPS navigation system.

In theory, the inclusion of GPS marks a clear advantage the Archos 5 holds over the iPod Touch. Unfortunately, real-world performance issues make the Archos 5 GPS experience more frustrating than it’s worth. Under the firmware we tested (1.2.03), we found that GPS reception took an inordinate amount of time to locate a signal around the San Francisco Bay Area. In the few instances where signals were strong enough to pinpoint our location, the GPS capabilities were surprisingly thorough, allowing for turn-by-turn driving directions and an in-depth, relatively accurate selection of local points of interest. But with an average cold-boot time of 45 seconds and the unpredictable amount of time it takes to locate a valid GPS signal, our experience with the Archos 5 had us feeling that it was more of an obstacle for travel than an asset. We can’t say that the GPS doesn’t work, but it certainly doesn’t work quickly and we’re reluctant to characterize the feature as a reason to buy the Archos 5.

We have no complaints when it comes to the Archos 5’s handling of Bluetooth. Our Altec Lansing Backbeat 904 stereo headset paired relatively easily with the Archos 5, offering the kind of audio quality and wireless range (around 30 feet) we expect from Bluetooth. Bluetooth 2.0 extras, such as AVRCP, EDR, and HID, help to extend the capabilities beyond basic A2DP audio streaming.

Unfortunately, the remaining Archos 5 hardware features either disappoint or barely warrant mention. For example, the microSD card slot included on the 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB models of the Archos 5 would sometimes declare various memory cards as being corrupted, yet recognize them after a reboot of the hardware.

The FM transmitter requires an attached pair of headphones in order to operate it, but it still failed to provide us with an acceptable signal among the clogged bandwidth of San Francisco. The FM radio receiver worked well and offers RDS station and song IDs, however, using a self-described “Internet tablet” for its FM radio feels like using a Lexus for its cigarette lighter. The integrated accelerometer is useful for reorienting Web pages but is slow to react compared with the iPod Touch or Zune HD. More often than not, we noticed the accelerometer as an irritation when it triggered accidentally while flat on a table or tipped too far back while walking.

Finally, little things such as the integrated speaker and microphone are nice to have, but without voice or chat apps to take advantage of them (not yet, at least), fail to capture the potential we’d expect from an Internet tablet.

Media features
Despite the manufacturer’s protest that Archos 5 shouldn’t be categorized as a mere portable video player, video playback is the Archos 5’s strongest feature. Out of the box, the Archos 5 offers support for AVI, WMV, MPEG4, h.264, MKV, and Flash video content, many of which support resolutions up to HD-quality 720p. For an extra $20, you can outfit the Archos 5 with a high-definition software plug-in to enable 720p video playback from WMV HD or MPEG-2 files.

The Archos 5 is clearly more than a portable video player, but it is no more deserving of the “Internet tablet” moniker than Apple’s iPod Touch. Like the Safari Web browser used on the iPod Touch or iPhone, the Android Web browser included on the Archos 5 provides an above-average mobile Internet experience, but there are some blind spots. Because the Flash Light support on the Archos 5 exists outside of the Android Web browser as an independent application, many Web sites and services are incompatible. During our tests, we found that simple Flash video sites such as YouTube worked fine, while sites such as Hulu, CNET TV, ABC, and Comedy Central, stalled the browser or played only the preroll advertising associated with the video.

Flash-based interactive online radio stations such as Pandora, Slacker, and Last.fm suffered similar fates, loading incompletely or not at all. For all of the complaints laid against Apple for not offering Flash media support on the iPhone or the iPod Touch, Apple’s use of dedicated applications offers users a workaround for streaming content from many of the services mentioned above. With the inclusion of a growing selection of Android applications (see Android section below), the Archos 5 may one day have similar application-based workarounds for these services. There’s also hope that full Flash support will come to the Archos 5 shortly.

The Archos 5’s music player is nearly identical to the previous generation. By default, the music player supports MP3, AAC, WMA (including DRM-protected files), FLAC, Ogg, and WAV files. You can also set up the Archos 5 to stream music over Wi-Fi from nearby computers or stream conventional Internet radio stations (sorry, no Pandora or Last.fm). During playback, the Archos 5’s music player displays album artwork, allows for your music library to be sorted by ID3 tags, and gives you the ability to bookmark long files such as lectures and audio books. One new feature to the Archos 5 is an album art grid view that offers a more visual overview of your music collection. The new view is pretty, assuming your music collection has been embedded with album artwork, but those with large collections will probably want to stick with the conventional list browsers, since the Archos 5 takes its sweet time when it comes to loading artwork thumbnails.

The included photo viewer is a mixed blessing. The supported formats (JPEG, BMP, GIF, and PNG) can be loaded in a mixture of resolutions via PC, microSD card, or an optional picture transfer protocol (PTP) available using the Mini Dock accessory. In a perfect world, the Archos 5 would make an ideal, large-screen, digital photo album, but unfortunately, it is a pain to navigate. Whether your images are large or small, each is granted a postage-stamp-size thumbnail image preview that takes about a second to load. More specifically, each photo’s individual thumbnail takes a second to load, creating a cascade of slowly revealed image previews that feels like surfing the Web on a dial-up connection. The inability to pinch photos to zoom or resize them only adds to the insult. Aside from the advantages of a larger screen and drag-and-drop image transfer, the photo experience on the iPod Touch or Zune HD is vastly superior.

As a gaming device, the Archos 5’s support for Flash games and Playin’ TV titles is more than most portable media players offer. Compatible Playin’ TV games can be purchased in bundles from the Archos Web site, however, general Flash game support is a hit-or-miss affair since many titles don’t lend themselves well to touch-screen control. Serious gamers will likely find products such as the Sony PSP or iPod Touch harder to resist.

Finally, if you’re bored with all of the content you’ve synced to the device, Archos gives you a few options for streaming media, as well. Any music or video stored on a locally networked PC can be streamed to the Archos 5 using Windows’ Universal Plug and Play protocol. Additionally, a Media Club menu on the Archos 5 offers directories for Web TV and Web radio, allowing video podcasts, local news, and a large assortment of global Internet radio stations to be streamed directly over Wi-Fi. For us, all the Web TV and radio streams in the world can’t compare with a reliable podcast download and management feature (such as the one on the iPod Touch and iPhone), but the Archos 5’s selection of well-organized media streams does offer an interesting diversion once your own personal content has become exhausted.

Android features
If there’s any merit to Archos calling its product an “Internet tablet” it’s the limited support for applications developed for Google’s Android mobile operating system. In theory, the inclusion of Android apps is a great asset to the Archos 5, giving it a flexibility and extendability to compete against the iPod Touch. In practice, however, the app selection is hardly dazzling and the majority of Android apps are not yet supported. Out of the box, Archos includes an app for Twitter, an instant-messaging client, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Moov, High Paying Jobs, Yellowbook, and a ThinkFree app for opening Office and PDF documents. But aside from the IM client and the document viewer, few of these apps really offer anything users couldn’t get from simply opening a Web page. Granted, the same complaint can be made of many iPhone apps, but if these are the killer apps that Archos deemed good enough to preinstall, we’re not impressed. Also, the two included media apps (Dailymotion and Deezer) don’t have the same appeal in the U.S. as they do in Archos’ native country, France. With any luck, someone will bring the YouTube, Pandora, Slacker, and Last.fm Android apps to the Archos 5 models sold in the states.

The most practical upside to the Archos 5’s adoption of Android features is the use of the Android Web browser and e-mail client. Compared with the Opera browser and sloppy e-mail support we experienced using 2008’s Archos 5, the Android-powered Web and e-mail is a breath of fresh air and one of the best alternatives to the iPod Touch we’ve tested. That said, Archos still has a long road in front of it. Copying and pasting text is a pain, most Web pages load in mobile format despite the large screen and high resolution, there’s no pinch zooming or multitouch keyboard and no predictive text entry, and we’re still not sure how Archos expects us to transfer our e-mail contacts over. In short, like much of the Archos 5, the ambitious features are commendable, but the execution is half-baked.

Performance
With Wi-Fi and Bluetooth deactivated, the Archos 5 is rated at 22 hours of audio playback and 7 hours of video (an optional battery pack accessory is available). Audio quality is unexceptional: comparable to the iPod Touch with its handful of EQ presets, but nowhere approaching the sonic flexibility of a Cowon S9, a Sony X-Series, or a Samsung P3.

The Archos 5’s video quality is untouchable, helped in equal parts by its large, high-resolution screen, and the impressive range of video codec support. Of course, with so much video muscle, we couldn’t resist the temptation of pushing things beyond the breaking point with 30fps MKV files and some of the Web’s more boutique formats. The Archos 5 can’t compete against a full laptop running VLC, but the quality and flexibility of its video player kicks the snot out of any other portable media player on the market.

Who’s this for?
The Archos 5 isn’t likely to make you more productive or better connected, and its GPS couldn’t reliably direct us out of a paper bag. Strip away the half-baked support for Android apps, the hobbled GPS, and all the other disappointing or uninteresting features of the Archos 5, and you still have a digital video connoisseur’s dream come true. More specifically (and honestly), a video “pirate’s” dream come true. After all, support for popular BitTorrent video types such as MKV, DivX, XviD, and h.264 aren’t there for your typical iTunes video download crowd. So let’s call a rose, a rose, and let the video downloaders rejoice. The rest of you looking for a true Android Internet tablet, move along.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.

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