Media players have gotten a lot of extra functionality over the last couple of years; Bluetooth, touchscreens, better video support and even more recently apps or widgets through special SDKs or flash. Perhaps the single most advanced media player on the market today is the Archos 5 Internet Tablet which runs the Android operating system on hardware that has more specs than half a dozen other players combined and that can run thousands upon thousands of Android apps, compared to other apps capable non-iPod players that can only show for a few apps. However, a player’s ability to work well can’t be read from specs alone. Read on for a full, very long review of the Archos 5 IT.
- Quick Look
- Dimensions: 143.2 x 78.8 x 10.4/20.0 (flash/HDD) mm
- Weight: 182g/286g (flash/HDD)
- Colors: Black, brown
- Capacities: 8GB/16GB/32GB flash + microSDHC slot or 160GB/500GB HDD
- MSRP: $249, $299, $379, $399, $499
- Screen: 4.8″ 800×480 16.7m color resistive LCD touch screen
- Battery Charge Time: 3-5 hours depending on method
- Batter Life: 7h Video, 22h Audio
- Audio File Support: MP3, WMA, FLAC, OGG, AAC, WAV. AC3 via optional plugin
- Recording Format: WAV
- Video File Support: MPEG-4, WMV, h.264
- Other File Support: More or less anything via third party apps
- Features: Built-In Speaker, FM Radio, Voice Recording, GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, Android applications etc.
- Controls: Touchscreen, some tactile controls
- Transfer Protocol: MTP and MSC (User Selectable), Network transfer and ability to transfer from microSD cards (flash version only) and USB devices (via dock)
In the box/accessories
The box contains the microUSB cable (not miniUSB- microUSB is to be the new standard, though still not that common), earphones, DVR station adapter and random paperwork. As for optional accessories you have a whole range of those; various docks ranging from small charging docks to battery docks and full fledged DVR capable remote controlled dock stations, GPS mount, cases etc. You can really do a lot with this thing if you get a few accessories, and the DVR capabilities are a nice touch. Grahm reviewed a DVR station back with the Archos 605 review and I don’t know if the model has changed since then, but if so it’s not that much. As for third party accessories you’ll mostly find screen protectors and cases; nothing that uses the docking ports.
Hardware and design
The Archos 5 Android tablet has some very nice specs under the hood; 4.8” resistive touch screen with a resolution of 800×480, 800mHz ARM CPU, WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth and capacities ranging from 8GB flash to 500GB HDD. All of these features are of course to make use of the operating system, which is Google’s Android- making the device more of a MID (Mobile Internet Device) than a PMP. Then again, you won’t find media format support like this on most Android devices.
The front of the player is mostly covered by the screen, with the exception of a mono speaker on the left side. Frankly it looks like a cellphone as the speaker is definitely placed to be used in portrait mode more than anything else. This is weird, since the only features on the player that makes most sense to be used in landscape mode is the video playback and that is also where you would be most likely to use the speaker at all. Therefore it’s a peculiar choice to go with a single speaker on one side of the player instead of stereo speakers (one on each side). They could even make the right speaker automatically turn off using the built in accelerometer if they wanted to, so that the result would be the same as it is now when used in portrait mode.
The left side of the player has the microUSB port as well as the 3.5mm (1/8”) audio jack. MicroUSB is seen by some as proprietary even though it’s not- in fact it’s becoming the standard for cell phone chargers in the very near future. Still, this isn’t a cell phone, and miniUSB would be a bit more useful (albeit that connector is thicker). A massive down-side of the device is the extremely slow charging through USB. USB of course charges at the same rate mA/V-wise, but the battery is apparently very large in this thing as it will take 5-6 hours+ to charge the battery fully depending on how much you tinker with the device while charging and the initial charge. Lithium based batteries charge 70% of the capacity in 1/3 of the total charge time and then the remaining 30% takes 2/3 of the total charge time. That paired with a battery indicator which has a tendency to jump all over the place for a couple of minutes after disconnecting makes it hard to determine average charge time as it depends on the initial charge and how stable the battery indicator decides to be. It won’t charge without turning itself on completely (if off), so that doesn’t exactly help with quick charging either as it has to run the device off the battery while charging it. You can use a USB charging with a higher mA rating to help the charging time a bit, but the best option is to get one of the smaller docks which come with AC adapters. The mini dock I got is pretty cheap and will charge the device a lot faster.
The bottom of the device has all the connectors that are used for docking; two proprietary HDMI-looking (though not actually HDMI) connectors as well as two exposed metal plates/connectors. I only have the mini dock myself which only uses one of the docking ports and not the exposed metal connectors, but I’m guessing they’re all in use on the larger docks such as the DVR station which is a lot more complex. Both the flash and HDD devices use the same docks, but the larger docks require a dock adapter (included with the device) to fit the different sized devices. Size-wise there’s a rather noticeable difference between the HDD and flash versions as the 2.5” HDD in the HDD versions add quite a bit of thickness to the device, turning it from a slim tablet into a fat blob that looks more like a UMPC. The bottom of the flash version of the device also has a microSDHC slot for extending the capacity, which is another difference between the HDD and flash versions as the HDD version doesn’t have that slot.
The top of the device holds the on/off button as well as the volume buttons. The back side is also very minimalistic, holding only the flip-out kickstand and the reset hole. Frankly, considering how buggy this device is (more on that later), the reset hole shouldn’t be a hole as much as it should be a normal button (or a switch, to stop accidental presses) since you’re likely to use it at least as much as the volume buttons and finding something like a paperclip to press the button in the hole is often hard.
The overall design of the device is pretty similar to that of the Archos5 non-Android, with the exception of a wider frame on the left and right side of the screen. This one is also plastic for the frame and with metal on the back and around the screen. The build quality feels very nice despite the plastic parts and the flash version feels like a very solid device. The HDD version is thicker, which means that it’s a lot more of a hassle to both hold and drag around with you, adding considerable bulk to any pocket.
The screen is what really stands out on this device, as 4.8” with an 800×480 resolution is extremely nice for things like photos and video. The screen looks very nice, has a great viewing angle and great colors, and I often use the Archos to watch videos on the go even if I have my netbook with me because the screen looks so much better. Watching anything on this is simply a delight. However, there’s a downside: the touch technology used. Dear manufacturers of MP3 players: you do NOT put a resistive touch screen on ANYTHING. Not anymore. It’s simply unacceptable, and the single biggest downside of the Archos 5 IT, and the reason it’s borderline a joke to put Android on. To make it even worse, this resistive screen is one of the least responsive ones I’ve used, which says a lot when it comes to resistive touch screens. For those that don’t know, there are two main types of touch screens used: resistive and capacitive screens. Capacitive screens can be found in devices like the Cowon S9, Zune HD and iPhone/iPod touch and work by detecting the tiny electrical field your skin generates. This allows for things like multitouch (on some devices), using glass or hard plastic screens and generally way better responsiveness. Resistive screens however, aren’t really touch screens as much as they are pressure sensitive screens; they have a plastic membrane on top of the screen which reacts to physical pressure. This allows you to use styli and other objects with no electrical field to interact with the screen, but it’s also more vulnerable (due to the need for that plastic membrane and hence you can’t put a hard protective screen on top) and a lot less responsive.
Part of what makes it less responsive is the fact that since you have to physically press down on the screen, you get more friction when moving your finger while pressing down, and you also risk that the touch sensitive membrane shifts and needs a recalibration or that it registers the pressure in the wrong place. I’ll touch more on why this is a very big deal on this device later in the review, but the bottom line is that Archos shouldn’t ever have used this outdated technology on a device like this. It’s like trying to sell a 2010 model car that needs to be started with a hand crank.
At the time of this writing, the latest firmware version is 1.7.77 which is based on Android 1.6, aka “Donut”. I’ve had the device since November, and was originally planning on doing this rather extensive review during the Christmas holidays. On December 24th however, Archos released firmware 1.6.08 which was based on Android 1.6 as well, but pulled it just hours after release due to an “issue” with the browser. Archos put up a notice saying that they’d hope to have it ready for Christmas, but would instead delay it “a few days”. Optimism got the best of me, and that wasn’t a good thing. By the time it was released the calendar showed January 20th. Hopefully this review will stay relevant for a while with this milestone out of the way, although Archos didn’t really add that much in the OS upgrade. It now supports the device’s resolution natively, which isn’t really noticeable in the base OS, but should mean that more apps will work. Archos release firmware rather frequently so bugs will get fixed and features added fairly often, but there’s no word on when the device will get Android version 2.0.
To actually upgrade the firmware, you simply use the internal function to do so over-the-air or manually download the firmware file and put it on your device. It’s recommended by Archos that you reset the device after upgrading to make it more stable, but frankly I’d personally recommend you wipe it at least 2-3 times using the restore feature every time you update the firmware. You might think I’m joking, but it actually is so bad that just reflashing the firmware doesn’t seem to actually clean the device and so you need to forcefully do so several times to make it run with less bugs and crashes. To add insult to injury, it cleans away all your apps and settings when you do so, leaving a hell of a mess to clean up and reinstall everything once the firmware is updated. That added with firmware updates as often as every week in some cases, makes the firmware aspect of the device an epic nightmare. You can say whatever you like about the proprietary nature of iTunes, but at least Apple has enough sense to include a backup-and-restore feature with the firmware update of their devices. I can’t even begin to tell how many times I’ve calibrated the touchscreen and accelerometer, told it my time zone, typed in my WiFi password and so on. I more or less gave up on having apps on the device as it would take me hours to get the device back how I liked it after each firmware update.
The Archos’ Android screen is basically divided in two main parts; a top menu that’s there at all times and a content area. On the desktop you’ll also have a tab you can pull out on the right to bring up the application list, and in most apps you have a second bar at the bottom with various controls. The top menu bar holds a permanent “back to desktop”-button, a back button, a drop down menu that varies depending on the application/menu you’re in, various indicators (WiFi, battery, clock) and a notifica
tion area. The notifications can be everything from a new unread email or Tweet to an application update, USB connection status, media library update in progress and so on. It’s more or less like the system tray on a Windows computer. The back button is probably the button you’ll use the most as it’s used for everything from skipping to the previous folder when navigating files to hiding the on-screen keyboard. The drop-down menu beside it will also change depending on the app you’re in, from bringing up a menu to accessing options and so on. To continue the Windows comparison, it’s like the “file” menu on top of every app in Windows.
It’s also possible to activate “button mode” which will move the top bar button to the side and add an on-screen d-pad to give you another navigation option. I don’t particularly like this mode myself as touchscreen navigation is both faster and more accurate, but the option is there if you want to give it a try.
The Archos uses a landscape mode Android desktop as its main menu, which is a desktop that spreads out over three screens. This is actually somewhat of a pain to get wallpaper working on as it spreads the wallpaper over three screens (instead of repeating), and a picture optimized for that will have to be very long and it will also get messed up in those menus that display wallpaper when the device is in portrait mode as the resolution will then be 800 which will leave you with a decent amount of missing space if you have a wallpaper that is optimized for the desktop. Also unlike most apps and menus on the device, the main desktop won’t rotate to portrait mode so even if you’re in an app and have turned the device to make the accelerometer rotate the screen, exiting the app will bring you back to a landscape oriented desktop.
Apps are accessed in three different ways on the device; the application list, desktop shortcuts, and widgets. The application list is a list you can access by opening the tab on the right side of the screen and simply list every app on the device. Pressing and holding any of these apps will let you drag a shortcut to the desktop, which doesn’t have to list all the apps or even any of them. Think of it as the start menu in Windows versus the desktop, exactly the same principle. Widgets on the other hand are desktop-only and are small running apps that can do a variety of things from controlling settings (backlight, WiFi on/off etc) to displaying pictures, news feeds from the Internet, battery status and so on. Widgets aren’t new to MP3 players of course as players like the Samsung P3 use them as well, and you can also use widgets on computer desktops, so the concept will be familiar to many people. Interestingly enough, the whole Archos-provided software package is accessible from a widget and only a widget, and none of the Archos-specific features will show up as an app. This widget consists of 5 bigger icons that can only be placed as a group and that have sub-menus that pop up when you touch them. For those that have used a PSP or PS3, think of this “launcher”(as it’s actually called) as a XMB with a horizontal, parallel secondary icon axis. The fact that you can’t access any of the Archos features in any other way or individually place icons is annoying as it takes up a lot of space on your main desktop. I for one never use the Media Club or Games icons and would happily place them on the secondary desktop to make room for more applications shortcuts on the main desktop. Even more so I’d like to be able to have normal sized icons for those features as well. It’s not overcrowded there yet with only free apps to choose from, but might be once there’s direct access to paid apps.
The lack of a portrait mode desktop is also a bit of a let down at times especially because it’s the only part of the device that doesn’t support it (except video playback). Android in itself is made for cellphones first and foremost, which are usually portrait mode, though the high resolution of the Archos’ screen negates any issues that would arise with widgets designed for portrait mode. It does make it a bit clumsy to use on the go however as you don’t get a good grip on the thing with one hand if you have to hold it in landscape mode. Another small annoyance is that you can’t add shortcuts directly to Archos media center (the name of the media aspect of the device) components. For instance, I’d like a shortcut on the desktop that brings me directly to Music->Internal storage->Playlist, but that’s not possible. This isn’t really a feature I’d expect to be there, but since you have a giant desktop made for shortcuts and widgets it would have been a nice touch. Another missing “nice touch” is also a playback control widget that would let you control music playback from the desktop.
As I mentioned above the whole Archos side of the device software is a widget on the desktop that launches an app called the Media Center. For music, videos and photos you have the ability to browse either by internal storage (or SD card) or network. These options are more or less just filtering file browsers and you can find the files just fine using the normal file browser. In fact, the Archos browser requires a library database file to find files, a feature which has proven to be quite buggy. Crashing is one thing, but more annoying is when it simply can’t find any files. As I write this I have 5-10 videos on the device, and only the stock file browser can find them- the Archos browser refuses to acknowledge there are any media files on the device at all. You also don’t have the ability to move files around, which you can do with the stock file browser.
The video browser is pretty basic, listing the files and showing a small animated thumbnail beside it. A nice touch, but it takes a few seconds to make the thumbnail appear, so it’s mostly an aesthetic thing when you browse for the sake of browsing not for quickly finding a file. You can also browse in portrait mode, where the view is the same as in landscape just adjusted for the different relative resolution. The video part of the desktop widget also has options for a TV scheduler and video recorder; however these are features that require the DVR station to work at all. This is the first you’ll see mentioned of something that is very typical on this device; menu items and features that look good, but that require additional plugins or accessories. You get access to some new features (web radio etc) via a free plugin when you register the device, which is just a not-so-subtle way of forcing you to register the device, but you have to pay for a LOT on this device. Video codecs, GPS software, hardware accessories, games and so on. Sometimes this device reminds me of a cheap airline flight; you have to spend extra to make use of things you thought you were getting in the original price.
With the music browser, you get more of a media experience when browsing compared to the stock file browser. You have the option to browse by folders, cover art, artist, album, title, genre, year and rating as well as an option to browse playlists. In landscape mode, you have a sidebar on the left of the list you browse which displays information about the selected file/folder. This range from showing how many albums there are when selecting “albums”, to showing album art and track info when going deeper into the browser. You can also delete files as well as search for files and create and manage playlists from the browser. If you hold the player in portrait mode however, you just get the clean list of files and no extra info. This method is more useful for simple browsing as you see more of the music list and it’s easier to scroll fast. There’s something special about browsing you music on a 4.8” screen, a feeling you simply don’t get with anything smaller.
Unfortunately the experience is ruined by the slow and awkward list scrolling on the device- an issue that’s with eve
ry list from settings to video files but most noticeable with music since those lists tend to be the longest. The first has to do with it being a resistive touch screen as mentioned earlier. The friction caused by the fact you have to physically press down on the screen to make it react makes it feel like you have to use force to pull the lists up and down, especially if you’re used to capacitive screens. The second is a combination of slight lag when moving about the menus and the lack of a feedback mechanism for when you reach the top or bottom of a list. Other manufacturers such as Microsoft has solved this in different ways by making the lists expand or snap back into place, but on the Archos 5 IT it simply stops. Since anyone who’s had this device for more than 5 minutes have already discovered that a list that isn’t scrolling doesn’t equate a list that has nothing to scroll to (due to lag and an unresponsive screen), you’ll find yourself trying to scroll past the end of a list a lot. Again, if you’re used to interfaces that solves this in a more user friendly manner, it sort of feels like an elevator that doesn’t gradually slow down but rather goes from full speed to full stop in a millisecond. It’s another great example that Archos are great hardware designers, but really should outsource the entire software part of their devices to someone else…
One nifty feature that deserves a mention is the cover browsing mode for music. This basically lists music by album art only, where the highlighted album is slightly larger than the rest. It’s very basic and since this mode is more or less only for eye candy use it could learn a lot from other media browsers, particularly Canola comes to mind as an example of what this feature could have been like. The fact it takes forever to load the album art before it can display them properly doesn’t exactly help the usefulness of the feature, and there’s a lot that could and should have been done to make it useable.
The photo browser is basically the photo version of the album art browser. It displays pictures in the same way once you navigate to a folder that contains actual pictures, and the same basic issues apply as well. I transferred about 150 photos to the device after resizing them to fit the screen perfectly, which means photos that are about 0.3-0.4 mega pixels. Even with pictures that small, it took about 1.5 seconds to cache each and every thumbnail which means that since it displays 24 photos on the screen at a time, every new screen I scrolled down meant 40 seconds of it simply loading thumbnails. When viewing the photos full screen and scrolling through them that way, you just get a very choppy animated transition that makes it look like the entire device is going to hang. I really don’t get what the 800Mhz is doing all the time but it has to be sitting in the background playing with itself or something because in every single aspect of the interface the Archos 5 is slow, sluggish and choppy and has a lot more trouble keeping up than the Nokia N800 tablet I had a few years ago had, and that thing had the same resolution and only a 400Mhz CPU. Bottom line is that with an interface this slow, you really have to want to show off pictures to use this device for it. The slideshow option in the photo browser is rather ironic as slideshow is a perfect description for the interface itself. Though if you do want to watch photos on the device, at least the big, nice looking screen will make the actual picture look great…once it loads.
Despite it running Android, having a GPS, games etc the Archos 5 Android is still really a PMP. The main reason most people would buy this device is for video, since that is what it’s designed for. A giant, gorgeous high resolution screen and all the format support you could imagine is pushed into the device, and this aspect of the player works rather well. On paper, the supported video formats are MPEG-4 up to 720p (this of course includes codecs such as Xvid), WMV up to 480p and h264 up to 720p. You can further add support for WMV HD and MPEG-2 by buying an additional plugin. MKV support is also listed in the video specs on Archos’ site, however since MKV is not a video codec but rather a video container (see this if you’re not following) it’s a peculiar thing to list one single container format among the actual video codecs supported (without listing other containers such as MP4 or AVI), but I guess they just want to get the point across. Either way, the point is that all those MKV-packaged h264 files out there will play on the Archos 5 IT as long as the resolution is 720p or lower, where 720p = 1280×720 pixels. To cut even more to the chase: this device is optimized to play 99% of all illegal video files on the Internet, so all those episodes of House that you haven’t downloaded because it’s illegal would have played if you had downloaded them. Which you haven’t, of course. The same goes for the 720p versions of such files, they will also work fine.
The Archos 5 IT also supports YouTube, although the Android YouTube app is not possible to get a hold of without going beyond the official support of the device- more on this in the app section. You can browse through the browser of course, and any video that support mobile viewing will open full screen in the video player. That also includes 720p YouTube videos, though the stability of that feature has been so-so the last couple of firmware releases. There’s also been some instability with regards to the playback of other codecs with videos that have been encoded in a specific way, such as with weighted p frames or subtitles, but a lot of these issues have been fixed. Refer to the firmware change log to see a full list of video codec fixes.
As for having to buy additional codec support on the side, that has always been a touchy subject with Archos as they’ve done it in the past too, even with things like web browsers. There is a certain logic to keeping the licensing cost of codecs at a minimum and letting customers decide for themselves what they need, but the pricing Archos has for these additional features makes it very clear that monetary gain is the real point behind it. As I’ve said before, the whole device looks ad support when you first look around the menus, and having to buy plugins to get full functionality on a device this expensive is greed and nothing more. Not that it will stop Archos from doing it in the future, I’m sure.
All the video playback is handled in landscape mode only and full screen, be it normal video or YouTube. You have a progress bar on the bottom which can be used to scan through the videos, and I’m impressed by how fast it gets back on track after you’ve done so- no waiting/caching while it gets everything going again. You can also scan using the next/previous buttons, which is equally smooth. On the bottom left corner you have the play/pause button, and some videos also play/pause when you tap the screen to bring up the controls. I say “some”, because I haven’t been able to find a logical pattern to this as some videos don’t pause when you tap the screen, while others do. The right side of the video playback screen is the volume control, which can either be controlled on-screen or using the dedicated buttons on top. If you bring up the drop-down menu from the top right corner you get options including file info, screen format (full screen, original etc), speed, video and sound settings and options to use the current frame as wallpaper or the video file thumb. The video settings are pretty handy as they not only have options for play mode- something normally reserved for music on a lot of players- but also lets you co
ntrol the screen brightness without leaving the video player to access either the desktop widget or settings menu to do so. What I do miss however is a bookmarking feature, as the auto-resume feature isn’t stable even with the internal videos and don’t work at all with network streaming. Speaking of streaming, you can stream video from UPnP servers and view them directly, as well as transferring them to the player (though the latter is slow and requires you to use the stock file browser as the Archos Media Center doesn’t support this). I have all my computers set to share media and the Archos found them all and was able to play media from them. It’s a bit slow with indexing servers, but it works just fine. All in all video playback is what this device is made for, and it accomplishes the task very well. Between support for all kinds of formats and a very nice screen to watch the videos on, it’s really a good video player despite its other massive flaws (which I’ll get to later).
As with video formats the Archos 5 IT can play just about any common music format out there; MP3, WMA, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis and AAC. If you buy the “cinema” plugin for video you also get AC3 support, which is an audio format but used for audio in videos not standalone music. The latter even supports 5.1 if you have the DVR station and can use optical out, which is a neat feature to have if you have a surround receiver. Considering the fact this device can be found with capacities up to 500GB, FLAC support might at least in theory be a nice offering to audiophiles, though the sound quality is a different matter I’ll touch on later.
Unlike the video player, the music player can be used in both landscape and portrait. You have the same info on the playback screen of both modes, just arranged a bit differently. In landscape, you have the progress bar and fast forward/rewind buttons on the bottom with the play/pause and next/previous buttons above that. The volume bar is located on the right, and the middle of the screen is filled with album art, track info and it also shows what song is coming next, which is a neat feature. In portrait mode the setup is basically the same, but the album art is bigger and placed above the track info. The progress bar is also smaller, and the volume bar bigger to compensate from the different relative resolution. I personally prefer portrait mode as holding a music player this big in landscape makes the device feel oversized and “two handed”. 4.8” of music playback screen is also somewhat overwhelming, but still very nice to look at. I wish they’d allow for customizing the playback screen however, as I’d personally prefer to have larger album art and smaller track info font size. Nitpicking aside, the interface looks good and clean for what it does. Settings-wise, you have sound settings for speakers on/off as well as a 5 band equalizer and play modes. Nothing too fancy, but it will do the job. You can also set bookmarks and rate the songs from the playback menu, though as I said under video the bookmarking feature would have been much more useful for video, not music. Especially since this isn’t optimized for podcasts or audio books.
Archos isn’t exactly known for the best sound quality out there, but somehow few people complain about that fact because most people either use it for mostly video, or use it for “everything” and isn’t really picky about sound quality. With the exception of those few who buy an Archos device to put 500GB of music on it, I don’t think I’m overstating it when I say that this is a video device more than anything. At least on Abi I doubt you’d find many people pairing an Archos with an amp and decent headphones. Anyways, my point is that Archos has always managed to quietly sidestep the whole sound quality criticism and simply been “the PMP brand”. That being said, I have a hard time faulting the sound quality of the Archos 5 IT. I’m not an audiophile myself and I’m a strong believer in making the headphones decide the sound quality and leaving the player side sound quality to just making sure it doesn’t work against the headphones (as there are players that do that). Considering the 500GB maximum capacity of the device and the FLAC support I’m sure someone with more audiophile ears will find something to fault with the sound quality of the device, but I’ll leave such nitpicking to them. On a sidenote, I actually tried a USB sound card with this device using the USB port on the minidock I have, and it didn’t work although the controls on the sound card (volume knob) actually did control the volume on the device. I don’t know how much is required to write audio drivers for it and if this has to be included on the kernel level or not, but if Archos made those inclusions I’m guessing they could sell quite a few devices over at head-fi. Not sure how the CPU would handle USB audio though.
The Archos also has a built in FM receiver, which gives you the very standard radio features you find on most players these days. You have the very typical manual and preset scan modes as well as a limited recording mode. Reception is so-so and depends on the headphones you use, but don’t expect to get a perfect signal inside building. Considering the web radio this thing has, the FM radio will be a backup for non-WiFi situations anyways, but it’s nice to have.
Being an Android device, the Archos can run a very large number of applications, making it the only media player beside the iPod touch that can do so if you ignore the half-assed attempts of players like the Cowon S9, Samsung P3, Zune HD and Creative X-fi 2 at doing so. Without the massive infrastructure of a multi-million device OS, you simply won’t get the developer support for a decent infrastructure. Luckily, Android has such an infrastructure, and the Archos 5 IT can run most of these apps- kind of. Archos is apparently doing their own “we can do it ourselves” thing with the app approach on the Archos 5 IT, and initially you only have access to a few built in apps and an app “store” called AppsLib. You can only access a few hundred free apps from the AppsLib library, if you can even get that far that is- AppsLib is the single buggiest application I have ever encountered on any platform. I have yet to be able to browse more than a few of apps before the app has committed some sort of amazingly peculiar virtual suicide and gone off to sulk in the corner until the next reboot.
Luckily there are alternatives, though not to the full capabilities of the device. You can basically install any app you want as long as you can get a hold of the .apk file (Android version of .exe). However, since these files are distributed mainly through the official device-only Android Market on other Android devices, getting these on the Archos is a pain in the rear bumper as it doesn’t have Market at all. There is a hack to get Market on the device, but only for free apps. There are also other third party app stores, but only free apps can be “bought” from those too at the mo
ment. To get paid apps onto the device you basically have to get a hold if it via another Android device or get it from someone who sells the .apk files through a website not an app. The result of all this is two-fold; first off, you can’t get nearly as many apps as you can on an Android phone (since you can’t get paid apps), and also the ones you can get very often have ads in them- because they’re free. The upside is that several big content providers have apps that are already free (since the content is what you pay for), so at least you can get those on there without having to wade through heaps of ads first.
There are several pre-installed apps on the device when you first get it, though these will quickly get lost once you start updating the firmware. You can get them back though, it’s just another annoyance you have to deal with. First off you have the GPS application, which is just a trial- the full version will cost you more of your hard-earned cash. The price depends on your country and map packages, but generally around 50 Euro. There’s a 5 day trial if you want to check it out first. More info on the GPS here.
Deezer is a music streamer app that only has a limited library of songs, all of them free. Then you have Craigsphone- a Craigslist app, Dailymotion (access to Dailymotion videos), DroidIn-lite (Linked-in profiles), a DVB-T app that can only be used with an unreleased DVB-T adapter. Ebuddy (instant messaging). High Paying Jobs (job finder), Moov (search utility), Quickpedia (Wikipedia), ThinkFreeMobile (document reader) and Yellowbook (yellow pages app). Most of these are just spam put there probably due to sponsorship agreements, and are rather useless. That is, some people might find them useable, but not enough people to actually warrant having them preinstalled. It’s just like bloatware on a new computer, and it continues to prove my point about this thing being a “cheap airline ticket”. ThinkFreeMobile is the exception, as it’s the only way to read documents on the device by default, and the screen is nice for reading documents; for school, work or whatever. The last built in application is called Twidroid, and is a Twitter client. This will be completely useless if you don’t use Twitter, but if you do it’s actually a rather nice piece of software…
One built in app that should get its own section is the web browser. You can install other browsers if you like, but the built in one is fairly decent. It works in both landscape and portrait and will trigger the mobile version of sites if available. This is a nuisance at times as 800×480 is enough of a resolution to view the normal page of many sites, and not all of them are so good at putting links to the default versions easily available- others are broken easily by links and you’re back to the dumbed down mobile version. To save screen real estate they’ve also removed the address bar and put it under the menu, which also handles bookmarks and tabs. You can download files as well as search for text on the site, which are handy features for a mobile browser. The zoom settings are unfortunately very awkward, as the “auto fit” setting has a life of its own. There are manual zoom controls, but you shouldn’t have to tell it that you hate horizontal scrolling every time you load a page. As for speed, it loads pages pretty fast but suffers from being a bit choppy and sluggish when moving around content intensive pages. Put in another way; the resolution speaks for full web pages, the speed speaks for mobile versions. Going back to the N800 example, the Archos 5 IT certainly isn’t any better at handling the web, which isn’t a good thing seeing how it’s (in theory) a lot more powerful. I personally wouldn’t use this browser for any extended periods of time as it’s simply too sluggish, and the resistive screen makes it a pain in the dorsal USB port to do anything.
The keyboard is technically an app as it can be switched out for other (better) keyboards. The default one is available in both landscape and portrait and will pop up when you click on a text input field of some sort. It has everything you need with regards to symbols and special characters, but it also has some major flaws. One thing that particularly annoyed me was getting rid of it; there’s no “down keyboard, down” button and it doesn’t react to pressing somewhere else on the page/app to indicate “this is what I want to focus on”. In fact it took me a while to get the logic of using the “back” button to hide the keyboard, as pressing the “back” button when you’ve spent a few minutes typing in text is the last thing you’d do in a web browser. The keyboard and top menu bar combined also do a fairly good job at hiding everything else on the screen, so you often find yourself typing blindly. None of this however is as bad as the hardware aspect; oh yes, here we go again with the resistive keyboard. This is where the flaws of this outdated technology really shows, as the keyboard is extremely hard to type on without a LOT of errors. I use an iPhone daily, so I’m used to touch screen keyboards, but the difference between a capacitive and a resistive screen is so high that I have ten times more spelling errors and 1/5 the typing speed on the Archos’ 4.8” screen in landscape mode than I have on the 3.5” iPhone screen in portrait mode- which is about half the size. It has nothing to do with either device’s software, but rather the hardware. With a capacitive screen, you only have to slightly touch the screen for it to notice the input, which means less distance for your finger to travel and less distance for it to clear to avoid gracing other keys when removing the finger from the key. The very tip of your finger is rather pointy, and so it becomes fairly accurate when you get used to it. A resistive screen however, as it requires a physical pressure to react, won’t react to the pressure of just the tip of your finger because it’s not enough to “dent” the pressure sensitive membrane. You need to force the finger down harder, which flattens the tip of your finger from the pressure, making it blunter. This in turn makes it less accurate. Combine this with the weaker accuracy of the technology in itself (same reason it needs calibration; the membrane moves around slightly and isn’t as accurately aligned with what’s actually on the screen as with a capacitive touch screen). As the keyboard is designed for thumbs more than anything, and thumbs are the largest fingers with the most “padding” to make it blunt, the end result is a keyboard that is very annoying to use with your fingers. Check out the video below to see my point more clearly. Now the good news is that the Archos 5 IT supports both Bluetooth and USB keyboards (the latter requires a dock with a USB port) so it’s not all lost, in fact the Nokia N800 I’ve mentioned wasn’t any different when it came to the keyboard as it too had a resistive screen, and I used that for school by carrying a foldable Bluetooth keyboard. If you really want to be productive with this device- as an email or forum device or anything that requires a lot of typing- you can. The issue however is with daily use; typing URLs, user names etc. For such uses you probably won’t bother connecting a keyboard, and will be stuck with the on-screen one.
While Archos hasn’t yet gotten an agreement with Google (or whatever the problem is) to include the standard Android package with the Archos 5 IT, there are ways to get it working. With the current firmware, all you need is an .apk file and you can get all the glory of Android Market and other Google apps right there on your Archos. For information on how to do this as well as other useful links and information, check this site. When you have it installed, you’ll have a YouTube app, Gmail, Google Maps
and Market on your Archos. Market will only show free apps, but you still have an enormous selection compared to the stock app store, and even though you’ll see a lot of ads due to the apps being free you can find most of what you need there. YouTube and Gmail aren’t that useful since the built in email app is decent enough and browsing YouTube videos through the browser is a better choice since they will then play in Archos Media Center instead of the YouTube app (the latter had some playback issues when I tried it), but Google Maps is very useful if you don’t want to pay for GPS software. It’s not the Google Nav version though, just normal Google Maps, so it’s more of a map book than a GPS, but it’s still useful.
There are a lot of third party apps that are useful on this device, though as a media centric device there are a few that stands out. eReader is one of those, and it’s basically a client for reader ereader.com books. These are paid books bought from ereader.com (aka fictionwise) and they have software clients for multiple platforms and a great selection. I’ve used them on other devices before and it’s a great service that takes advantage of the big Archos screen. Of course it’s an LCD not e-ink display, but if you don’t mind reading on such screens it’s perfect. Personally I actually prefer LCDs as I tend to read in the dark at night and like having the backlight there, even if it’s turned down almost all the way. The app can be downloaded for free by going to ereader.com/android on your Archos and downloading the installer. If you want to read free books, the Market and the other app stores have several eBook readers that will let you read non-DRM formats and you can also find heaps of comics; both comic readers and comic strip clients for web comics and so on. The one thing I do miss is a Zinio client, a service I myself use a lot. They sell digital editions of paper magazines and just launched a very nice iPhone client, though it took them 9-10 months so I don’t know if an Android client is realistic in the close future. 480×800 would be a lot better to read magazines on than 320×480, so if they do make a client it will add a lot of functionality to the Archos 5 IT, at least speaking for myself.
Spotify, Listen, Last.fm etc
Android may not be able to compete with the iPhone’s range of apps, but a lot of services are starting to come out on Android as well. Spotify is one example, which is a music service I’ve reviewed and showed off on the Archos 5 before http://www.anythingbutipod.com/archives/2009/12/spotify-review.php. Google Listen is an Android-only piece of software that is basically an advanced podcast application, and should definitely be a useful tool for those who love podcasts. There are also other services such as Pandora, Last.FM and others available, though I can’t attest to any of those personally as they are US only services. The point is that as I said earlier, Android is a real OS compared to what Microsoft, Creative and the other manufacturers are calling application ready, and that also means you have access to a lot of media services through various downloadable apps. It’s a pain in the exhaust pipe to get a hold of the clients at the moment due to the app store limitations put in place by Archos, but once you actually get the installer most apps made for Android 1.6 should work just fine (obviously I haven’t tried them all, but haven’t run into any issues so far).
I already mentioned Twidroid as one of many Twitter clients for Android, and of course Facebook has its own application as well. It’s not really designed for this large a screen and look a bit off at times, but it works great and let’s you check up on what people are doing whenever you want. As with media services you can expect to find clients for a lot of social sites out there, and if not you can always access them online. Our own forum is perfectly useable from the web browser, although the keyboard leaves you with some limitations for productivity (unless of course you add an external keyboard as I said earlier).
Apple tends to brag about 140000 apps in their app store, but if you subtract all the fart simulators and flashlight apps you get considerably less. The same concept goes for Android, especially since you’re limited to free apps for the time being. There are however still nice apps to be found, some of them I’ve mentioned above. You can also find games, productivity apps, desktop widgets and other peculiarities that work surprisingly well for free apps, but you’re going to have to wade through a lot of crap to find those gems. Installing the “market hack” to get Android Market on the device is definitely recommended as it has the most crap but also the most useful applications, both due to being the biggest, and there’s a lot of stuff you simply can’t find in the third party app stores- especially not in AppsLib.
Our CMS can’t handle a review this long, so I had to split it in two. Click here to read the second part.