By Richard Menta 11/14/02
Lately, there has been a "Swiss army knife" mentality among manufacturers of any type of digital device. It makes sense in many cases too. Here you have digital product that already has a good processor, significant memory and can perform other duties with slight modification or an add-on peripheral. If the device can do other things, why not offer options that stretch its capabilities beyond its core use? Especially if it means you can avoid carrying with you several devices simultaneously.
And that is what is happening. We have Cell phones that are PDA's for those who would carry both. We have PDA's and cameras that play MP3 files.
When Archos released the Jukebox Multimedia they had a unique product, one with a 20GB drive and the capability to play audio, video, and still images. No other portable unit does what the Archos presently does and to complement this Archos is releasing modules that can now capture still and video images. The Archos Jukebox Camera is the first of these modules.
Archos Jukebox Camera
The first thing you have to accept about add on modules to any device is that they are not meant to compete with devices designed for a specific use. For example, a good digital video camera will easily run you several hundred dollars, more than the cost of the Archos Multimedia Jukebox and camera module combined.
You need to set expectations. The video and still capabilities offered by the $100 Archos Jukebox Camera are meant to offer a quick convenient tool for those who are less interested in high resolution and pure color saturation than for the ability to email a quick movie file to friends and family. Not everyone wishes to invest in all three digital devices either and so to keep costs down they have no problem making compromises for the convenience of an all in one unit. It simply serves them better, especially if they expect to use it infrequently (think of all the people who buy pricey equipment they end up only pulling out a couple of times a year and you get the idea). If quality is the most important issue, you need to spend the money as the Archos Jukebox Camera was not designed for you.
The first thing we needed to do when we received the Archos Jukebox Camera was to upgrade the firmware in our Jukebox Multimedia. The initial OS that came with the unit was unable to recognize the Jukebox Camera when we attached it. We grabbed the latest version from the Archos site (It's also on the CD that comes with the Jukebox Camera) and installed it into the unit, a straightforward and simple process.
The Archos Jukebox Camera comes with the camera unit with 2x electronic zoom and a 1280 x 1024 imaging sensor. It also comes with an interactive CD manual and a viewfinder that snaps into the two tabs located on either side of the Jukebox Multimedia's display screen.
Attaching the viewfinder to the player requires removing the plastic filler pieces on the faceplate of the Jukebox Multimedia. These filler pieces are very small so resign yourself that you will probably lose them over time. Not an issue really as their existence is purely aesthetic, we would leave the off permanently.
We snapped in the viewfinder and then attached the camera module. The camera slots into the expansion port while simultaneously sliding into two metal tabs on the back of the main unit. You need to be conscious of the two slot tabs, sliding the module in carefully to make sure the unit is secured tightly. The next step was to power up the unit and we were ready to go.
The keys on the Jukebox Multimedia's faceplate are well sized and depress with a clean click. We do have a minor quibble with the 'On' and 'Off' buttons which we feel are a little too closely spaced apart to each other as well as to the navigation ring of Play/FF/Reverse controls. Navigation is also handled by three 'F' buttons, controls that change according to the particular menu screen and whose function is defined at the bottom of the display.
We found controlling to be intuitive with most of the camera controls handled
by the F buttons. Once the player is started hit the third F button, which at
this point says Record. Doing so will change all three F buttons to
The middle F button is always setup and will show the properties and set the parameters for whichever mode you are in. The left F button starts the recording. Overall the process to take an image through the camera module was intuitive - we had no problems.
Audio was handled through the microphone that comes with the Multimedia Jukebox.
Image Quality V. Convenience
Image quality was OK. The Archos Jukebox Camera is best served in outdoor light, especially since the unit does not come with a flash. Outdoors, both with still images and video the quality was decent, certainly good enough for a quick remembrance of a moment to be recorded and saved. We tested the unit on both a sunny and cloudy day, moving the camera from open to shaded areas to test how adept the auto iris was. The camera adjusted fine, though not particularly quickly. The iris moves in a series of steps rather than in a smooth open or close progression. Nonetheless, it worked adequately.
Indoors, the camera had a bit more trouble, though there is a setting that will allow for the player to compensate for tungsten light. The images appeared, but they were grainy. Furthermore, the low light conditions made the images soft and slightly off focus. This is not as much of an issue for video as movement obscures some of this, but still images will be less than satisfying. Bottom line, this camera works best with a lot of light, whether you are shooting indoors or out.
To put the camera through it's paces I shot some photos in the lowest light possible, taking pictures in the dead of night of some lit Halloween we carved during a party. Here the camera did a good job capturing the dim candle light, but blocking out everything behind it. Since these images had much more dramatic contrast, it bypassed some of the lowlight limitations of the camera. I shot video throughout the event, in both daylight, evening and indoor.
After my guest left the party I went over to my computer, uploaded the day's event to my PC and within 20 minutes had emailed copies to all the attendees. They all loved the images, limited as they were, because it gave instant gratification. This was especially true for those who checked their email shortly after they got home. I didn't just make a copy for myself to pull out at the next party, I made a copy for everyone and they all possessed it within hours of when the images were shot.
Regular still cameras can do what I did with the Archos and with a lot higher quality. So can digital video cameras, though they write to tape and the process to transfer is a bit more time consuming. Higher quality is more expensive (which is the point) and neither camera has 20GB hard drive to work with. The closest is for those cameras that can take IBM's 1GB Microdrives, tiny hard drives that cost four times more that the Archos Jukebox Camera.
If you don't have a digital still or video camera and want to shoot digital images on the cheap, the Archos Jukebox Camera will do the job. It has its limitations, but the camera worked easily enough and integrated well with the Archos Jukebox Multimedia. As we mentioned before, as long as you work within expectations you will be fine. We had fun with it.
We favor this module much more as a video camera than as a still camera simply because most still digital cameras are also small and convenient so the advantages of the Archos are less significant. Stills are also more dependent on the quality of the image to show detail and vibrancy and the quality of the stills we took were middling in all but the best light.
Video is another issue. Digital video cameras are much larger and heavier, therefore more of a chore to drag about (taking the player on vacation with the Archos Jukebox Camera is a lot more convenient). Video is also less chained to the image resolution of the recording, so it's much easier to live with the camera's limitations. The cost difference is considerably larger too. If you think of the Archos Jukebox Camera as a digital video camera that happens to take stills it will put the unit's virtues in a better perspective.
One more point. One of the best features about the Archos Jukebox Camera is that it wasn't obvious it was a camera, especially when I didn't use the viewfinder. This allowed me to shoot my guests in a more relaxed natural state as none of them noticed initially that I was taking their picture. This subtlety is the unit's best asset.
Coming soon from Archos is a video recorder module that will not have to deal with quality issues because it takes a direct feed from a video source like a VCR as opposed to drawing from an imaging chip behind small optics. As this module will allow users to record the previous nights shows for the following morning's commute on the train or bus, we see this as the final piece that will put the Archose Jukebox Multimedia over the top. We will review this module when it is released.
The Nomad Zen can be pre-ordered from Amazon.
Other MP3 Stories:
Raising the Barriers to Entry
Creative Targets iPod with Nomad Jukebox Zen
Review: The Archos Jukebox Multimedia
Can I borrow your computer while you're asleep, please? - Altnet