Review: The Archos Jukebox Multimedia

By Richard Menta10/13/02

I am in a bed & breakfast in Ocean Grove, NJ as I write the opening of this review. Right now my wife and I are watching an old episode of a TV show no longer broadcast in our area or available tape. How are we watching it? We are playing it off of a 9oz. MP3 player - where I have digitally stored the episode - hooked up to the small TV in our room and inconspicuously placed on top.

We waited for about a year after first reporting on the Archos Jukebox Multimedia before finally acquiring our test unit. Originally scheduled for a Q1 release, the Jukebox Multimedia promised to raise the stakes in digital players by adding still picture and video play capabilities (and soon an option to allow video recording directly in the player) to an MP3 Jukebox portable.


The Archos Multimedia Jukebox is available on Amazon

Finally released this July, the result is a milestone player perfectly suited for those who do that daily round trip commute on mass transit. As a fellow commuter I know this is a segment of consumers who would happily use that time to view a movie or catch up with the previous night's shows.

A Milestone Player

Our definition of a milestone player is any product whose breakthrough innovations are so significant, they seem destined to influence the future course of its industry. The first player we designated as a milestone player was the Remote Solution's Personal Jukebox, the original jukebox unit that in 1999 smashed the 32MB memory barrier found in all other MP3 players by sticking a laptop drive in a digital music portable. The descendants of that player include the iPod, the Nomad Jukebox and Archos' own line of MP3 portables.

The Personal Jukebox is a brick of a portable in today's terms, but it still fits neatly behind our small stereo unit - out of site if we wish it - to pump hundreds of tunes in a continuous flow. I have also plugged the player behind my refurbished 1940 RCA radio console to play similarly vintage tunes. I can accomplish that feat on this piece of 62 year-old technology because the console was one of the first to use what is now the standard phono jack. That simple jack mechanism brought about the notion of adding components to our entertainment equipment and its effect over the years made it a milestone feature of its era.

The Archos Jukebox Multimedia offers several features that qualify it for this honor, all of them firsts for an MP3 portable. First comes this MP3 player's ability to play video files on its own display. Second, the unit can also play the same video files on your TV set as long as you have a TV or a VCR with phono video/audio input jacks (amazing how viable those old phono jacks still are). Third, the Archos Jukebox Multimedia can record from a VCR or other video source with the purchase of an optional video module (not yet available). Fourth, optional photo modules allow you to transfer photo and music files to the player directly from flash memory, saving the need to run to the PC to load files. Fifth, the player is the first to support both USB 2.0 and FireWire as options.

To be honest calling it an MP3 portable is not sufficient. Mediabox is a better descriptive term for this type of portable.

The Player

As of this writing, The Archos Jukebox Multimedia comes in two configurations. The first is the Jukebox Multimedia 20GB Base Unit that sells for $399.00. The second is the unit we tested the Jukebox Multimedia 20GB Photo Bundle. Our test unit sells for $419.00.

The base unit comes with a USB 1.1 cable, AC-DC adapter, Li-ion Batteries, Stereo headphones, Composite video / audio cable for playback on stereos and televisions, and a carrying pouch. The extra $20 for the Jukebox Multimedia 20GB Photo Bundle adds a USB 2.0 cable and two flash card modules for direct transfer of files, one for CompactFlash cards and the other for Smart Media cards.

Both units come with 20GB drives, a step up from the 10GB the Jukebox Multimedia was originally intended to ship with. The Archos handles tunes in the MP3 format only, though firmware upgrades may expand that in the future. On the video side the Archos Jukebox Multimedia can play AVI files that comply with MPEG-4 Simple Profile.

The unit contains 16MB of memory buffer for skip protection and is both PC and Mac compatible. Archos claims 7 hours off of the unit's Li-Ion batteries, which is roughly what we got.

Another option available presently for the unit is a digital camera/camcorder that snaps into the expansion port when the user wants shoot some photos. The camera option offers a 1.3 pixel resolution and 2x zoom. The camcorder records video in MPEG-4 with MP3 audio tracks.

Getting Started

The first thing we did after charging the batteries on our test player was not to hook it up to our PC. Instead we went straight for the CompactFlash (CF) module and attached it to the unit's expansion port. The modules for the Archos are about the 1/3 the length of the player itself and latches on to the port via two side clamps. The modules hang on fairly loosely and are not meant to remain on the player for any length of time. They also add to the bulk of the unit so once they have completed their designated task they should be removed and safely stored.

To really put the unit through its paces we inserted a 340MB IBM Microdrive filled with music into the CompactFlash module. IBM's Microdrive is designed to fit into CF slots and we wanted to test the 340MB version because this particular drive is quite power hungry and has proved in the past to be a hefty drain on batteries. The Archos now had two drives to power.

The Jukebox Multimedia's Li-Ion batteries handled the task without a problem, transferring all the files effortlessly and quickly. We timed the transfer process roughly a second-and-a half per song, faster than it took for the USB 1.1 port on our test PC to transfer the same files.

The Jukebox Multimedia also writes to flash cards through these modules, making it a great little tool for non-Internet file swapping between friends. As long as your buddy has an MP3 portable that uses one of the two flash media, you can trade songs back and forth with relative ease.

Next we connected the Archos to our system. The Jukebox Multimedia eschews the use of a transfer program, choosing instead to have the unit appear as an additional drive once connected. Windows 2K and XP will immediately recognize the player when attached and create an icon for it. Windows 98 requires you to add a driver first, located on the accompanying CD.

File transfers are handled by simply dragging and dropping from one folder to another. You can't get more more straightforward than that.

Video

The key that makes the Archos Jukebox Multimedia unique is its ability to play digital video files. The unit plays AVI files compressed or later converted to comply with MPEG-4 Simple Profile (there are two implementations of MPEG-4: Simple Profile (SP) and Advanced Simple Profile (ASP). The Jukebox Multimedia can't play the latter). There are also several flavors of AVI files that will need to be converted using a video translator like Virtual Dub before the unit will play them. For those who have tons of files in the MPG format, you are out of luck unless you can convert them to AVI.

The unit comes with the Archos Jukebox Multimedia MP4SP program which incorporates Virtual Dub to handle the conversions. When we first loaded the program it prompted us to the Virtual Dub site to download that freeware program. MP4SP also prompted us to download DiVX, which did not exist on our test computer. Adding all the needed programs was an uneventful procedure.

Once all the necessary software was in place, we took a random AVI file we created in the past and loaded it onto the machine without trying to convert it. The Archos Jukebox Multimedia played the audio fine of the AVI, but could not reproduce the video giving a "Cannot play video data" message. We then put the test file through Virtual Dub, a process that took about twenty minutes, and tried it in the player again. This time the file played fine.

It does bring about the first dose of reality to those who already have a sizable collection of video files acquired on the likes of Gnutella and KaZaa. You will probably have to convert most or all of it to play it on the Jukebox Multimedia.

Playing videos on your TV

To play the Jukebox Multimedia on a TV set the unit comes with a composite video/audio cable. As long as your TV or VCR has video/audio inputs, you should have no problem playing these files on something larger than the small screen on the unit. There are three cables; one for video and two for the left and right audio channels. Stereo TV's will take all three while Mono sets will only take one of the audio cables.

Once the player is attached and the TV is set to AUX we were ready to start. For those who wonder why the TV is not put on channel 3 like it is when we use a VCR is because the Jukebox Multimedia puts through a straight video feed as opposed to a VCR that transmits its picture via a RF (Radio Frequency) signal.

Once the player is started the picture will appear on the unit's display, but not yet on the television. You will need to toggle the signal to the unit's output. This is handled by holding the 'On' button down for a couple of seconds. This caused our TV to light up and display the video file.

Virtual Dub allows you to convert video into several quality parameters. We chose high quality, but the nature of digitized video still has its limitations. Even though the image on our set was ok, it wasn't great and shouldn't be compared to that of a DVD or a VCR. Our file clearly showed quite a bit of pixelization as well as dropped frames.

Improving the compression rate even further would help, but at a cost of larger file sizes. Also, the key we need to remember here is convenience. I could have lugged a VCR to Ocean Grove, but the improvement in quality is certainly not worth that effort, even for the most rabid TV junkie of which I am not. The Jukebox Multimedia fits in my pocket and bringing it was a non-issue. Quality will improve over the years. For now, it is good enough to get by.

Recording

I did a little analog to digital recording on the unit by connecting my turntable to the Archos. For those who have a healthy collection of vinyl any MP3 portable that records on the fly can be a godsend for making old wax more portable.

The recording process was pretty straightforward, just hit the record button located as one of the "F" buttons. The unit will then display a level meter and a Setup and Start menu on the bottom of the screen. These menus are also accessed through the unit's F1, F2, and F3 buttons, which we will describe later. Hitting the Setup (F2) button allows the user to pre-name the file as well as set the compression quality for the new digital recording (the Jukebox Multimedia records in the MP3 format). Once the parameters are set, hit the Start (F3) button to begin recording. Hit it again to stop.

As we mentioned before, the Jukebox Multimedia will soon have a module - pictured on the left - to allow video recording. This does not comes without some added controversy (like the trading movies and music files are not controversial enough). Right now the Music, Film and TV industries are trying to push a bill in congress that would make it illegal to use digital recorders the same way we use our VCRs. They have decided that the Supreme Court's Betamax ruling (that says taping you favorite TV shows for later viewing does not constitute copyright infringement) shouldn't apply to digital recorders.

These industries want heavy controls placed on digital home taping by the government and the bill, sponsored by Congressman Howard Berman, is already in the pipeline. Because the Jukebox Multimedia makes a wonderful portable video unit, we hope this bill doesn't pass as it would stifle the innovations such electronic units like this Archos player can offer.

Controls

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. This type of control setup is finding its way into more MP3 portables and if well designed can be very convenient to use. For the most part we had no trouble navigating the screens of the player. The one possible exception is that at times returning to a higher menu requires the use of an 'F' key, while at other times it requires using the 'Off' button. Of course, the risk when using the 'Off' button is that if you hold it too long you will inadvertently power-down the player.

Display

The display on the Archos Jukebox Multimedia uses a yellow text on black background scheme. Those who know their optic theory know this is the most visible contrast for viewing lettering in normal light conditions. The text on the Archos display is the sharpest we have ever seen in an MP3 portable.

There is a cost to this color scheme though. Try viewing the display in bright sunlight and the yellow on black becomes a liability making the unit particularly susceptible to sun glare.

The small LCD screen did an excellent job with video. The Jukebox Multimedia came with sample files, one with subtitles that we could read very easily despite the diminutive size of the text. Brightness was more than adequate, though it can be adjusted along with the contrast setting on the unit. Color reproduction was good.

Sound

Excellent. The volume control had a very wide volume range that can be adjusted in the 'Sound' menu to pump out even more sound. That menu also has separate Bass and Treble controls as well as balance controls and a variable Bass Boost. We find these controls slightly preferable to the equalizer presets found in most digital music portables because there is more flexibility to fine-tune the sound.

Size to Capacity Ratio

As the Archos Jukebox Multimedia has no competitors yet, there is no direct peer to compare this player to in terms of size. If we compare it to the leading Jukebox MP3 players, it does very well because it is smaller than most of them.

The 9 oz. Archos is lighter and smaller than the both Creative's Nomad Jukebox and its successor the Nomad 3, which weighs in at a hefty 14oz. The Jukebox Multimedia is also lighter than the RCA LYRA Personal Jukebox at 11oz. and Archos' own MP3 jukebox line that comes in a little over 10 oz. The Rio Riot at 8.8oz comes in slightly below and the 6.5 oz. Apple iPod significantly below.

Conclusion - A Milestone Player

The Archos Jukebox Multimedia has created a new niche for digital entertainment products and we have no doubt within the next several months you will see several announcements for competing units. Ones from Apple and Creative come first to mind, especially Apple who's latest version of Quicktime is MPEG4 capable and thus creates another front for Apple's technology to go against Microsoft's AVI format.

Needless to say, milestone electronic products break new barriers and as a cost of being first must deal with the limitations of available technology. It would be nice if the unit had a larger display. The player was also in design before Toshiba's small hard drives (the ones that account for the Apple iPod's modest weight) were available. Still, the overall performance of the unit was excellent.

If you are someone who sits on a bus or train every weekday, this player is for you. The same goes if you do a lot of air travel and have seen all of the movies offered on the plane. There are also services soon to appear, like the Movie industry endorsed MovieLink, that plan to sell movies in the MPEG-4 format online.

It had not been confirmed if these paid services will allow their movie files to be transferred to portable digital players like the Jukebox Multimedia, but if more competing units begin to appear (and sell well) services like MovieLink would best serve themselves by serving this market. Three years ago we predicted Remote Solution's Personal Jukebox would create a new market niche and were right. We have the same feeling about the Archos Jukebox Multimedia.

 


The Archos Multimedia Jukebox is available on Amazon

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