By Richard Menta 8/26/03
Last year we reviewed a unique item, a unit that was an extension of MP3 portable jukeboxes. This model, the Archos Jukebox Multimedia, became the first jukebox style player capable of playing MPEG-4 video files. Dubbed a "mediabox" by us, this new class of player addressed that part of the digital media audience who would like their digital movies "to go", too.
This milestone portable fully achieved its purpose of liberating digital video files from PCs (despite having a few flaws like a small screen). A year later Archos has released its successor, the AV320, and this portable is even better.
The Archos AV320 digital audio/video recorder is available on Amazon
The Archos AV320 is a notable improvement over the Archos Jukebox Multimedia. The key is a significantly larger 3.8" display that takes up most of the AV320's sizable faceplate. The Archos Jukebox Multimedia, released at a time when color LCD displays were much more expensive, utilized a 1.5" display to keep its price reasonable. It was a very good display for its small size, but we still wanted a larger screen.
The display is not the only area where the Archos AV320 makes improvements. You can see both significant and subtle progress in the evolution of this new breed of portable, one whose niche Archos still has mostly to itself. (RCA has a unit coming out in the fall and rumors are that a video iPod is in the works. Sharp and Panasonic have units in the Japanese markets, but they use low capacity SD cards instead of a hard drive for storage so they don't really fit in this class).
As of this writing the Archos AV320 sells for a healthy $600, a price that includes the digital video recorder module.
The most important element to the Archos AV320 is its ability to record video on the fly from a VCR or DVD. The Archos Jukebox Multimedia was also designed with this in mind, but Archos has yet to release the video record accessory for that player.
The module attaches to the side of the player and allows you to take a video signal from a TV, VCR, or DVD player and convert it on the fly into an MPEG4-SP (Simple Profile) file in the AVI format. The module has an RCA jack for composite video, a MiniDIN socket for S-video and will read/record both the American NTSC and British PAL broadcast standards. These files can be read by XviD or DivX™* players.
An unexpected benefit of the module is that it also comes with a remote control feature. Without the module attached, users need to operate the AV320 manually. With the module they can utilize the remote, even at times when the player is not actively recording.
Other features of the unit include modules to read various flash memory cards and an FM radio that connects to the AV320 via a cabled remote control.
The AV320, like the Archos Jukebox Multimedia, offers a digital camera/camcorder module. The Jukebox Multimedia camera module offered middling results with its 1.3 pixel resolution and 2x digital zoom. The AV320 improves upon that significantly by upping the resolution to 3.3 megapixel and by utilizing a 3x optical zoom and a 10x digital zoom. We did not test the camera module for this review.
The Archos AV320 runs on rechargeable lithium batteries that power the color screen and the 20GB hard drive.
Fire up the AV320 and the screen lights up brightly, then in a couple of seconds the best display we have ever seen on any media portable appears. The body of the Archos AV320 is 90% display -- that is a big plus. Nine clear icons come alive to navigate the user between recording and playback duties, as well as through various setup controls.
Our test player already had some music and a movie, "Ice Age", installed. When we toggled over to the music icon and opened it, up came the music list. Click on a song and you're greeted with a graphical music player similar to Winamp. A nice touch, but one that will consume significant battery time if left on continually. To avoid wasting power, Archos has included a timer that shuts the display down after a given amount of time. Users can adjust how long in the setup menu.
Next, we switched to video and played "Ice Age." What we saw in the first few minutes was impressive. The video quality was excellent, better than what we expected and an improvement over the Archos Jukebox Multimedia. Of course, the better the video quality the higher the file size, but the Archos has an ample 20GB worth of memory.
We loaded the supplied drivers into our test computer and the unit was recognized immediately. Archos keeps file transfers straight and simple. The user's PC sees the unit as another hard drive. Simply drag and drop files into the proper folder and you are done. Make sure it is the right folder, though. We dragged a video file into the music folder just to see what would happen and when we powered the unit back on it did not appear on the AV320's menu.
The unit plays compressed AVI files or those later converted to comply with MPEG-4 Simple Profile (there are two implementations of MPEG-4: Simple Profile (SP) and Advanced Simple Profile (ASP). Like the Jukebox Multimedia, the AV320 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 directed 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.
Those who trade movie files online today will find that most of the files they download will have to go through the conversion process, a time consuming job.
Playing videos on your TV
To play the Archos AV320 on a TV set, simply use the composite video/audio cable that comes with the unit. As long as your TV or VCR has video/audio inputs, you should have no problem playing your files. There are three cables; one for video and two for the left and right audio channels. Stereo TVs will take all three while Mono sets will only accept one of the audio cables.
Once the player was attached and the TV was 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 used with a VCR, it is because the Archos 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 immediately on the television. We needed to toggle the signal to the unit's output setting. This is handled by holding the 'On' button down for a couple of seconds, which activates and displays the file on the TV.
The AV320 comes with all the cables needed to connect to a video source such as a VCR or DVD. Most television sets don't have output jacks, so to record your favorite TV shows, you just need to use the VCR tuner.
Of course, all of these cables create a jungle of connections that one has to weed through. Our DVD player feeds into our VCR, which feeds into the television set. This normal tangle of wires lies hidden most of the time behind these players since they usually remain stationary. The Archos is a portable unit, which means every time you want to record you have to fight through the wires, connecting and disconnecting them as needed. A docking station/port permanently attached to the home video setup would be ideal here. Archos should seriously consider developing this convenient accessory for the AV320 and future digital video products.
Our VCR has a set of unused output jacks that we used to connect the Archos. The video cable went into the jack on the recorder module and audio line plugged into the audio in jack on the unit's body.
Once we had all the connections made, we toggled to the Archos' VideoCorder icon and hit enter to begin the recording process. This menu is only accessible when there is a signal feeding through the unit. Once in, we immediately saw the signal come up on the AV320's screen, a baseball game between L.A. and St. Louis. We hit record and the player did just that. Even though connecting the player to the source was a fuss, recording was effortless.
The AV320 plays and records both in the American NTSC standard and the British PAL standard. There is a menu in the record screen that allows you to select the proper standard and to adjust the recording quality. Another interesting feature we did not expect since it was not mentioned in any of the literature was a programmable record timer.
The timer itself looked simple enough, but it was less intuitive than we thought. While we could get the thing to start recording at the proper time, for some reason it would not stop recording at the set end time. Since we had no instructions for the timer, and only so much time to fiddle with the feature, we didn't put too much effort into trying to solve the issue. It might have just been a quirk in the firmware that Archos will eventually correct with an upgrade or it might just have been us.
The recordings came out very well. They were less sharp than the "Ice Age" recording that came with the player, but the color was excellent and the resolution was satisfactory.
It is fair use to record a show off of television for later viewing; it doesn't matter if you use a VCR or a digital video recorder. It is fair use to lend that tape or file to your friend next door so they can watch it. Is it fair use to trade with 4 million "friends" simultaneously on the Internet? In Canada it is, but the US is another story. That's what the RIAA is suing individual music file traders over (the MPAA -- the RIAA's motion picture lobby equivalent -- is waiting before taking the same route, they too might consider the same tactics against file trading.)
Since the Archos allows users to make good quality recordings of TV programs and DVDs, you will start to see more such programming reach the Net as the mediabox niche grows. The Archos player records via analog methods (a cable to a DVD or VCR), so it is unaffected by any Digital Rights management protections added to DVDs. If you can view it on your television, the Archos can record it. This doesn't make the media companies happy.
In our opinion, file trading is not the threat the entertainment conglomerates make it out to be. Yes music sales are down and that allows the record companies to blame it all on file trading, but DVD sales are up. Way up. Every major movie release has made it on the Net, usually well before the DVD comes out. Did DVD sales go down? No. Did they stay the same? No. Did they go up? Yes, by 61 percent.
But our protests and logic mean little if Disney takes you to court. You lose the moment you have to shell out for that first session with the lawyer, so our advice is to be cautious with the files you create and remember, Micky Mouse is not a nice guy in real life.
The controls and buttons on the AV320 are located on the right side of the player and are an improvement over previous models. The buttons have different sizes and shapes, which makes identification easy when not looking at the unit. The keys operated with a clean solid click and worked very well in tandem with the screen interface. Most notable is a toggle switch which shuttles from icon to icon and file to file on the screen. Recessed indentations make access easier, but some of these switches are not labeled - a minor quibble. Their function may seem obvious, but it was unusual to see the descriptions omitted.
Elegant is the word for the Archos' display. Within a few seconds, a colorful GUI appears, more akin to a Windows Pocket PC than the command line displays on most portables, including the Archos Jukebox Multimedia. The unit displays icons for audio/video/photo file storage, audio recording, video/photo recording when the right module is added, and a setup section.
The GUI makes the unit friendlier, easier to navigate and sets a new standard for other high-end digital portables to mimic.
The sound was fine. Music came across clear as a bell as did the audio track on the various movies and TV shows we recorded. One suggestion for Archos: since the screen on the AV320 is large enough for more than one person to view, the addition of a small internal speaker seems like a good idea. While the purpose of this class of unit is personal viewing, I can think of few better uses than loading some cartoons for a couple of bored and restless kids to watch in the back seat of a car. This would make the player attractive to quite a few parents. Archos should consider such a feature for future players.
Size to Capacity Ratio
The Archos screen is wonderfully large, but the tradeoff seems to be a player that is quite heavy. It weighs in at 12.5 oz, more than double that of the latest iPod's 5.6 oz. With rumors of an iPod DVR coming, the weight issue could make Archos vulnerable when, and if, such an Apple device appears. It is a little surprising that more digital music portables haven't adopted the Toshiba drive. It is not a competitive issue now - unless you want to use the player to listen to music while exercising - but down the road it might be.
Calling the Archos AV320 an iPod on steroids is more than an understatement simply because the iPod is not yet in this class. Word is an iPod mediabox is in the works, but until that happens it is the iPod that aspires to be the Archos AV320. For the most part, this player does everything right. The unit is heavy relative to an MP3 portable and that may make it vulnerable to future competition, but everything else about it was great.
The player isn't cheap, but it is ideal for mass transit commuters who have to suffer through their boring twice-daily trek on a stuffy bus or train. The ability to record your favorite shows to watch during the ride in may be compelling reason enough to consider the expense. Prices will drop over time, too. So for those of you reading this review, the price may be right in 2004.
Overall, the Archos AV320 is a milestone player. It, along with its predecessor the Archos Multimedia Jukebox, has set a standard that we hope will soon be equaled by every other major electronics manufacturer. It's a class product and if you have the money is worthy a good strong look
The Archos AV320 digital audio/video recorder is available on Amazon
Other MP3 stories:
CDs and the Scarcity Principle
Copy Protection and the Reasonable Man
Rumor: The iPod Movie Player