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Archos 704 WiFi Media Player

Date: May 7, 2007
Author(s): Matt Serrano

In midst of the media player war, Archos has released their 704 with includes WiFi support and includes a large 7" screen. Among a few of the included features is video support, music listening, web browsing, network sharing, photo viewing and more.



Introduction


Viewing video on MP3 players with tiny screens may seem cool, and even useful, for a time, but eventually most people realize they’ll want more before they seriously start encoding their entire collection. Screen sizes of MP3 players tend to range from 2.5″ to 3.5″, with personal video players (PVRs) topping out at about 4″.

Think your screen is big? Keep reading.

Archos is a company that’s been around for a while. They’ve released a few interesting products that never seem to reach the forefront. This time around, they’ve done away with most of the buttons in favor of the touch screen that made an appearance in the last generation players with more battery life, features like USB On-The-Go, and yes, a larger screen; seven inches to be exact.

I would be lying if I called this device an MP3 player of any kind, or even a portable PVP. Archos even calls the 704-Wifi a “Mobile DVR”. For now, I’ll just say this definitely isn’t something that you’ll want to carry with you every day. In fact, it probably won’t even fit in your pocket, but we’ll get into the practicality later on.

The term “WiFi” in the name indicates one of the (if not, the most) essential feature of the 704. Browsing the web is only half the fun here; you can actually download media from networked computers and have your content delivered wirelessly.

At some points, the 704-WiFi will be mentioned as the “704” during the review. There’s no indication if Archos is planning on releasing another model without WiFi, so it’s important not to get this model confused with anything else.

Closer look

Archos’ packaging is simple. It doesn’t have the iPod charm, but it shouldn’t. Since this isn’t really a product that can sell without customers reading the box and getting to know it, Archos goes out of their way to outline the features in an attractive package.

The back lists a table with bullets about the WiFi integration, screen size, interface, video, photo and music capabilities.

After opening the box, we have: another box!

Here’s where all the goodies lie. I soon discovered the 704-WiFi was inside the included pouch. Each compartment (two are visible; one is under the pouch) holds a bundle of accessories. We’ll get into those in further detail in the third section.

First impressions on the next page!



First impressions

The review unit I received was a 40GB model, but Archos assured me an 80GB would only be available in the States.

The 704 is a well built device. Aesthetically, it’s similar to the company’s other products but loses the buttons on the right side of the screen. Instead, the only physical buttons on the device are the power button, the TV-LCD toggle button, and battery eject switch, which are located to the left and right sides. Likewise, the earphone jack and power connector are located towards the bottom of the left side. To my surprise there was no hold switch of any kind.

The 800×480 resolution screen has the same anti-glare layer that you would find on a lot of LCDs, meaning that there is a “sparkle” when you look at the screen. The unit I received had one stuck pixel. To be fair, this isn’t exactly the same product you would see on store shelves, but it does give you an idea of Archos’ quality control.

Overall, you could say Archos re-used their older 604-WiFi’s design. It shares the same metallic casing and sharp corners. Besides the absence of buttons, the only noticeable differences are the activity LEDs. The labels are cut out, so the letters for the power and hard drive, and LCD out glow opposed to having separate lights and labels in past models.

The battery switch works just like turning on a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS; taking out the battery simply requires moving the trigger down.

There are ports on the bottom of the 704 for two USB ports (one to connect a camera, and another to connect the DVR to a computer) and Archos’ proprietary docking station.

The bottom is where you’ll find the speakers and IR receiver. Yes, they’re tiny speakers. And yes, they don’t sound good at all. If you’re looking for a Hi-Fi like experience, stick to headphones.

Archos chose to include a kickstand like their previous models. Instead of keeping it in your hands to watch videos, it’s able to set on a desk at an angle.

The rest of the back is plain. The model number, FCC information, and serial number are present.

As you probably guessed, the battery for the 704 is user-replaceable. In past models, taking out the battery left the hard drive visible, which made upgrading easier, but that’s not the case this time around.

Of course, the Archos 704 includes a few notable accessories, which we will touch on next.



Accessories

There are a number of accessories included in the box. The pouch, which we’ve already seen, is relatively simple. There is no way to operate the 704 while it’s in the pouch, which could have been remedied by cutting out a hole for the screen.

Even when it’s put inside, the 704 doesn’t fit snug. This may be convenient for some if you want to listen to music (some earbuds will fit if they have an L-shaped cable), but for instance, in order to change a song you would have to take it out of its case, use the touch screen, and put it back. The whole ordeal isn’t expedient at all.

Underneath the 704, there is manual and booklet that showcases the accessories available for purchase.

In the first box, we have a pamphlet for “legal notices”, two USB cables (again, one to connect the 704 to a computer, and another to a camera), earbuds, and a voucher for 50 free DRM free downloads from eMusic.com.

The second box only holds the charger and a piece of paper on instructions for using extra prongs on the AC adaptor (which weren’t included), and the adaptor itself.

The last box (and probably the most exciting) houses an adaptor for the dock Archos offers, a remote control (and battery), and two styluses for the touch screen. The remote can control the player itself (via infrared) or a cable box, satellite receiver, or VCR.

Unfortunately, Archos doesn’t include any cables to connect the 704 to a television, nor a docking station. So even though Archos calls the 704 a “mobile DVR”, there is no way to view or record video content out of the box. The DVR station sells for $100 on Archos’ site, and offers composite, S-Video, component, RCA, and SPDIF in and out connections. One minor downside is that the DVR station only records up to a resolution of 640×480, so content still won’t natively fit the screen.



GUI

Interfaces like the iPod’s or the Zune’s have been praised for their ease of use and fast learning curve. I have to admit, when I used one of Archos’ products years ago, it wasn’t nearly as simple as pressing the power buttons and realizing how things work.

Even though some people may say the iPod has one of the best interfaces in the world, its control mechanism isn’t totally self-explanatory. While you may be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of an iPod, anyone picking one up for the first time usually wouldn’t realize they have to move their finger clock-wise and counter clock-wise to go up and down.

A touch screen interface is something that’s simple. Everyone can understand pointing at an object; it’s even simpler than using a mouse. The execution is the hard part.

The 704 turns on by holding the power button down for about three seconds. Boot up takes about 17 seconds from the moment the LED turns on to when an image is displayed on screen. From then on, you’re greeted with nine menu items.

There are also other buttons on the main screen. On the top-left, you have the home and settings switcher. Pressing on ether the cycle button or the menu item that’s not highlighted (if you’re home, the home icon will be highlighted, and vice-versa with settings) you can switch between the two screens. The bottom-right has a help button, an icon to enable the Wifi feature, and sound settings. The buttons on the bottom-right will change depending on the current menu, but the “Menu” icon will always remain, which brings up all of menus for every icon.

The top-right of the screen displays the current time, battery life, and sound information (the volume level, and if the speakers or headphones are outputting audio).

As you click on a menu item, an animation will play. A second click will bring you into that menu.

In theory, a touch screen interface shouldn’t be hard to use, which it isn’t. The 704 remains to be intuitive while offering a lot of options. All of the qualms I have with the interface is with the device itself. Even after calibrating the screen, presses would sometimes be inaccurate. There is no sensitivity option offered, so I would occasionally have to click two or three times get the device to do what I wanted.

It is possible to use the 704 without a stylus, but frustrating if you don’t have long enough fingernails. Most of the buttons are big enough but actually pressing down with my fingers couldn’t compare to using my nails or the stylus, which was annoying because there’s no where to put it (other than in the included pouch).

I’ve provided a short video (roughly 5 minutes and 13 seconds long) showcasing the 704-WiFi’s user interface and features. Everything was controlled by using the included remote.

The TV Scheduler, VideoCorder, and AudioCorder features won’t be covered in this review, because they couldn’t be accessed without having the extra accessories.



Video, Audio, and Photos

The 704 has a useful feature that I would love the see in more (American) players – the ability to transfer files using Microsoft’s MTP standard and UMS removable storage. Basically, you can sync the device with the newest iteration of Windows Media Player or drag files on with a file manager (on any operating system). Once media is on the device, disconnecting it and turning it on for the first time will force the library to update (Archos uses their own ARCLibrary indexer to categorize everything in an ID3 tag database). The trade off of being able to use any software you want is having to wait a few seconds for the library to update.

Video

Since this is a device dedicated to playing video, I decided to put more weight in that category than any other.

In the video menu, you’re given a group of three videos at once. When a video is highlighted, a preview will play in the thumbnail on the left of the selection. It’s worth noting that only videos in the video folder will show up in that section. If there’s a sub-folder, the content will only show up if you use the browse function. Starting one will usually take a few seconds at most, depending on the size.

A slew of options are presented while videos are playing. There’s a volume slider on the left-hand side of the screen, a progress bar on the bottom, and a familiar stack of menu items on the right. However, on the top-left there’s a button that will toggle the different view options, which are: auto, full screen, maximized, and original. There is also an entry in the right side that will go straight to a particular view setting instead of forcing you to go through them all.

Eventually, the OSD will fade away to allow you to see more on screen. If you wanted to get to a certain option, you’re able to press on a certain area of the screen to bring up the menu closest to that edge (the right will make the volume slider visible, the bottom the progress bar, etc.). Pressing again will bring up all of the options.

The 704 is able to play a wide variety of formats, including MPEG-4 (including Xvid and Divx files) and WMV. Depending on the codec, the 704 may have trouble playing back certain videos for some reason (for example, only ten seconds would play for one of my AVI files encoded in Xvid, and I wasn’t able to seek in others). Content scaled fairly well, which could have been a damper on its score.

H.264 and MPEG-2 (including VOB and AC3 surround sound audio) playback can be added with optional plugins (which cost $20 from Archos). Charging for MPEG-2 playback can be understandable because of the licensing fees (however, you are paying for the device), but I’m not aware of any cost to provide H.264 playback. It seems like Archos is trying to cash in on the “iPod-encoded” content available. Although DRMed WMV files will play, videos purchased from the iTunes store will not.

Music

Music can be browsed by a folder structure or an ID3 tag database. While playing, basic ID3 tag information is displayed (the title, artist, album, etc.), along with album art. The options on the right-hand side allow you to create playlists and rate tracks, but there’s not much else to it.

Unfortunately, lossless audio codecs are not supported. You could make the argument that lossless files take up too much space to be practical, but it still would have been nice to have the option, regardless (especially with 80GB of storage).



Photos, Web Browsing

Viewing photos isn’t something I normally do with portable device, simply because it hasn’t been a huge factor. I can say that Archos’ photo browser was easy to use by selecting images by thumbnails and providing slideshow features. There are simple formatting features like rotating and zooming, and any picture can be set as the wallpaper.

Once again, since there isn’t any way to connect the 704 to a TV, doing things like sharing pictures with friends and family members on a bigger TV isn’t possible, unless crowding around a 7″ screen is your idea of fun.

Unfortunately, my camera didn’t support USB On-The-Go (a Canon SD630), so I was unable to test that particular feature. This isn’t Archos’ fault, but I would have liked to see an SD slot (preferably) included to combat this particular issue. With the current trend, you’ll have a hard time finding a hard drive based MP3 player or PVP with that specific feature.

Web Browsing and Network Connectivity

Opera’s web browser is a feature that’s nice to have, but not really usable in most cases. If anything, it’s comparable to a web browser on a PDA with a higher resolution.

My first major complaint is the speed. The browser takes quite a while to connect to an access point and actually start up. Going to most websites takes a while (roughly 15 seconds in most cases, depending on the site). Obviously, sites like Google loaded up fairly quickly, but going to other sites like Slashdot or Digg took a long, long time.

The nail in the coffin was the lack of flash support. Being able to view flash videos on the go would have been awesome, but there’s nothing to be seen here. Flash 7 support could have been possible, but even that wasn’t implemented.

The most useful feature you’ll find here would probably be transferring files wirelessly from a computer on a network. As one would expect, doing this is slower than connecting it directly to a computer, but it’s nice to have if you’re lounging around somewhere and you don’t want to make a trip back to your computer to put a new video or album on. Since you can delete files from the device, making room is a lot easier too.

Archos also lets you transfer files both ways. There’s an option to set the 704 as a file server on the workgroup it’s connected too. The downside is whenever the file server is enabled you can’t do anything else with the device. Because of that, it’s a bit less useful, but Archos certainly made no crime for trying.

Next up, we will touch on the portability, performance and finish off with our conclusions.



Portability, Final Thoughts


Testing how practical carrying the Archos player was one of my first goals when I started writing this review. I can’t stress how big this thing is, but against my better judgment, I tried to use it day-to-day.

Since the only case you get is the pouch in the box and there aren’t many accessories available, the only plausible way of carrying around the 704 is with the pouch.

With that said, actually using the 704 was a pain. I constantly had to take it out of my bag (where I carried it) to change songs or adjust the volume. Watching video while holding it was clumsy and not being able to put it down in certain places didn’t help. Normally, I would just put my MP3 player in my pocket if I needed to set it down, but it’s just simply too big.

The screen didn’t hold out well in daylight. Granted, the viewing angles were pretty good, but the color would be washed out in the sun far too often. On top of that, dots appeared on the screen when it faced towards direct sunlight.

As I said before, this is definitely not designed to be a portable device. I would even go so far to recommend getting a more portable solution for everyday use.

Performance

Transfer speeds peeked at 14.3MB per second over USB 2.0. Using WiFi, however, the 704 managed to push a miserable 870KB per second (on an 802.11n wireless connection).

I was able to get about 5 hours and 10 minutes watching video, and about 20 hours and 40 minutes of audio playback using the default settings (and WiFi off). The battery performance for audio and video (especially) disappointed me. Getting the same battery life as an iPod is unacceptable, especially when older players (like the Cowon A2, for instance) can get far more playback time, but it’s partially understandable because it’s driving a much bigger screen and the battery is still replicable.

Final Thoughts

The 704 retains the “Swiss army knife” rational of being a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Since it’s not exactly what you would call portable, it automatically sets itself in a smaller niche. That’s a shame, because it offers so much, but it’s limited by its screen size when you want to have it with you.

I could understand using the 704 on longer trips at hotels or on airplanes or as a substitute for a portable DVD player. It may even be fair to categorize it as an internet tablet, but some of the features don’t feel as polished as they could have been. That’s not to say there’s something totally wrong with the execution, but it’s hard to find a broad enough market for it.

The 80GB hard drive may be small if you plan on putting your entire movie collection on it, but that’s partly missing the point. The best option would probably be transferring the videos you plan on watching, and using the WiFi capabilities to download others from an online service or from your own collection (which could be done with various third-party solutions).

I don’t have any excuse for the extra accessories. You certainly are getting a lot in the package, but calling the product a DVR without being able to record content is a bit misleading on Archos’ part. The product already costs a lot of money, so adding a few extra pieces wouldn’t have hurt.

Would I buy the 704-WiFi? Probably not. That’s not to say it’s a bad product, but the market for it is such a small one that I’m afraid it might be lost in the shuffle. It does have a lot of uses, but it only totally satisfies a few. Since no form of Flash is included, the web browser is almost useless.

It’s too big for music playback and being portable, and needing to buy extra plugins and accessories to get extra functionality that should have been in the box doesn’t appeal to me either. This could be perfect for a family that has kids (then again, would letting kids play with a few hundred dollars worth of electronics be a good idea?) or if you takes trips often and stay at hotels. Most of the complaints I have aren’t terrible, and few (save the battery life and plugins) don’t disconcert the product.

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