The Archos 604 WiFi Review

Rounding off my list of the three personal media players (PMPs) that I plan to review–I’ve already done the Cowon A2 and the Creative Zen Vision W–it’s time for the Archos 604 WiFi. (I didn’t do an unboxing on this one, kids; sorry, I’ve just been too durn busy with “real” work.)

The Archos has specs very similar to that of the Zen Vision and the Cowon A2:

  • 10.23 oz (290g)
  • 4.3″, 480×272 screen
  • 133mm (wide) x 78mm (high) x 18mm (thick)
  • 30 GB hard disk space
  • 5 hours rated of battery time
  • built-in mic
  • built-in external speaker
  • A/V port
  • standard 3.5mm stereo headphone jack
  • WiFi (802.11g) connection

The big differentiators for the Archos are that it has a touch screen, and that it has WiFi. It doesn’t have personal information management (PIM) capability like the Creative Zen Vision, but I guess you can’t have everything. (I keep hoping, though! PIM! And games! And portrait mode! And eBooks! And a page down button! And . . . [slap] . . . sorry.)

The accessories that come with the 604 are pretty standard:

  • Earbuds
  • Dedicated USB 2.0 cable (for charging and downloading)
  • DVR station adapter
  • Pouch
  • 2 styli (the extra stylus is a nice touch)

The Archos doesn’t come with any dedicated software (both the Creative and Cowon PMPs did), nor is there any power adapter for charging. Personally, I find this to be a good thing; I’ve got plenty of extraneous software of my PC already, and heaven knows I don’t need any more power cables cluttering up my poor Belkin adapter. On the other hand, charging via USB is a lot slower than just plugging a device into the wall, and yes, after a time, this did get to be annoying.

You can order an adapter from Archos, as well as other accessories like a mount, A/V cabling, and so on, and some reviews that I’ve read have marked Archos down a notch for their lack of a full accessory pack. I put it in the “quibble” category. Make your own judgment.

Archos calls the device case a “pouch,” but it’s not a pouch in the same way that the pouch for the Zen Vision was a pouch, i.e. a velour drawstring bag. The Archos 604 “pouch” is really a standard leatherette case, and it works just fine. One strange thing: the stylus is stored in the case, rather than on the device. Now, after a very short period of time, I got to where I really liked this–I wouldn’t want to take this device anywhere without its case, anyway–but it’s something that may bug some folks. Just be aware: it slips into a little fitted pocked at the bottom of the case.

First overall impressions: I like the device quite a bit. Photos don’t really do the device justice. Looking at the pictures of the 604 compared to the Cowon A2 and the Creative Zen Vision W, you would think that the design is too busy, with too many buttons.

But I found that, in person, the Archos had the best “feel” (for me!) of the three. The Cowon has a wonderfully solid, well-built feel, and is of course little heavier due to its longer-life battery; the Creative Zen Vision feels somewhat hollow, by contrast–it is thicker than the Cowon, lighter, and feels, well, kind of cheap, honestly. The Archos, by contrast, feels “just right” to me, a good combination of size and weight. (Although after holding it for a while, it does get a bit heavy.) And the buttons on the right side of the 604 that look so “busy” in a photo feel much better in your hand that the simpler, cleaner, but frustrating (again, to me) soft buttons and “jog button” of the Cowon. So don’t judge by those pictures, folks!

Time for the famed “Gear Diary Device Tour.” We’ll start with the face.

Down the right side of the face are five rocker switches, with the speaker at the bottom. Each button can be depressed on either the left or the right–a different function is enabled depending on which side you press it on.

From the top to the bottom, the buttons are:

  • First button, Press left: volume up; Press right: up arrow (moves you up in menus, up in pages in browser windows, and so on)
  • Second button, Press left: left arrow (rewind in audio and video files, moves you left in windows, etc.); Press right: right arrow (fast forward in audio and video files, moves you right in windows, etc.)
  • Third button, Press left: volume down; Press right: down arrow (moves you down in menus, down in pages in browser windows, and so on)
  • Fourth button, Press left: close window; Press right: OK
  • Fifth button, Press left: return; Press right: Menu

(I want to mention it again: this list of buttons and functions makes it appear that the Archos is “busy” and complicated. It’s not. After just a few minutes of using it, it’s very comfortable, and I found the duplication of functionality between the hardware buttons, the onscreen icons, and the onscreen menus to be very convenient after a while.)

One lack that I noticed: there is no reset button if the device hangs. And my son and I, with our gift for hosing software, managed to get it to hang a couple of times beyond the ability of the power button to do anything. The only way around this that I found was to remove the battery, which seems kind of awkward to me. Archos: take note!

The top of the device contains just the power on/off button (activated, like all other PMPs that I have tested so far, by a press-and-hold), and the TV/LCD/Lock button.

The right side (i.e., the side next to the navigation buttons) has only the jack for the headphones, which is the standard 3.5mm size.

The bottom has two jacks:

  • The USB/power jack, to connect the device to the PC for copying over files, and for charging
  • The A/V jack (The cable for this does not come with the device by default; you have to order it separately. For me, that’s not a big deal; I want to use the device as a music and video playback gadget, with the WiFi aspect thrown in–the whole “hook it up to your TV” aspect is just not important. But for some reviews that I’ve read, this lack is problematic. Caveat emptor.)

The other switch thingee is the batter compartment release, although it took me a while to figure that out. (The battery slides upward, in case you were interested.) You need to slide and hold the release, and then you can slide the battery out.

The left side has indicator lights, and the mic. The indicator lights (from top to bottom) are:

  • Power on/off indicator
  • Charge indicator
  • Hard-disk access
  • TV/LCD

And finally, the back has the battery cover. Like the Zen Vision, the battery for the 604 is removable, which makes it different from the Cowon A2. And to reiterate: this is just not a big deal for me. 4-5 hours of battery life is plenty for me, and by the time I run a battery dry, it will be time to buy the next generation of the device anyway, so what’s the big deal? But some folks find it important, so there ya are.

There is also a handy little kickstand in the center of the back.

A nice feature if you want to set up the 604 on a desktop or a tray table or some such to watch it there. This has turned into my son’s favorite feature (he’s 8); he pulls out the kickstand, lays on his belly, and watches it on his pillow. Or he pulls out the kickstand, puts in on the arm of the Big Red Chair and watches it curled in a corner of the chair.

I don’t use the kickstand a lot, but it’s a nice little extra.

So how is this baby to use?

Well, I won’t mince words: I liked it a lot; this was my favorite PMP of the three I tested by far. While I was a little disappointed with the quality of the screen–the Cowon’s screen was much sharper, and the Creative Zen’s screen was also a bit better–the 604 was the best combination of hardware and software that I found in a PMP. (On the flip side, there didn’t seem to be any of the viewing angle problems that you can sometimes get with PMPs; the screen was bright from every angle.)

Some details for y’all:

The Archos 604 fell right in between the Cowon A2 and the Creative Zen Vision as far as getting it up and running. Once again, I find myself highly irritated by a company that doesn’t want to provide some simple “Getting Started” information. I mean, what is it with these people? As a doc person myself, I find in inexcusable and reprehensible. I am a computer guy, so it didn’t take me long to get everything working, but what about computer illiterates? Or A/V people who don’t want to become computer literate? Sorry; out in the cold! No excuse for it, in my opinion.

On the other hand, it is fairly obvious what to do, as there’s not too many options: you plug it into the USB cable, hook it up to your PC, and move your files across. The one tricky bit is indicating to the device when you want it in “hard disk” mode, so as to be able to move files across, but even that is pretty clear. Still, I would expect a little instruction in, for example, how to rip and convert video files for optimum use on the Archos. Or pointers to web sites. Or something, durn it. Get on the stick, Archos doc people!

I like the interface of the Archos quite a bit. It is not as fancy as the Cowon, but it’s similar.

There are not as many options for the Archos, as you can see, but it is still a clean, simple-to-use interface. One thing that I really appreciated was something that can’t be appreciated in a static web page.

You can see that there are thumbnails for each movie. What you can’t see is that these thumbnails are dynamic for the movie in the list that is highlighted; it shows a moving clip of the film! (The others show a still.) I don’t know if this is a desirable feature or not, but I found it to be really cool. Maybe I’m easily impressed. A nerd feature, for sure!

Strangely, when you tap the scroll bar, it expands horizontally.

I found this distracting and, well, pointless. I am sure the Archos software folks had a good reason for it–make it easier to navigate with a fingertip rather than using a stylus?–but I found it distracting. It also slowed things down, because the screen has to do a redraw every time you tap the scroll bar. Ugh. A minor complain overall, though.

Inside the movie viewer, you are provided with on-screen controls that are available by tapping the touch-screen.

The on-screen controls appear, and stay on-screen for a short period (5 seconds is the default), unless you select something. If you don’t tap, they disappear again. Aside from all the normal controls, such as pause, fast forward, and rewind (there are 3 speeds each of fast forward and rewind), there are also the following:

  • screen expand/contract (on the top left), which will expand your picture to fill the full screen, if it doesn’t already (for example, if you have a 2.35:1 movie and don’t want to watch it letterboxed, or want to stretch your 4:3 TV show to fill the whole screen, or some such)
  • volume control slider
  • navigation control slider
  • full menu bar (those icons down the right-hand side)

I really like how Archos has made all the controls for playback functionality are available both on-screen using the stylus (or your finger), or using the hardware buttons. Very good design, in my opinion. My one quibble: how to pause a movie (or a song) is not obvious; it turns out you have to tap the “OK” button. Not very clear. But that is a very minor quibble.

Because the Archos 604 was much more robust right off the bat with my video files than the Creative Zen Vision (I have a pretty big library, all converted at 900 kbps), I really gave this baby a workout with regard to testing some video files. Here’s the test clips I used:

  • Firefly (the pilot episode)
  • The Incredibles
  • The Matrix Reloaded
  • Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the WareRabbit

All clips were tried at video bit rates of 500, 900, and 1300 kbps, and were converted using two different tools (Dr. DivX, and DivX Converter) using the latest DivX codecs. In addition, I viewed the following movies (all of which had been previously converted using Dr. DivX at VBR 900 kbps):

  • Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
  • various episodes of Cowboy Bebop
  • X-Men II
  • X-Men III
  • Robots
  • Superman Returns
  • The Prestige
  • Casino Royale

I was very impressed with the playback quality. In fact, I was so impressed, just for yucks, I converted a couple of the tougher clips–that is, the clips that have shown in the past that they had higher information content, and thus were harder on devices to decode at higher bitrates–at higher bitrates, just to see what I got. I didn’t get any bobbles until I reached about 2000 kbps. This is impressive performance.

Further, both AVI and DivX containers were supported, which was nice. Kudos, Archos folks!

Transferring files was very quick; I didn’t clock it tightly, but a 1GB file transferred over in about 1 minute or so. Further, the hard disk noise that I found so distracting in the Creative Zen Vision W was almost completely absent in the Archos. I could hear the hard disk seeking, yes, but it was very quiet, and certainly not distracting while I watched my movies, listened to my music, or surfed the Web.

Speaking which, perhaps you’re wondering about the Archos’ other features? No, no; I didn’t forget!

The Archos does play MP3 files, just like the other PMPs I have reviewed. And just like the other MP3s, it does a fine job. While the music interface isn’t as slick as the video interface (or as the Cowon was, for that matter), it was just fine.

The music software is fine; nothing horrible, but nothing (in my opinion) noteworthy. You can sort your music lists based on Artist, Album, Title, Genre, Year, Playlist, or Podcast. You can create your own playlists. When you play your song, you get a nice display that shows the album cover, along with an intensity bar. There is a fairly basic equalizer that you can fiddle with if you are into such things (I’m not, but I wanted to mention it). It’s a nice music player, honestly.

Now we come to the big differentiator: wifi. The Archos comes with the Opera browser (slightly modified for use with the device) pre-installed. Personally, I’m a Mozilla Firefox kind of guy, and I am not particularly enamored of Opera, but that’s me. As implemented on the Archos, it works pretty well.

I found configuring the wifi to be insanely simple; it was a lot simpler than configuring my laptop’s wifi connection, that’s for sure. You turn on the Archos’ wifi, and it searches for the local wifi networks. You choose which one you want, and if you need a key (I do for mine), you enter it. From then on, you can either fire up the wifi by hand, or it is enabled automatically when you select the browser in the main window. Very clean. Doug Approves ™.

With regard to the browser itself, here are my thoughts on it in handy, bulleted-list format:

  • Good: You can toggle “Render Mode,” that is, how the browser information is displayed, back and forth between “Smart” and “Desktop” with a simple menu selection. This is very very useful, because some web sites display better in “Smart” mode (however Opera translates “smart”), whereas it’s best to leave others in “Desktop,” I found. On other devices, toggling like this was a hassle; here it’s simple.
  • Not Good: There is no scroll bar on the side of the browser window in Opera, at least not that I can see. There are a couple of ways to scroll; you can use the “down” arrow key, or you can tap and drag with the stylus on the touch screen. I am guessing that the Archos folks didn’t want to use up their limited screen real estate, but I don’t like not having it.
  • Good: It’s speedy. For one thing, it uses the 802.11g protocol. For another, the Opera browser–or so I’ve read–is a “lighter” application than Firefox or (shudder) IE, and so tends to load quicker. And finally, I suspect that Archos has done some optimization, because this version of Opera looks a little different than the others that I have used.
  • Not Good: Because of default colors, text entry boxes in browser windows are basically impossible to see. For example, if you navigate to My Yahoo and want to enter your user ID and password, you had better already know where the text boxes are, because you sure as heck can’t see them. And this is true for a number of pages with text entry boxes that are light-colored.
  • Not Good: Speaking of text entry: when you have to enter text, a keyboard pops up that cover the lower half of the window (so about 480×136 pixels). It’s a decent keyboard, I suppose, but I don’t like it at all. Each key has three functions, and some have four: lower case, capital letter, number, and some other character (e.g., a left bracket). There is a key on the keyboard to toggle among these various choices. I know that you have to have something like this, or handwriting recognition, but I didn’t like this particular implementation.

Now, this list probably gives you the idea that I don’t like either Opera or the Archos’ implementation of WiFi. That’s not the case; because of the speed (802.11g) and the ability to toggle when you hit uncooperative web pages, plus the ability to navigate “large” web pages with the stylus and the touch screen, I found this to be one of the best handheld solutions to the browser-on-a-small-screen problem so far. (It kicked my HTC Universal’s butt, for example.)

Doug sums up: This is the best PMP that I tested by far, and I am seriously considering buying one, despite the premium price (about $50-$75 more than the other two). I found that I rarely used the wifi capability, and may instead purchase the regular 604, which lists for $90 less. I liked the hardware *and* the software quite a bit, and it had the best quality playback of the three devices I tested. While the screen and the battery life weren’t as good as the Cowon, I found the controls *much* superior. I recommend this device highly if you are looking for a PMP.

So there you have it. Next up: This was the last PMP on my list to try, although the Maxian M800 (link) looks interesting. (I’m not sure if it’s available in the U.S. yet, though.)

The Archos 604 WiFi is available from the manufacturer and from other retailers.
MSRP: $449.99
What I Like: software; hardware controls; quality of video playback; WiFi
What Needs Improvement: screen quality; no reboot button; low on accessories (e.g., a charger); better support for eBook reading (support for portrait mode, support for eReader format, and a scroll button or wheel); colors in Opera browser