The latest Archos 5 is probably the most significant advancement for Archos to date. The French chaps have scrapped a great deal of what we criticised about past Archos devices — though the Archos 605 Wi-Fi was still good enough to win one of our Editors' Choice awards in 2007.
So it's safe to say we were excited about this new model. It's available in 60GB, 120GB and 250GB versions, with prices starting at around $599.
While gadget design doesn't usually feature above surrendering and cooking gastropods on a list of things the French are good at, this really is the most beautiful Archos player to date. Gone are those clunky front-mounted buttons to control an unattractive interface, and in their place is a fully finger-controlled touchscreen. At 122mm (4.8 inches) it's also much larger than the iPhone or the previous Archos 605 Wi-Fi.
It's also sharper, and the 800x480-pixel resolution is made even better by terrific pixel density, making this one of the finest screens we've ever seen on a portable video player of this size, second only to the Cowon A3.
Some built-in speakers sit on the right-hand side, and an integrated kickstand helps make this an ideal hands-free movie player. This is handy, so to speak, because the Archos 5 is a pretty damn chunky player; it's thick and it's heavy. But it's also solid, and feels amazing. Just don't expect as lightweight a movie experience as you'll get on an iPod Touch.
The Archos 5 runs on a customised Linux build with a 600MHz ARM CPU, making it a capable machine for its size. Out of the box it'll handle MPEG-4 SP, WMV, DivX, Xvid and Flash 9 FLV files up to DVD resolution.
However, Archos has also done its abysmal you-need-to-pay-separately-for-extra-codecs thing again, meaning you need to go to Archos' online store and cough up just over $28 to get support for 720p HD WMV and MPEG-4, another $28 for MPEG-2 and DVD VOB files, and another $28 for H.264 video and AAC audio. The Cowon A3 does all of this right out of the box for no extra charge.
Though audio support is a little above average, with supported files including MP3, WAV, FLAC, OGG and both protected and unprotected WMA, AAC support costs an additional $28, as mentioned. Unsupported formats — most of which only advanced users will appreciate — include AIFF, Apple Lossless, Monkey's Audio, AU, MusePack, WavPack and WMA Lossless. Fans of live music albums won't appreciate the lack of gapless playback, either.
Of course the other main feature of the system is its Internet capabilities. Opera's Web browser comes pre-installed and gives you access to the full web, with the advantage over the iPhone in that it supports Adobe Flash content. There's also an email app for accessing POP and IMAP mail accounts, and access to various online video services such as Daily Motion.
This is all accessible via the Archos 5's built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi (a 3G version will be available soon too), and your music and video files on your networked PC are streamable this way also. Games are supported, but must be purchased separately (sensing a theme here?) though SWF Flash games are compatible. We saved a bunch off the Web — including YetiSports — and found some of them quite playable.
If rubbish Flash games don't excite you as much as video, you're in luck. The amazing screen on the Archos 5 makes this device one of the most impressive portable video players we've seen. Its superb colour depth and practically unrivalled picture quality, combined with the more-than-capable CPU, helps high-quality video look truly stunning.
DVD-quality MPEG-2 and well-encoded DivX movies looked amazing, and audio quality through decent headphones was easily in our good books. The hearing-impaired will appreciate the support for subtitling, too, and once again that crisp screen comes into its own by making even small fonts readable.
It was just a shame the system refuses to play any DivX HD, Xvid HD or H.264 HD, or any MKV files. Cowon's latest O2 PMP does, and it's clearly going to be a huge selling point. We also had a problem with HD WMV, though we suspect this was a problem with our unit as Archos claims this format is supported.
The completely overhauled interface mentioned earlier is an admirable bonus. You're presented with a gorgeous glossy black interface when the system boots, and although deeper menus and file listings are somewhat clunky-looking with their overly large fonts, they're clear and easy to use.
In fact that the whole system's easy to use once you get accustomed to pressing quite hard on the touchscreen, which isn't as sensitive or responsive as the iPhone or iPod Touch.
Neither is the Web browser, sadly. Being able to browse the full web with Flash is great, and in exactly half of our tests over Wi-Fi, the Archos 5 loaded large Web pages faster than the iPhone. But scrolling, zooming and navigating pages isn't as smooth or enjoyable.
Despite that, it's still one of the best portable web browsers on the market, but will be a distinct second to the iPhone or iPod Touch. Possibly the biggest advantage is being able to watch streaming Flash videos. We streamed loads of CNET videos in full-screen.
The email app seemed to work okay for us, but it only offers IMAP and POP support, and only plain text emails. We set up our personal Gmail account within seconds and managed to send and receive emails. Since Archos took the time to add email functioning to this product, we think Microsoft Exchange would've been a compelling addition, along with HTML email.
Archos likes to call this an 'Internet Media Tablet', but we disagree with the choice of name. We think it's an outstanding portable video player, with excellent web browsing as a bonus. We hate the expensive codec plugins, and if you don't want any internet functions at all we'd recommend checking out the Cowon A3.
But if you can afford it and want the best combination of web access and outstanding video performance, this is one of the only players in the world you need to consider.