Review: Big video hits the road with the Archos 704-WiFi

It's a media player tuned specifically to play video

The Archos 704-WiFi is the closest thing we've seen to the ideal mobile video player, but, by its very nature, it probably won't replace your iPod or similar device. Unless, that is, you've developed a serious video jones.

Like digital media players such as the iPod, the 704-WiFi plays music and displays still images. But its most notable features are its big 7-inch display, 80GB hard drive, built-in Wi-Fi support and add-ons that turn this device into a portable DVR/video player combo.

These features come at a steep price both in terms of size (the 704-WiFi is 7 inches x 5 inches x .75 inches and 22 ounces) and money ($549), which is why the 704-WiFi is unlikely to succeed as an iPod replacement.

But it will be highly attractive to mobile video addicts who have money and carrying space to spare.

Easy to use

The 704-WiFi shares the same Linux platform and interface as Archos' other recent media players such as the Archos 604. Practically, that means it is simple and self-evident to use. Its home screen consists of large, easily understood icons for tasks such as watching video, listening to music and viewing images. You navigate the interface either by tapping the touchscreen with a finger or a stylus.

The Archos 704 Wi-Fi

The Archos 704 Wi-Fi

(Click image to see larger view)The device connects easily with your PC. Plug in the USB cable and you're asked if you want to use the device in Windows Media device mode or in PC Hard Drive mode. Tap on one of those options and you're connected. Perhaps because the interface is so self-evident, there are few physical controls on the player beyond an on/off switch and a pause/resume button and, of course, ports for headphones, USB cables and add-ins.

During playback, you touch the screen to display options such as pausing, fast forwarding and setting options. We found the icons used for such tasks to be generally, although not always, self-evident. For example, while playing video, it wasn't immediately obvious that tapping the two-headed arrow icon would set the size of the video display area. But for the most part, Archos did a nice job of creating and refining how users interact with the device.

Archos makes it relatively easy to get video into the player, if you're willing to pay extra. The company brags that the device will work with a variety of online video services. We downloaded video from Amazon's Unbox service and it worked as well and simply as promised. Specifically, the Unbox software recognized the Archos 704, and it was trivial to use the software to transfer video purchased via that service to the device.

The Archos 704 also supports most widely used video and audio formats, including MP3, WMA and DRM'd WMA files as well as MPEG-4 and WMV video files. However, you'll need to buy a $30 plug-in to play MPEG-2 video and an additional $20 plug-in to play AAC audio files and H.264 video files.

The big picture

Whatever its other capabilities, a device this big, expensive and video-centric is doomed to failure unless the picture quality is solid. In that regard, the Archos 704-WiFi succeeds.

The seven-inch TFT screen is bright and satisfying to watch at its native resolution of 800 x 480. Besides strong image quality, we didn't encounter a single stutter or break in the video playback while watching the television series pilot we downloaded from Unbox and several shorter videos.

The large, bright display is important when viewing video, but it's also a major benefit when using this device to browse the Web. It can be frustrating to browse the Web using a smart phone or other small-screen device, but the Wi-Fi capabilities built into the 704-WiFi enable easy access to the Web and, as with viewing video, the bigger screen is satisfying to use for browsing.

However, given that the 704-WiFi is a good tool for browsing the Web while mobile, Archos missed an opportunity to make this device even more compelling to road warriors. To do that, it could have added an e-mail client and even the ability to synchronize personal information with desktop computers. Those capabilities would make it even more attractive to take the 704-WiFi out for short trips without a laptop.

When talking about the display, two other caveats are in order. The first is minor: You can adjust the size of the image but not the resolution itself. The second gripe is more significant. To get the most out of the Archos 704, you must look at it exactly straight-on. Alter the viewing angle just a little bit, which is easy to do with a portable media player, and the brightness starts to diminish noticeably.

Extra-cost options

Out of the box, the Archos 704-WiFi is a powerful, easy way to collect and watch video. But as expensive as it is, you'll have to pay even more to get the most out of it.

Specifically, Archos developed this device (as well as its previous models such as the Archos 604 and 504) to work as a mobile digital video recorder (DVR). That's cool stuff, making it easy to record items from your television and watch them while you travel.

However, doing that requires that you purchase either the company's DVR Station, a docking station that retails for $100, or a smaller, more portable version of the docking station, which sells for $70. The add-ons include cabling to connect the 704-WiFi to your television. We tried the portable version and it worked well, although it took a while to get a satellite television system to work with it. Still, while this system truly simplifies grabbing video for the road, a device as expensive as the Archos 704-WiFi should come with such capabilities built in.

Because of its initial high price and the need many will have to buy add-ons, the Archos 704-WiFi doesn't rate highly in the value department. But price and value aside, the Archos 704-WiFi with its big, bright screen is the best option we've seen, short of a laptop, for taking video on the road.

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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