New Archos media players: Look out, iPhone?

The new line of Archos portable media players includes two Wi-Fi-enabled models with Web browsing, Flash video support, and direct downloads of CinemaNow videos--and don't require a PC connection.

Archos 605 Wi-Fi
The Archos 605 Wi-Fi, with the kickstand extended Archos

Archos announced its 2007 lineup of media player/recorders today at press events in both Europe and New York, introducing four new portable models as well as the company's first set-top DVR.

The big news--as reported earlier --is that the new Wi-Fi-enabled portables include direct access to an online "Content Portal" and offer a Flash-supported Web browser option. The portal offers pay-per-download CinemaNow movies--just use the touchscreen to pick the movie you want to buy and download it to the internal hard drive, no PC required. The Opera browser--a $30 option on Wi-Fi models--includes a Flash plug-in. The pre-production model I was using smoothly delivered YouTube videos, even offering an option to toggle them to full screen. (By contrast, it's worth noting that the iPhone can't access the iTunes Store directly--content needs to be synced from a host computer--and Flash support is said to be absent from the included Safari browser.) With optional paid plug-ins, the higher-end Archos models will also offer customized widgets and even support for high-definition playback (24-frame, 720p video).

All the Archos portables are scheduled to ship in the first half of September. The line features four base models, some of which are available in multiple capacities and price points:

Archos 105: The entry-level, 2GB flash model is intended for very basic audio, photo, and video playback, but includes a 1.8-inch OLED screen and will sell for just $90.

Archos 405: In addition to the 2GB of built-in flash memory, the 405 includes an SD expansion slot and a larger, 3.5-inch LCD screen. It also offers wider file format support, including optional compatibility made available via downloadable (paid) plug-ins.

Archos 605 Wi-Fi: The sweet spot in the Archos line adds Wi-Fi and a PSP-sized 800x480-pixel, 4.3-inch LCD screen. The 605 can stream video files from networked PCs on a home network, as well as offer direct access to the CinemaNow online video store and (with an optional upgrade) Web surfing and Flash-based video via the Opera browser. The 605 will be available in three configurations: 4GB flash with an SD expansion slot for $200, a 30GB hard-disk model for $300, and a 160GB hard-disk model for $400.

Archos 705 Wi-Fi: The deluxe Archos portable offers the same features as the 605, but boasts a massive 7-inch screen. It will be available in 80GB and 160GB hard-disk models (pricing still to be determined).

While the 2007 models appear, at least on the surface, to be more affordable than last year's versions (Archos 104, Archos 404 , Archos 604 Wi-Fi , and the Archos 704 Wi-Fi ), there's a catch: to enable some of the more compelling features of the 405, 605, and 705, you need to purchase optional accessories and software plug-ins. Most notably, the DVR Station ($100) lets a docked Archos record TV shows (with cable/satellite box control and even a built-in electronic programming guide). Somewhat more onerous, however, is that the Web browser is a separate purchase ($30), and six separate A/V codecs and features are a la carte downloads at $20 a pop (MPEG-2/Dolby compatibility for ripped DVDs; H.264/AAC compatibility; widgets plug-in; HD video support; Real Video support; and Internet radio playback). That's $150 extra dollars for the full Archos experience--not including the DVR add-on.

Archos' nickel and diming notwithstanding, the Wi-Fi-enabled models look to deliver an impressive mixture of features and value, including some impressive media recording and playback options that even the vaunted iPhone won't be able to match--at least, not until its own string of firmware and accessory upgrades is announced. (Of course, none of the Archos players will replace your cell phone.) Look for full in-depth CNET reviews of all four Archos models when they hit the market in September.

 

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