Still, the 404's main attraction is its compactness. It's comfortable in the hand and in most pockets, though it is just a tad too tall to get the ultimate MP3 player grip on it (feels like a tank next to the 5G iPod). The 404's brushed-metal casing is extremely scratch resistant, though the overall design is boxy with sharper corners than, say, the iPod or the Cowon A2. At the same price as the 5G 30GB iPod, the 404 is so much more a video and photo player.
The Archos 404 has excellent video capabilities with support for MPEG-4 ASP up to 720x480 @ 30fps, WMV9, and WM DRM; there is no support out of the box for MPEG-2 or QuickTime files, but in our experience with the 404 and the bigger 604, many DivX files worked flawlessly (Archos will have MPEG-2 and H.264 plug-ins available for $10 soon). Video playback control is precise and responsive using the newly designed array of tactile buttons on the right side (southpaws are out of luck). Some users will miss the older 402's Game Boy-style controls.
Each button is designed to be pressed in either the left or the right direction, including the special set of diagonal buttons that act as page-up/page-down keys when browsing and can skip/reverse about 30 seconds when playing content. Like with the last version, the controls work in harmony with the GUI, with context-sensitive menus and submenus appearing on the expansive screen mapped to a specific button. The overall design reminds me of a sophisticated Swedish drum machine with its meticulous buttons and motion-filled onscreen interface. These buttons, by the way, can be difficult to control blindly or in darkness; the Click Wheel and Cowon's A2 controls are better suited for thoughtless navigation.
Though no match for the 604's display, the 404's 3.5-inch TFT anti-reflective display (320x240 pixels) is durable and scratch resistant and doesn't attract fingerprints (though you can get dust and other stuff lodged between the screen and the bezel). It is an ideal size for a 4:3 screen, as the rest of the body is so small. Next to the 604's 16:9 display, the 404's looks pixelated, and you'll definitely get the screen-door effect watching videos or viewing photos; the 604's screen is much more smooth and colorful. You'll also get three lines of menu items (slightly more confusing) than the two on the 604. It's still a good display, though.
The 404 plays MP3, WAV, and protected WMA files and includes a voice recorder and a variety of audio EQs. The 404 boasts a built-in PDF document reader, a built-in mono speaker, and an excellent photo viewer. Surprisingly, there is no FM tuner. We do like the fact that upon connecting to a computer, the 404 gives you the option of UMS (PC hard drive) or MTP (Windows device) modes. Transferring to and from a Mac (drag and drop) and Windows (autosyncing) was clean and quick.
What you won't get from the 404 is a built-in kickstand, a removable battery, and the 16:9 wide screen of the 604, which incidentally costs only $50 more (read the 604 review). Most everything is the same as the other players in the 04 series, including the beautifully revamped and customizable GUI and general overall look and feel. You'll also have to contend with the proprietary USB cable and weak set of bundled accessories (no AC adapter included, weak case, and mediocre earbuds).