The Archos 704's user interface is fairly straightforward, though it's not as simple as, say, the iPod's menus. The touch screen is responsive, and the icon-based menus are utilitarian-looking and easy to navigate. The 704's processor is quick enough for most tasks, though it can be a bit slow when performing actions involving thumbnail generation, at least until the thumbnails are cached. Playlisting and file management features are extensive and very flexible, thanks in part to a pop-up virtual keyboard that's actually big enough to use with your thumbs.
As mentioned earlier, the 704 plays back a variety of media. Video support includes some versions of AVI (including MPEG-4, DivX and XviD), ASF, and WMV, but to play H.264, VOB, or MPEG-1/MPEG-2 movies, you've got to purchase and download the appropriate codecs from Archos, at $20 each. Since no standard analogous to the MP3 exists in video, this could inconvenience many users. On the audio side, the 704 supports PlaysForSure (WMA) content from online services such as Rhapsody, as well as MP3, WAV, and unprotected WMA files. (You can purchase an optional plug-in for AAC support as well.) The player also displays JPEG, BMP, and PNG photos and slide shows.
In practice, we found the 704 to offer respectable video and photo performance. According to Archos, the screen's native resolution is 800x480 pixels, and it's plenty bright enough with a very good viewing angle, though the matte finish (likely an effect from the touch screen's protective film) detracts slightly from the overall sharpness. Video playback and photo slide show transitions are both very smooth. Skipping around within videos works very well with minimal lag, and you can pan, zoom, and rotate photos. Videos and photos look very good on an external TV (via the headphone jack, which doubles as a TV output; cable sold separately).
Unfortunately, sound quality on our Archos 704 review unit was problematic; we could hear some system noise and pops in the audio even when nothing was playing, though Archos plans to fix this via a firmware update. Aside from those flaws, the audio quality was good but a bit on the thin side on default settings, though there are plenty of sound customization options to play around with. The included earbuds are the usual fare--adequate for casual listening--but the headphone output is capable of driving higher-end headphones reasonably well.
The wireless features (802.11g) are potentially useful, but Web browsing can be frustrating, since page load times for sites like CNN and CNET are on the slow side and there's a significant lag when you click on links or buttons. One nice touch is that the virtual keyboard automatically pops up when you click in a text field. Unfortunately, Opera isn't compatible with all sites, and the version on the 704 doesn't support Java or Flash graphics--that means no Yahoo Mail Beta, though Gmail works fine. You can also download files such as PDFs and view them, but the PDF viewer was very slow at loading files.
The Archos 704 makes up for its lackluster Web performance with its very cool file server feature. It lets you stream video, photos, and music from any networked PC to the 704, as well as serve up files to your PC from the device. You can even output streams to your TV, transforming the 704 into something along the lines of the forthcoming Apple TV.
The 704's sheer size will keep it from being your primary everyday A/V player, but it's definitely a versatile option for business travelers and backseat passengers who don't need the full laptop experience or expense. Archos' strategy of requiring optional accessories to access the recording features is a sound one, and it keeps the base list price to $549.99. But they could have included broader built-in video codec support instead of charging extra for the ability to play some common video formats. The wireless features are a nice bonus, but this is definitely not a laptop or smart phone replacement.