The personal video player (PVP) has come of age. The $550 Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420 builds on the superlative foundation established by the , itself a CNET Editors' Choice winner. The AV420 has added desirable new features, lost some weight, and learned to work like a VCR and a rudimentary TiVo. It also plays MP3 and WMA files like a champ, records live and analog audio, stores data, and serves as a photo viewer/storage unit for cameras with CompactFlash cards. Plus, you can watch two full-length movies before the battery breaks a sweat. However, getting video into the unit remains tricky since most files must be converted before you can view them, and setting up timed TV recordings can be a hassle. But for frequent fliers, mass-transit commuters, and anyone else who wants multimedia to go, the AV420 is a dream come true. Although it's a hair longer than the AV320, the Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420 is thinner and lighter. It weighs 9.8 ounces and measures 5 by 3.1 by 0.8 inches, meaning you can just about get away with slipping it in your pocket. Thankfully, Archos supplies a carrying case this time out.
The AV420 sports much-improved controls as well, including a four-way directional pad (replacing the AV320's flawed joystick) and three navigation buttons that correspond to onscreen menu selections. There's also a built-in speaker--a feature the AV320 lacked. And though it's one-third thinner than the AV320, the AV420 manages to squeeze in a CompactFlash slot. An optional adapter ($39.95) adds room for Memory Stick, MMC, Secure Digital, and SmartMedia cards.
Thanks to its new controls, its spacious color screen, and its icon-driven interface, the AV420 is a piece of cake to operate. We particularly like the thumbnail previews that quickly appear as you scroll down your lists of photos and videos. And the screen is outstanding: a vibrant 3.5-inch LCD that looks sharper than its 320x240-pixel resolution suggests.
In previous models, switching video output between the LCD and an external TV required a prolonged press of an unmarked button or deep drilling into the menu system. Here, you simply press a large, clearly labeled button. It seems like a minor change, but it is actually a huge time-saver.
Our favorite new feature is the cradle, which not only gives the AV420 a place to sit upright but also manages its home-theater connections. It aggregates all the A/V cables (and there are many), meaning you can plug everything into your VCR or cable/satellite box and never have to mess with connections again.
The cradle has composite A/V-in and A/V-out cables and an S-Video-in cable, so it's compatible with just about any video source. There's also an IR blaster that must be attached to your VCR or your set-top box if you want to use the AV420 for scheduled recordings.
You do have to plug one cradle cable into the AV420 itself, but it serves a dual purpose: it charges the battery and enables full control of the unit via the wireless remote. The travel-friendly AC adapter plugs into the cradle or directly into the AV420. Unlike the AV320, the AV420 has a removable battery, so you can pack a spare or two ($60 each) and not have to worry about the AC adapter at all.
Unfortunately, the AV420 lacks an integrated stand for upright, hands-free viewing, a feature found in competitors, such as the and the . Given its nest of attached cables, the cradle (which acts as a stand) is not suitable for travel.
File transfers come courtesy of a USB 2.0 connection, which goes straight to the AV420--no cradle required. Where PVPs are concerned, size does matter--hard drive size, that is. Although the Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420's 20GB drive can store hours and hours of video, audio, photos, and personal data, you'll inevitably find yourself running low on space. Archos has an 80GB model (the AV480) in the works, but if you thought $550 was pricey, try $800. For the record, the AV480 is a bit thicker than the AV420 but also has a slightly larger screen.
The good news is that movies don't consume as much space as you might think. The AV420 records video in the highly compressed MPEG-4 format, which translates to roughly 1.2GB per hour at the highest available bit-rate setting of 2,500Kbps. Even if your music collection consumes 10GB, you'll still have room for a couple of movies and a few episodes of Third Watch.
Like the AV320, the AV420 can record video from most analog sources, including a VCR, a DVD player, or a cable or satellite box. Even copy-protected material is fair game, though playback is limited to the AV420's LCD. You can start and stop recordings manually, specify a recording length (helpful if you want to dub a movie unattended), or set the AV420 to record certain channels at certain times.
Though it is marketed as one of the first portable DVRs, the AV420 is more akin to a pocket VCR. There's no built-in program guide to help you find shows, so you have to know exactly what date, time, and channel to record--just like with a VCR. However, there's a more automated (and tedious) option. You sign up for a free Yahoo account, add shows from Yahoo's online TV guide to your personal calendar, save the calendar as an HTML file, then copy it to the AV420. It's a hassle, but it's nevertheless easier than scheduling recordings on the device itself. Whatever method you choose, it's a fairly simple matter to set up nightly recordings of, say, The Daily Show to watch during your morning train ride. For the moment, no other PVP can do that. Still, because of these limitations, the AV420 won't be usurping TiVo's throne in the living room anytime soon.
The AV420 is a killer audio player, taking full advantage of its screen to display track information and, when available, album art. Assuming your music files have accurate ID3 tags, you can browse by artist, album, track title, genre, or year. You can also create and manage playlists right on the device. However, when we copied a playlist from Musicmatch, the songs were transferred, but the playlist itself was not.
The AV420 is one of a few PVPs that lets you set bookmarks. There's also a resume option in the main menu that works independently; selecting it automatically returns you to where you left off, which is great if you forget to set a bookmark.
Archos supplies 8.1 Basic for managing music collections and the freeware utility VirtualDub for converting AVI and MPEG files to an AV420-compatible format. The typical MPEG file downloaded from the Internet (or one created by the user) will not play back on the AV420, given its resolution constraints. Converting, or transcoding, your video files is an easy process with VirtualDub. However, the utility won't work without a DivX codec and, for certain files, an MP3 encoder. It's up to you to find, download, and install both--Archos doesn't include them. Although all this is well documented in the AV420 manual, we don't think users should have to search the Web for required software components.
What's more, in order for the player to work with either Musicmatch Jukebox or Windows Media Player, you must first install a driver. Unfortunately, this fact isn't mentioned anywhere in the AV420's PDF manual, which is otherwise excellent. There's no moss growing on the Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420's belly. It takes just a few seconds to boot up, and it's equally speedy at opening large movie files. The AV420's processor did lag a bit when generating thumbnails for large video and photo files, but that's a small price to pay for the convenient previews.
We were also impressed by how quickly VirtualDub was able to convert our video files to a playable MPEG-4 format. Your mileage will vary depending on the size of the source file, the speed of your PC, and so on, but in our informal tests, it usually took no more than 15 to 20 minutes to convert a full-length movie.
Without exception, everything we copied, converted, and recorded looked stellar on the AV420's LCD. However, the few TV shows we recorded looked a bit grainy when played back on a TV, even those captured at the highest quality.
For a PVP in this price range, we expected better than the cheap, plastic earbuds Archos provides. As for the AV420's built-in speaker, no one will mistake it for a Klipsch ProMedia model, but it's good enough for kids in the backseat to watch a movie together without headphones.
Or even two movies--the AV420 has the best battery life of any hard drive-based PVP we've tested, bar none. It played video for 5.1 hours and audio for 13.8 hours. That's enough in-flight entertainment to carry you coast to coast--and it sets the bar awfully high for competing PVPs.