Archos's AV500 Mobile DVR
Archos keeps cranking out the portable video players (PVPs). The latest, the $500 AV500 Mobile DVR, has roughly the same compact form factor as Creative's slightly sleeker Zen Vision but manages to squeeze in a roomy wide-screen LCD. When you add its 30GB hard drive (or whopping 100GB drive in the $700 model), unsurpassed video-recording features, terrific battery life, and all the amenities of a good audio player and photo viewer, the AV500 looks like a surefire PVP champ. However, before you pull out your credit card, keep in mind that getting video on to the device is a lot more complicated and time-consuming than with iTunes and the new iPod. Indeed, the AV500 is best suited to tech-savvy users who have patience for its manual, VCR-like recording process. But for that crowd, this is one awesome traveling companion. With its brushed-metal exterior, sharp corners, and engraved silver buttons, the Archos AV500 has a decidedly industrial look, and the casing is durable and well put together. Whether you prefer that to the more elegant design of, say, the Creative Zen Vision is largely a matter of personal preference. We like the look well enough, but we think its odd, Tetris-like controls hurt the aesthetic.
The Archos AV500 weighs 9 ounces and measures 3 by 4.9 by 0.7 inches, meaning you can pocket it with only a bit more bulge than you'd get from a full-size PDA. It's actually a tad big to be carrying around like you would an MP3 player, though. The real news is the 4-inch wide-screen LCD, which provides quite a bit more viewing area than the Zen Vision's smaller 4:3 display. However, the latter's 640x480-pixel resolution trumps the AV500's 480x272. But does pixel count really matter in a device this small? Skip ahead to the Performance section to find out.
Along the top of the Archos AV500, you'll find a TV/LCD button, which toggles video output; a USB A port for connecting digital cameras and compatible accessories; a USB B port for connecting to a computer; a DC-in jack; and a multiconnect jack for headphones, A/V connections, and remotes, including an optional FM tuner/recorder. Sorely missing from the device is a kickstand. While watching video, you'll have to hold the AV500 at a comfortable viewing angle or find something to prop it against. On the plus side, the battery is removable, so at least you can stock a spare (coming soon, price to be determined) for long trips.
Operating the Archos AV500 is relatively simple, thanks to its lovely icon-driven interface, though the controls aren't immediately intuitive. The D-pad is easy enough to figure out, but what about the two extra buttons in either corner? (They're for rapid scrolling through lengthy song lists.) Equally mysterious, at least initially, are the four buttons below the D-pad. They're used with context-sensitive Action menus that appear in the neighboring corner of the screen. Ultimately, there's nothing complicated about using the AV500, especially after you learn the controls, but the lack of meaningful button labels creates unnecessary confusion.
To simplify the connection of the AV500 to your TV or home stereo, Archos supplies a TV docking pod. This disc-shaped unit provides A/V-in, A/V-out, S-Video-in, power, and IR-blaster ports, the last of which is used for attaching an included sensor to your VCR or cable/satellite box. However, the dock doesn't cradle the AV500, and its curved top makes a poor platform for the unit. Cowon's new A2 PVP also records video but doesn't require the A/V breakout pod. Whether or not the dock is connected, you can control the AV500 via the included full-size remote, which seems almost comically large compared with the AV500 itself.
Archos will soon release the $200 Mini-Cam, a lipstick-shaped video camera that plugs into the AV500's main A/V socket. The camera's cable has an in-line remote control for easy MPEG-4 recording and a built-in microphone; the camera itself is mountable. The Mini-Cam, despite its cost, is way cool; it can be used in a variety of situations, such as extreme sporting activities. In terms of sharpness and low-light performance, video quality on this color CCD camera is decent too.Following in the feature-rich footsteps of the Archos AV700 and the Archos AV420, the Archos AV500 performs a remarkable number of tasks. It's an audio player and a recorder; a video player and a recorder; a voice recorder; a photo viewer; and a portable hard drive. And like its aforementioned predecessors, the AV500 has the enviable ability to record TV shows at scheduled times, something few other PVPs can do.
However, this no longer seems like such a coup. Now that Apple's iTunes store has made a small but decent selection of TV shows and music videos available for point-and-click viewing on the latest iPod, it seems frustrating to have to jump through so many hoops with the Archos AV500. First, there's the initial task of integrating the TV docking pod with your entertainment system--a complicated endeavor if there's a cable or satellite box involved. Next, you have to schedule recordings using the AV500's awkward, VCR-like onscreen menu or a convoluted My Yahoo TV calendar download. Finally, you have to wait for the scheduled recording to finish--no instant gratification here.
Admittedly, iTunes offers an extremely limited TV selection at the moment, and the shows aren't free. With the Archos AV500, you can stock up on whatever you like and not pay an extra cent. Plus, you get to view your shows on a relatively giant screen. But it's hard not to feel wistful about the speed and simplicity of the iTunes/iPod solution. The AV500 is Archos's fifth PVP with scheduled-recording capabilities, but the company hasn't made any meaningful improvements. Where's the built-in TV guide for show-based scheduling? Where's the option to set up recurring recordings à la TiVo's Season Pass or even a typical VCR? Speaking of TiVo, how about playback support for that device, a feature offered by Creative's Zen Vision? Make no mistake: The AV500 still beats most of the competition when it comes to video features, but suddenly it seems a lot less convenient.
The Archos AV500 isn't completely without online content options. Its support for PlaysForSure means you can play songs purchased or rented from any number of online services, ranging from BuyMusic to Yahoo Music Unlimited. But PlaysForSure also encompasses video, meaning that someday you may be able to choose from a wide variety of TV and movie downloads. For now, however, the choices are insultingly limited: a handful of TV clips from MSN Video and a small library of D-grade movies from CinemaNow.
Until these services wake up and smell the iTunes, your best bet for getting movies on to the Archos AV500 is copying them from a DVD player. And luckily, since Archos is Macrovision compliant, you can record copy-protected DVDs directly to the AV500. Playback is limited to the AV500 itself--unlike with other video content, which can be viewed on an external TV--but at least you get to take advantage of the wide screen, something that can't be said of most recorded TV. Unless you're starting with wide-screen content, some of the AV500's screen estate goes to waste.