Before connecting the Archos AV500 to your PC, you need to decide what mode to put it in: Hard Drive or Windows Device. True to its name, the former enables drag-and-drop file management, effectively turning the AV500 into an external hard drive. In Windows Device mode, you must use Windows Media Player 10, which allows you to autosync audio and video and take advantage of PlaysForSure content. We're not wild about the hassle of having to switch modes, depending on what you want to do.
It's worth noting that to access any of the bundled software--which consists primarily of the freeware video-conversion utility VirtualDub and the Archos front-end MPEG-4 Translator--you'll have to put the AV500 in Hard Drive mode. Archos doesn't supply a software CD; everything comes on the device's drive, except the necessary DivX codec, which you'll have to find and download yourself. Curiously, Archos also supplies Windows Media Player 9, even though the manual focuses primarily on version 10 and autosync requires it.
After installing VirtualDub and MPEG-4 Translator, you'll use the latter to set up AVI and MPEG-1 conversions; MPEG-2 isn't supported, alas. It's an easy program to work with, except that it doesn't list the AV500 as a potential target device--only older Archos models. If you choose Archos Default as suggested in the manual, the default LCD output resolution doesn't take full advantage of the available screen resolution. You'll have to fiddle with the settings manually.
Once you're actually playing video on the Archos AV500 or an external TV, you can adjust the aspect ratio using any of these three settings: Auto, Maximized, or Full Picture. There's also a slow-motion mode with three speed settings, as well as a bookmark option. Don't worry if you forget to set a bookmark; the main menu features a handy Resume option that automatically returns you to wherever you left off. Basically, once you have playable video on the AV500, the device and its software are a true joy to use. From the beefy and responsive processor to the convenient soft keys, it's obvious that Archos is an experienced portable video company.
As an audio player, the Archos AV500 covers all the bases: MP3; protected WMA, including subscription content; and WAV, which is also the format used for audio recordings. Mac users can leverage the included iTunes plug-in though not for songs purchased from the service; the AAC format isn't supported.
The Archos AV500 provides all the typical playback and library options, plus on-device playlist creation and support for album art. Indeed, the player takes full advantage of the AV700's big screen, splashing album art across nearly a third of it and using the remaining space for track info: name, artist, album, bit rate, playback time (remaining, elapsed, and total), and so on. It even displays the name of the next queued track. Surprisingly, the player lacks an equalizer, leaving you with little more than treble, bass, and bass-boost sliders. It's also frustrating that you can't multitask; viewing photos while listening to music isn't an option.
Sifting through lengthy song lists is made somewhat easier by the Archos AV500's accelerate-up and accelerate-down buttons, which reside at the corners of the four-way D-pad--but they're a far cry from, say, an iPod scrollwheel. You can press either of them once to scroll a page at a time and hold them down to accelerate through the list.
There's not much to say about the Archos AV500's photo features, which don't extend much beyond basic slide-show capabilities. If you remember to pack both the USB cable for your camera (or a USB memory-card reader) and the adapter cable for the AV500, you can download and view photos--a handy remedy for overfilled memory cards. The AV500 displays only JPEG and BMP images, though it can still download other file types, such as TIFF and raw.Viewed in a vacuum, the Archos AV500's screen looks quite good. It's bright and reasonably colorful, with an appreciably wide viewing angle. At no point while watching our sample videos did we find fault with them--until we put the AV500 alongside the Creative Zen Vision. The latter's screen has roughly 50 percent more pixels and exhibits noticeably sharper images and warmer, more accurate colors; however, the Zen Vision's mediocre viewing angle makes up for the AV500's lack of pixels. Although you'll likely be satisfied with the AV500's image quality, you can definitely do better. You'll also want to stay indoors, as screen brightness takes a major hit when you venture outside.
Connecting the Archos AV500 to a TV yields good results, particularly when playing back high-resolution video files. It's capable of 720x480-pixel output, which is on a par with high-definition TV. Ironically, however, because it's limited to 640x480 recording, there's no easy way to fully leverage its maximum output resolution.
The Archos AV500's built-in speaker produces weak volume levels, so don't plan on using the unit for your next party unless you connect some powered speakers. As usual, Archos supplies a pair of uncomfortable though decent-sounding earbuds. The in-line volume control is nice, but users should plan on plugging in their favorite headphones instead.
The Archos AV500 boots up in just a few seconds and snaps between menus with no noticeable delay. It's also relatively speedy at file transfers, though its lab score of 5.82MB per second could best be described as average. Thankfully, there's nothing average about its exemplary battery life: 8.2 hours for video and 21.1 hours for audio. Those are really impressive numbers for a device with such a big screen.