Archos AV700 Mobile DVR
With its 7-inch-wide screen, TV-friendly recording capabilities, and kitchen-sink roster of media features, the Archos AV700 would seem to be the ideal traveling companion for movie buffs, couch potatoes, and music fans alike. However, it's expensive--$600 and $800 for the 40GB and 100GB models, respectively--and far too bulky to slip into a pocket. What's more, while the AV700 does a fine job of recording video from external sources, such as a TV, it offers no clear-cut way to play back wide-screen movies or, for that matter, wide-screen TV. Thus, the sizable screen goes largely to waste. Further complicating matters, converting video files is a hassle, and the screen itself isn't that great, though its wide viewing angle should accommodate everyone in the backseat. Ultimately, the AV700 is best suited to tech-savvy users who have cash to burn and a firm belief that a bigger screen makes for a better personal media player. The Archos AV700 is big. Really big. Heavy too. At 8.2 by 4.2 by 0.8 inches and 1.3 pounds, it's not the kind of device you can slip unobtrusively into a pocket. Of course, the mammoth screen accounts for most of the bulk: Measuring 7 inches diagonally, it's significantly larger than most portable video player (PVP) screens, which usually top out at 3 to 4 inches. The LCD produces 480x234 pixels--a bit on the low side, given its size--and 262,000 colors. In fact, it can't hold a flame to the Creative Zen Vision's gorgeous 640X480-pixel VGA screen.
Holding the metal-encased Archos AV700 is like holding a handheld video game, with its D-pad controller on the left side of the screen and hodgepodge of buttons on the right. The D-pad navigates you through menus--and games, natch--while the buttons control playback and activate various menus. All told, it's a pretty simple control system, though it's nowhere near as easy to work with as the touch-screen interface on the. The interface here, complete with your choice of attractive colors and backgrounds, consists of an icon-driven main menu and context-sensitive action menus that appear in the lower-right corner. These are accessed and navigated using scroll-up, scroll-down, and select buttons that reside under your right thumb. A pair of speakers flank the LCD, while tiny LEDs indicate power, drive activity, charge status, and TV-out mode (when enabled).
The Archos AV700's connectivity ports are clumped together along the top of the device. The power ports, as well as the headphone, A/V, and dock ports, are fairly self-explanatory, but you might be confused by USB A and USB B. The latter provides a standard USB 2.0 connection to your PC, while the former serves as a host port--one that can accept connections from mass-storage devices, such as digital cameras. An included adapter cable is required to make these connections and keep you from accidentally plugging the wrong cable into the wrong port.
A release switch on the side of the Archos AV700 pops loose its removable lithium-ion battery--always a welcome feature on a device such as this. Spare batteries sell for $50 apiece, though you may not even need one (see Performance). Other available accessories include car headrest adapters (starting at $39.95) for backseat viewing, as well as a double-headphone kit, so two people can listen at once; the price was not available at the time of this writing.
For establishing easy and semipermanent connections to your TV or home stereo, Archos supplies a TV docking pod. This disc-shaped dock provides A/V-in, A/V-out, S-Video-in, power, and IR-blaster ports, the last used for attaching an included sensor to your VCR or cable/satellite box. Unlike the similar docks included with previous Archos PVPs, this one doesn't cradle the device or even have enough surface area to act as a stand for it. Rather, it has to sit alongside the AV700, which thankfully features a sturdy built-in kickstand. Whether or not the dock is connected, you can control the AV700 via the included remote, a full-size clicker with large, tactile buttons, some of which duplicate the AV700's own controls.Although the Archos AV700 can serve as a music player, a photo album, a portable hard drive, and a poor-man's game system, it was definitely designed with an emphasis on TV and video. It plays AVI, MPEG-4 (DivX 4/5), and both protected and unprotected Windows Media Video 9 files. Any videos that aren't in one of those formats can be converted using included software--more on this later. As with many PVPs, it can be hard to know which files will play natively without conversion unless you copy them to the AV700 and try them out.
Of course, finding good video content to play can be a challenge. The Archos AV700, such as the AV420 and PMA430 before it, has a major ace up its sleeve: It can record from myriad external video sources. You can copy movies from a DVD player--even Macrovision-protected movies, though playback is limited to the AV700 itself--and record TV via a VCR or cable/satellite box. Better still, the AV700 busts out VCR-like scheduling, meaning you can leave it connected to your home theater and have it record TV shows unattended. Its support for PlaysForSure video content suggests access to online movie rentals, but for the moment, there's precious little to choose from: a handful of no-name movies from CinemaNow and a smattering of TV downloads from MSN Video.
Programming the Archos AV700 to record a show is much like programming a VCR: slow and awkward. You can automate scheduling by downloading a My Yahoo TV calendar, but it's a convoluted process that, for many users, isn't worth the extra effort. We really wish the AV700 worked more like a TiVo, with a built-in TV guide you can use to select programs. But for all the hassles of getting the device to record TV, including configuring it to work with your cable/satellite box or VCR, at least the capability is there. Few other PVPs can match it.
Before connecting the Archos AV700 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; it effectively makes the AV700 function as an external hard drive. In Windows Device mode, you must use Windows Media Player 10, which allows you to autosync audio and video, as well as take advantage of PlaysForSure content, such as songs purchased or downloaded from various online stores. It's a bit of a hassle having to switch modes depending on what you want to do, but at least the AV700 doesn't restrict your options.
It's worth noting that to access any of the bundled software, which consists primarily of the freeware conversion utility VirtualDub and an Archos front-end, MPEG-4 Translator, you'll have to put the AV700 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 mainly on version 10.
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 AV700 as a potential target device--only older Archos models. If you choose Archos Default as suggested in the manual, the default output resolution falls to 320x176, which is quite a bit lower than the LCD can handle.