Archos's handsome Gmini 220 digital audio player, listed at $350, is unquestionably smaller than most of its 20GB competitors. It also boasts noteworthy features, but we wish its interface made them easier to use. A shiny, silver rectangle with rubberized edges, the Archos Gmini 220 straddles the line between sleek and rugged. The player rivals the Apple iPod in portability, measuring just 3.1 by 2.7 by 0.9 inches and weighing 6 ounces. And at 2.5 inches, the Gmini's black-and-white display is half an inch bigger than the iPod's.
Along with a fat four-way pad, the face holds the play/pause, stop, and Menu keys. All of those buttons work well enough, and we really like their blue backlighting, though we have yet to see a navigation control that's easier to use than Apple's scrollwheel.
While we like its icon-based design, the Windows-like interface isn't as intuitive as the controls. For example, if you're not careful, you'll likely misplace your playlists. Navigation also takes a little getting used to.
The Gmini 220's CompactFlash slot resides on the device's side, behind a hard-to-remove rubber flap. Since this photo-storage feature is internal, you don't have to carry an adapter.
Among the included accessories are an AC adapter, a cable for recording from RCA outputs, and headphones with an in-line variable-resistor volume control. Archos sells the Gmini's in-line remote separately for $40, but it's a must-have. It duplicates the body's controls, and unlike the remotes of too many high-end MP3 players, it has a screen, so you can see song information and menus when the Gmini is tucked away. The add-on can also receive FM radio signals and record them to MP3.
Archos packages the Gmini 220 with two unique accessories. A pass-through power cable lets you charge the battery and transfer tunes through the same port, and a headphone splitter enables two people to listen at the same time. Since post-Windows 98 operating systems recognize the Archos Gmini 220 as an external hard drive, setup was a snap on our Windows XP test machine. The player was ready to accept files as soon as we'd connected it to the computer with the included USB 1.1/2.0 cable. But although Windows lets you drag and drop music onto the device, you have to transfer songs through if you want to browse them later by artist, album, and genre.
The 1.8-inch hard drive holds 20GB of MP3, WMA, and WAV tracks, but the Gmini 220 won't play the secure WMA files available from many online music stores. It offers internal playlist creation and storage. And using the microphone or line-in jack, you can capture tunes from records, cassettes, CDs, and other sources directly to MP3--no computer necessary. The Gmini 220's VBR encoding ranges from 30Kbps to 128Kbps.
Digital-photo storage is perhaps the Gmini 220's most compelling feature. The built-in slot accepts any CompactFlash card, and the player quickly transfers the media's images to its hard drive. Avid photographers will likely use the Gmini 220 as a handy photo wallet in the field.
Archos's implementation of the bundled Musicmatch plug-in is problematic. First, although the software shuttles audio to and from the Gmini 220, there's no automatic syncing, so you have to manually select the files. Second, whenever you load even just one more song, the plug-in updates the player's internal database of track information by adding the new music's ID3 tags and resaving all the others on the drive. The process slows down the transfer rate (see the section).
A choice of English, French, or German menus, selectable within the Setup mode, gives the Gmini 220 a nice international flavor. The Archos Gmini 220 played songs loud and clear through our test headphones, but the company would not tell us the device's signal-to-noise ratio, output, or total harmonic distortion. Our line-in recordings sounded great, but you'll have to improve the player's live capture by attaching a powered microphone.
Over USB 2.0, the Gmini 220's file-transfer speed was a record-breaking 10.7MB per second. We were amazed when we moved our 11.9GB collection onto the drive in only 19 minutes. However, when we loaded the player using Musicmatch (see the section), its library updates slowed the rate to a gigabyte every few minutes. Archos needs to streamline Musicmatch's database maintenance or figure out some other way for the Gmini to gather ID3 information.
Battery life was about what we'd expect from a player this small. Running on its nonreplaceable lithium cell, the Gmini 220 played continuously for around 6.5 hours.
As for photo viewing, the grayscale screen's gradation capability is limited, so most pictures lean toward either dark or light. Plus, the display's low resolution makes for grainy images. Still, you can make out your shots well enough to decide which to delete when you need to free up memory.