Archos delivers on the promise of last year's revolutionary Multimedia 20, adding the ability to record video from a television to the earlier model's already heady mix of portable audiovisual capabilities. It can handle just about whatever you throw at it, recording and playing audio and video from a variety of sources--no engineering degree required. However, with the imminent release of the more attractive AV340, it's hard to recommend this player, which has last year's design. The Video AV120's rugged design is nearly identical to that of last year's Multimedia 20, which looked pretty good at the time. But it's boxier than some of the PVPs (personal video players) slated for release this year--including Archos's own AV340. At 4.3 by 3.1 by 1.1 inches and 10.2 ounces, the AV120's size and weight exceed those of most dedicated MP3 players, but that's not surprising, considering its stronger feature set.
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|The DVR module, which you need to record from television, must be purchased separately.|
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|The remote control comes with the DVR module and can't be used without it.|
However, a few design improvements have been made. The inclusion of a wireless remote (bundled with the optional DVR 100 module) is a huge step forward. Because the remote's buttons mirror the contextual controls on the AV120's front panel, you can now quite easily use your television to navigate your digital video collection from your couch. We also like the fact that the USB 2.0 port is built in; that's one fewer module to carry around. But the paint on the cover appears to be the same as before, and some users have reported that it can peel after a while, especially if an unventilated unit heats up a lot from heavy use.
A port on the bottom of the device connects to any of the following modules: the DVR 100, the Camera 100, the SmartMedia card reader, or a FireWire cable. On the side of the unit, you can find the power jack, as well as the audio line-in, A/V-out, and USB 1.1/2.0 ports. All modules are sold separately.
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The AV120 comes with an inordinate number of accessories; the optional DVR module is pictured here.
Archos is fairly sensitive to the fact that television volume and picture settings vary, so the 120 lets you preview what you're recording on the LCD or a television (if you're recording from a secondary source, such as a VHS or DVD deck). A volume meter tells you when the levels are too low or high; thus, you can adjust the source volume or the device's internal gain control from -3dB to +19dB. For tweaking the picture, you get four slider controls for hue, saturation, contrast, and brightness.
The sound for the video recordings we made was captured in MP3 stereo at a sampling rate of 44.1kHz and a bit rate, somewhat unexpectedly, of 191Kbps. Audio-only recordings also use the MP3 format, but they record at one of seven VBR settings for increased efficiency from the surprisingly decent built-in microphone, analog line input, or coaxial (as opposed to optical) S/PDIF cable. That, and most other features, work the same way they did in the Multimedia 20. The AV120 uses the same $100 camera module as its predecessor to shoot stills and low-grade MPEG-4 movies, but Archos has redubbed it the Camera 100. (The upcoming AV140 and AV340 models will support a new flash-camera module that the 120 does not.)
Of those shared features, the optional SmartMedia card adapter is the one that digital shutterbugs will probably find the most helpful. It transfers digital images from your digicam's SmartMedia card; you won't need to carry a laptop around with you or buy an additional high-capacity SmartMedia card in order to snap a high volume of photos on the go. The USB port on the device connects to PCs in USB 2.0 mode or to Macs in USB 1.1 mode (a FireWire kit will be available soon). Best of all, the 120 mounts automatically as a drive on Mac and Windows systems.
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The LCD on the AV120 measures 1.5 inches diagonally.
The MPEG-4 encoder was clearly taxed when large shapes moved quickly across the screen; we noticed a bit of jerkiness and pixelation. Overall, the video-recording quality is adequate for casual use but doesn't stand up to DVD in terms of audio or video. And while previewing our recording, we often found ourselves adjusting the various controls to correct seemingly off-kilter colors. Once you find a setting that works for your tastes, you can save it as the default and see if it functions next time.
When we recorded video directly from a DVD player, the 120 encoded it into a 24-bit, 304x244 DivX file, with a variable bit-rate MP3 stereo soundtrack; ours averaged 191Kbps. In lay terms, this means that video looks good but not great when played back on a large display, such as a television connected to the device or a computer with the file uploaded to its hard drive. Video looks nearly perfect on the device's LCD, but that's because it's so small. By our calculations, it'd take 259MB of memory to record the audio and video from an entire half-hour television show onto the device using the near-mandatory (yet still optional) DVR 100 module. However, you can further compress those files on your PC using the included VirtualDub software and the DivX codec so that they take up about a third as much disk space.
When we tried to play downloaded content on the device, we usually encountered some sort of compatibility problem, even when using Archos's customized front end to VirtualDub. Unless you really know your way around video formats, you're best off recording directly from your television or ripping DVDs (assuming you have the permission of the copyright holder to do so) and encoding them into DivX files.
Battery life is definitely not a strong point: 7 hours if you're just playing MP3s and not using the other functions. Like the Multimedia 20, the AV120 turned in a solid performance in terms of sound quality for recording and playback. As for file-transfer speed, our USB 2.0 card sent data to the 120 at a speedy 5.63MB per second--faster than the new iPod's FireWire connection by more than 2MB per second. If your computer doesn't have USB 2.0 and you don't want to add a card, you can still transfer data to the device at a very respectable 0.82MB per second.