Archos raised the bar for personal video players (PVPs) with last year's Pocket Video Recorder AV420. Now, with the Archos Pocket Media Assistant PMA430, the company raises it even further, this time by adding a touch screen and a Linux operating system to the mix. The result is a device that tries to be as practical as it is fun--and it almost succeeds. The $800 PMA430 retains the AV420's superlative design while incorporating an even more amazing roster of features, including Wi-Fi, a Web browser, games, and a PDA's worth of PIM functions. Of course, don't forget the already-stellar movie, music, and photo features, most of which have been improved courtesy of the new OS. In short, this is one awe-inspiring, envy-producing device. To get it, however, you'll have to drain your wallet and live with less-than-perfect performance.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. Save for shedding a couple of ounces, the Archos Pocket Media Assistant PMA430 is a doppelganger of the AV420. It measures 4.9 by 3.1 by 0.8 inches and weighs 9.6 ounces. Archos's cleverly designed, clip-on screen cover, which also stows a thin plastic stylus, makes the PMA430 a bit more pocket-friendly than was the bulky carrying case supplied with the AV420.
The controls are also nearly identical, consisting of a four-way directional pad with a play/pause button in the center, plus three navigation buttons. This time, however, these controls have clearly designated functions. The Archos button cycles through open applications; the Menu button activates pull-down menus in applications that have them; and the Home button returns you to the home screen, much as with a PDA. The PMA430 also sports LEDs that indicate power, charging, and hard-drive activity.
Other carryovers from the AV420 include a built-in speaker and microphone, a TV/LCD button for easily switching video-output modes, a removable battery, a wireless remote, and a gorgeous 3.5-inch LCD. And it's now a touch screen that responds to stylus input like a PDA but still offers crisp 320x240 resolution and 262,000 colors.
Gone from this model is the CompactFlash slot, which made for easy copying of photos from digital camera memory cards. In its place, however, Archos has added a second USB port, one designed expressly for connecting external devices. Using a supplied patch cable, you can theoretically plug in just about anything: a digital camera, a hard drive, even a USB keyboard. However, the supplied manual doesn't say exactly what devices qualify as compatible, and when we connected a Canon Digital Rebel, nothing happened; we were unable to access any photos from the camera.
As with the AV420, the PMA430 ships with a docking cradle featuring A/V-in, A/V-out, and S-Video-in cables for establishing permanent connections with home-theater equipment. The cradle also sports AC and IR blaster ports, the latter used for attaching an included sensor to your VCR or cable/satellite box for scheduled recordings. Missing from the PMA430 is a kickstand, though it's possible to make the unit stand upright by reversing the screen cover. But that 90-degree angle isn't ideal for movie viewing; you'll probably be happier propping up the unit on something else.
While the PMA430's USB 1.1 "host" port provides connectivity with other devices, its USB 2.0 port links it to your PC. Alas, they're not labeled, so you'll have to remember which one is which. We can list all of the Archos Pocket Media Assistant PMA430's features in a single paragraph, but it'll be a big one. The device plays and records MPEG-4 video; plays MP3, WAV, and DRM-protected WMA audio; and records both live and line-in audio. It includes a full roster of PIM applications, everything from contact and calendar management to a world clock and a text editor. It plays games--seven are included, mostly of the puzzle and board-game variety, and Archos promises to make more available for download. Finally, the PMA430 comes with built-in 802.11b Wi-Fi, which enables not only Web browsing via the bundled Opera browser but also e-mail access. A 30GB hard drive serves as home for all this software and media and can store data as well.
If you're starting to get the feeling the PMA430 is half-PDA, you're right. It combines a stylus-driven touch screen with the Linux-based Qtopia operating system, the same one used in Sharp's Zaurus PDAs. As a result, the PMA430 is easier to learn and use than just about any other PVP we've tested (and you'll someday be able to develop your own applications). The tabbed, icon-based interface should seem instantly accessible to anyone who's ever used a PDA, and it's not hard to figure out for anyone who hasn't. Trust us, the touch screen makes a world of difference in navigating a device as complex as the PMA430, particularly when "typing" in characters.
As a PDA, the PMA430 offers the same quality of information management as, well, a Sharp Zaurus, which is to say it's quite good for keeping track of contacts, appointments, to-dos, and the like. There's even a PDF viewer. Plus, the PMA430 can sync with Microsoft Outlook, thanks to the included Qtopia Desktop software, which can also serve as a standalone PIM application for non-Outlook users. However, much as we like the unit's choice of data-entry methods (handwriting recognition, QWERTY keyboard, or SMS keyboard), the landscape orientation of the screen makes for somewhat awkward input. It would help if you could rotate the interface for PIM operations.
As with the AV420, the PMA430 plays and records MPEG-4 video files, arguably its biggest claims to fame. If you refer to our AV420 review, you'll find all the details about these capabilities; they're largely unchanged in the PMA430. The exception: You can no longer copy an exported Yahoo TV-guide calendar to the device. That was always a seriously kludgy way to schedule TV recordings, but now there's no automated way to do it at all. Thankfully, the touch screen makes it relatively simple to program recordings manually--a few taps is all it takes. And the PMA430 remains one of the few PVPs that can record directly from a VCR or a set-top box, giving it a major leg up over competitors such as the . On the other hand, it lacks that device's capability to sync with a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC, which is arguably easier for taking recorded shows on the road.
Save for a few annoying quirks, the PMA430 rocks as an audio player. You can easily build playlists on the device via its split-screen display, though, unfortunately, you can't drag and drop tracks and albums; you have to select them, then tap the Add to Playlist menu option. Better still, the player makes full and practical use of the screen, displaying album art if it's available, as well as complete song information and a full complement of playback/shuttle controls. The five-band equalizer, which includes five presets, is the easiest to use in PVP history, thanks to its touch-screen sliders. Our only complaint is that queuing up all your tracks for random play isn't particularly intuitive, nor is it documented anywhere. You have to tap the Title folder, then tap Play; if you select an individual track, the PMA430 will then shuffle-play only the tracks from the corresponding album--weird. We also found that the PMA430 seemed to ignore track-number ID3 tags; if you want albums to play in the correct order, you have to prefix the filenames accordingly.
We were particularly impressed by the new AudioCorder application, which makes for supereasy recording from the internal mic, an external mic, or a line-in source. It features a stereo-level meter, a timer, and push-button controls for adjusting quality and format (WAV or MP3) settings. Adding ID3 tag info to any recording is as simple as entering it in the corresponding fields. As with the PMA430's other numerous modes, the AudioCorder mode has a way of convincing the user that it's a dedicated audio recorder by way of its tight graphics and the responsiveness of the processor.
Copying music--and other files, for that matter--to and from the PMA430 is strictly a drag-and-drop process, unless you install the included Windows Media Player plug-in, necessary if you want to transfer DRM-protected tunes to the device. You won't find this on a CD, however; all of the PMA430's software, including an iTunes plug-in and Virtual Dub for converting video files to MPEG-4, resides on the device itself.
The PMA430's photo browser works similarly to the AV420's, with a handy split-screen interface for viewing thumbnails of your images before viewing them full-screen. Amazingly, however, there's no slide-show mode.
Finally, there's Wi-Fi, the presence of which is unprecedented in a PVP. The software will even point out Wi-Fi hot spots with its automatic Wi-Fi detector. Unfortunately, it's underutilized in one key respect: you can't stream audio or video. Just imagine if you could tune in Internet radio stations or download movies from a service such as CinemaNow. The PMA430 effectively delivers PDA-level Wi-Fi, giving you a rudimentary POP/IMAP e-mail client and Web access courtesy of the Opera browser, which, admittedly, works quite nicely. One e-mail gripe: because there's no SMTP-authentication option, you may have trouble sending messages via public networks. It's ironic that the addition of certain features has altered our perception of the Archos Pocket Media Assistant PMA430's performance. For instance, while it takes just a few seconds to boot up, applications are relatively slow to load. That's no big deal when you're in a PVP mindset, but anyone trying to look up a phone number or an appointment will find these delays frustrating. PDAs run significantly faster.
The bigger problem lies with Wi-Fi. We had a difficult time establishing a connection to our office router unless the PMA430 was just a few feet from it. Other devices in the same office work fine, even two floors up.
As for video and audio, the PMA430 delivers the same, generally stellar results as the AV420: sharp-looking video, great-sounding music, and a truly satisfying multimedia experience overall. However, recorded TV shows once again looked a bit grainy, and we're even more disappointed by the presence of cheap plastic earbuds (which, admittedly, sound quite good). For $800, Archos could at least provide a decent set of over-the-ear headphones.
Given all the improvements to its feature set, we expected the PMA430 to have battery life at least as good as that of the AV420. Alas, it actually fared a bit worse, lasting 4.5 hours for video and 11.2 hours for audio. Those are still respectable numbers, but Archos no longer leads the power pack: runs nearly twice as long.
In our lab tests, the PMA430 copied files at a rate of 14.5MB per second--a great score. In our informal drag-and-drop test, it took about 14 minutes to copy our 9GB library of MP3 tunes, another impressive time. Unfortunately, we then had to wait another few minutes while the ArcLibrary, which sorts all the ID3 tag data for song navigation, updated itself. That's an annoying delay we could have done without.