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Archos 5 highs and lows

CNET's Donald Bell reflects on seven days spent with the Archos 5 Android Internet tablet, outlining his favorite features, as well as some disappointments.

Update: CNET's full review of the Archos 5 is now available.

I've had my hands on the Archos 5 Android internet tablet for more than seven days now, and to be honest, I'm still not sure what to make of it. What's hanging up the review isn't the price (which starts at $249), or capacity (up to 500GB), or the impressive selection of features; it's the devices spotty performance. So far, some stuff just doesn't work as advertised.

Photo of the Archos 5 using GPS.
GPS reception on the Archos 5 takes several minutes to lock-on to a valid signal. Frankly, I don't often use GPS, but if Archos is going to promise it, then I want it to work. Donald Bell/CNET

If this were Apple or Microsoft, these performance glitches would probably have me spitting venom right now, but Archos is a relatively small company. Chalk it up to looking out for the little guy, but I'm going to give Archos the benefit of the doubt that many of the issues I'm experiencing will be fixed quickly with firmware updates and swept under the rug. In fact, a firmware update earlier this week (v1.1.01) already addressed a problem I had accessing content from microSD cards. In a perfect world, products wouldn't leave the warehouse half-baked--but every company is guilty of it to some degree.

My contact at Archos says there will be another firmware update available next week. Assuming this next round will iron out the kinks, I'm going to hold off on a formal review until then. Of course, I'm also advising that potential buyers wait until our rated review is up before investing in an Archos 5. Considering that Amazon recently froze sales of the 160GB model of the Archos 5, I think it's safe to assume that I'm not the only one having some issues.

Now, true to the title of this piece, my time with the Archos 5 has had its share of bright spots too. Most notably, its video player is one of the best I've used on any device. Unlike previous versions of Archos PVPs, the Archos 5 ships with all the critical video codecs installed, instead of requiring users to purchase codec plug-ins individually. My HD video podcasts, XviD torrents, AVIs, and WMVs all play flawlessly. Videos look great on it too, with the 4.8-inch 800x480-pixel resolution LCD that gives a rich and razor-sharp picture that holds up well, even in daylight. By extension, photos also look great on the Archos 5--although thumbnail previews and transitions aren't nearly as fast and fluid as on the iPod Touch.

If you ask me, the Archos 5's video player alone is worth the price of the whole device, assuming that digital video is really your cup of tea. Unfortunately, as a company, I think Archos is a little tired of being cast as a portable video player manufacturer. Looking at the packaging for the Archos 5, you'd hardly know the device played videos at all. According to the box, this is an "Internet tablet," a term Archos has whittled down from the "Internet media tablet" we saw last year. The choice of phrasing seems particularly odd considering that the device's media features are stronger than ever. I assume Archos wants people to understand in no uncertain terms that they are in the tablet business, in spite of seven years spent manufacturing media players.

But if Archos wants to sell its tablet on the strength of Android apps, GPS, Web browser, and e-mail, I have a hard time believing the device will succeed in its current state. Granted, the Android browser and e-mail work much better than the Opera browser and Archos e-mail client from last year's model, but features such as multitouch or capacitive screen technology are still absent. If the Archos 5 is going to be a productivity or communication device, it not only needs to work, but it also needs to be fast. After just finishing my evaluations of the latest iPod Touch and the Zune HD, the Archos 5 feels a bit sluggish by comparison.

Photo of apps on Archos 5 android tablet.
Multimedia apps Deezer and Dailymotion come preinstalled on the Archos 5. I'd trade them both in an instant for Pandora's Android app, but it's not available in the limited selection of apps for the Archos 5. Donald Bell/CNET

Let's also talk about the apps. In theory, the inclusion of Android apps is a great asset to the Archos 5, giving it a flexibility and extendability to compete against the iPod Touch. In practice, however, the app selection is hardly dazzling and the majority of Android apps are not yet supported. Out of the box, Archos includes an app for Twitter, an IM client, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, Craigslist, Moov, High Paying Jobs, Yellowbook, and a ThinkFree app for opening Office and PDF documents. But aside from the IM client and the document viewer, none of these apps really offers anything you couldn't get just from using the Web browser. Granted, the same complaint can be made of many iPhone apps, but if these are the killer apps that Archos deemed good enough to preinstall, I'm not impressed. Also, the two included media apps (Dailymotion and Deezer) may be popular in Archos' native France, but here in the U.S. they have relatively little traction. With any luck, someone will bring the YouTube, Pandora, Slacker, and Android apps to the Archos 5 models sold in the states.

Then there's its GPS feature. Last year, users had to shell out an extra $130 for a car dock to turn the Archos 5 into a full-fledged GPS unit. Even then, it was a car-only system that you couldn't walk with for city maps and local points of interest. In the latest Archos 5, GPS is built right into the hardware. Users will need to pay a one-time fee of $39 to activate the maps, but after that, you have a complete NDrive GPS navigation system. It's really an awesome feature, and a clear advantage over the iPod Touch, but the problem comes down to performance. Under the current firmware (1.1.01), its GPS reception is spotty and takes an inordinate amount of time to locate a signal. After talking with Archos about the issue, they acknowledged the problem exists and told me that next week's firmware update should improve things. Currently, though, if I need to get somewhere, I'm not going to sit and wait five minutes in my car while the Archos 5 strains to locate a GPS signal. I'm glad the GPS works--but if it doesn't work quickly, I'm never going to really use it.

So that's the nitty-gritty on my experience with the Archos 5 so far. And again, in spite of my criticisms of the Archos 5 as an "Internet tablet," GPS unit, and productivity or communications device, it's still a fantastic media player and one of the best video devices on the market. If you have any specific questions about the device, feel free to post them in the comments section and I'll try my best to address them.