Many of the hottest mobile devices of 2010 run some variation of Google's Android OS. Unfortunately, getting your hands on an Android device that isn't wrapped up in carrier contracts and monthly bills is nearly impossible.
The Archos 32 aims to remedy this tragic gadget dilemma, delivering some of the best features of Android 2.2 (aka Froyo) in a pocket-size design priced at an affordable $149. And though we don't believe it has anything on Apple's latest iPod Touch, it certainly has plenty to brag about considering it is priced nearly $100 less.
Built from a combination of anodized aluminum and plastic, the Archos 32's construction quality feels reassuringly solid. It measures 2 inches wide by 4 inches tall by a mere 0.25 inch thick, and weighs a barely there 2.5 ounces.
With the exception of a volume rocker switch and sleep button on the left edge, the Archos 32 is controlled entirely using the touch screen and a series of dedicated touch controls on the front. As with most Android-based smartphones, the dedicated controls include a back arrow, menu list, home, and search. Touch-sensitive controls for volume are also included on the front of the device, which seems silly considering the hardware volume switch located nearby, but doesn't detract from the experience in any meaningful way.
On the bottom edge of the Archos 32 you'll find a headphone jack, pinhole microphone, battery indicator, and a Micro-USB port. We're glad to see that Archos opted for a universal port instead of the proprietary dock used on many of its larger tablets, though it does mean that accessories such as the Archos DVR Station are not compatible. That said, an AV cable accessory (sold separately) will allow you to output all onscreen content to a TV over a composite connection.
The back of the Archos 32 includes one of its most tempting features: a video camera. It can't shoot 720p HD video footage like the iPod Touch can, but its VGA resolution recordings aren't too shabby and can be adjusted between a number of bit rates. The camera is also capable of capturing still photographs, though it lacks a flash or any kind of sophisticated options for focus or white balance. A gallery of still images captured by the Archos 32 can be.
The Archos 32 has plenty to brag about. Concealed behind the 3.2-inch touch screen is an impressive array of components, including an 800MHz Arm Cortex A8 processor, an accelerometer sensor that controls screen orientation and works as a gaming control, an OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics processor, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 EDR, and 8GB of flash storage.
That's a lot of tech for a device priced at less than $150. Still, if you're looking for an Android smartphone without the "phone," you'll be disappointed to know that the Archos 32 doesn't offer memory expansion, GPS, digital compass, a front-facing camera, multitouch, gyroscope, haptic feedback, or SIM card support. As a compromise on that last item, Archos does allow you to tether to a phone's data connection over Bluetooth or USB. Of course, once you've reached that level of kludged-together mobile device, you may as well just upgrade to a full Android smartphone.
The argument for upgrading to a phone becomes even stronger when you take into account the Archos 32's most glaring shortcoming: its app store. For reasons too varied and complicated to unravel in this review, the open-source nature of Google's Android OS does not extend to the Google Marketplace storefront, which is where Android users browse, purchase, and install Google's collection of third-party apps. In the absence of Google's official app Marketplace, Archos offers a directory of mostly free applications that have been organized according to popularity and category. The Archos apps directory (called AppsLib) includes thousands of games, productivity tools, media streamers, and more. Unfortunately, the real marquee apps, such as Pandora, Evernote, TripIt, Shazam, and others, simply aren't there.
But while the extensibility of the Archos 32 is stifled by the homegrown app store, the core features of Android 2.2 are still intact, providing plenty of opportunities for fun and distraction. The Cover Flow-inspired user interface of the music player is the best we've seen on an Archos product, period. The e-mail and Web browser apps are quick and tidy. The photo gallery is inviting and organized well, and video playback couldn't be much easier.
Unfortunately, the single element holding back all these features from greatness is the Archos 32's screen. Measuring 3.2 inches diagonally, the screen has a hard time squeezing in a keyboard or windows for e-mail composition and Web content. Granted, the 3.5-inch screen of the iPod Touch isn't substantially larger, but when you use them side by side you begin to appreciate all the subtle assisting technologies offered by Apple (as well as other manufacturers), such as a multitouch keyboard, predictive text, capacitive screen sensitivity, and pinch resize. That isn't to say that you can't compose and send e-mail or browse the Web on the Archos 32, but it isn't pleasant. If you're looking for an Android productivity tablet for less than $200, theactually beats the Archos 32, based purely on the fact that the larger screen is more forgiving for typing (though still awkward, for other reasons).
Staying true to the company's legacy as a manufacturer of portable media players, the Archos 32 handled the vast majority of audio and video formats we threw at it. On the video front, our standard battery of AVI, MPEG-4, H.264, MOV, and XviD files all ran without a hitch. Archos promises playback support for video resolutions up to 720p at 30fps, though the screen's small size and 400x240-pixel native resolution makes this a somewhat silly proposition. Even if you planned on taking advantage of the player's video output capability, you're still stuck with a VGA resolution composite connection, so don't get your hopes up.
In spite of the audio player's beautiful, cover-art-friendly design, we did experience some hiccups during playback. Specifically, we found files with sampling rates below 44KHz played as garbled or silent audio. The only files in our collection that use a lo-fi sampling rate are podcasts and audiobooks, so it stands to reason that people who are purely interested in music playback won't experience any issues. That said, it's rare for a media player to be tripped up by these common types of files, especially a product like the Archos 32 that goes out of its way to support so many other file types, including FLAC, AAC, Ogg, WAV, and WMA.
One other issue worth mentioning is the Archos 32's Wi-Fi reception, which was noticeably less robust than any of the other mobile devices we had on hand. With most gadgets, we're able to pick up around 50 percent signal strength from our office router while sitting at our desk. For the Archos 32, we actually had to get out of our seat and move closer to the router, simply to register a signal. To its credit, the Archos 32 supports 802.11 b, g, and n bands, but the reception is disappointing.
On the upside, testing the Archos 32's Bluetooth connection with a Logitech Z515 wireless speaker was a resounding success. Pairing the speaker was quick, and the range easily stretched 30 feet without a dropped connection.
Archos rates the battery life of the Archos 32 at 24 hours of music playback, 6 hours of video, and 8 hours of surfing the Web. We noticed, however, that the default screen brightness of the unit we received was set to around 25 percent. At that brightness level, the screen was impossible to see outdoors, requiring us to crank the brightness closer to 90 percent to compete with sunny conditions, and likely placing a much greater drain on the battery. As is CNET's practice, for our tests our Labs will use a screen brightness measurement to establish a baseline brightness setting that is common to all our mobile device tests and reflects what we feel is a realistic real-world-use case. When device testing is complete, we'll update this review with results from CNET Labs.