Editors' note: The following review has been updated to reflect product firmware updates that have increased battery life, improved system stability, and expanded audio format support. The product rating has not changed.
The Archos 5 is a beautiful touch-screen media player offered in several high-capacity models (60GB, 120GB, and 250GB). Archos made a splash with 2007's 605 WiFi, an Editors' Choice winner and one of the first portable media players to offer a full Web browser along with a host of video and music playback features. The features we loved in the 605 WiFi are still here in the Archos 5, but there are some notable drawbacks that prevent the product from realizing its potential.
Archos is promoting the Archos 5 as a Wi-Fi Internet tablet, but its chromed plastic enclosure and 5-inch touch screen look more like a luxury GPS unit. In fact, for an extra $129 you actually can use the Archos 5 as a relatively sophisticated in-car GPS system. Unlike its predecessor, the 605 WiFi, the Archos 5 is controlled almost entirely by its touch screen, with the exception of a power button and volume rocker on the top edge of the device. A 3.5mm headphone output is located midway up on the left edge, making the gadget more awkward to hold than the 605 WiFi. Thankfully, a built-in kickstand folds out from the back of the Archos 5 for hands-free viewing.
The Archos 5 measures 5 inches wide, 3 inches tall, and 0.5 inch thick (or 0.75 inch thick for the 120GB and 250GB versions), making it not much bigger than the 605 WiFi. Despite its similar size, Archos was able to squeeze an extra half-inch of screen onto the Archos 5 by removing the redundant physical controls found on the company's previous players and placing the integrated speaker on the right edge of the device instead of the front.
Another surprising design change from Archos is the use of a glossy-coated screen instead of the matte, antiglare screens that have been a hallmark of its previous products. Combined with the Archos 5's glossy, reflective enclosure, Archos has created an ideal breeding ground for fingerprints and smudges.
Another small, but significant design feature that distinguishes the Archos 5 from previous Archos PVPs is the use of new proprietary dock connection. We've given Archos some flack before on its use of a nonstandard connector for its USB cable, but the upshot of the unique dock connection has been its compatibility with Archos accessories such as battery packs, FM tuners, video cameras, and AV docks. The introduction of a new dock connection on the Archos 5 has severed its compatibility with existing Archos accessories, with the exception of the in-car GPS cradle. Archos is busy making new accessories for the Archos 5 (including the new Archos 5 DVR Station); however, early adopters have only a few options currently and users looking to upgrade from older models may feel some resentment over replacing their existing accessories.
The Archos 5 has plenty of features to brag about, including music and video playback, a photo viewer, Opera Web browser, Flash 9 video and game support, a PDF reader, e-mail support, and an integrated video download store. You also get optional support for digital video recording and output through the latest Archos DVR Station, and support for 3G and 3.5G HSDPA wireless connections through the use of USB modem dongles offered by your mobile carrier.
Despite the manufacturer's protest that Archos 5 shouldn't be categorized as a mere portable video player, video playback is the Archos 5's strongest feature. Out of the box, the Archos 5 offers support for AVI, WMV, MPEG4, and Flash video content with no transcoding necessary for videos sized at or below 640x480. Although Archos makes no mention of it, we were happy to see that DRM-protected WMV videos from Amazon's Video On-Demand service played on the Archos 5 with no problem. For an extra $20, you can outfit the Archos 5 with a high-definition software plug-in to enable 720p video playback from WMV HD, MPEG4, or MPEG-2 files (including VOB and DivX formats). To play h.264 videos, you'll need to throw another $20 at the Archos 5 for a Podcast media plug-in, which also enables AAC audio playback.
The music player of the Archos 5 is essentially identical to the 605 WiFi, although the design is more elegant. By default, the music player supports MP3, WMA (including DRM-protected files), FLAC, Ogg, and WAV files (with format support for AAC available as a $20 plug-in). You can also set up the Archos 5 to stream music over Wi-Fi from nearby computers or stream conventional Internet radio stations (sorry, no Pandora). During playback, the Archos 5's music player displays album artwork, allows for your music library to be sorted by ID3 tags, and gives you the ability to bookmark long files such as lectures and audiobooks. A five-band graphic EQ is included, but the 605 WiFi's independent bass boost setting is not.
The Archos 5 is clearly more than a portable video player, but it is no more deserving of the Internet Media Tablet moniker than Apple's iPod Touch. Like the Safari Web browser used on the iPod Touch or iPhone, the Opera Web browser included on the Archos 5 provides an above-average mobile Internet experience, but there are some blind spots. Because the Flash 9 support on the Archos 5 exists outside of the Opera Web browser as an independent application, many Web sites and services are incompatible. During our tests, we found that simple Flash video sites such as YouTube worked fine, while sites such as Hulu, CNET TV, ABC, and Comedy Central, stalled the browser or played only the preroll advertising associated with the video.
Flash-based interactive online radio stations such as Pandora, Slacker, and Last.fm suffered similar fates, loading incompletely or not at all. For all of the complaints laid against Apple for not offering Flash media support on the iPhone or iPod Touch, Apple's use of dedicated applications offers users a workaround for streaming content from many of the services mentioned above.
An e-mail application is also included with the Archos 5, however, at the time of this review the e-mail program launches with a disclaimer that it is still in beta development. Beta may be an understatement, considering we could never successfully send or receive e-mail without witnessing an error message or complete crash of the application. We easily setup our POP and Gmail accounts using the Archos 5, however, sending and receiving e-mail is a little slow and browsing large volumes of e-mail isn't pretty. That said, if the Archos 5 wants to earn a reputation as an Internet tablet, it shouldn't ship a product with an admittedly half-baked e-mail application.
Video playback on the Archos 5 is stunning. The 800x600 resolution display on the Archos 5 is bright and crisp, rivaled only by the Cowon A3 when it comes to clarity and color. We're not thrilled with the decision to ditch the matte, reflection-fighting screen of the 605 WiFi, however, the glossy screen does make the Archos 5 a more attractive-looking product.
Audio performance is improved slightly over the 605 WiFi, with noticeably better detail, volume output, and stereo imaging. An assortment of EQ presets are included, along with a custom five-band EQ and balance controls.
The overall snappiness of the Archos 5 user interface is much better than previous efforts, because of the 600MHz ARM Cortex processor at the heart of the system. Applications launch faster and the lag time of the touch-screen keyboard is noticeably better than the 605 WiFi.
Unfortunately, the increased processor speed and screen size of the Archos 5 could take a toll on battery life. Archos originally estimated the Archos 5's battery life at a pitiful 12 hours of audio and 4 hours of video, however, a firmware update (version 1.1.01) promises to nearly double battery life up to 22 hours of audio and 7 hours of video. We'll update this review with battery drain results from CNET Labs once testing is complete.
In the end, the Archos 5 is burdened by the same problems we found on the equally ambitious Cowon Q5W: the product promises more than it can deliver and it's expensive (especially after investing in software and hardware add-ons). Granted, the Archos 5 is much prettier than the Cowon Q5W, but compared with Apple's iPod Touch, the Archos 5's larger screen and deeper capacity aren't enough to recommend it over the iPod's superior interface, accessory compatibility, and Web browser.
If you're just looking for a portable video player with a large screen, broad file support and plenty of storage, don't overlook Archos' own 605 WiFi simply because it's a year old. The comparable Cowon A3 is also worth a look, if you can live without Wi-Fi in your PVP.