If you ever want to excite a gadget fiend, just walk up and whisper these words into their ear, "Touch screen...WiFi...high-resolution...Mac-compatible..." If remotely human, your friend should be salivating on himself just as we did when we read the specs for the Archos 605 WiFi. Starting at just $229, the Archos 605 WiFi refines the screen resolution and usability of its previous effort, the 604 WiFi, and sets a new standard for affordable, exceptionally designed portable video players (PVPs).
Only a few companies can compete with Archos when it comes to both product and interface design. The 605 WiFi is as elegantly conceived as anything we've seen from Apple or Sony. Measuring 4.75 inches wide, 3.25 inches tall, and just a hair more than a half-inch thick, the 605 strikes that front-pocket sweet spot; it's big enough to do video justice, yet small and thin enough to comfortably fit in your pants pocket. The recessed 4.3-inch TFT LCD screen is not only bright, colorful, and glare-resistant, but it displays at a resolution of 800x480, making it one of the highest-resolution PVPs on the market. We're also happy to see that the screen valiantly resists smudges despite its dual-duty as a touch screen.
While screen quality alone puts the Archos 605 ahead of the pack, small touches such as a built-in kickstand and an internal speaker really put this player over the top. Our only disappointments with the 605's design are the scratch-prone metal panel on the front, the lack of a universal USB connection, and the choice of white buttons that will surely pick up grime and discolor over time.
With most portable media players, what you see is what you get. But with any Archos product, the gear you buy is a base to which you can add additional features, for a price. Some accuse Archos of skimping on features to maintain an artificially attractive price, but you can also think of it as Archos allowing their customers to purchase only the features they want. Either way, the out-of-the-box 605 comes with most of the features people want in a PVP, and plug-ins--such as high-definition video playback, Internet radio, and others--cost only $20 a pop. Unfortunately, to truly take advantage of the 605's Wi-Fi, you need to spend an extra $30 for the Opera Web browser plug-in.
For your $30, thankfully, the Opera browser is Adobe Flash-enabled (unlike a certain iPhone) and works exceptionally well. Need to type in a password or a URL? The 605 WiFi's touch screen presents a responsive, iPhone-esque QWERTY keyboard. If you need one good reason for paying the extra $30 on the Opera Web browser, it's that any Flash-based video from sites such as YouTube, Dailymotion, and CNET is automatically detected by the 605 and presented in full screen.
Even if you don't intend on giving Archos a single extra penny for plug-in features, you'll still love the player. The 605 WiFi comes with an MP3 player, a video player, a photo viewer, a PDF viewer, and the Content Portal feature, which uses the Wi-Fi connection to grab content directly from a handful of providers such as YouTube, Cinema Now, and BurnLounge. In particular, Cinema Now offers a great selection of mainstream movies that can be downloaded to your device for as little as 3.99. (It's worth mentioning/warning that Cinema Now also offers an exhaustive selection of adult-video content.)
Archos seems to have thought through almost all of the 605 WiFi's features. By default, the music player supports MP3, WMA (including DRM-protected files), and WAV files. You can purchase support for additional formats, such as AAC. During playback, the 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.
The Archos 605 WiFi's video player is equally polished. It supports playback of MPEG-4, AVI, and WMV formats at up to 30 frames per second, covering most of the bases for common video files. You can buy optional plug-ins at $20 a pop for formats such as H.264 and MPEG-2/VOB files. Once you're actually playing video, you can bookmark, resize, and skip through your movie with ease.
If you're willing to shell out another $99, Archos offers a hardware accessory called the DVR Station that unlocks the 605's ability to act as a sophisticated digital video recorder. By docking the 605 in the DVR Station and connecting it to your television, the 605 effectively becomes your home entertainment system. Instead of using the 605 WiFi's 4.3-inch screen, the DVR Station displays content on your television, allowing you to browse your music and movie collection, flip through photo albums, and even surf the Web from the comfort of your couch, using the included remote control.
First and foremost, the Archos 605 WiFi is a video player, and an unrivaled one at that. Portable video players such as the Cowon A2 or the Creative Zen Vision:W simply don't offer comparable video resolution, not to mention the capability to download movies wirelessly or act as a full-fledged DVR.
As a music player, the 605 weighs in at the bulkier side, but its sound quality equals that of most of our preferred MP3 players. Both the customizable five-band equalizer and independent Bass Boost controls err on the side of subtlety, but we think they offer just the right amount of sonic sculpting without mangling the sound into an overprocessed mush. (The same sound enhancement features apply to movie audio playback.) For those of you pulling media files from both a Mac and a PC, you'll be happy to know that the 605 WiFi can boot in multiple USB modes, both MSC and MTP, allowing it to work as both a drag-and-drop hard drive and a Windows Media Player device.
If we have a single complaint about the 605's performance, it's the battery life. Rated at 16 hours for music and 5 hours for video, Our lab tests came up a little short of Archos' expectations, with just 13.5 hours of audio playback and 4.7 hours of video. The results aren't bad considering all the power that gets sucked up by the 605's high-resolution 4.3-inch screen. Although similar products such as the Creative Zen Vision:W have better battery-life scores, they also work at a lower resolution than the 605 and don't have the power demands of a Wi-Fi antenna to deal with. If you're looking to extend playback time on the 605, you'll need to invest another $49 for an Archos external battery pack that plugs into the bottom docking port.
The Archos 605 WiFi is one of the most impressive portable video players we've seen all year and its low price tag makes it very hard to resist. You may end up spending another $100 or more on extra features and accessories, but 605's ability to take the sting out of road trips and air travel should make the investment all worthwhile. While many of us are waiting to see what Apple conjures up for the holidays, its doubtful that anything in the iPod family will include the 605's drag-and-drop hard drive support, wireless music and video rental, or DVR functionality.