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We thought the Archos AV400 was great, but we doubt that you bought one. Archos is pioneering the portable video player before Apple or even Sky get in on the act, but for the moment the high price point and lack of legitimately available video content are holding the concept back.
Nonetheless, enough people bought the AV400 series players to warrant an upgrade, and the AV700 makes its predecessors look like a small fry. There are problems, though: the screen is cheap, with an offputting, flickery appearance and poor contrast. It also lacks the software needed to get video files from your computer to the player, meaning you're dependent on the included dock to record from TV. It's an impressive technical achievement, however, and it has plenty of useful features for the discerning traveller.
The white and silver finish suits the AV700 well, but much like the iPod, it is susceptible to scratching. We took the device on a weekend excursion, and in a rucksack with only the DC charger for company, it ended up with a number of scratches on the rear. You should use the included case to keep the AV700 damage-free, but we felt odd doing so, like someone putting a shiny new mobile phone into one of those massive leather belt cases.
The screen is now a wide 16:9 format, and you might have noticed how much bigger it is too, approaching 7 inches diagonally. The unit is also very thin at only 19mm thick, despite the fact that it holds a 40GB hard drive (and the 100GB model is no thicker). The size of the screen means that this device could even replace your portable DVD player, but as it's a low resolution, 480x234-pixels display, don't expect DVD-level picture quality.
As the AV700 has to accomodate a 7-inch screen, you have to hold the 209mm unit with both hands. It also has a fold-out leg on the rear for setting it up on a desk or seat-back tray table. The front panel has small buttons that are used to navigate, and the back houses the rechargable battery pack. Unlike the AV400, it doesn't have a CompactFlash slot, but you can connect it to a digital camera via USB and download your pictures.
The big new development on the AV700 is its integration with Windows Media Player. However, you can still use the device as a huge external hard drive and simply drag and drop media into the correct folders. For the novices, Windows Media Player can scan your computer for all media and send it over to the right folders on the Archos automatically. More advanced users or those with an Apple Mac will be better off just selecting the 'Hard Drive' mode.
We like the fact that you're offered an option in this respect, but as the player is set to 'Windows Media' mode by default, it takes a while to figure out what's going on if you're not a Media Player veteran. Our test machine, the Alienware Aurora, didn't come with the software installed, so it simply refused to make friends. Likewise, an Apple Mac wouldn't recognise it, but we were able to find the solution once we searched through the box. Archos' documentation is thin on the ground, but to its credit, the company includes an inlay telling you about the format issue.
The navigation isn't going to give Apple nightmares. We criticised the previous Archos interface for being unintuitive and nothing has changed. The only buttons that have obvious uses are the four directional keys and the play/stop buttons. That leaves five buttons completely unlabelled, so it's a trial and error process to figure it out. The play and stop buttons, which are also used to confirm/deny the current menu selection, are uncomfortably small.
The menu system itself is ugly, with fonts that would look more at home in Microsoft Windows 3.1. You'll be itching to get into the movies straight away, and while it's mostly common sense to use, the setup menus are unintuitive.
The Archos has plenty of useful features, and judging from the number of accessories in the box, it'll take a long time to try everything out. The one feature that's likely to be used most often is the video input, which allows you to record programmes automatically. Because most TVs don't output their television signal (a few Sony TVs have a third Scart output that can be set to output video, but you'll need an adaptor), you will need to connect the Archos to a set-top box. The other great thing is that the package includes an IR transmitter. This allows the Archos to change channels on your set-top box when you set up more than one recording schedule. This feature is usually only seen on high-end DVD recorders.
You can also output video to a TV from the device, although both input and output functions require the included dock, which in turn needs a power supply. If the size of the player limits just how portable it is, then the included accessories will certainly weigh your bag down. If you want to be a terribly flash traveller, you can also carry the Archos remote control, so you can plug it into the TV when you get back to the hotel, lie back and use the player as a massive DVD movie library.
Another nice touch, and new to the AV700, is the USB connection to digital cameras. You can link it directly to your digital camera without the need for a PC and preview your photos on a bigger screen, or just make some more room on your flash memory. It's a useful touch that will make sense to anyone with a digital camera.
We've had so much trouble with the Archos AV400's hard drive that we feel compelled to mention it here too. We've had too many problems with crashes, and while the same could be said for our trusted iPod, the Archos seems much more fickle about when it feels like fixing itself. Time will tell with the AV700, but if we see any similar problems, we'll be sure to update our review.
The AV700's screen may be huge, but it's not particularly bright and it has a flickery quality that's off-putting. The low resolution is poor for overall video quality, but it does mean that DivX files look passable, as they are often squeezed down to a low resolution anyway. When recording from TV, the results are impressive.
The Archos only has composite inputs (the lowest quality video connector, in AV terms). The resolution on the AV700 is low, so even though video is compressed when it is recorded from a TV source, the compression isn't very noticeable. Video output isn't a good idea though. First of all, DivX files tend to be highly compressed, and look like VHS quality on a large TV. Secondly, the AV700 only has that same composite video output, making the video look even more blurred.
The audio has been much improved over the AV400 -- instead of one tinny mono speaker, you now get two ok-ish stereo speakers. The included bud-style headphones are very nice, but for comfort's sake you might want to upgrade to some that completely cover the ear.
The battery offers nearly four hours of charge when playing video. That's very good given the size of the screen. If you're just using the Archos for audio playback, you get a much better battery life -- some 30 hours is possible if you're not using the LCD screen.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide