If you own an Archos AV300-series portable video player, the AVCam 300 may tempt you. This camera attachment uses the player's hard drive to store as much as 250 hours of MPEG-4 video or as many as 40,000 3.3-megapixel photos. The video it captures is quite good compared to footage from other MPEG-4 camcorders, and we love not having to worry about storage. On the downside, the 3X zoom lens makes a grinding noise and is highly erratic. Its photo quality is also subpar compared to output from dedicated 3-megapixel still cameras. But even with these problems, given its relatively low price, the AVCam 300 is well worth considering if you own a compatible Archos player. The Archos AVCam 300 isn't a standalone device; you attach it to the side of an Archos AV320, AV340, or AV380 video player. The players feature a 20GB, 40GB, or 80GB hard drive, respectively. Unfortunately, the AVCam 300 doesn't fasten as snugly as it should, as evidenced by its ability to flex slightly at the junction. The combined device measures a pocket-bursting 6.5 by 3.5 by 1.9 inches. It also tips the scales at 16 ounces. That's quite a commitment if you like to travel light, and this device is heavy and cumbersome compared to other tapeless camcorders and even some tape-based models. However, if you're already planning to carry the player with you for its other capabilities, the camera module makes a relatively modest addition. The plastic case feels reasonably solid, though the device probably wouldn't survive a fall onto a hard surface without cracking the case or crashing the hard drive.
Plan on using both hands when capturing video or photos. The combined unit is well balanced, but its unusual width makes it difficult to hold with one hand for any length of time. There's no tripod socket, so be prepared to lean on whatever you can find when shooting.
The only controls on the AVCam 300 are a top-mounted button for snapping photos and separate telephoto and wide-angle buttons on the back for adjusting the zoom. Everything else is handled from the player, including switching among the video-capture, photo-capture, video-playback, and photo-playback modes. The player's five buttons, tiny joystick, and bright 3.8-inch LCD screen make it easy to maneuver through the menus.
For sound capture with your video, you can use the microphone on top of the player, a small external clip-on microphone that comes in the box, or an analog line-in. The LCD screen provides useful audio information while you're shooting: A linear audio meter indicates the volume of the incoming audio. If the recording level is off, you can use the joystick to manually raise or lower the audio level.
You can capture photos at three resolutions: 2,048x1,536, 1,024x768, and 640x480. The AVCam 300 has a true 3.3-megapixel CCD, so the photos aren't interpolated, as they are in some camcorders. Photo-related options include settings for the flash (Auto, On, Off, and Red Eye), compression (Fine, Normal, and Basic), and exposure (ranging from Darker -2 to Brighter -2). The light-sensitivity level is fixed at ISO 100, so you'll need to use the flash in low light.
You can display your video and photos on the built-in LCD, show them on a TV or a VCR through a direct connection, or transfer your files to your computer via USB 2.0. When connected via USB, the player's hard drive appears as an extra drive on your computer. The USB connection is fast enough for you to watch your video files on your computer screen without having to transfer them to your computer's hard drive.
Another nice feature is the ability to upgrade the player's firmware. While we were testing the AVCam 300, Archos added rudimentary audio- and video-editing capabilities that allow you to delete portions of your video recordings without having to use a computer. If you prefer a smooth zoom, you'll be frustrated with the AVCam 300. Not only did the zoom move in fits and starts, it sometimes stopped in midmovement. An hourglass would then appear on the screen for as long as 8 seconds until the zoom resumed its movement. The freeze-up often occurred after a quick change in exposure, suggesting the internal processor was unable to keep pace. Even worse, the zoom consistently made a grinding noise that was audible on the recordings, and the autofocus wasn't always adept at keeping up with moving subjects.
On the other hand, the large 3.8-inch LCD was a real plus during shooting. The camcorder doesn't even use the full resolution of the screen since it requires a maximum resolution of 320x240, and the player is capable of displaying video at 640x304.
Battery life was shorter than we expected. In situations where we used the zoom extensively, the battery sometimes died within an hour. That's a serious drawback since the player's battery takes 4 hours to fully charge and can't be swapped out with an extra cell. There's no provision for turning off the screen when shooting through the optical viewfinder. Just when you think the terrible zoom has put you off completely, the AVCam 300's video captures make you reconsider. The player is designed primarily to convert analog video to high-quality MPEG-4 video, and the same circuitry facilitates video captures that have almost no compression artifacts, video noise, or other visual distortions. You can capture video either at 20fps with 320x240 resolution or at 25fps with 304x224 resolution. Those frame rates are just high enough to give you fairly smooth video, and our best video captures were sharp and colorful.
That's under ideal conditions. We did see image tearing and stuttering when panning the camera at a moderately brisk pace. When we shifted the lens between dark and bright areas, we sometimes experienced an audible click in sync as the camera changed the exposure. The visual effect of these exposure changes tended to be crude and sudden. In situations where you might expect a series of gradual exposure changes, the camera frequently jumped from one exposure extreme to another. The camcorder also lacks a low-light mode. You can manually increase the exposure in low-light situations, though that significantly increases the video noise.
In a nutshell, the AVCam 300's video approaches the video quality of a low-end MiniDV camcorder when recording stationary images but comes decidedly below that standard in situations with movement or a quick change in exposure, focus, or zoom. The AVCam 300's video output compares favorably to that of other tapeless camcorders and multimedia devices. And even though its photo quality is poor when compared to images from dedicated still cameras, we've seen much worse from other multimedia capture devices, including ones that are much more expensive.