Archos came out of nowhere to take the portable media market by storm, attracting a small but vocal market that likes to watch DivX movies on the move. In the meantime, the market has gone mainstream with the Sony PSP, but the ordeal of movie transfer and the cost of Memory Sticks mean that it's simply not an option for the serious media user. While Archos' media players have suffered from poor-quality screens and an archaic design, the drag-and-drop interface and simple TV recording made them a winner with advanced users.
The Gmini 402 omits TV recording in favour of a VGA video camera. The result is a player that can only be used with a PC, and the poor quality of the camera makes it feel like it's being sold on the basis of a cheap gimmick. Video playback is good, boasting a quality that's on a par with the company's AV500, but it's so small that widescreen video ends up the size of your thumb. Something of a missed opportunity, then, but cheap enough to warrant interest from media-player virgins.
Considering it houses a 20GB hard drive, the Archos Gmini is small and light, with a durable casing that will protect itself in a rucksack. The Gmini range is small enough to go in your pocket unnoticed, but it has a detrimental effect on the screen -- it's an equally diminutive 2.2 inches diagonally and a 4:3 format. Both these factors combine to make the device unsuitable for movie viewing, and given the fact that most TV shows are now shot in widescreen too, the actual amount of image on screen is very small indeed. The pixel resolution of the LCD is a low 220x176 pixels, with 262k colours.
Despite a prolific output over the last year, Archos still hasn't found time to take a retrospective look at its godawful interface. Despite the fact that we (and many other reviewers) have criticised the players' button layout across innumerable iterations, the same ambiguous controls and unfriendly menu system has been transferred across. For example, if you want to play a video file, you inexplicably have to press the button with a square stop sign on it. Volume and rewind/fast-forward are located on the D-pad, with no indication of this to newbies. Prepare to throw common sense out of the window when becoming acquainted with the device.
Another strange design choice is placing the camera on the right of the back panel, meaning your fingers will sit right over it in normal use. It means that when you want to shoot video, you need to hold it one-handed on one side, which isn't comfortable, or to position your fingers around the lens. Surely it would have been possible to have the camera lens in the centre instead?
The normal range of Archos players come with a dock, but on the Gmini series all connectivity is on the main unit. The USB connector allows you to hook up to your computer, and data transfer speeds are some of the fastest we've ever seen. The second USB port allows you to hook up to other devices to use as a host. This means that you can connect your digital camera and transfer photos without having to use a computer as an intermediary. The headphone socket is self-explanatory, and the splitter included in the package is a nice bonus. Finally, a video cable plugs into the same headphone socket to let you output to a TV. However, it's only composite video, barely an acceptable quality for CRT TV owners, let alone flat-screen users.
The Gmini 402 markets itself heavily as a 'camcorder' on the packaging, so it should be considered as much a camcorder as it is a media centre. In reality, the camcorder is to the Archos what video is to the new iPod -- anyone looking to buy it on the basis of what is essentially a bonus feature should opt for a dedicated device. The Gmini captures video at VGA resolution, perfect for its low-resolution screen, but horrible when you watch video back through your PC. It's bad form for Archos to entice potential camcorder owners into buying a smaller, integrated device that is only a small step ahead of mobile phones, and is in fact very similar quality to the Gizmondo.
The biggest sacrifice in the miniaturisation process has been recording from a TV -- something that was enabled on previous Archos players, thanks to a dock. The dock removed the need for a PC to record video directly from a TV or digibox, so without this you will definitely need a PC, a DVD drive and a copy of Dr DivX or other software video encoder. Sure, there are free programs out there that will encode from DVD to DivX, but they often require specialist knowledge to operate properly.
In terms of video support though, there's nothing that can be faulted on the Archos. Codec support includes DivX, XviD and Windows Media Video, which are the big three formats online -- the only notable exception is Apple's Quicktime, for which only the iPod has support. The best thing is that Windows Media Player integration means you can use Microsoft's free application to sync your entire media library automatically. If you're more used to the Windows interface though, you can simply drag and drop files into the relevant folders.
Audio support is also good, with MP3, WMA and protected WMA support. Again, this means that Apple's AAC format has been omitted, so it's easy to see that this is a device aimed squarely at the Windows market. Without a jog wheel though, we found it difficult to scroll through any quantity of music -- the D-pad was slow and unresponsive, taking over a minute to scroll through 10GB of music. It's a problem that's made worse by the fact that there's no shuffle mode, but it does support album artwork and the device drives headphones very loud.
There are a few other features on the Gmini that may catch your attention. There are a few Java-style game demos that will keep you distracted on the train -- certainly nothing to trouble the Nintendo DS, though. There's also an in-built audio recorder, which is actually more useful than you might suspect. The photo mode is adequate -- you can display them individually or in a group of four or even nine shots, the latter of which is useless thanks to the small screen. Finally, the same camcorder lens also snaps pictures at a 1.2-megapixel resolution, which isn't quite high enough to win you that Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.
Considering the size of the screen and the number of pixels on the LCD, we were impressed with the watchable picture. The screen is much nicer than early Archos efforts, coming close to the recent AV500 on contrast and colour. Detail is not so strong -- large patches of the same colour tend to block together and you'll have to squint to make out background details. There is a problem with still images though -- the low resolution screen gives most photos shot on a 4-megapixel+ camera a rough finish. You could resize them on your computer, but it's a hassle.
The lack of a speaker inside the Gmini means that headphones are a necessity, and the ones included in the package are more than up to the task. We found that they weren't as bassy as the ones included on Apple's iPod, so if you watch a lot of movies you'd do well to invest in a pair of Sennheisers. It's a shame that they don't include a remote control though, as it would have meant that the device could stay in your pocket.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide