One of the most hotly anticipated gadgets of late has been the Archos Gmini400, a PVP that's roughly the size of the latest Apple iPod. Well, the Gmini400 is finally here. Previous versions of the Gmini were rough-and-tumble, but the third iteration of this video, music, photo, and gaming device is polished, refined, and (did we mention?) tiny. To create the Gmini400, Archos took many features from its larger, critically acclaimed sibling, the AV420, and packed them into a device that's a hair thicker and a penny heavier than the iPod. The 20GB device may cost a little more than a hard drive-based MP3 player, but can the iPod play back video and photos on a fabulous 2.2-inch color screen? The Archos Gmini400 is the smallest and lightest portable video player (PVP) available. At 4.2 by 2.4 by 0.7 inches and weighing 5.7 ounces, it is actually more portable than many MP3 players without video capabilities. In fact, the metal-encased device is only slightly larger than the Apple iPod.
The Gmini400 is clearly designed to be held in your hands at all times--there is no kickstand. The 2.2-inch (diagonal) LCD is really too small to view at more than arm's length. And unlike larger PVPs, the Gmini400 doesn't have an integrated speaker. (It includes a set of earbuds, but we recommend you upgrade.) A few users might miss these features, but to us, they seem reasonable trade-offs to cut what is really meant to be a personal device down to the smallest size possible.
Though small, the 220x176-pixel LCD shows 262,000 colors. To the left are the power switch, a navigational pad, and a Back button. To the right are two start and stop keys. Three function buttons sit below the screen. What these buttons do depends on which application you're using. For example, in Browser, the up and down navigation buttons scroll through lists of files; when playing music, the same buttons control the volume.
A sturdy door on the left side of the device covers a CompactFlash slot for transferring images directly from a digital camera--a feature not found on many PVPs, including the Portable Media Centers. Aside from the slot, there are just three connectors: a power dock, an A/V-out/headphone jack, and a USB 2.0 port for connecting to a computer.
Like all Archos players, the Gmini400 uses its own software, not Microsoft's Portable Media Center platform. The look and feel takes you back to Windows 3.1, with a two-paned file browser reminiscent of good old File Explorer. It also has large icons for all of the primary applications (Music, Video, Photos, and Games), as well as a control panel for changing the device's setting.
Though the Gmini400 is more polished than some of Archos's earliest PVPs, neither the hardware nor software design are consumer-electronics simple. The functions of the buttons are not always clearly labeled. For example, to lock the buttons, you hold down the first function key for three seconds. To display the video on a TV, you hold down the second function button. There's no way you would know this without reading the manual. Similarly, it takes a little practice to figure out how to execute more advanced functions on the player, such as creating playlists and copying images from a CompactFlash card.
Fortunately, the 68-page manual is first-rate, and if you invest the time to read it carefully, you'll get a lot out of the feature-laden device. But the Gmini400 it is still more a computer than a consumer electronics gadget, and as such, it will appeal mostly to enthusiasts.Archos has managed to pack an awful lot of features into a 5.7-ounce gadget. The most heavily used applications will be the music and video playback, but the Gmini400 is also a digital photo wallet, a portable gaming device, an audio recorder, and an all-purpose 20GB external hard disk.
The Music application plays both MP3 and WMA files, including the protected WMAs used by MSN Music, Napster, Wal-Mart, and others. It reads the tags in both MP3s (ID3 versions 1 and 2) and WMAs, if present, and automatically displays artist, album, song, and album art. A useful feature called ARCLibrary indexes all of the files using these same tags so that you can select and play music by album, artist, genre, song title, or year. You can also create and edit your own playlists on the device.
The Gmini400 is a so-called mass-storage-class device, which means it acts just like a hard drive--you can simply drag and drop the music files into the correct folder. Archos includes plug-ins that also let you transfer files within Windows Media Player (WMP) or iTunes. Unfortunately, the version we tested (1.0.00) did not support WMP 10.0's new features, such as autosynchronization and the ability to check out subscription-based content. Archos told us that the Gmini400 is not currently compatible with these desirable features and was unclear whether there will be a timely, free flash update.
Things get a bit more complicated with the video player. Once you have your video in the correct format, transferring it to the Gmini400 and playing it back is dead simple. The catch is getting it into that specific format: MPEG-4 Simple AVI at 30fps, with either an MP3 or WAV IMA-ADPCM soundtrack, if you really want to know all the ugly details. Archos provides several utilities to help (one of which you have to download yourself), but there are so many different audio and video formats and complicated settings that it takes some work to get it right. The manual helps, however; once you get the routine down, it isn't all that tough, but it isn't for the faint of heart. Also keep in mind that the process of formatting the video is accomplished in real time (a two-hour movie would take two hours to transcode) or longer, depending on your PC's horsepower.
The Gmini400 has several advanced audio and video features. You can bookmark songs or videos to return to the same location. An optional resume feature lets you start off at the last bookmark when you restart the player. The device can play music on any stereo and display video or photos on a TV using the included cable. Conversely, the Gmini400 can also record any audio in WAV format using either the built-in microphone or via line-in with the included RCA cable and adapter.
The Photo application lets you view individual photos (JPEG or BMP only), create slide shows, magnify portions of images, or use them as wallpaper. But the most compelling photo feature is the CompactFlash slot that lets you transfer images directly from a digital camera, so you no longer need to lug a laptop on trips just to free up space on your card. If your camera uses a different format (Memory Stick, SD, or MMC/SM) you can purchase an adapter from Archos. Unfortunately for serious photographers, the Gmini400 does not support playback of TIFF or raw files, but you can still store them, of course. One final shutterbug-friendly feature that's missing: File Verify. This feature, found in many photo viewers, assures you that all of the images were completely copied over to the hard drive with no errors. That way you can clear off the card without worrying that you might lose something.
The Gmini400 can play 2D and 3D games using Mophun, a gaming platform designed primarily for cell phones. Out of the box, the Gmini400 provides one full game and a few samples. To give you an idea of the games available and their quality, you can run browser-based demos at the Mophun site.
Impressive as its feature list is, the Gmini400 is missing a few features found in some larger PVPs. Most notably, it cannot directly record video from a camcorder, a VCR, or cable/satellite; for that you'll need its big brother, the Archos AV420. You can run only one application at a time, so, for example, you can't view a slide show while listening to music. Finally, when the USB cable is attached, you can't run any application on the device. All these are relatively minor issues though.Overall, the performance of Archos Gmini400 was excellent in our tests. Both the audio and video playback were smooth. The sound quality was good with high-quality earbuds and full-size headphones. Video was detailed and free of any significant artifacts, displaying accurate-looking colors. However, still photos looked mediocre overall, so the Gmini400 is better as a storage device than as an album. The video also looked substandard when ported to an external TV, our reference Sony KD-34XBR960, but that's not surprising, given the resolution.
The operating system and applications were all rock-solid, and the USB 2.0 interface was sufficient even for transferring large multimedia files. During our tests, we transferred 3,000 JPEG images, three albums, and two feature-length movies, and transfer times were generally 10 minutes or less. In the CNET Labs, we were able to get an impressive transfer rate of 6.8MB per second.
The nonremovable lithium-ion battery is rated for 10 hours of continuous music playback and 5 hours of video playback. Our test unit came with version 1.0.00 of the operating system, but we downloaded and installed a firmware update (1.1.00) that Archos says reduces power consumption. In our prefirmware tests, we eked out 4.8 hours for video and 9.4 hours for audio. This is not the best we've witnessed, even for a device this small. One word of caution: Archos somewhat ominously warns that you should keep the Gmini400 plugged in whenever it is attached to your PC because a power loss could corrupt the file system.