Archos has innovated before, but the Multimedia 20 is the device that we've been waiting for. With so many audio-, image-, and video-related features, one might better classify this gadget as a 20GB portable entertainment console rather than an MP3 player. And the Multimedia 20 does it all without adding undue complexity. Despite its lackluster battery life, music fans, digital photographers, earlier adopters, and gadget freaks the world over will love the Multimedia 20. Archos's earlier players were extremely boxy, but the Multimedia 20 has a more rounded, stylish shape that won't embarrass design-conscious users. Plus, the Multimedia 20 is smaller and lighter--4.3 by 3.1 by 1.1 inches and 10.2 ounces--than earlier models, though it's not as petite as the iPod.
|The optional modules all connect to this port, which is covered by a rubber protector most of the time.||The color screen rocks.|
These headphones fold up and have an in-line volume control.
All that aside, the Multimedia 20's juiciest design aspect has to be its 1.5-inch, color LCD. Besides adding image- and video-related features, the 24-bit RGB display's yellow-on-black text and moving volume meters really catch the eye. Archos designed the player's firmware so that it's easy to navigate through the Multimedia 20's array of features with aplomb. Finally, the wraparound headphones, which have an in-line volume control, fold up to conserve space. The Multimedia 20 has most of what we look for in terms of MP3 playback, plus many features that other companies are still only discussing. The Sound menu includes sliders for volume, bass, treble, loudness (a first), balance, bass boost, and pitch. The device can shuffle among all tracks or inside a single directory and can create playlists on the fly sans PC. A settings menu toggles among English, French, and German and changes display parameters for both TV and the Multimedia 20's LCD.
Like the Archos Jukebox Recorder before it, this device records VBR MP3 audio from digital (S/PDIF) and line-level analog 1/8-inch stereo sources or via its built-in microphone. Eight recording-quality options range from around 150Kbps to 320Kbps, while sampling rates between 32KHz to 48KHz offer another, less popular way to alter recording quality. You can manually set title, artist, and album information before recording, and this data is automatically incorporated into the resulting file's ID3 tag. But our favorite audio-recording feature is the levels meter, which has a slider for adjusting input level. This feature--absent from other digital recorders such as Creative's Nomad Jukebox 3--ensures that recordings are loud enough to sound good but don't distort.
Archos Translator provides a neat front-end to VirtualDub, a free and included program for video conversion.
This digital Swiss Army knife can also act as a portable archive for your digital photos if you spring for the photo module, which is basically a SmartMedia or CompactFlash adapter that attaches to the bottom of the device. Once a card is inserted, it's a snap to import either a single shot or every picture from the media onto the hard drive. You can even rename, organize, and view the images without a PC. This feature alone could make this device worthwhile for serious digital photographers.
The optional camera module is good enough for basic shots.
An optional 1.3-megapixel digital camera module takes digital JPEGs at either 640x480-pixel resolution or at 1,280x1,024. In addition, the camera captures video footage at 320x240. An upcoming video module will supposedly enable you to take higher-quality video and even record directly from a TV so that you can watch Seinfeld on the bus.
Even without the add-on camera, it's possible to create a slide show of images and MP3s on the Multimedia 20's hard drive using the Playlist function. All you have to do is include JPEGs along with the MP3s in a playlist, and the unit displays the images in sync with the music. This is the first device to connect to all standard interfaces. The included USB 1.1 cable transfers files at 1MB per second; the optional USB 2.0 adapter transfers files at 12MB per second; and the optional $49 FireWire adapter transfers files at 10MB per second. These connections make for the perfect combination of speed and compatibility. The Multimedia 20 includes a digital-audio input, an analog-audio input/output, an analog-video output, and dual RCA stereo outputs. Among other things, these ports can send audio and video to your stereo and television (NTSC or PAL). Amazingly, all of these connections share the same jack.
Here's one corner of the CNET offices as seen through the Archos Multimedia 20's optional camera module.
On the software side, Archos MPEG-4 Translation provides an incredibly simple way to convert any AVI that you might download from the Internet to MPEG-4 Simple Profile video format, which is compatible with the Multimedia 20. More advanced users can bypass Archos's front end and use VirtualDub to convert MPEGs and VideoCDs as well. A special edition of Photo Express 4.0 is a nice inclusion for image editing. Sound was full and rich through our test Sony MDR-V600 headphones, and even the included, folding, wraparound headphones sound better than the earbuds that come with most MP3 players.
Initially, the LCD's small size worried us, but we successfully watched an episode of Futurama all the way through without straining our eyes. When we connected the Multimedia 20 to a television and a stereo, it was hard to believe that all that sound and video was coming from such a small device. Video approximates a low-quality TiVo recording--similar to VCR quality but with some pixelization.
|Although small, the screen is sharp, bright, and colorful.||Connect these cords to a TV and a stereo, and you can watch movies, view images, or display slide shows--in color with stereo sound.|
Unlike the PoGo Products Flipster, the Multimedia 20 rarely had compatibility or playback problems with our test AVIs and video files that we downloaded from DivX; some files didn't even need to be converted. We never expected this level of reliability from such a new application. Any AVI that's between 320 and 350 pixels wide by 240 pixels high with an MP3 soundtrack plays fine.
Recording sound quality was equally impressive, whether we used the built-in mike, the analog input, or the digital input. We wish that it were possible to record to uncompressed WAVs with the Multimedia, but 192Kbps VBR MP3 sounds good enough for all but high-end recording needs. Image quality is passable for both still pictures and video capture with the optional photo module. An AVI setting records movies through this same module at 320x240--perfect for the Web or e-mail.
The only area where the Multimedia 20 disappointed us was with its battery life. In our initial test, the device lasted under five hours on a single charge of its lithium-ion batteries. After a few more complete charges, though, battery life increased to about seven hours. With even more charges, battery life might approach Archos's claimed battery life of eight hours. Obviously, we'd prefer more playback time, but it makes sense that a device with a color screen uses more power. Also, for some reason, the batteries were often drained in the morning, even though they had a charge left the night before. If you need a device that holds its power, wait for something else.