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The Archos 604 (30GB)

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Archos’s 604 (link to PDF) represents the latest in an esteemed line of gadgets from the king of portable video players (PVPs, or PMPs). Superb construction and design, an all-encompassing feature list, and solid performance should make this übergadget a highly coveted item, particularly because of its shockingly low base price of $350.

The caveats? The 604 is limited to 30GB of storage (though the thicker 504 goes all the way up to 160GB), and you’ll need to buy extra accessory kits to get the most out of the player (namely, using the device as an audio/video recorder). Throw in patchy out-of-the-box compatibility with some video formats and you’ve got reason to pause. But overall, we believe the 604, with its amazing screen, makes a worthy successor to the AV500.

Over the past few months, we have seen numerous blog postings regarding the 604 and its brethren, the 404, the 404 Camcorder, the 504, and the 604 Wi-Fi. Archos in fact has created a PVP design for everybody. The ultraportable 30GB 404 has a smaller screen and a price tag to match ($300), while the 404 Camcorder adds a 1.3-megapixel camera ($350). The 504 adds bulk but offers up to a 160GB capacity; the svelte 604 with its 4.3-inch wide screen and removable battery is the flagship model. For the ultimate gadget geek, the 604 Wi-Fi adds wireless connectivity and a touch screen. All 04 models are based on the same general design.

Designed to replace the AV500, the 604 is slightly bigger than the 30GB AV500 at 5.1 by 3.1 by 0.6 inches and 9.3 ounces, but it’s more polished and has more screen real estate with less bezel (4.3 inches vs. 4 inches). It’s quite a bit thinner and lighter than its chief competitor, the 0.87-inch, 10.5-ounce 30GB Cowon A2, which is more contoured and softer than the blocky 604.

Though it’s not as pocketable as the 4 by 3 by 0.5-inch 404, in addition to other video-playing MP3 players, its big screen and removable battery are more than enough reason to make it a mobile companion. The built-in kickstand is also a sweet little extra. We’ve read some comments about the design being “ugly” but in person, the device is pretty hot.

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The 604’s brushed metal casing is extremely scratch resistant, and even its gorgeous 4.3-inch 480×272 pixel/16-million-color wide screen can withstand some punishment (though it does attract fingerprints). Like on its predecessor, the primary controllers line the right-hand side of the screen, though this time around the buttons are more intuitive. Unlike the AV500, which featured sets of unlabeled buttons of varying sizes (think Tetris), the 604’s buttons are uniform and marked. Personally, I didn’t mind the AV500’s controls, but the 604 is much better.

Each button is designed to be pressed in either the left or the right direction, including the special set of diagonal buttons that act as page up/down when browsing and skip/reverse about 30 seconds when playing content. Like with the last version, the controls work in harmony with the GUI, with context-sensitive menus and submenus appearing on the expansive screen mapped to a specific button. Despite its simple control panel, the Cowon A2 can be a bit more difficult to use, though the 604 is very difficult to operate smoothly blindly or in the dark. Backlit buttons would have rocked.

Speaking of the GUI, it’s been revamped, with slick animated icons and a more modern feel. Backgrounds as well as text and accent colors are customizable, and everything from the audio playback screen (with album art) to the photo thumbnail page (where pics magnify as you scroll over them) is refined. Archos manages to pack lots of info onto the screen without making it feel crowded.

The main menu includes Video, Music, Photo, Browser, Resume, TV Scheduler, VideoCorder, and AudioCorder options. Even without an FM tuner, the 604 is feature rich, though you’ll need extra accessories to record video and audio (more on that later). You do get a good voice recorder out of the box, and the built-in mono speaker is decent, though not as crisp as the A2’s stereo speakers.

Video playback is where the 604 shines. According to the specs, it’s compatible with MPEG-4 ASP up to 720×480 at 30fps, AVI file container with MP4 file format, WMV9, and protected WMV. Unlike the Cowon, it’s not DivX certified, and it doesn’t play MPEG-2. However, many of our DivX files played without a hitch. You can also download plug-ins that will let you play H.264 and MPEG-2 files–they will be available soon at about $10 each (there’s mention of AAC and AC3 support too). Though it doesn’t cover the same ground as the Cowon, the 604 can handle your files, which in part will be transcoded via Windows Media Player, the de facto jukebox for the Archos. Though we’ll comment on video performance later, the 604’s screen is amazing, and video controls are superresponsive.

Recording video and audio is a snap, and the results are worth your while. As long as you have the recoding adapter, you can record (MPEG-4/AVI with maximum 640×480 30fps) from a wide variety of sources such as DVD (it’s Macrovision compliant, so you can’t watch recorded files on any other device), cable, and satellite. Audio recording (PCM or ADPCM WAV) is similarly intuitive and effective.

Though the built-in recording scheduler works well enough, and you can download show schedules via My Yahoo, the process is not as smooth as you’d think. We’d love to see more integration (as Archos has done with Dish Network) so that you could get content more automatically and more intelligently. Still, the ability to record gives you a free source of good content.

The 604 can also play MP3, WMA, subscription WMA, and WAV files. Support for album art, bookmarking (for videos, too), ID3 tag-based browsing (via the ARC Library), gapless music playback, and the solid playlist creation highlight the 604’s audio features. We were, however, disappointed with the quality of the newly added EQs. We do like the fact that upon connecting to a computer, the 604 gives you the option of UMS (PC hard drive) or MTP (Windows device) modes. Transferring to and from Mac (drag and drop) and Windows (autosyncing) were clean and quick.

The 604’s revamped photo features are neat. One method for browsing is the thumbnail mode, where you get 54 thumbnails, which magnify as you pass over them. Slide-show transitions are professional, and you can zoom in multiple steps. I would say it’s a great photo viewer.

 

How did the Archos 604 get so affordable? Part of the reason the 604 comes in at $350 while the AV500 is currently $450 is the 604’s lack of accessories. In order to record audio or video, you need to purchase one of two optional kits. The first is the Archos DVR Station, a dock designed to fit in with your entertainment system. This $100 kit (with a nice remote control) can record virtually any video source including cable TV, DVD player, camcorder, and so on, as well as line-in audio. It features virtually every input and output you’d care for, including S-Video in and out, component out, standard USB, and even SPDIF out. The other option is the more portable DVR Travel Adapter Kit ($70), which includes a four-inch adapter that snaps onto the 604’s dock connector. It’s easy to use and transport, but it lacks the depth of ports of the dock. The AV500 actually shipped with a docking pod, making it record-ready out of the box. So you’re actually paying about the same if you add the recording hardware–not a bad move by Archos, since you can save some cash if you don’t want to record. However, recording is one of the prime features of this “DVR,” and our advice is to get one of the two kits when you buy the main unit.

What you do get in the package is pretty weak–a proprietary USB cable, earbud headphones, a 604 dock module (for use with the DVR Station), and a sad excuse for a case. Just the basics–you don’t even get a power adapter as you are expected to power via USB. If you want AC power, you’ll need to spring for the $30 Docking Adapter Kit, which includes an adapter that allows you to transfer photos to the 604 from digital cameras. So in order to match the $420 30GB Cowon A2’s recording and photo-transfer features (not to mention an AC adapter), you’d have to spend a total of $450 (604 + Docking Adapter Kit + Travel Adapter Kit).

 

The Archos x04 series is modular, which helps keep the base price down. Here’s what you get and what you don’t get: The 604 comes bundled with a case, earphones, a USB cable, a Quick Start guide, and the DVR saddle (used with the DVR Station). Attached to the 604 is the DVR Travel Adapter ($70), to the right is the Docking Adapter Kit, and above is the DVR Station ($100).

Sound quality is decent at higher volumes (bright highs, average low end, punchy mids). In our original review, we noted that the 604 had a layer of electric noise especially noticeable at low volumes–and it didn’t have anything to do with the display. We have since updated the firmware to version 1.2.05, and it eliminated most of the noise, though we can still detect a tiny bit. Archos even added gapless playback of music files. Let’s hope Archos continues with aggressive firmware updates.

Video piped out to a TV looks good (depends on your original file), though the presence of compression artifacts lead me to believe that the docking station with its fancy outputs might be overkill.

Processor speed is responsive–especially scanning through video, though there are some light pauses in the menu, like with the Cowon. Photos and videos load quickly. Battery life may not approach Cowon A2 levels, but we’re still impressed with the rated 14 hours for audio and 4 hours of video. In informal testing, we got plenty more than 14 hours for audio. We’ll update with our official battery-life results when they come in. The removable battery makes a huge difference–replacement batteries cost $30. The removable battery is a nice touch.

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