Wireless MP3 players

We’ve come a long way since the 5GB iPod. Today, you can find MP3 players with tiny flash drives offering up to 8GB capacities, pocket-size video players, even digital audio players built into sunglasses. But one of the most advanced features you can find in today’s MP3 players is wireless capability. Of course, this functionality is still in its early stages, so there’s some disconnect in its application. For example, the players I’ve gathered here all use wireless in different ways, and none of them does it perfectly. Still, if you must be on the cutting edge, wireless is where it’s at.

First on the list is the SanDisk Sansa Connect.

Back in January, SanDisk announced the Sansa Connect, a slick-looking flash MP3 player capable of hopping on open Wi-Fi networks and sharing songs with any other Connects anywhere. The device was sweet enough to garner a Best of CES award in the MP3 player category, and that was when we just had an inkling that a compatible service for cordless music acquisition was in the works. Now, the rumor has become a reality: SanDisk has partnered with Yahoo to offer its Yahoo Music Unlimited To Go service on the Connect, which means users can update music wirelessly from anywhere with an open Wi-Fi connection. This is a sweet feature indeed and will hopefully help to usher in a whole new era of wireless music. The Connect is not without a few irksome limitations, but there’s no denying SanDisk is on the right track.

At $250, the Sansa Connect is priced on the high side for a 4GB device, but it’s not unreasonable to pay a bit more for advanced technology. Plus, you can always add more memory via the built-in MicroSD slot–we certainly can’t complain about expandable memory. We also can’t complain about the player’s design and interface. It’s a slick little player with a nice-feeling black enclosure and a cute, stubby antenna poking out of the top, rather like those on a portable satellite radio device. Fortunately, the Connect is a bit more compact than such devices (the Pioneer Inno comes to mind) at 3.5 inches high by 1.8 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick. The 2.2-inch screen is nice and bright with good color saturation, and the icon-driven menus are fun and easy to navigate. We especially like the bubbly main menu selections that rotate in an arc across the lower portion of the screen when you hit the “Home” button. Fortunately, the Connect’s controls complement the interface nicely. Below the screen is a tactile scroll wheel, which can be clicked in four directions as well: “Up” activates the Home function, pulling up the main menu wheel at the bottom of the screen; “Down” starts and stops playback; and “Right” and “Left” serve to shuttle between menu levels and tracks. A dedicated volume rocker sits on the left spine, while the power button and a hold switch reside on the top. The bottom of the unit houses the proprietary USB port and the 3.5mm headphone jack. There’s even a built-in speaker on the rear of the device–of course, you just get mono audio out of it, but it’s still a nice touch. The whole thing has a polished, high-quality feel that is uncharacteristic of most previous SanDisk devices, which are positioned as budget MP3 players.Also uncharacteristic is the Sansa Connect’s relative lack of traditional MP3 player features. There’s no video support, no recording capabilities, and no FM tuner, though this last detail is not entirely necessary as the player can pick up Yahoo’s free LaunchCast stations (provided you’re connected to Wi-Fi). In addition to its wireless compatibility with YMU To Go, the Connect supports all DRM WMAs, including those from other music subscription services (such as Rhapsody), though you’ll need to connect to the computer to get those. Naturally, MP3 files are also supported. You can also view photos on the device. In fact, you can browse photos on the go through Flckr, which is another neat wireless feature.The Connect’s wireless capabilities are neat, though not without limitations. For example, the player currently cannot get past a “Terms and conditions” page, so if the nearest open Wi-Fi has one (such as with CNET’s public Wi-Fi and much of the Wi-Fi found at hotels), you won’t be able to get on (SanDisk is working on a fix). Also, unlike the Slacker device, the Connect doesn’t cache the Internet radio stations–nor does it hop on to satellite signals–so if you’re moving around and listening to “radio” or streaming from the YMU service, you’re music will cut out. Sure, this happens with terrestrial radio, but only after you go several miles–Wi-Fi range is considerably less (about a half a block). However, the player will let you handpick songs from the YMU service (provided you’re a subscriber), which is something the Slacker player does not do, and it will save “mixes” to the device. You can also send music recommendations to other Connect users or to anyone on your Yahoo Messenger list–all you need is a Yahoo ID. Plus, the player grabs firmware updates wirelessly, which means you never have to connect to your PC to get the latest features.

On the whole, Wi-Fi performance was great–it’s even quite simple to get onto protected networks (provided you have the wireless key), and the Connect will remember your preferred networks so you don’t have to enter the key more than once. It must be noted, however, that not every Wi-Fi network provides a hassle-free connection experience. My home network, for example, is set up specifically to get a Mac computer to work with a non-Mac-compatible router, and this presented some problems for the Connect. Note that if your router is not set up for a DHCP server–that is, if it is set to a static IP address–the Sansa won’t work with it, as there’s no place on the player to enter a specific IP address. Also, if you’re one of those ubersecure people who has set MAC addresses as a filtering mechanism on the router, make sure you enter the Connect’s MAC address as allowable (find that under Settings>WiFi>WiFi Status). For most networks, however, connecting is not an issue

We’re pretty impressed with the Connect’s snappy processor performance and overall audio quality. Even through the included earbuds, music sounded nice and balanced, though perhaps too bright for my taste. Swapping in a set of Shure E4cs improved sound quality a bit and brought out the bass. Still, I could’ve done with a bit more kick on the low end. All in all, though, tunes sounded warm, clean, and encompassing across all genres. Interestingly, neither SanDisk’s box nor Web site has a rated battery life for the Connect, but in preliminary testing I did notice a sharp drain on battery with Wi-Fi running. I would estimate around 8 to 10 hours in that mode, which isn’t great. In CNET Labs tests, the Connect acheived an uninspiring 11.3 hours of playback.

Next up is the Microsoft Zune.

Earlier this year, the idea of a Microsoft-branded MP3 player was foreign to most consumers. After all, what could the software giant do to the iPod dynasty that Windows Media hardware partners such as Creative, iRiver, and Samsung had been unable to do? Well, we all knew that after Microsoft’s September 14 announcement, the Zune would be a different kind of portable media player, one that integrates wireless technology for Zune-to-Zune sharing of files, and one that works within an iTunes-like closed Zune Marketplace ecosystem. The hard drive device, which comes in black, white, or the love-it/hate-it brown, has entered the real world and will please most users, especially beginners, thanks to an excellent UI, nice integration with Zune Marketplace software, and good playback performance. However, the Zune’s incompatibility with some formats, including protected WMA-DRM9 and WMV files, will force some seasoned users elsewhere. Despite these fundamental weaknesses, the Zune is a winner and its future, one that should include expansion of its wireless features, is a bright one.

By now, we all know the basics of the Zune: it’s a 30GB MP3 player with a photo- and video-friendly 3-inch (4:3) screen, and it costs $249.99. It runs on a customized version of Portable Media Center software (Windows CE-based) and features the same intuitive twist-navigation like players such as the Toshiba Gigabeat S. But there are many differences both in mind and body that differentiate the Zune from any other MP3 player, which I’ll share in a moment.

To the chagrin of many Windows Media fans, the device is not backward compatible with WMA-DRM9 (Zune utilizes WMA-DRM9.1), so tracks purchased from stores such as Napster or Urge will not work. Subscription tracks from those services won’t work either. In other words, Zune is not a PlaysForSure platform. Instead, it operates within its own software and store, which are not connected to Windows Media Player at all (in fact, you don’t even need WMP to sync and manage your Zune). Microsoft would have scored some major brownie points if the player worked with Rhapsody but still was officially optimized for Zune Marketplace (in the same way as the SanDisk Rhapsody player).

While the player is similar to many other players in terms of its feature set–music, video, and photo playback, plus an FM tuner–what sets it apart is its integrated Wi-Fi chip, which allows it to seek out and be seen by other Zune-sters. This sharing feature allows users to share music and photos (but not video) within the same room–albeit with limitations that many of us already know: three plays of a song within three days. Shared photo files, on the other hand, have no limitations. We’d love to see Wi-Fi expanded so that one could sync or purchase music wirelessly (or even see Zunes across the globe), but having played with the device, I see why Microsoft is starting small. So far, the Zune experience out of the box and beyond has been predictable and solid. Wi-Fi or not, it’s one excellent media player.

Quickly, about the box and its contents: the Zune packaging is minimal but has flare. You actually lift the Zune out of the box by pulling on its brown ribbon (nice touch), and the bundled earphones and rubbery USB cable are nowhere to be seen until you realize the flaps adjacent to the Zune lift open. In addition, you’ll get a suede case, a software CD, some guides, and a sticker in the package. While we’d love to see more–such as an AC adaptor– the introductory Zune experience is well done.

Body design:
At 4.3×2.5×0.7 inches, the Zune may be a bit thicker (and blockier) than the 30GB iPod, but it feels right at home in the hand. In my opinion, it’s a nice size and weight (5.6 ounces)–neither too thin to hold nor too big to pocket, though others in the office say it’s bulky and have even compared it to a prototype. I will say that a protective case such as Belkin’s clear case does make it too big for my tastes.

The colors are subdued and the shell has a translucent matte finish, and more importantly, the body does not attract fingerprints (though the screen does). The double-shot effect of the secondary color (green on the brown version, bluish on the black, translucent on the white) definitely gives the player visual pizzazz. The built-in battery will last up to 14 hours for audio. Interestingly, the back says this in fine print: “Hello from Seattle.” The Zune, which is manufactured by Toshiba but completely designed by Microsoft, is an original-looking player with a style of its own.

It’s a durable device that will withstand scratches, bumps, and bruises, though the primary seam of the device looks as if it might burst open after a hard fall. The body is minimal with no buttons on the sides, only a hold switch and an earphone jack on top and a proprietary USB/accessories port on the bottom. The screen and main controller are surrounded by a thin, metallic inlay, while the three control buttons are dead simple (the small dedicated back and play/pause buttons are flush with the body).

You’ll want to scroll the circular controller at first impulse (maybe even second). A true iPod-like click wheel would have made navigation on this device even easier than it is. In reality, the five-way tactile controller (a.k.a. d-pad; made of black plastic) is easy to use and will reorient when the device is used in landscape mode (only for photos and videos). Unfortunately for southpaws, you can’t flip the screen or controllers for left-handed use. Also, there is no dedicated volume control–that is handled on the appropriate screen by using the up and down controllers.

The back of the device features a circular dip and it mirrors the d-pad up front. This is supposed to give you a better feel for the d-pad especially as it’s used with two hands in landscape mode. There is no kickstand as seen on some PVPs, but you can always get an optional case with a built-in method for propping up the Zune.

The three-inch screen may not measure up to true portable video players such as the Archos 604, but it is definitely good enough to watch video, view photos, and navigate effectively. It has three brightness settings and though the display is slightly washed out, it’s colorful and bright enough for outdoor use. Conveniently, when the backlight turns off, you can still make out the screen on a nice bright day( such as album art), so definitely keep the backlight to a minimum on this battery-hungry device.

The GUI is attractive, intuitive, and customizable with your own photo. The main menu features music, videos, pictures, radio, community, and settings options. As mentioned, the twist navigation makes it convenient to find albums, artists, genres, and playlists without returning to the main menu. Pressing either up or down will quickly scroll through lists, and as seen on the iPod and the Gigabeat S before it, the first letter appears as an overlay (this does not work for photos). When scrolling through album titles, the thumbnails will disappear. From the “sophisticated interface” department, the appearance of menu items will dim the background image or content, and videos will continue to play in the background when you call up its info screen.

The unit’s large screen makes it easy to view content–up to 10 songs per page (fewer items are shown for albums, which feature tiny thumbnails of album art. Photo thumbnails are small but numerous. The playback screen is album-art centric, with the art covering at least 70 percent of the screen and fully flush with the screen’s edges. A neat, round, glowing marker lets you know where you are in the track (the same glow is used in the volume indicator, which shows up in the upper-left corner when activated). This is consistent within the Zune software, too.

Hitting the center select button during playback of any media will open a context-sensitive menu (PMC software requires hitting left or right). For music, you’ll get the option to adjust play mode, rate the song, show a song list, or flag a song (flagged songs and photos transfer to the Zune software in list form and will show up front and center). Strangely, you can’t access the numerous EQ settings from this menu.

Here’s where things get tricky, particularly if you’re a hard-core portable-media fan. The unit will play back MP3, protected WMA (the Zune-kind only called WMA-DRM9.1), and unprotected AAC. No native Audible, WAV, or WMA Lossless playback. If you have $200 worth of Wal-Mart tracks, you’re in trouble. (You’ll have to burn and rip, or find some way to convert). If you’re into subscription services, the $14.95-per-month ZunePass is your only choice.

Video support is worse. There is no video content available for purchase on the Zune Marketplace at launch. (It will, however, feature more than two million tracks, both a la carte and subscription.) It supports WMV natively–Zune software will convert MPEG-4 and H264 files to WMV–but it does not support DRM video, so, no Amazon Unbox and no Vongo. The software will not support DivX or XviD either, so you’ll have to find a third-party conversion method. Too bad the video support is weak, since the three-inch screen is nice (beats the iPod), and the player controls are precise. (Video does feature unlimited bookmarking.) The device can output to a TV full on with the Zune GUI, but videos play back only at the compressed-for-Zune size. Microsoft has some work ahead if it wants to transform this music-centric device into a competitive video device. Media Center support would have given the Zune a nice source for content. But again, it’s not a matter of the hardware–it’s because Microsoft seeks to simplify the experience, presumably for new buyers of portable players, and then expand features as the Zune community grows and evolves.

Photo support is limited to JPEGs, and the Zune software will not convert other file types as it would in Windows Media Player. We do love that you can wirelessly beam photos to other users with no limitations, though the feature is useless without other Zunesters in site. You can listen to music while viewing photos and slide shows, but you can’t assign a song to a specific slide show. Slides show transitions happen in increments from 3 to 15 seconds, with only one transition type, which is fade. While viewing a photo, you can zoom in with one step and navigate around the screen.

The FM-radio interface is minimal and simple to use. On-screen, you see a linear, dial-like line with the station above it in large numerals. There seems to be unlimited available presets, but no autoscan for them. Instead, the device can be put in autoscan mode, which simply goes to the next clean channel. We do like the built-in RDS (radio data system) feature that will display the station, the genre, and sometimes the song title on certain compatible channels.

Got to have two to share:
Out of the box, our Zune did not have community or Wi-Fi features. New Zunes will go through an automatic firmware update (the review unit has Version 1.1 loaded) upon connection to the Zune Marketplace software.

Sharing content by using ad hoc Wi-Fi is pretty cool, although it is limited to sharing within a range of 30 feet, and you can’t share video. Microsoft stated that in open space, the range is closer to 40 and higher. Also, you can’t just jump onto anybody’s Zune and start cherry-picking–the only way to initiate contact is to share your music, not “steal it.” It takes about two or three seconds to find anyone in range. You initiate by turning on the Wi-Fi, choosing the Community option, and selecting Nearby. The two other Zunes in our room appeared, and we could view what they were hearing, such as “Listening to radio 105.1FM.” You’ll find all files sent to you in the in-box area. This keeps this temporary library separated from the regular library to avoid confusion. Contrary to popular belief, there is no DRM wrapper placed on the file. Instead, the device’s in-box manages the rights. You can choose to clear the in-box or a specific file, but that info will still be transferred to the Zune software, which features an in-box view. This is where you can pick up the songs you like or have flagged.

While many will complain about the limitations of Wi-Fi on this device (and I’m not talking about three days/three plays), Microsoft wants the overall experience to be as simple as possible…and it is. Look for Microsoft to expand the Wi-Fi capabilities soon. It takes about 10 seconds to transfer a song. Longer songs can take up to 15 seconds. Since you can play a song three times or within three days, you might be wondering what happens if you play a part of the song. A “play” equals at least one minute or half the song, whichever comes first. I’d love to see a customizable thumbnail that identifies your device to other users–today, it’s just text. However, you can set your Zune to display either details to other Zunesters (such as “Listening to Regina Spektor”) or a basic “online” message. You can block specific users from sending content to you. One interesting note: if you’re listening to music and someone wants to send you a song and you say yes, your music will stop and not automatically continue after the download. So blocking some antsy users might be a good move. Conversely, if you want to send someone a song, you’ll have to do so by backing up to the song’s menu page, or in some cases within the playback context menu. Once you send the file, your music will stop playing, so in a way, sharing spoils the personal party.

No definitive word about Zune-to-PC wireless transfers or network-based sharing or purchasing, but I imagine this will come eventually.

Software and overall performance:
The Zune Marketplace software is a critical part of the Zune experience and Microsoft has mostly gotten the two to work very well with each other. Based on the Windows Media Player in design, the interface is dark, clean, and stable. It’s aesthetically pleasing and functional, with lots of album art represented and sparse text in the left-hand navigation pane. The left-hand pane features all of your content broken down into music, video, and photos, and at the top is an in-box view that displays all content shared, plus anything you’ve flagged. Here is an example of the usefulness of the in-box: a friend has shared a tune with you and it expires. The content will show up in your inbox even after it’s expired so you can conveniently hit the search button to locate and purchase it (nice way to get more sales, Microsoft). Digging deeper, I noticed that there’s no easy way to separate out your purchased tracks from the din. Zune peops–please add a purchased tracks (or subscription) tracks playlist.

The Zune Marketplace jukebox features are fairly standard–burning, ripping, and music management, though power users might want to use an additional piece of software for deeper activities such as transcoding, podcasts (no podcast section), and recording. It will rip CDs into MP3, WMA, and WMA Lossless (though the Zune will not play lossless files) at up to 192Kbps. The Zune Marketplace does have a Media Sharing feature that allows you to stream music, video, and photos to an Xbox 360. The device itself can be connected to an Xbox 360 via USB.

The Zune Marketplace debuts with more than two million songs (that are not compatible with non-Zune devices) and will include a ZunePass subscription for $14.95 per month. Users must sign into (or create) a Windows Live account and must purchase Microsoft points to buy a track. The point system is a carry over from Xbox Live and makes sense when considering how the Zune and Xbox universe will overlap. But come on now…79 points equals 99 cents? No video is available for purchase, though we suspect that won’t be the case for long. I was able to purchase several songs (and no, they don’t work with players such as the Creative Zen Vision:M) and the transaction and download process was quick and tidy. I really like how the Marketplace is organized–thumbnail pics, lists of top songs, and easy access to genre pages much akin to the Urge music store–but I don’t like how the program won’t stay at the last Marketplace page visited. In other words, if you’re checking out an album, then you go to your library page, then you hit Marketplace again, it will start back on the home page (this can be averted by using the software’s back and forward buttons). My experience with ZunePass was solid. After signing up, I dragged several premade playlists and albums to the Zune icon and syncing was quick and painless. Though some songs did not make it to the player because of DRM rules (same applies for all subscription services), I’d have to rate the experience higher than Urge, maybe similar to Rhapsody. The subscription aspect (though not as sophisticated as Rhapsody or Napster yet) gives the Zune a huge upside, especially over the iPod.

As reported earlier, battery life is rated for 14 hours of audio playback. With Wi-Fi turned on (and no sharing), battery life decreases to about 13 hours. This is not great, but so far the battery life hasn’t taken away from the experience. I spent a bit of time listening to music and sharing songs and photos and realized that the Wi-Fi isn’t going to thrash the battery into pulp. Each Zune in my possession averaged about 10 hours of music playbck time with about 50 to 60 files shared. Officially, CNET Labs got 13.2 hours for audio (with Wi-Fi turned off) and 3.6 hours for video. There is a Zune paradox though–that is, you should turn off Wi-Fi to conserve your battery life, but then you wouldn’t be discovered by a fellow Zunester. So doing the sensible thing–having Wi-Fi off–is a potential roadblock in getting “social.”

The Zune starts up quickly, particularly from its sleep mode. You may notice a pause here or there while you navigate, but it isn’t any more notable than other players. Sound quality is excellent–very similar to the Toshiba Gigabeat S with balanced, punchy sound. The Zune gets pretty loud using the bundled earphones, and they sufficiently powered my big Sony headphones. I did notice a quirk that Microsoft will want to address: you’ll hear a one second staticky sizzle when the Wi-Fi is activated. This definitely affects music listening, though it’s a rare occurence. The preset EQs (seven in all) do a nice job on sound shaping but we’d prefer to have a custom EQ as well. Also, Microsoft should definitely put the EQ option on the playback menu screen; for now, you’ll have to navigate backward to the settings menu. From A/V playback to the quality of the screen, from navigating menus to transferring music from a PC, its performance is excellent.

Overall, the Zune is a well-designed portable media device with good playback performance, a snappy processor, and an excellent interface. Wi-Fi sharing worked well, but prospective owners should know its format support, especially for videos, is limited. The Zune looks like a good fit for MP3 player novices, though we hope Microsoft addresses issues and will make the Zune usable as a hard drive; extend video support to include DRM (which they probably will do when its own video store opens); and open up a true Wi-Fi network. The foundation looks good, though, and those not interested in version 1 of Zune can look forward to improved versions 2, 3, and beyond.

which also uses Wi-Fi to allow users to share music, but in this case, the two players must be within range of each other. Taking a different tack is the Insignia MP3 Player & Image Viewer. This pocketable flash player offers built-in Bluetooth for connecting wirelessly with A2DP headphones.

Then there’s the Archos 704 WiFi

The Archos 704 WiFi multimedia player ($549.99) could be the missing link between portable media players and handheld computers. With its 7-inch touch screen interface and Web-browsing and file-serving capabilities, this sexy Linux-based beast offers traveling TV and movie buffs some impressive extras to augment the multimedia experience. A few kinks need to be worked out in the firmware and Web browser before the 704 can be truly free of frustration, but Archos has a good track record for improving their products after initial release.

The brushed-aluminum 704 is controlled almost exclusively via the ample (7-inch) touch screen, which responds to your fingers or the included stylus. However, there are two small buttons on the left edge, Power and TV/LCD output, as well as a switch on the right for removing the battery The player has a pair of small but reasonably powerful integrated speakers on the front and a kickstand on the back. Archos also includes a full-featured wireless infrared remote, a soft carrying case, an extra stylus, and an AC charger. Notably missing is a slot or clip on the device to store the stylus.

Under the hood, the Archos 704 features an 80GB hard drive–room for roughly 100 hours of DVD-quality video–and a user-replaceable battery (get an extra for $29.99). The latter is rated for 16 hours of music playback, 5 hours of video, or 5 hours of Web browsing, all acceptable, though not outstanding, numbers. We’re happy to report that CNET Labs tests beat the ratings, eking out 22.9 hours of music and 5.5 hours of video.

The player’s features are identical to those of the smaller Archos 604 WiFi, including video, photo, and audio playback, a Web browser (Opera), and a PDF reader. The optional DVR docking station ($99.99) or the travel kit ($69.99) lets you snatch video and audio content from any analog source in real time. Using the optional recording kit was a breeze, and recordings looked very good. Videos are in MPEG-4 SP format at up to 2,500Kbps with ADPCM stereo sound (up to 48KHz), and you can choose from an impressively wide variety of aspect ratios and letterbox options. You can even make scheduled or timed recordings, and the IR remote can be programmed to control your TV set or cable box.

Connecting the Archos 704 with a computer is a snap. It syncs with any Windows-, Linux-, or Mac-based computer without any software installation; and we found transfer speeds fairly zippy via Windows Media Player and drag and drop. You can transfer photos directly from cameras using yet another optional dock, or grab files from USB devices via the USB host port on the bottom next to the standard USB 2.0 port. The 704 doesn’t charge via USB, so plug in the charger if you’re transferring a lot of content.

The Archos 704’s user interface is fairly straightforward, though it’s not as simple as, say, the iPod’s menus. The touch screen is responsive, and the icon-based menus are utilitarian-looking and easy to navigate. The 704’s processor is quick enough for most tasks, though it can be a bit slow when performing actions involving thumbnail generation, at least until the thumbnails are cached. Playlisting and file management features are extensive and very flexible, thanks in part to a pop-up virtual keyboard that’s actually big enough to use with your thumbs.

As mentioned earlier, the 704 plays back a variety of media. Video support includes some versions of AVI (including MPEG-4, DivX and XviD), ASF, and WMV, but to play H.264, VOB, or MPEG-1/MPEG-2 movies, you’ve got to purchase and download the appropriate codecs from Archos, at $20 each. Since no standard analogous to the MP3 exists in video, this could inconvenience many users. On the audio side, the 704 supports PlaysForSure (WMA) content from online services such as Rhapsody, as well as MP3, WAV, and unprotected WMA files. (You can purchase an optional plug-in for AAC support as well.) The player also displays JPEG, BMP, and PNG photos and slide shows.

In practice, we found the 704 to offer respectable video and photo performance. According to Archos, the screen’s native resolution is 800×480 pixels, and it’s plenty bright enough with a very good viewing angle, though the matte finish (likely an effect from the touch screen’s protective film) detracts slightly from the overall sharpness. Video playback and photo slide show transitions are both very smooth. Skipping around within videos works very well with minimal lag, and you can pan, zoom, and rotate photos. Videos and photos look very good on an external TV (via the headphone jack, which doubles as a TV output; cable sold separately).

Unfortunately, sound quality on our Archos 704 review unit was problematic; we could hear some system noise and pops in the audio even when nothing was playing, though Archos plans to fix this via a firmware update. Aside from those flaws, the audio quality was good but a bit on the thin side on default settings, though there are plenty of sound customization options to play around with. The included earbuds are the usual fare–adequate for casual listening–but the headphone output is capable of driving higher-end headphones reasonably well.

The wireless features (802.11g) are potentially useful, but Web browsing can be frustrating, since page load times for sites like CNN and CNET are on the slow side and there’s a significant lag when you click on links or buttons. One nice touch is that the virtual keyboard automatically pops up when you click in a text field. Unfortunately, Opera isn’t compatible with all sites, and the version on the 704 doesn’t support Java or Flash graphics–that means no Yahoo Mail Beta, though Gmail works fine. You can also download files such as PDFs and view them, but the PDF viewer was very slow at loading files.

The Archos 704 makes up for its lackluster Web performance with its very cool file server feature. It lets you stream video, photos, and music from any networked PC to the 704, as well as serve up files to your PC from the device. You can even output streams to your TV, transforming the 704 into something along the lines of the forthcoming Apple TV.

The 704’s sheer size will keep it from being your primary everyday A/V player, but it’s definitely a versatile option for business travelers and backseat passengers who don’t need the full laptop experience or expense. Archos’ strategy of requiring optional accessories to access the recording features is a sound one, and it keeps the base list price to $549.99. But they could have included broader built-in video codec support instead of charging extra for the ability to play some common video formats. The wireless features are a nice bonus, but this is definitely not a laptop or smart phone replacement.

Lastly, we have the portable satellite radios

The Pioneer Inno and the Sirius Stiletto…both of which require subscriptions for you to be able to access preprogrammed content from their respective service providers. You can then save the songs that are “broadcast” via satellite to the players’ memory.

The Pioneer Inno is compact, gets great reception, and lets you enjoy live satellite audio and your own tracks on the go. Better battery life and more storage would make this XM portable even better.

The intriguing Sirius Stiletto 100 is packed with useful radio and digital audio features, and it’s easy and fun to use. However, some consumers may find the Stiletto too bulky, and battery life isn’t stellar.

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