Archive for the ‘PVPs’ category

Don’t call it a UMPC: HTC Advantage is coming to the States

April 10, 2007

Frankly, I’m not even sure what to call the HTC Advantage. I mean, this gadget is really in a league of its own. It’s not an ultramobile PC per se (and HTC doesn’t want to identify the Advantage as a UMPC anyway), and categorizing it as a smart phone would do it injustice. Maybe a smart phone on some serious steroids? While the nomenclature is up for debate, we do know a couple of things: it’s tricked out with some sick features and it’s actually coming to the States. Yes, we’re actually going to get one of those Crave-worthy gadgets that are typically reserved for our tech-forward European and Asian counterparts.

Today, at CTIA 2007, HTC announced it will start shipping the HTC Advantage this summer through Amazon.com and other U.S. retailers, and though they didn’t release details on pricing or the exact release date, the company did reveal a number of specs to keep us preoccupied for the time being. Check out the stats on this bad boy:

  • An 8GB hard drive with 256MB ROM/128MB RAM and a miniSD card slot
  • Runs Windows Mobile 6 Professional Edition
  • All the wireless options you could want: quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; GPRS/EDGE); 3G (UMTS/HSDPA), Bluetooth 2.0, Wi-Fi, and GPS
  • A 5-inch VGA touch screen
  • A magnetically connected full QWERTY keyboard
  • A 3.5mm headphones jack and …
  • Essentially small enough to put in a jacket pocket (albeit a larger jacket pocket) or purse

HTC’s idea for the Advantage is that it frees the mobile professional from always having to carry his or her laptop. It’s not meant to be a laptop replacement–although the company is hoping to break into that market too with its brand-new HTC Shift; check out Dan Ackerman’s blog on that announcement–but rather, something they can use on one- to two-day business trips or when they’re simply out of the office. Now, I asked you guys a question several months ago when the European version of the Advantage (aka HTC Athena) was unveiled: will this type of device fly in the States? And now that it is coming, I’d like to get your opinion again. Will you buy the HTC Advantage when it’s released later this summer?

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Creative Zen Vision W

March 11, 2007

The Zen Vision W quickly brings Creative up to speed in the blossoming world of portable video. And how could it not, with its splendid 4.3-inch wide-screen display, intuitive control set, removable battery, and CompactFlash slot? Bulkier than the aging Zen Vision, this aggressively-priced 30GB ($479.95) or 60GB ($599.95) portable video player definitely marches to its own beat, forgoing the DVR functionality that makes the Archos 04 series and Cowon A2 so special. But with more sources of compatible video content becoming available via online stores and set top boxes, should we care?

The silver and black Zen Vision:W makes the Vision look and feel wimpy. At 134 by 75 by 22 mm and 276 grams, the 30GB version is much heftier than its predecessor (74.4 by 124.2 by 20.1 mm and 232 grams). The 60GB W is a tad thicker and heavier. It’s substantial in the hand, and while pocketable for sure, it’s more of a backpack device. In other words, you don’t want to be jogging with this thing, though it’s extremely durable, thanks in part to the magnesium skin. Of course the payoff is the gorgeous 4.3-inch TFT screen, which boasts a resolution of 480×272 pixels with 262K colors. Photos and video pop off the screen, and unlike the Vision’s 3.7-inch 4/3 screen, it has an exceptionally wide viewing angle (however, when viewed head on, the Vision’s 640×480-pixel screen is impressive). The antireflective screen is vivid and sharp, and you can adjust its brightness and choose any background image you like. Personally, I think the Archos 604’s screen edges out the W’s, but both are great in my book. I was also impressed with the W’s ability to output video and photos to an external display at a maximum of 720×480. The W’s blue backlit controllers, exactly the same as the Vision’s, are quite intuitive, and the GUI is classic Creative, simple and to the point with conveniences such as the context-driven options and a customisable main menu. A five-way controller plus Back, context menu, and playback buttons lie to the left of the screen — designed for right-handed use all the way. The buttons are tactile and actually offer resistance. Some users may not like the popping sound and sensation of the buttons.

Below these buttons is a built-in mono speaker — some fidelity with very little oomph. The right spine includes the headphone jack and a rubber cover, which hides the DC input, as well as the A/V-out jack. You’ll find a Type
II CompactFlash (CF) slot on the right spine. This is handy for many digital camera users, particularly those with Microdrives. In addition to photos, you can import videos via the CF slot (and you get the option to transfer the latest 10, 20, or 50 of the latest files). Transfers are quick and photos look great onscreen. Though you can zoom, create slide shows, and rotate, I prefer the Archos 604 as a photo viewer, though you won’t get a CF slot.

A standard mini USB and a dock connection port (no dockable accessories yet) reside on the bottom, while up top, you’ll find the power/hold switch, pinhole microphone, and dedicated volume buttons. I love dedicated volume, but I often instinctively use the main up/down controls, which of course don’t work (though Creative could implement this if it wanted).

On the back, you’ll find the thin and easily removable lithium-ion battery pack — a useful and rare design feature (the Archos 604 also has a removable battery). An integrated kickstand for hands-free viewing would have been useful. The bundled accessories include passable earbuds, a wall-wart power adapter, a USB cable, a software disc (with Creative Media Explorer, Yahoo Music Engine, and other utilities), A/V-out cables, and a felt case.

 

The W can handle MP3, WAV, and WMA (including subscription music) audio files. This time around, the Vision supports album art, albeit as tiny thumbnails. The W is decent as an MP3 player and holds it own in sound quality, and it includes handy features such as playlist creation and the Creative DJ (that is, Album of the Day and Rarely Heard). However, you should justify the unit’s size and weight by using it for video. The Zen Vision:W supports a large number of video formats, including WMV, MPEG-4 SP, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, DivX 4/5, and XviD. In most cases, Windows Media Player will do the converting for you, if necessary, though the bundled Creative Media Explorer will do the job (as well as help you create slide shows). The handy bookmarking feature allows you to mark an exact point in a song for up to 10 bookmarks. Videos get bookmarked automatically when you exit the video. You’ll also get a decent FM radio with up to 32 autoscannable and namable presets, but no radio recording. Reception is good. The Microphone feature is decent sounding (16kHz mono ADPCMWAV). I like that you get a visual volume level meter. Finally, the Vision:W continues the Zen support for read-only Outlook syncing, and the MTP device can be used as a hard drive on Windows and Mac machines, though you need to first partition the drive within the menu.
Battery life is rated for 13 hours for audio (mediocre) and 4.5 for video (decent). CNET Labs was able to muster nearly 17 hours of MP3 audio on a single charge; video fared well, too, with a solid 7.6 hours of playback per charge. You can recharge via USB, but it will take twice as long (6 hours vs. 3 hours) to fully recharge. Our sister site in
Asia posts battery results in its review. Overall processor performance is above average (start-up is quick), though you’ll hit occasional one-second delays, especially when scrubbing through video tracks. The Archos 604 feels more precise with video scrubbing. The way a new screen slides into view when navigating on the W seems sluggish to me. Sound quality is very good (though not as good as the Creative Zen Vision:M’s) and the numerous preset (and five-band custom) EQs are effective (as is Bass Boost). I just don’t like having to navigate to audio settings to apply EQs; this should have been included in the context menu. Overall, I think the Zen Vision:W is well suited for those who already have large collections of videos (and those who use TiVo To Go) and for those who take lots of photos. It’s a bulky beast, but an impressive display, good video format support, a sweet price, and nice sound quality make the W a solid playback-only choice.
 

Cowon A2 (30GB)

March 11, 2007

The Cowon A2 is a sleek, attractive, and all-encompassing portable video player with video-recording capability that suffers only when compared to the similarly appointed Archos AV500 Mobile DVR. We really dig some parts of the interface, but we were annoyed by others. While the A2 can play a huge number of audio and video formats, it does not currently support Windows Media DRM 10. On the plus side, the A2, which is available in 20GB ($380) and 30GB ($420) capacities, boasts excellent audio and video playback and recording quality, as well as solid battery life.

Design of Cowon A2 (30GB)

The Cowon A2 enters a luxury PVP domain currently dominated by the Archos AV500 and the Creative Zen Vision, and it fits right in. While both the Cowon (20GB and 40GB) and the Archos AV500 (30GB and 100GB) offer 4-inch-wide LCDs and PVR capability, Creative’s Zen Vision does not record video or audio, and it includes only a 4:3, 3.7-inch screen. Both the Archos and the Creative players are slightly smaller and lighter than the 5.2-by-3.1-by-0.9-inch, 10.5-ounce 20GB Cowon, but the player’s curved rectangular shape is easy on the hands and the eyes. Controls are minimal and austere, with only five buttons adorning the clean A2 face: the familiar Cowon minithumbstick and the four cascading metallic buttons. The latter includes a Back key and three soft menu keys marked A, B, and C that correspond to onscreen options. The buttons flank the Cowon A2’s centerpiece, its magnificent 4-inch-wide screen.

Other controls and connections are arrayed around the Cowon A2’s perimeter. On the right spine is an indented power button, and on the top spine are the widely separated stereo speakers, with the mic falling in between. Headphone and power-adapter jacks flank a hatch covering dual A/V-in/out and USB jacks on the left spine. Identifying icons for these four jacks are embossed on the inside of the latch and are difficult to read. On the bottom spine is a triposition switch for LCD, hold, and A/V out.

Navigating the Cowon A2 is a mixed bag. The main menu is gorgeous and very PDA-like, with menu items such as Movie, Music, Photo, Text, and Radio, each represented by colorful icons. The background image (ours was soothing blue waves) is customizable, with tiny icons for the volume, the time, and the battery in the upper-right corner, as well as three contextual choices in the lower sliver of the screen that correspond to the A, B, and C buttons. The soft keys are convenient, but we’d often look down at the similar buttons to confirm the selection. The tiny thumbstick takes some time getting used to, especially when selecting down on an item, but it is at its worst when trying to navigate through dozens of folders and thousands of songs. It’s no Apple Click Wheel. The thumbstick also serves as the volume control, so you’ll need to navigate back to the playback screen to adjust the volume. Because the device is currently a UMS device (with its own advantages), you cannot browse music by album or track unless you organize your media in such a way. Cowon plans to release a firmware update that will sort music by ID3 tag.

Despite tricky navigation (thank goodness for the well-placed Back button), the Cowon A2’s solid graphics add to the player’s appeal. For example, the music-playback screen is built around a pulsating graphic equalizer, with all kinds of track and setting information populating the readable screen. The A2’s folder-tree file browser is PC-like, with preview thumbnails for photos and video–as with the Archos–that show up in an adjunct window as you pass over them. The radio screen is the best interface we’ve seen for a portable, and the recording interface is nice and simple, though we’d love sound-level meters. The graphical interface is way geeky and not a breeze to use.Unlike the Archos–which requires a separate hub that enables video recording, including a higher-quality S-Video connection–the Cowon connects directly to a minijack-to-RCA cable familiar to anyone who’s hooked up a camcorder to a TV; however, you have to use the included cable. Identical A/V cables that come with camcorders won’t work for reasons we have yet to discover. Still, not having to travel with an Archos-like hub gives the Cowon A2 an edge in full-featured portability.Unfortunately, the Cowon A2 doesn’t have a built-in kickstand, but the included carrying case can prop the player up for hands-free viewing. One edge that the Archos AV500 has over the A2 is its removable battery, though Cowon A2 users will be pleased by the battery results (see Performance). Accessories include decent white earbuds, a USB device cable, a USB host cable, an A/V-in/out cable, an audio line-in cable, an AC adapter, a black pleather carrying case, a hand strap, an installation CD, and a user manual. There is no remote control to be found, and there are no other accessories available from Cowon

Features of Cowon A2 (30GB)

The Cowon A2 is no stranger to features. It can play back MP3, WMA, WAV,
MIDI, and OGG digital audio files natively, and you can create a playlist on the fly, though you can’t save it; it also includes a top-notch FM radio/recorder. The A2 is a decent photo (JPEG, PNG, and BMP) viewer with audioless slide shows and a cool zoom feature, and it can be connected to most digital cameras for direct transfer. It can play back video files encoded in AVI, DivX/XviD, WMV, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, ASF, and the new open Matroska (.msk) standard but not motion JPEG.

But wait, there’s more. The Cowon A2 can also be used as a text viewer and has a very capable USB 2.0 hard drive, and impressively, it makes an amazing audio recorder. Although all voice, line-in, and FM recordings have a maximum level of 192Kbps MP3, the quality–as well as the speed for recording and saving–is outstanding. To top it off, the A2 is an effective PVR that can record from video sources such as TV and cable at a maximum resolution of 640×480 at 1Mbps, as well as at a minimum resolution of 368×272 at 500Kbps; all files are recorded into ASF. Unlike the Archos PVPs, the A2 isn’t Macrovision compliant, so you won’t be able to copy directly from certain DVDs.

What stands out is the number of formats and resolutions of video files the Cowon A2 can handle–without video conversion. Since there are numerous formats, Cowon has included software to convert noncompatible files. Chances are that the A2 will play a decent percentage of video files you throw at it. The latest firmware update (v 1.61E) gives the A2 the ability to multitask–that is, it allows viewing of photos or text while listening to music, something the Archos PVPs aren’t able to do yet.

Still, there remain a few holes in the feature set that we hope Cowon can address soon. First, the Cowon A2 is not compatible with WMA DRM and WMV DRM files, so it’s not a PlaysForSure device. Cowon plans to release a firmware upgrade in early 2006 that will make the A2 compatible with store- and subscription-based audio and video. Also, unlike with the Zen Vision, you can’t sync your Microsoft PIM programs, and the A2 doesn’t support TiVo To Go, either. Finally, timed recording with the PVR is badly handled. Instead of the timer/recorder function listed among the options in the Record menu, you have to go to the system settings under Setup from the main menu and set the alarm, making sure you pick the right mode–the Record Line-in Video mode, not Movie Player. 

 All content is listed alphabetically in the Cowon A2’s varying sections, but a lot of material is buried deep in folders that require some drilling, depending on how it was transferred to the device. For instance, to find a TV show recorded by the PVR, you need to click on the Movie folder (this really should be labeled Video), which brings you to two folders: Movie, which stores files transferred from your PC, and Record, which stores PVR recordings. Click Record, and you get a video folder, inside of which, finally, is your list of recordings. PVR recordings are listed in some arcane Cowon nomenclature (Video_051216.001.asf, for example) instead of something handier, such as the time and the date of the recording, with no way to relabel them on the device.

Getting content from your PC to the Cowon A2 is equally annoying. You can use Windows Explorer or the included JetShell Pro content-management software, but both suffer from the same overarching problem: Neither discriminates between compatible and noncompatible content. We synced all our video, which included several DRM WMV files, and music, which included a substantial number of Napster subscription tracks and AAC files, on to the A2. JetShell, which offers one of the most convoluted interfaces we’ve come across, did not screen out these incompatible files. Subsequent attempts to play an incompatible file froze the player, usually requiring a reboot. Since JetShell Pro doesn’t list the DRM condition of music files, it’s impossible to weed out potentially offending tracks before syncing.

We do like the media player while it’s playing music and/or video. In addition to the technostylish graphics, the player settings can be quickly accessed without having to back out into the Menu settings area. This means you can apply the Cowon A2’s impressive set of EQ and BBE effects on the fly, and you can hear results in real time. The same goes for video playback, which also features a bookmark option and instant scrubbing 10 to 12 seconds forward or backward with the tap of the thumbstick, though the Archos’s controls are better.

Performance of Cowon A2 (30GB) Like the Archos AV500 Mobile DVR, the Cowon A2 has a dazzling 480×272-pixel, 4-inch-wide screen that makes videos look sharp and bright, even in daylight and at varying viewing angles. Downloaded DivX content, such as trailers for Batman Returns and War of the Worlds, was glossy and crisp, with sharp details sans jaggies; bright colors with only occasional video noise on solid color backgrounds; and no false contouring in scenes with gradual gradations between light and dark, such as sunsets, shadows, or spotlights. Even tiny text was amazingly easy to read. JPEGs, however, seemed a bit pixelated, and certain patterns produced moiré effects. When recording, letterboxed or HD content expands beyond the normal 16:9 LCD area, cutting off some of the image around the edges. For instance, if you record an NFL game from an HD channel, you’ll likely lose some of the score box. For movies, this minor cropping is annoying, but it is not horrible and is certainly better than not seeing the full frame. But oddly, video isn’t actually recorded in this zoomed-in mode. The Cowon A2’s 16:9 playback mode stretches the picture only horizontally, not vertically. Worse, when you record in either of the 640×480 modes, the picture mysteriously disappears from the A2’s LCD, leading you to believe that the unit isn’t recording a picture–but it is. Also, piping video content out to a larger TV is expectedly pixelated, though viewable on small TVs.Although the Cowon A2 sounds great with the included white earphones, the built-in speakers, while crisp, are not very loud. In fact, because they point up, they disperse the sound into the air, and therefore, the volume needs to be cranked up. Back to sound quality: Digital audio sounds excellent, and the EQs (
Normal, Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop, Vocal, and User) and effects (BBE, Mach3Bass, 3D surround) make a measurable difference for those who like to sculpt their sound. Voice and line-in recording are also strengths of this device, while the FM radio with its 25 autoscan presets comes in bright and clear.Rated battery life for the Cowon A2 is 18 hours for audio and an international-flight-friendly 10 hours for video–both are more bountiful than that of the Archos, which is rated for, respectively, 15 hours and 4.5 hours, and the Creative Labs, which is rated for 13 hours and 4.5 hours. CNET Labs was able to coax 16 hours of audio playback and 9.2 hours of video playback out of the A2, both slightly less than the rating but still excellent results.

 

iPod U2 Special Edition

January 28, 2007

The only differences between the iPod U2 Special Edition and the standard 30GB iPod video are the extras, the price, and the design – which is in some ways actually superior to the design of the standard iPod video.  

Who is it good for?

U2 fans.

  • If you’re interested in a limited edition iPod.
  • If you’re after something that looks very different from the standard iPod.

The Design:

As the iPod U2 Special Edition is really the same device as the 30GB iPod video (you can check out our review of its 60GB counterpart), the emphasis here is on the design and whether this design is worth the price.  The front of the iPod U2 Special Edition is black with a red Click Wheel. When the Fourth-Generation iPod U2 Special Edition was released, having a black iPod was something of a novelty. Now that the iPod video is available in black, this is much less of a drawcard. The red Click Wheel is very prominent and despite the fact that the color combination sounds garish, it actually looks quite striking.The hold switch – which is located on the top of the iPod U2 Special Edition alongside the headphones jack – is also black. When you move the switch to the hold position, the color is the same color red as the Click Wheel. As usual, the Dock Connector is on the bottom of the iPod.The back of the iPod is really the best part. Although fans will probably get a kick out of the band member autographs, the focus is really on the darker-than-usual metal casing. This not only looks better than the standard lighter metal casing, but it also shows up less dirt and fingerprints. What is kind of a let down, but not unsurprising, is that the accessories that come with the iPod U2 Special Edition aren’t customized for the device. While the white earbud headphones and the white Dock Connector cable go pretty well with the black and red, it would have been better if they were black or red themselves.

Using the iPod U2 Special Edition

It’s important to note that the battery duration of the iPod U2 Special Edition – and the same goes for the standard 30GB iPod video – could stand to be a little longer. The 2 hours of video playback time is incredibly short. For a detailed look at using the iPod video, check out our 60GB iPod video review.

Special Edition Extras:

The iPod U2 Special Edition comes with a video coupon – featuring band interviews and music – that is redeemable via the iTunes Music Store in the country where the iPod was purchased.

Price

The iPod U2 Special Edition is priced at $329 USD compared to $299 USD for the standard 30GB iPod video. Given the quality of the design – and taking into account the inclusion of the video coupon and the fact that this is a limited edition iPod – this is a fairly reasonable price, although I would have preferred customized accessories to be included.

Final View

The iPod U2 Special Edition will probably appeal most to U2 fans, but its design makes it interesting enough in itself.

What’s in the box?

  • The iPod U2 Special Edition.
  • White earbud headphones.
  • Black earpads.
  • USB Dock Connector cable.
  • Dock Adapter – a little piece of plastic to make the iPod nano work with some third-party Docks and speaker systems.
  • A black pouch.
  • U2 video coupon for use in the iTunes Music Store.
  • Quick Start Guide and Features Guide.
  • iTunes and iPod software for Mac and Windows.

Source: Apple

System Requirements

PC Requirements:

  • PC with USB port or card (USB 2.0 recommended).
  • Windows 2000 with Service Pack 4 or later or Windows XP Home or Professional with Service Pack 2 or later.

Mac Requirements:

  • Mac with USB port (USB 2.0 recommended).
  • Mac OS X 10.3.9 and later.

Source: Apple

Technical Specifications

Size: 30 GB
Dimensions: 4.1 x 2.4 x 0.43 inches
Weight: 4.8 ounces
Song capacity: 7,500 songs
Photo capacity: 25,000 photos
Video capacity: 75 hours
Battery duration: 14 hours (music), 3 hours (music + slideshows), 2 hours (video)
Battery charge time: 4 hours
Screen: 2.5-inch color LCD with LED backlight
Ports: Dock Connector, stereo minijack (headphones jack), composite video and audio via minijack
Connectivity: USB Dock Connector, composite video (with AV cable, sold separately) and audio via headphones jack or line out on the iPod Universal Dock (sold separately)
Audio: AAC (16 to 320 Kbps), Protected AAC (iTunes Music Store), MP3 (16 to 320 Kbps), MP3 VBR, Audible (formats 2, 3 and 4), Apple Lossless, WAV, AIFF
Photos: JPEG, BMP, GIF, TIFF, PSD (Mac only) and PNG
Videos: H.264 video: up to 768 Kbps, 320 x 240, 30 frames per sec., Baseline Profile up to Level 1.3 with AAC-LC up to 160 Kbps, 48 Khz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov
MPEG-4 video: up to 2.5 mbps, 480 x 480, 30 frames per sec., Simple Profile with AAC-LC up to 160 Kbps, 48 Khz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov
Colors: Black and red
Warranty: One-year limited warranty, 90-day telephone support for one incident
RRP: $329 USD

2006 In Review…

January 26, 2007

Top Portable Video Players (PVP)

Archos AV500 Mobile DVR (30GB) 

 The Archos AV500 has a nice wide-screen LCD with great viewing angles yet is compact enough to fit in a pocket. It supports PlaysForSure audio and video and has superb audio quality, and with it, you can record audio and video from external sources, including TV at scheduled times. The AV500 also has excellent battery life and a good printed manual, and with the included plug-in, it will work 

Toshiba Gigabeat S MES30VW

The Toshiba Gigabeat S makes its mark as a supercompact 30GB or 60GB portable video player. It supports many music, video, and photo file types, including subscription services, and it has a bevy of features, such as an FM tuner and support for digital camera transfers. Best of all, the device is completely intuitive, thanks in part to an improved Portable Media Center operating system, and it boasts excellent sound performance 

Archos 504 (80GB)

 The Archos 504 is available in 40GB, 80GB, and 160GB capacities; gorgeous 4.3-inch wide screen; a decent choice of accessory options; can record audio and video with the optional kit; has a removable battery; nice tactile controls and sophisticated interface; lets you view photos and listen to music simultaneously; compatible with subscription services and a variety of video formats; excellent photo viewer; decent rated battery life 

Archos 404 (30GB) 

 The aggressively priced Archos 404 combines a 3.5-inch screen with a supercompact body; it’s a video, music (including subscriptions), and photo player with the ability to record line-in audio and video with optional adapters; good voice recorder; improved GUI; excellent video controls and photo playback features 

Cowon A2 (30GB) 

 The Cowon A2 portable video player has a bright, crisp 4-inch wide-screen LCD as well as a clean, visually appealing form factor and interface. It’s a performer with an excellent FM radio, great sound and recording quality, and long battery life. It supports a multitude of audio and video formats and serves as a voice recorder, a zoomable photo viewer, and a PVR. Finally, it conveniently uses an A/V line-in cable, rather than a hub, for recording audio and video.

Top Hard Drive MP3 Players

January 26, 2007

Toshiba Gigabeat S MES30VW

 The Toshiba Gigabeat S makes its mark as a supercompact 30GB or 60GB portable video player. It supports many music, video, and photo file types, including subscription services, and it has a bevy of features, such as an FM tuner and support for digital camera transfers. Best of all, the device is completely intuitive, thanks in part to an improved Portable Media Center operating system, and it boasts excellent sound performance 

Apple iPod (fifth-generation update, 80GB 

The enhanced iPod has the same sleek design with improved video battery life and brighter screen; it brings gapless playback to the masses; up to 80GB; new features such as instant search and enhanced games; movies now available in iTunes 7; excellent overall value. 

Creative Zen Vision:M 

Available in five colors, the Creative Zen Vision:M has an incredible screen, a simple interface, excellent video battery life, an FM tuner and recorder, and a voice recorder. It features a customizable Shortcut button, and it supports a wide range of online music stores and subscription services, as well as video formats. It has excellent audio and video quality. 

Cowon iAudio X5L  

Small size; video player with 260,000-color LCD; customizable wallpaper; FM radio; line-in and voice recording; photo viewer; text-file reader; excellent sound quality; reads photos directly from digital cameras; compatible with OGG and FLAC formats, as well as subscription WMA tracks. 

Philips GoGear HDD6330 Jukebox  Philips’s nice-sounding 30GB GoGear HDD6330 Jukebox has a stylish design with an intuitive touch-sensitive interface and is packed with features such as a photo-friendly color screen, support for WMA DRM 10 subscription content, an FM radio tuner, and a voice recorder.

Next Up…

October 26, 2006

The Archos 604 (30GB)

604 1

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.

photo 2

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.