For watching movies, bigger screens are better. It's a fact. But, when it comes to portable devices, a 5-inch screen is about as large as most people can handle.
But not if you're French. Archos has delivered the Archos 7, a 7-inch version of the Archos 5, which had one of the finest-quality portable video screens we've ever seen.
The Archos 7 comes in 160GB and 320GB capacities, with prices starting at around £350. It's on sale now.
As with the Archos 5 previously, the Archos 7 represents an extraordinary advance for Archos, both in terms of design and user interaction. Archos has bid a much-needed au revoir to navigational buttons on the front of the device, and whispered a sweet bonjour to a gorgeous, all-metal chassis and all-touchscreen display.
Between stereo speakers on the far right- and left-hand sides of the system is the aforementioned -- and relatively gargantuan -- resistive, 7-inch TFT LCD touchscreen. However, it still packs the 800x480-pixel resolution that the Archos 5 featured, meaning a larger screen, but less crisp images.
The chassis itself is extremely glossy, easily picking up grease and fingerprints. But, as a result of its construction and size, the Archos 7 is satisfyingly solid, and weighty enough to beat a donkey into a coma with.
The Archos 7 runs on an Archos-built Linux operating system with a 600MHz CPU, backed up with 128MB of system RAM. It'll handle MPEG-4 SP, WMV, DivX, Xvid and Flash 9 FLV video files up to DVD resolution, as well as multiple audio streams and soft subtitles, providing they're in the .SRT format. Also, downloaded content from the BBC's iPlayer service played perfectly, but it must be synchronised through Windows Media Player.
Once again, Archos wants you to pay for the extra codecs that make the player so attractive -- despite many competitors offering them out of the box. It'll cost you about £12 to get support for 720p HD WMV and MPEG-4 (when made available later in 2009), another £12 for MPEG-2 and DVD VOB files, and another £12 for H.264 video and AAC audio. The Cowon A3 comes with most of these built-in.
Audio support is a little above average, with supported files including MP3, WAV, FLAC, Ogg and both protected and unprotected WMA. AAC support costs an additional £12, as mentioned. AIFF, Apple Lossless, Monkey's Audio, AU, Musepack, WavPack and WMA Lossless are not supported, and neither is gapless playback.
Internet functions are mostly handled by Opera's Web browser, which comes pre-installed and gives you big-screen access to the full Web, with the added advantage that it supports Adobe Flash content, unlike the iPhone. There's also a simple and efficient email app for accessing POP and IMAP mail accounts, and YouTube content -- standard definition only -- can be run in glorious full-screen.
This is all accessible via the Archos 7's built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and your music and video files on your networked PC can be streamed in the same way.
A bunch of forgettable games comes preinstalled, although we also saved some Adobe Flash games off the Web -- including YetiSports -- and even found some of them quite playable.
If you've ever used the touchscreen on the iPod touch or iPhone, you'll find the resistive touchscreen on the Archos 7 very different -- it requires much more pressure and is nowhere near as sensitive, particularly when trying to click small text links in Web pages. The capable graphics processor behind it, however, makes menu animation smooth, and, while not up to Apple's standards, the touchscreen beats most rivals on the market, at least in terms of ease of use and intuitiveness.
High-definition playback requires an optional software plug-in, as mentioned, and wasn't available at the time of publication, so it was standard-definition content all the way for us. Picture quality was excellent -- decent colours, smooth motion and deep blacks. You're given an incredible portable movie-watching experience here, and this can be extended to television programming by using the BBC's iPlayer downloads, as mentioned, or by buying a 'TV Snap On' accessory to pick up, schedule and record Freeview content.
While the Archos 7 comes close to being one of the best big-screen media players around, we can't quite forget that Archos likes to call it an 'Internet Media Tablet'. And that's something we're not sold on. True, the Opera Web browser is full-featured and simple to use. Most pages rendered well and very quickly over Wi-Fi -- faster, in many cases, than the competition. But it's quite a clunky browsing experience, and the resistive touchscreen only makes this more noticeable. It ain't no iPod touch when it comes to Web and email.
That makes us wonder whether you should consider a netbook instead. They're larger, but netbooks are also cheaper, have keyboards and come with any video codec you want -- at no extra cost. Plus they actually are PCs, and not a costly device that's desperately trying to be one.
The Archos 7 is impressive in terms of performance, and an absolutely killer device for watching movies on holiday. If you want all the features it can offer, however, you're going to have to pay extra. And if you want to utilise its TV capabilities, you're going to have to pay extra -- again. In a device that's this costly to begin with, that angers us.
At around £430 for the 320GB model, then £12 for each of three codec bundles, and then £40 (and upwards) for hardware add-ons to enable advanced features, no matter how impressive its movie and media capabilities are, it's hard to recommend the Archos 7 over Cowon's video-loving A3 if all you want is video playback. If you want something equally Internet-savvy and large, you may want to consider a small netbook.
But, if you're rich and love movies on the road, there's nothing that'll give you more movie pleasure than this.
Edited by Charles Kloet