The Archos Gmini XS200 is a digital audio player that's clearly gunning for the likes of Apple's iPod Mini and the Rio Carbon. It's as small and as palm-friendly as those devices, and its price tag is around the same at £160. There's just one huge difference: The Gmini XS200 is no mere 4GB or 5GB player -- it's stocked with a comparatively monstrous 20GB hard drive that, by itself, makes the competition look stingy. Unfortunately, the old axiom rings true here -- you get what you pay for.
Although it has storage to spare and a few nice amenities, the Gmini delivers only average battery life, a decidedly unsexy design, and a few annoying usability issues: not the least of which is its failure to support DRM-protected WMAs, meaning that the player is incompatible with most online music services, at least for now. We think that's a pretty steep price to pay for an extra 15GB of storage. On the other hand, if all you want is a bare-bones audio player with plenty of storage, this deal is hard to beat. Though sheathed in a sparkly, silver case, the boxy Archos Gmini XS200 comes off looking pretty drab, mostly due to the mismatched grey-green coloring of its LCD. At 79 x 23 x 69mm and 170g, it's a bit wider and stockier than the iPod Mini, but it's also shorter, so it's just about a wash in terms of pocket portability.
The Gmini's admirably large LCD, which is about the size of a CompactFlash card, boasts excellent contrast and a bright green backlight. Below the screen, a five-way joystick is flanked by two buttons: power/menu and stop/back/power off. The player also sports three clearly labelled LEDs that indicate power, drive activity, and charging status.
We liked the easy flow and logical layout of the Gmini's icon-driven interface. Using the joystick, you can select Music, Browser, Resume, or Setup from the main menu. Within the Music submenu, you can browse songs by artist, album, title, genre, year, or playlist. Browser provides access to the hard drive's folders (handy for perusing its non-music contents), while Resume returns you to a bookmarked spot. The Setup submenu includes the usual playback options -- repeat, shuffle, or five equalizer presets (and a five-band custom setting) -- along with a few nice extras, such as the option to play only a selected folder and a car-stereo-like Scan mode that plays the first 15 seconds of each song until you press the joystick, at which point it reverts to normal playback.
The LCD shows a wealth of neatly organized information, everything from song, artist, and album name to stats on the file itself, such as format and bit rate. It also shows elapsed time, time remaining, total song length, and even a progress gauge. Most players have one or two of these handy elements, but few provide all four.
While the joystick makes for easy menu navigation, it can't compare to the iPod's phenomenal Click Wheel in terms of sifting through song lists. It takes too long for the Gmini to "ramp up" from slow scrolling to fast. We were also disappointed to discover that the player's USB 2.0 interface doesn't charge the battery as well.
Having put all its eggs into one 20GB basket, Archos unsurprisingly omitted extras such as an FM tuner and a voice recorder. The Gmini XS200 serves as an audio player and portable hard drive--nothing more. In additional signs of cost-cutting, Archos supplies only an AC adapter, earbud headphones, and a multilingual quick-start sheet. There's no software CD, no printed manual, and no carrying case.
Interestingly, the Gmini's hard drive itself is home to Windows Media Player 9.0, Adobe Acrobat Reader, an Apple iTunes plug-in (but only for the Macintosh version), and a PDF instruction manual. The latter is quite thorough and, at 22 pages, short enough to print a copy. But for novices or anyone who has trouble establishing a USB connection, just finding the manual could be problematic.
The Gmini's minimalist nature is both a blessing and a curse. Songs and data must be dragged and dropped to the device -- good because you're not locked into using a particular music manager, bad because you can't use your favourite music manager. We tried the Gmini with Musicmatch Jukebox 9.0 and Windows Media Player 10.0, and neither program would recognize it. That means you can't keep your song library in sync with the player. Plus, you can't download songs purchased from most online services, as the Gmini won't currently play DRM-protected WMAs -- only MP3, WAV, and unprotected WMA files. However, Archos asserts a firmware upgrade that adds protected WMA support will be made available. The iTunes plug-in does enable Macintosh users to sync with the Gmini but not to copy songs purchased from that service.
Once you've filled the player with music, you'll find it as versatile as the best of them. We particularly like its bookmark feature, a boon to anyone who enjoys listening to lengthy MP3-format audiobooks. The Gmini also sports an impressive on-device playlist builder that splits the screen in half so that you can see tracks in the list as you add them. You can also save and rename your playlists, though the latter function requires tedious navigation of an onscreen keyboard.
We must admit to remaining mystified by the ARCLibrary, which we've also encountered on other Archos players. It's essentially a method by which the Gmini indexes the ID3 tags of songs you've copied to it. Most other players handle this automatically, but the Gmini requires you to "update ARCLibrary" manually every time you transfer new songs. Why, you ask? We don't know either.
We see plenty of audio players with USB 2.0 interfaces these days, but many of them are surprisingly poky--not so the Archos Gmini XS200, which turned in the fastest file-transfer speed of any player we've tested: 10.13MB per second. That's roughly five times faster than the Rio Carbon and twice as fast as Apple's fourth-generation iPod.
Unfortunately, the player didn't do quite as well in the battery department, lasting a bit more than 10 hours in our rundown tests. That's not a terrible score -- the iPod Mini fared about the same--but the Rio Carbon plays for twice as long before it needs charging.
We're happy to report the Gmini sounds absolutely great, provided that you plug in a decent pair of headphones. The earbuds supplied by Archos, in addition to being woefully uncomfortable, sound ragged and tinny -- no doubt another concession to the Gmini's bargain-basement price. Whatever pair you plug in, the player can really crank the volume, meaning it can hold its own with traffic noise and other competing environments.
Edited by: Jasmine France
Additional editing by: Guy Cocker