With its sleek and sexy design, ample screen and plethora of features, it's hard to believe that the Archos 404 camcorder lists for just £20 more than an iPod with the same capacity. For as little as £210, you can get a PVP, a camera and a camcorder all rolled into one pocket-size device.
At 99mm by 76mm by 15mm and 181g, the Archos 404 camcorder isn't a lightweight contender in the MP3 player ring, but it is ultracompact by PVP standards. Its sleek, brushed metal exterior adds to its appeal. An 89mm (3.5-inch), 16 million-colour LCD screen dominates the front of the device, which means your viewing pleasure won't be negatively affected by the relatively small size of the player.
Of course, you also can output your stored video content to a TV. A button on the left spine of the unit lets you toggle between LCD and TV output. This is also where you'll find the power key and headphone jack. Along the top edge of the 404 is a single external speaker, while the bottom houses the pinhole mic and two proprietary USB ports, one for charging and syncing and one for attaching optional accessories. Flip the device over, and you'll notice a tiny digicam lens near the top on the back.
The 404's navigation controls line the right edge of the screen and consist of five two-way toggle keys -- the top three are marked with various directional arrows, and the bottom two function as OK/Back and Menu/Tab buttons. As you can infer, these are quite different from the standard playback controls, which means navigation can take some getting used to.
You have to take your cues from the display, which is fairly straightforward. For example, the arrow keys can move you around the main icon-based menu as well as scroll through inner lists, and the OK button serves to make selections as well as play and pause music and videos.
The Menu button, however, does not serve to take you to the main menu -- instead, it brings up contextual menus based on where you are in the interface. The back button is what will get you to the top screen. All in all, this is not as simple as Creative's user interface structure (used by the iPod and others), but you'll get used to it.
Minor navigation gripes aside, we were taken with the Archos 404 camcorder's extra viewing touches. The thumbnail preview for the photo library, for example, is an impressive 8x8 grid, and each one magnifies as you scroll over it. When you're scrolling through the video submenu, each selection offers a moving thumbnail preview. Plus, you can choose from a plethora of background colours and themes, as well as set any of your photos as wallpaper.
Of course, the 404 camcorder has many more features than that. First and foremost, it's a video player that natively supports WMV, protected WMV and MPEG4 (AVI) up to 720x480 pixels at 30 frames per second, with optional plug-ins for MPEG-4 AAC/H.2643 (.MP4 QuickTime files), MPEG-2 and VOB playback.
The device also plays MP3, WAV and protected WMA files, and it includes playlist support, a voice recorder, audio equalisers (weak and rather confusing), a PDF document reader, a built-in speaker and an excellent photo viewer (for JPEG, PNG and BMP formats).
You also can rate songs on the fly, as well as create a favourites playlist on the device. Surprisingly, the 404 lacks a built-in FM tuner -- a bit of an oversight, if you ask us -- but the device somewhat makes up for this omission with the inclusion of its built-in digital camera and camcorder.
One of the main draws of the 404 camcorder is its recording capability, but you'll need to purchase one of the optional accessories to activate that feature: the £68 DVR Station or the £40 DVR Travel Adapter Kit. (If you were wondering how Archos kept the 404 camcorder's price so low, there's your answer).
With either of these optional accessories, you can turn the 404 into a DVR, complete with timed recordings (à la the VCR). Video is not the only option, though. You can record straight audio from any source, making this a decent option for digitising all that vinyl.
The Archos 404 camcorder impressed with its bright and crisp photo display and mostly snappy processor speed. Music playback quality was also very good. Tunes sounded warm and detailed through a pair of Shure SE310 earphones. Bass response was nicely present without overshadowing the high end.
Less impressive is the rated battery life of just 8 hours for audio and 2.5 hours for video.
Videos looked lovely on the colourful, 89mm (3.5-inch) LCD screen -- there was no jerkiness or overpixellation during viewing tests, sound synced up perfectly and the screen was sufficiently large for lengthy (one to two hours) viewing. After we transferred some video files to the player, however, it would freeze whenever we tried to access them. We're still waiting to hear back from Archos on this, but it sounds like something a firmware update might address.
Photos taken with the 1.3-megapixel camera are about what you'd expect: not great. Test images were grainy and varied greatly depending on the direction of light sources. Short videos recorded with the camcorder were passable in that the 404 would do in a pinch, but it shouldn't replace a standalone camcorder.
The 404 camcorder is not without its flaws -- the utilitarian interface takes some getting used to, and you'll have to pay extra for recording features -- but we still think it's a pretty good deal.
Additional editing by Kate Macefield