Archos's 04 series of portable video players has many components, the smallest being the pocket-size 404. This is a fully fledged PVP with all the fixings and a 30GB drive, but this one measures only 99mm by 76mm by 15mm, and has an 89mm (3.5-inch) screen.
Though the 190g device doesn't record audio or video out of the box (you'll need to pony up either for the £62 dock or the £44 adaptor), it's still a nice deal at less than £200. The 404 replaces the popular Gmini 402, which is more compact but has a much smaller screen and no ability to record line-in video.
The 404's main attraction is its compactness. It's comfortable in the hand and in most pockets, though it is just a tad too tall to get the ultimate grip on it. The 404's brushed-metal casing is extremely scratch resistant, though the overall design is boxy with sharper corners than, say, the iPod or the Cowon A2.
The Archos 404 has excellent video capabilities with support for MPEG-4 ASP up to 720x480 at 30fps, WMV9 and WM DRM. There's no support out of the box for MPEG-2 or QuickTime files, but in our experience with the 404 and the bigger 604, many DivX files worked flawlessly (Archos will have MPEG-2 and H.264 plug-ins available soon). Video playback control is precise and responsive using the newly designed array of tactile buttons on the right side (lefties are out of luck). Some users will miss the older 402's Game Boy-style controls.
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/page-down keys when browsing and can skip/reverse about 30 seconds when playing content. Like 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. The overall design reminds us of a sophisticated Swedish drum machine with its meticulous buttons and motion-filled on-screen interface. These buttons can be difficult to control blindly or in darkness.
Though no match for the 604's display, the 404's 89mm (3.5-inch) TFT anti-reflective display (320x240 pixels) is durable and scratch resistant and doesn't attract fingerprints (though you can get dust and other stuff lodged between the screen and the bezel). It's an ideal size for a 4:3 screen, as the rest of the body is so small. Next to the 604's 16:9 display, the 404's looks pixellated, and you'll definitely get the screen-door effect watching videos or viewing photos -- the 604's screen is much more smooth and colourful. You'll also get three lines of menu items (slightly more confusing) than the two on the 604. It's still a good display, though.
The 404 plays MP3, WAV and protected WMA files and includes a voice recorder and a variety of audio EQs. The 404 boasts a built-in PDF document reader, a built-in mono speaker and an excellent photo viewer. Surprisingly, there is no FM tuner. We do like the fact that upon connecting to a computer, the 404 gives you the option of UMS (PC hard drive) or MTP (Windows device) modes. Transferring to and from a Mac (drag and drop) and Windows (autosyncing) was clean and quick.
What you won't get from the 404 is a built-in kickstand, a removable battery and the 16:9 widescreen of the 604, which incidentally costs about £80 more. There are many similarities with the other players in the 04 series, including the beautifully revamped and customisable GUI and general overall look and feel. You'll also have to contend with the proprietary USB cable and weak set of bundled accessories (no AC adaptor included, weak case and mediocre earbuds).
For those torn between the 604 and the 404, most people will probably be won over by the nicer screen and removable battery of the 604. The 604 is slightly thicker and 25mm wider but offers so much more. But ultimately, you can't deny the 404's more pocketable and manageable size.
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 £62 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 S/PDIF out.
The other option is the more portable DVR Travel Adapter Kit (£44), which includes a 101mm (4-inch) adaptor that snaps on to the 404's dock connector. It's easy to use and transport, but it lacks the depth of ports on the dock. The AV500 actually shipped with a docking pod, making it record ready out of the box. So you're actually paying a little less (with a smaller screen of course) 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. Recording, however, 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.
If you want to use the 404 as a USB host and you own an AC adaptor (the 404 ships with only a proprietary USB cable), you'll have to stump up for the Docking Adapter Kit (£27).
The 404's revamped photo features do deserve a mention. One method for browsing is the thumbnail mode, where you get 64 thumbnails, which magnify as you pass over them. Slide-show transitions are professional and you can zoom in multiple steps. Like the 604, the 404 is a great photo viewer.
Battery life is rated for 12 hours for audio (subpar) and 4 hours video (good). Archos's latest firmware update supposedly improves audio battery as well as the overall audio quality. We'll verify this claim soon. We had reported that the 604 was noisy at low volumes -- while the 404 definitely sounds better (the 604 has improved as well), there is still the tiniest electrical static. Overall sound quality is very good, though. It's very bright sounding and punchy, which we prefer. The built-in speaker is okay, but not great. We also appreciate the addition of the set of preset and user EQs, but they don't dramatically affect the sound. We have to give props to Archos for adding true gapless playback of audio files.
The unit can pipe video out to a TV via the headphone jack (though you'll need to provide your own cable), and high bit rate video looks very good on a 20-inch screen. Recording video is simple without any headaches (you can record in MPEG-4/ADPCM/AVI at a maximum of 640x480 pixels and 30fps). Scheduling recordings is easy enough, though we'd love a programming system that's more integrated and intelligent (Archos tried this with the PocketDish-branded versions of the AV500) in the same way the Toshiba Gigabeat S can playback Media Center recordings.
Overall, the 404 is an excellent alternative to the current iPod, with its compactness, rich feature set, excellent video performance and, of course, competitive price. The 404 is a PVP in an MP3 player's body. We would recommend spending the extra money for a recording kit, though, as using the 404 as a DVR is what makes this device so attractive.
Additional editing by Kate Macefield