Archos's 04 series includes a model for everyone. The midrange 504 may not be the thinnest gadget around (it has a 2.5-inch drive inside), but it can store a huge amount of data. Available in 40GB (£195), 80GB (£329) and an amazing 160GB (£395) capacities, the 504 fills in the storage void left by the 404, the 404 Camcorder, the 604 and the 604 Wi-Fi, which all max out at 30GB. Measurable bulk and pricey 160GB version aside, the do-it-all 504 is an impressive AV performer.
At 130mm by 76mm by 23mm and 315g, you're definitely sacrificing the sleekness found in the 13mm-thick and 264g 604 series (read the 604 review). This gadget fits better in a bag than in a pocket (though it's only a tad larger than the Cowon A2). Otherwise, the physical design and GUI are the same as for the 604. You still get a removable battery that lasts longer than the 604's, a built-in mono speaker and a dazzling 109mm (4.3-inch) display. Notably, though, there is no built-in kickstand, a must-have feature if you're into hands-free viewing.
The 504's brushed-metal casing is extremely scratch resistant, and even its gorgeous 109mm (4.3-inch), 480x272-pixel/16-million-colour widescreen can withstand some punishment (though it does attract fingerprints). Like the AV500 series before it, 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 unlabelled buttons of varying sizes (think Tetris), the 504's buttons are uniform and marked. We didn't mind the AV500's controls, but the 504's are 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. 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 excellent Cowon A2 can be slightly more difficult to use, though the 504 is very difficult to operate smoothly when you're in the dark. Backlit buttons would have been useful.
Speaking of the GUI, it's been revamped, with slick animated icons and a more modern feel. Backgrounds as well as text and accent colours are customisable, 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 on to 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 504 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 504 shines. According to the specs, it's compatible with MPEG-4 ASP up to 720x480 pixels 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. Many of our DivX files played without a hitch, though. You can also download plug-ins that will let you play H.264 and MPEG-2 files -- there's mention of AAC and AC3 support, too.
Though it doesn't cover the same ground as the Cowon, the 504 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 504's screen is amazing, and video controls are quite responsive.
Recording video and audio is a breeze, and the results are worth your while. As long as you have the recoding adaptor, you can record (MPEG-4/AVI with maximum 640x480 pixels at 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.
The 504 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 504's audio features. We were disappointed with the quality of the newly added EQs.
We do like the fact that upon connecting to a computer, the 504 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) was clean and quick.
The 504's photo features are neat. One method for browsing is the thumbnail mode, where you get 54 thumbnails that magnify as you pass over them. Slide-show transitions are professional, and you can zoom in multiple steps. We think it's a great photo viewer.
Part of the reason the 40GB 504 comes in at £195 (slightly cheaper than the 30GB 604) is the 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 £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 (£42), which includes a 102mm (4-inch) adaptor that snaps onto the 504's dock connector. It's easy to use and transport, but it lacks the depth of ports on the dock. 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 504 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 adaptor as you are expected to power via USB. If you want AC power, you'll need to spring for the £27 Docking Adapter Kit, which includes an adaptor that allows you to transfer photos to the 504 from digital cameras.
Sound quality is decent at higher volumes (bright highs, average low end, punchy mids). It seems that Archos has fixed an audio playback flaw (hissy, crackly sound at low volumes) found in early 604s. Archos even added gapless playback of music files (before Apple).
Widescreen AVI movies (at 720x480 pixels) looked amazing -- movies certainly can be watchable at this size. Video piped out to a TV looks good (depending on your original file), though the presence of compression artefacts leads us to believe that the docking station with its fancy outputs might be overkill. We do love seeing the crisp Archos interface on our televisions.
Processor speed is responsive -- especially scanning through video, though there are some light pauses in the menu. Photos and videos load quickly. Battery life is impressive with the rated 17 hours for audio and 5.5 hours for video -- we'll update with our official battery-life results when they come in. The removable battery makes a huge difference. Unlike in the 604, the 504's battery takes up the entire backside. When the battery is removed, you get clear access to the Hitachi 2.5-inch drive inside.
Overall, the 504 is an awesome portable for those who don't mind lugging around a gadget that's just a fraction too big and heavy to replace an MP3 player. In return for the bulk (and lack of a kickstand), the 504 offers big drive sizes, better rated battery life than the similar 604 series and the same awesome AV performance we've now come to expect from Archos.
Additional editing by Kate Macefield