The Archos 704 Wi-Fi is the love child of a portable media player and a PDA. As you would expect, it can playback movies, pump out music and show digital snaps, but like a PDA it has a touchscreen, support for Wi-Fi and a built-in Web browser.
That may sound like a pretty quirky line-up of features, but for the most part, Archos has managed to meld them all together into an impressive portable device, which is available in 40GB and 80GB versions. We reviewed the 40GB version, which is around £280 online.
The sheer size of the 704 means it's likely to act as a replacement for a portable DVD player rather than something like the video iPod. It has roughly the same footprint as a DVD case, but is about one and a half times as thick. Weighing in at 630g it's also quite heavy, but the case feels sturdy and the brushed-aluminium finish gives it an expensive look.
The large 7-inch touchscreen obviously makes it ideal for watching movies on planes, trains and automobiles, and also means that Archos has been able to dispose of many of the hardware controls you might expect on this type of player. Instead, the case is adorned with just three buttons. One is for power, the other switches from LCD to TV output and the third is used as a release button for the removable battery.
Having a removable battery is definitely a good idea on a player like this, as it's likely to be used by those who are away from a power socket for long periods of time. An extra battery can be purchased from the Archos site for €50 (£34).
The 40GB hard drive on our test model is enough to store around 50 movies, 400,000 photos or 20,000 songs. A pretty wide range of formats is supported, including MPEG-4, WMV, MP3, WMA, JPEG and BMP.
To get the unit to play some other formats, however, such as MPEG-2 and H.264 video as well as AAC and AC3 audio, you have to buy downloadable plug-ins for €20 (£13.70) from the Archos site. This is annoying on a player that is already quite expensive. Also, subtitles currently aren't supported at all, which will not please the chin-stroking fans of European art-house cinema.
Almost all the features of the device are controlled via the touchscreen. Archos has improved the menu system on all its Series 4 players, of which this is one, but usability is still a long way off that of the iPod. Also, while the touchscreen works great with the stylus, it doesn't respond that well to finger presses -- often you have to use your nail rather than the tip of your finger to get it to register a button press.
The 704 can be used as a video recorder, but to get access to these features you have to shell out an extra €100 (£69) for the docking station. It has composite and S-Video inputs so you can record from a digital set-top box or a DVD player. It comes with its own remote control and also includes an IR blaster, which allows the player to automatically change channel on a set-top box when making timed recordings.
Video playback is very smooth and the 704 responds speedily when fast-forwarding or rewinding during a film. The screen has an impressive resolution of 800x480 pixels, so movies looks bright and detailed. The display's matte finish, however, means that it doesn't look quite as razor sharp or as vibrant as some of the glossy screens we've seen on rivals such as the Creative Zen Vision W.
On the sonic side, the built-in speakers are relatively loud considering their small size, and audio from the headphone output is also crisp and clean. To get the best out of it, though, you will need to replace the tinny sounding headphones.
Those who do purchase the add-on recording dock will find the video recording quality to be the best of any portable player on the market. Frame rates are smooth and you'll see very few compression artefacts. The player's battery life is also pretty good. You get 16 hours of music playback, 5 hours of video and 5 hours of Web browsing.
Surfing the Web with the 704 via Wi-Fi is a mixed experience. On the one hand the screen has a high enough resolution to accurately render most pages, but using the virtual keyboard to enter an address can be clumsy. Also, the browser doesn't support Flash or Java, so you can't access some popular sites such as YouTube.
The Wi-Fi support does have other benefits though. If you have a network at home you can stream files from your PC directly to the 704, or alternatively you can turn on the file server function on the Archos and share its files across your network.
The 704's bulk means it won't appeal to everyone, as it's too large to be used as a day-to-day media player, but for those who often travel by plane or train, the sheer size of the display will be a major boon.
The machine also packs in some seriously impressive Wi-Fi features and its video and audio playback quality can't be faulted. It could do with some software updates, however, to enable Flash and Java support in the browser, and subtitles for movie playback. We'd like to see these features added before we would wholeheartedly recommend it.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield