Archos has made itself the premier company for portable video players, gradually chipping away at a niche market until its products are now available on the high street. It's now easy to see the appeal of video on the move -- Apple's iPod now has video capability, which will soon make it the most popular portable video player in the world by default.
The AV500 is Archos' answer to this massive threat. Sleeker than its predecessors and with a new high-quality screen, the AV500 is the realisation of Archos' early promise. While the interface could never be described as intuitive and the chassis is prone to scratching, this is a hugely desirable product that is competitively priced and packed with features. If you regularly use DivX video and you're a frequent traveller, then the AV500 is indispensible.
The Archos AV4100 was robust but the screen wasn't a wide format. The AV700 tried to copy Apple's cool white styling, but it scratched easily and was too big for everyday use. The AV500 combines the best parts of the previous models and combines them in a sleek, endlessly desirable package. The brushed metal finish looks great and it feels built to last -- although our obviously pre-used sample had collected some scratches on its travels. The screen is also in a widescreen format and the perfect size at just over 100mm diagonally. The connectivity is excellent on Archos' player. We love the way that it can connect directly up to a digital camera and act as a host, so you can downaload images without having to go through a PC. There's also a standard USB 2.0 connector for linking up to a computer.
Archos has also included the docking station from its previous media players. The player itself doesn't dock in the same great way as the iPod -- instead it sits in the dock's rubbery grips and then a cable plugs into the same slot as the headphones. Cables for video output and input (the latter for recording TV shows) then plug into the dock. So, unlike the iPod, you'll need to carry the dock around with you to use most of the advanced functionality.
The package also includes headphones, although sadly they do not remotely operate the device from the cable. It's also rather annoying that the volume adjustment is placed on the main four-way joypad instead of being a separate wheel. It makes it fiddly to change volume and skip tracks without taking the whole device out of your pocket.
When you connect to a computer running Microsoft Windows, you might want to use Windows Media Player to sync with the device automatically. In the system setup, you tell the machine to act as a Windows Media device as opposed to an external hard drive. This means that when you connect up, Windows Media Player will transfer all of the media on the computer, and if necessary, perform conversion so it will play back. This is the novice's route -- more experienced users can just drag and drop files into the relevant folders.
If you've already got a collection of DivX or XviD video files on your computer, then you're in the best position to enjoy the Archos AV500. We had trouble playing a few files that we'd managed to accumulate over the years, but anything downloaded from the DivX website or encoded in Dr. DivX worked just fine. If you haven't got any DivX files, then you're in more of a pickle -- you'll have to buy the software as it's not included in the box, or start recording video via the AV inputs.
Luckily, the AV500 is an advanced little PVR (personal video recorder). Like high-end DVD recorders, it comes with an infrared sender, which is essential if you're going to leave the device to make scheduled recordings. Tell the Archos the manufacturer of your digibox via a code system and it can send a signal to it to change channels for scheduled recordings. You can also choose from five different recording levels, although the default middle setting was good enough for us.
Music playback is passable for what is primarily a video device. The 30GB hard drive is small by today's standards, but if you're a power user you can spend more and get the 60GB or 100GB versions. This means that if you're using the AV500 primaily for video, you might not fit much music on there. We transferred around 28GB for testing purposes, and while the iPod made short work of navigating such a lot of tunes, the Archos was incredibly lethargic by comparison. Archos has also packed in an audio recorder, which will save any important voice notes onto the hard drive in MP3 format.
Photo display is another nice feature, although the new widescreen display is going to produce black borders on the sides of most camera shots. Depending on the file size, the Archos will load them up within a couple of seconds, and you can even zoom in and rotate images on-the-fly. If you get stuck, you can put the device into hard drive mode, plug it into a computer and get the manual in PDF format from the device itself. We also like the way you can now lock the keypad too.
Video playback on the AV500 is exponentially better than previous models thanks to its high quality screen. Whereas the AV700 produced flickery video with poor detail, the AV500 is better than the iPod on detail and colour, coming a close second to Sony's PSP. DivX and Xvid video files are often highly compressed and susceptible to a lack of detail in backgrounds, but Archos' player copes well. Most of the time it's only noticeable when you look out for it -- the odd patch of wallpaper will morph into one big ball of colour.
Audio performance has never been Archos' strong point, particularly through its in-built speaker. The AV500 has a mono speaker sitting in the centre and while it will go quite loud, vocals become so distorted at the higher levels that it's pointless. Plug in some decent headphones and you'll be able to make out background detail much more effectively. Music is bassy, but not quite as good as it is on the new iPod.
Edited by Michael Parsons
Additional editing by Nick Hide