The personal video player (PVP) has come of age. The Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420 builds on the superlative foundation established by the Archos AV320, itself a CNET Editors' Choice winner. The AV420 has added desirable new features, lost some weight, and learned to work like a VCR and a rudimentary TiVo. It also plays MP3 and WMA files like a champ, records live and analogue audio, stores data, and serves as a photo viewer/storage unit for cameras with CompactFlash cards. Plus, you can watch two full-length movies before the battery breaks into a sweat. However, getting video into the unit remains tricky since most files must be converted before you can view them, and setting up timed TV recordings can be a hassle. But for frequent fliers, mass-transit commuters, and anyone else who wants multimedia to go, the AV420 is a dream come true.
Although it's a hair longer than the AV320, the Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420 is thinner and lighter. It weighs 278g and measures 127 by 79 by 20mm, meaning you can just about get away with slipping it in your pocket. Thankfully, Archos has supplied a carrying case this time.
The AV420 has improved controls as well, including a four-way navigation pad (replacing the AV320's flawed joystick) and three navigation buttons that correspond to onscreen menu selections. There's also a built-in speaker -- a feature the AV320 lacked. Although it's one-third thinner than the AV320, the AV420 manages to squeeze in a CompactFlash slot. An optional adaptor adds room for Memory Stick, MMC, Secure Digital, and SmartMedia cards.
Thanks to its new controls, its spacious colour screen, and its icon-driven interface, the AV420 is a piece of cake to operate. We particularly like the thumbnail previews that quickly appear as you scroll down your lists of photos and videos. The screen is outstanding: a vibrant 89mm (3.5-inch LCD) that looks sharper than its 320 x 240-pixel resolution suggests.
In previous models, switching video output between the LCD and an external TV required a prolonged press of an unmarked button or deep drilling into the menu system. Here, you simply press a large, clearly labelled button. It seems like a minor change, but it is actually a huge time-saver.
Our favourite new feature is the cradle, which not only gives the AV420 a place to sit upright but also manages its home-theatre connections. It aggregates all the A/V cables (and there are many), meaning you can plug everything into your VCR or cable/satellite box and never have to mess about with connections again.
The cradle has composite A/V-in and A/V-out cables and an S-Video-in cable, so it's compatible most video sources. There's also an IR blaster that must be attached to your VCR or your set-top box if you want to use the AV420 for scheduled recordings.
You have to plug one cradle cable into the AV420 itself, but it serves a dual purpose: it charges the battery and enables full control of the unit via the remote control. The travel-friendly AC adaptor plugs into the cradle or directly into the AV420. Unlike the AV320, the AV420 has a removable battery, so you can pack a spare or two and not have to worry about the AC adaptor at all.
Unfortunately, the AV420 lacks an integrated stand for upright, hands-free viewing, a feature found in competitors, such as the GoVideo PVP4040 and the RCA Lyra RD2780. Given its nest of attached cables, the cradle (which acts as a stand) is not suitable for travel.
File transfers can be made through a USB 2.0 connection, which goes straight into the AV420 -- no cradle is required.
Where PVPs are concerned, size does matter -- hard drive size, that is. Although the Archos Pocket Video Recorder AV420's 20GB drive can store hours and hours of video, audio, photos, and personal data, you'll inevitably find yourself running low on space. Archos has an 80GB model (the AV480) in the works, although it will be more pricey. For the record, the AV480 is a bit thicker than the AV420 but also has a slightly larger screen.
The good news is that movies don't consume as much space as you might think. The AV420 records video in the highly compressed MPEG-4 format, which translates to roughly 1.2GB per hour at the highest available bit-rate setting of 2,500Kbps. Even if your music collection consumes 10GB, you'll still have room for a couple of movies and a few episodes of Third Watch.
Like the AV320, the AV420 can record video from most analogue sources, including a VCR or a cable or satellite box. Even copy-protected material is fair game, though playback is limited to the AV420's LCD. You can start and stop recordings manually, specify a recording length (helpful if you want to edit ad breaks), or set the AV420 to record certain channels at certain times.
Though it is marketed as one of the first portable DVRs, the AV420 is more akin to a pocket VCR. There's no built-in programme guide so you have to know exactly what date, time, and channel to record -- like a VCR. However, there's a more automated (and tedious) option. You sign up for a free Yahoo account, add shows from Yahoo's online TV guide to your personal calendar, save the calendar as an HTML file, then copy it to the AV420. It's a hassle, but nevertheless it's easier than scheduling recordings on the device itself. Whatever method you choose, it's a fairly simple matter to set up nightly recordings to watch during your morning commute. For the moment, no other PVP can do that. Still, because of these limitations, the AV420 won't be usurping TiVo's throne in the living room for a while.
The AV420 is a fantastic audio player, taking full advantage of its screen to display track information and, when available, album art. Assuming your music files have accurate ID3 tags, you can browse by artist, album, track title, genre, or year. You can also create and manage playlists on the device. However, when we copied a playlist from Musicmatch, the songs were transferred, but the playlist itself was not.
The AV420 is one of a few PVPs that lets you set bookmarks. There's also a resume option in the main menu that works independently; selecting it automatically returns you to where you left off, which is great if you forget to set a bookmark.
Archos supplies Musicmatch Jukebox 8.1 Basic for managing music collections and the freeware utility VirtualDub for converting AVI and MPEG files to an AV420-compatible format. The typical MPEG file downloaded from the Internet (or one created by the user) will not play back on the AV420, given its resolution constraints. Converting, or transcoding, your video files is an easy process with VirtualDub. However, the utility won't work without a DivX codec and, for certain files, an MP3 encoder. It's up to you to find, download, and install both -- Archos doesn't include them. Although all this is well documented in the AV420 manual, we don't think users should have to search the Web for required software components.
What's more, in order for the player to work with either Musicmatch Jukebox or Windows Media Player, you must first install a driver. Unfortunately, this fact isn't mentioned anywhere in the AV420's PDF manual, which is otherwise excellent.
The Archos takes just a few seconds to boot up, and it's equally speedy at opening large movie files. The AV420's processor did lag a bit when generating thumbnails for large video and photo files, but that's a small price to pay for the convenient previews.
We were also impressed by how quickly VirtualDub was able to convert our video files to a playable MPEG-4 format. The time taken will vary depending on the size of the source file, the speed of your PC, and so on, but in our informal tests, it usually took no more than 15 to 20 minutes to convert a full-length film.
Without exception, everything we copied, converted, and recorded looked fantastic on the AV420's LCD. However, the few TV programmes we recorded looked a bit grainy when played back on a TV, even those captured at the highest quality.
For a PVP in this price range, we expected better than the cheap, plastic earbuds Archos provides. As for the AV420's built-in speaker, no one will mistake it for a Klipsch ProMedia model, but it's good enough for kids in the backseat to watch a film together without headphones.
Or even two films -- the AV420 has the best battery life of any hard drive-based PVP we've tested. It played video for 5.1 hours and audio for 13.8 hours. That's enough in-flight entertainment to carry you across the US -- and it sets the bar awfully high for competing portable video players.
Edited by James Kim
Additional editing by Tom Espiner