Archos 5 Internet Tablet

Archos brings Android into the fold with the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. Archos very much pitch their device against the iPod touch, which has enjoyed great successes. It is perhaps a comparison that does the Archos 5 Internet Tablet few favours. Yes, the Archos out-strips the iPod touch in terms of dimensions and it is unquestionably a better video player, but it doesn't enjoy the support of a full development community supporting the iPhone.

Archos blinked whilst they were working on the current model and the iPod touch went away and became a popular gaming platform adding a dimension that Android on the Archos 5 doesn't really address. But does Android bring anything to the popular line of media players?

Out of the box the Archos 5 Internet Tablet is an impressive piece of hardware. It has been designed to be slim and sexy and it is certainly good to look at. Overall the Archos 5 Internet Tablet (32GB) measures 143.2 x 78.8 x 10.4mm and weighs 182g, so it is skinny and hasn't wasted too much space around the screen. It is prone to fingerprints, however, thanks to the universally glossy finish, but the kickstand will make the Archos 5 stand at a comfortable angle for watching video on any flat surface you can find.

The front features a 4.8-inch resistive touchscreen display, with a cracking 800 x 480 resolution. The resistive screen isn't the let down here that it could have been, as in general operation the response is good enough for media control.

The same isn't exactly true of the overall performance, which at times seems unnecessarily slow, taking longer than expected to launch applications and often bringing in a change in aspect with it, before then reverting back again. There is plenty of processing power on offer thanks to the ARM Cortex A8 processor clocked at 600MHz, so this comes down to the software on the device.

There have already been firmware updates to improve performance and during the period we had the device we noticed a significant improvement in the handling of video. Prior to the update the Archos 5 had been heading straight towards the lower scores, but subsequently it has improved its game.

The body of the device is relatively free from controls, offering up a slightly too small volume rocker and a power button on the top. The bottom of the Archos 5 sees the connections to hook-up to Archos' range of docks, as well as a microSD card slot to expand the memory or easily add content. The left-hand side of the device sees a Micro-USB connection and 3.5mm headphone jack.

The power button isn't the best design, offering a press to sleep option, or a long press to open the menu to shutdown, toggle the on-screen button controls or engage "airplane" mode. The sleep is perhaps a little indistinct, often taking too long to wake again, leaving you scratching your head and wondering what it is doing.

The Archos 5 runs on Android 1.5 but that isn't quite the magic bullet you might want it to be. Whilst in theory this gives you access to the Android development community, you don't get the Android Marketplace, instead offered Archos' own AppLib. This means that you are offered applications that are designed for the device, but if you are thinking you'll be able to load it up with all your favourite phone apps, you are in for a rude surprise, as the offering is rather sparse at the time of writing this review and not very exciting.

AppLib itself (the application software) has recently been updated, improving the performance of the application and making it much faster to respond and tidying up some niggling points that degraded the experience previously. There are still niggles, for example sometimes the keyboard won't close, so you can't see much of the content behind, or vice-versa, the keyboard won't open, so you are left tapping until it decides to play. It is still rather slow to populate content too, but a marked improvement over the previous iteration.

As is often the case with Android devices, the Archos 5 offers you three homescreens which slide from side-to-side, giving you space to customise, drop in widgets, shortcuts or bookmarks. The choice of widgets offered by Archos is limited, offering up a music controller and a media launcher, as well as the normal Google search and clock.

The usual Android menu gives you access to all the application icons, which a top drag-down notification area also offers up a menu and back button on-screen in lieu of a hard button equivalent as you'd find on most phones. 

The Archos launcher forms a neat entry point to your media, offering to feed you content from inside the device or on a network. The Archos 5 had no problem finding our Cisco Media Hub and navigating content, streaming video over the network. Navigation can be a little slow, but we found that playback of 720p HD content over the network worked, which is impressive, although did sometime see a drop in frame rate.

The real star here is the screen, however, and the likelihood is that you'll be using the internal memory to playback your content from. The crisp definition really lends itself to playing back video and our test videos looked fantastic. Archos lead you down the path to registration to unlock some features of the device (like H.264 playback), which is an irritant right from the off. Format support is reasonable (covering WMV, MPEG4, MKV), and for the majority of MPEG4 H.264 we had no problems at all. However, Archos want to charge you £12 for another package of codecs to cover OGG, MPEG2, WMV HD, and additional downloads are needed for AC3 audio, all of which should be included out of the box and ready to use.

Our test videos looked glorious given the space on offer on the screen. The Archos 5 Internet Tablet is a serious contender for loading with content to take on your travels, thanks to the 32GB of onboard storage on the model we tested, although the gloss screen is prone to reflections.

As a music player it is less appealing due to it’s sheer size, but you can at least listen to music whist doing anything else, such as browsing the Internet. You can easily return to the music player through the notification area within a couple of presses. The audio quality is impressive too, although the bundled headphones are easily bettered with some of your own.

The Android browser is better than you'd expect from your average media player. Webpages are rendered quickly and you get the full rich internet experience here, including Flash video. Flash video is loaded in a separate application for playback rather than in location in the browser. It isn't foolproof, with some video sites still prompting us for an update, but it runs smoothly enough once video is playing, with no sign of the stuttery performance we saw recently from the Nokia N900.

The resistive touchscreen however does mean that there is no multi-touch support, so browser zooming isn't as slick as it could be and despite the size on offer, we didn't like browsing as much as we do on the iPhone or the HTC Hero, with their capacitive displays.

And then you get to the add-ons. Archos push the Archos 5 Internet Tablet as a master of all trades, giving you one device that will be your PVR, an HD player for your TV or a GPS for the car. These additional functions all come at a cost. This is the caveat with Archos: you only get so much out of the box, the rest requires an add-on accessory or an extra at a cost.

Powering that screen also takes its toll on the battery, which seems to go flat given half the chance. We found it would only give us around 5 hours of use.  

Verdict

Overall the Archos 5 is a great device for video playback. The screen is nice and bright and the video performance is very good. We especially like that it handles 720p content without issue, even if you'll have to fork out for the HDMI mini dock to then enjoy this content on your TV at full resolution.

The move to Android doesn't excite us though. The familiar interface really misses access to the Android Marketplace and all the Google Apps which we are used to. Instead you are left to contend to the slightly limp AppLib and the somewhat lonely Google-free existence that the Archos 5 offers.

The Archos 5's strong point is media playback and the Internet Tablet side of things don't fall into place as much as you might want them too, with the iPod touch offering a better online experience and greater freedom and diversity.