The Archos 70b eReader cuts a line somewhere between an ebook reader and a tablet. Archos have released a number of Android devices in recent years and this latest addition offers up a 7-inch resistive display and a couple of features specifically with reading in mind.
Like many recent devices from Archos, the build is rather basic. Pitched at the affordable end of the market this is acceptable to a degree, but in the hand the Archos 70b is far from premium. The plastics used to make up the body seem to offer little rigidity, creaking when held, a far cry from the finish of Sony’s Readers or the Amazon Kindle. It is slim, however, measuring 190 x 130 x 11.2mm.
Sitting centrally is the 7-inch 800 x 480, giving you a 5:3 aspect ratio. It’s large and not uncommon on tablets and mobile phones (it’s pretty much the defacto resolution for all high-end Android smartphones). It does look a little tall meaning that you don’t get as many words across the page when reading in portrait as you do on some other devices with a 4:3 page.
Flanking the screen are two page turning controls so you can shift through pages in the default reading application, but they aren’t supported by other apps you might install, including the pre-loaded Aldiko reader app. Across the bottom of the eReader you’ll find the standby button, Mini-USB for syncing, a 3.5mm headphone jack and an SD card slot (up to 32GB), which will let you expand the 4GB internal memory.
The mainstay of controls are via the banner at the top of the screen. This gives you Home, volume, back and menu on-screen buttons. The response is a little flaky, needing a firm press and it does throw up some awkward moments. Changing volume is unnecessarily fiddly and a simple hardware rocker on the side would have made much more sense.
Around the back are a pair of speakers, because besides the ebook reader functions, the Archos 70b also wants to be your music and video buddy and we’d expect nothing less from Archos - that’s their heritage after all. Power the eReader on and you are greeted by Android 2.1, but this isn’t a Google certified device, so it won’t come with all the normal offerings to support your Google accounts and services.
In fact the Android interface has been adapted to suit its role. There is only one homescreen and this has a collection of shortcuts and a couple of widgets on it. There is no option to customise the interface either, but accepting that this is reader first, that’s not as big a problem as it might first sound. The app shortcuts you get are for video, music, photo and the browser; the two widgets offer up your reading history and “My Library” so you can flip through and open books on the device.
Selecting a book from either of these widgets will open it up in the default reader application. This is the only way into this application as it doesn’t appear in the menu, nor in any of the application management options. It is only this application which works with the two page turning buttons, so if you’d rather use Aldiko or OverDrive Media Console, you’ll be turning the pages by touching the screen instead.
But the default reader app is ok and gives you the basic functions you’d expect. Page turning is animated and fast enough to respond. Opening up the menu offers you direct control over font size (as well as on-screen zoom controls when reading), you can jump directly to a page, manage bookmarks, and usefully view the table of contents in a pop-up window (rather than having to exit the book).
Any EPUB files you transfer to your Archos 70b will find their way into My Library for easy access. We found it also supported PDF files too, but won’t reflow the text as you zoom in and out, unlike EPUB. One of the tricks that the Archos 70b eReader has up its sleeve is Adobe certification. This is a significant feature as it means you can authorise the Archos 70b to access your DRM protected EPUB files. You simply hook it up to your PC or Mac and authorise the device through Adobe Digital Editions and you’re free to enjoy any content you may have purchased.
The device doesn’t support library lending from the off (like the Sony Readers do), but a quick download of OverDrive Media Console meant we could sign-in to our local council library and borrow ebooks from them. Stock variety is something of a concern, so we found ourselves with a Mills & Boon title, but at least the anonymity of borrowing online means you don’t have to face the embarrassment of the Librarian raising an eyebrow when you present your book of choice. It’s free premium content and that’s the point, so long as you are a library member and your library supports the service. OverDrive, as a third party service, manages its own content, so you won’t find these titles added to “My Library”.
The Archos 70b eReader has a backlit colour screen, so the reading experience isn’t as pleasant as it is from readers offering an E-Ink display. If your primary use is to read books, then that’s an avenue worth exploring as we much prefer the long battery life and low eye strain of using an E-Ink device, but for some, the appeal of being able to read in the dark and have a number of supporting multimedia functions will outweigh this drawback.
A word of caution however. As screens go, the Archos 70b isn’t especially good. There are any number of capacitive tablets which will give you a clearer rendition of text (and many more functions besides) and our sample had a couple of dead pixels just to rub salt in the wound. Seen as a cheap ebook reader that does a little bit more and it fares ok, seen as a cheap tablet you'll might find it a little too restrictive when you want to do anything beyond the core functions.
Amongst those other core functions is web browsing. This is something creeping into a number of ebook readers, albeit in a rudimentary fashion when dealing with E-Ink devices. Here you get the stock Android browser, so it isn’t too bad. Browsing on Wi-Fi will render your pages relatively quickly, even if text entry and navigation is a little clunky because of the response of the screen. Scrolling the screen can be a problem and you'll struggle to get any sort of speed out of the keyboard: finding a stylus might enhance the experience for you.
Both photos and music work as we’d expect them, and you can listen to your tunes whilst reading a book. Video support is better than we expected, with the Archos 70b supporting a range of file formats, DivX not included. It had a go at playing a 720p MPEG4, but struggled to keep the frame rate up. If you are thinking of using the Archos 70b to watch video on your travels it’s worth transcoding to a more acceptable size and format. You won’t get anything near the sort of impressive visuals you’d get from the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, but it does at least give you options.
As a non-certified Android device you don’t get access to the Android Market. Instead you can access Archos’ AppsLib service which will throw-up a range of apps. This does provide the potential to expand the remit of the device to some degree, but it isn’t anywhere near as exciting as the certified Android store. If you don't expect too much, then you won't be disappointed, although there will be those that choose to mod the Archos 70b to expand its remit as an Android tablet.
Naturally battery life is going to be something of an issue. It certainly won’t match the 3 weeks you’d get from an E-Ink device; internet browsing is cited at 8 hours, we’ve found that reading has given us longer.
It’s easy to misinterpret the Archos 70b eReader. Take it as a tablet, and it’s limited, it’s poor quality and it isn’t exciting. Stick to the reader remit and it shows a little more promise. Of course, the reading experience isn’t as good as it is on an E-Ink device, but you certainly get more options. It is more expensive than the Amazon Kindle, and it won’t compare to the simplicity of buying directly through the device that the Kindle offers, but once you’re bored of reading, you can still watch a movie.
It doesn’t compare to the experience of many more expensive tablets either, but then it isn’t trying too and at a price of £120, it isn’t too pricey. Many of the latest tablets - be they the iPad or something from the Android fraternity - will offer you a clearer, sharper, more responsive screen and a wider range of functions. The Archos won’t offer you the Amazon Kindle app either, which both Google-certified Android and the Apple iPad will, if that’s important to you. But you do get Adobe authentication, opening the door to your DRM’d EPUB books.
Many Android devices claim to be ebook readers simply because they can display text, but make little or no provision to support protected files, the ones you are clamouring to read. At least Archos has gone a step further to add a little more substance to the name.
The build and materials leave a lot to be desired and the screen isn’t the greatest by a long shot. But the Archos 70b sort of succeeds in being a jack of all trades: it masters none, but we can see that its skill set will appeal to some at this price.