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msnbc.com

What do you get when you cross an MP3 audio player, an MP4 video player and recorder, a photo viewing system, a 3.8-inch color screen and a 20 GB hard drive in one handheld device? Archos calls it the AV320. I call it the hottest item I’ve played with in a long time.

The AV320 is one in a series of portable devices from Archos that just might revolutionize what entertainment you carry with you every day. The first model in the 300 series, the AV320 has a 2.5-inch, 20 GB hard drive inside. The device itself measures 4.4 by 3.2 by 1.2 inches and weighs 12.5 ounces. It’s a lot bigger than an iPod, or your favorite MP3 player, but once you know what’s inside you’ll understand why.

The AV320 has a backlit, 3.8-inch LCD screen, capable of handling 320 by 240 pixels. Inside, Lithium-ion batteries should give you four hours of on-screen video watching or 10 hours of listening to music (with the display turned off) before needing to be recharged by the AC adapter/brick that comes with the device.

Just to give you an idea of what you can do with your AV320: Its 20 GB hard drive is capable of storing up to 40 hours of MP4 (near-DVD quality is they way they describe it) video, 1,000 hours of audio or 200,000 photos. You can watch that stored video on the device itself or connect it to your TV and watch the video on a bigger screen.

It gets better.

The AV320 also comes with an ingenious little attachment that allows you to record TV and DVDs directly onto the device. It’s called the Digital Video Recorder, but because of video copyrights it’s really an analog recording adapter. Connect it to a composite or S-video output from your DVD player, cable box, VCR, etc., and you’re automatically recording a file for playback on the AV320’s screen. You can record small MP4 files of many movies or TV shows, store up to 40 hours of them, and then view them at a later time.

That’s a lot of cool items jam-packed into a $569.95 device. And if you really need more storage space, the AV340 (with a 40 GB hard drive) sells for $629.95.

But the wonders of the AV320 don’t end there:

The device also comes with a remote control that handles all record/playback functions and has a built-in FM radio inside, allowing you to press a button and record an MP3 stream directly from your favorite station.

Archos also plans to sell a 3.3 megapixel camera attachment which should retail for under $200. In addition to taking photos, the attachment turns the AV320 into a videocam system. And that 20GB hard drive gives you hours of recording capability and playback through your TV. Or you could just download the file into your computer for editing.

Easy to use
The AV320 connects to both PCs and Macs (OS 9.2 and X) through a USB 2.0/1.1 port, with an optional FireWire connector available. The firmware inside the device is upgradable from the Archos Web site.

But that might be one of the few times you actually hook it up to your computer; Archos has designed the AV320 to be essentially a standalone device.

Archos has created its own, brand-new operating system to run this little marvel. The OS is icon-driven and looks great. Once you get to know what all the multi-function little buttons on the front can do, you can zoom around and get where you need to go with ease.

You can record MP3s up to 160Kbits/sec and playback MP3s up to 320Kbits/sec. As for video, you can play back MP4 files with MP3 stereo sound at resolutions up to 640 by 368 pixels at 25 frames-per-second. The device also plays AVI files, XviD and DivX 4.0 and 5.0 formats. QuickTime 6 compliance is under development. The built-in photo viewer reads JPEG and BMP files of any size.

The AV320 comes with a set of headphones and has both analog and digital stereo inputs and digital outputs as well as a composite video/earphone/line-out jack. There’s also a built-in microphone.

I’m sure I’m leaving out loads of stuff. You get the idea: The AV320 is an amazing device, one which will only get better in the future. In the few days I’ve had to play with it, the 320 has zoomed to the top of my wish list. Too bad it has to go back.

A cheaper alternative
In the meantime, I’ll play with an AV120, the predecessor to the AV320.

image: AV120
The AV120 is shown with the optional video recording attachment plugged in.
Think of the AV120 as an over-sized, metallic iPod on steroids, with a very small video screen.

The AV120 is a slightly smaller (4.3 by 3.1 by 1.1 inches and 10 ounces) stand-alone recording device with a much smaller (something like 1.5-inch) 237 by 234 pixel screen, a text-only operating system and nearly all the capabilities of its bigger brother. Suggested retail price for an AV120 is $399.95; $469.95 for the AV140 with the larger drive. A 1.1 megapixel camera, the digital recorder module, FM radio/remote control and memory card readers are optional.

Check out these handheld personal entertainment centers before you buy any other MP3 player or portable video device. Be the first on your block to get your hands on one of the hot new devices of the future.

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