If Apple's iPod is the nicely tuned Porsche of portable media players and Microsoft's Zune is the Jetta, then a new Wi-Fi-enabled unit from Archos is the Hummer, a brutish performer with all the tools to navigate the rugged terrain of technology needs on the go.
The handheld Archos 604-WiFi ($450) plays a variety of audio and video formats, and networks nicely with the home PC. With an add-on digital-video-recorder docking station ($100 when purchased with the 604-WiFi), the Archos lets you record your favorite TV shows and enjoy them later in the living room or on the road.
I took a loaner Archos unit for a test run, and found it whip-smart. Keeping up with the abilities of the unit is the real challenge.
The player itself has a nice brushed-metal exterior and a hardy 4.3-inch touch-sensitive color screen that was fairly resistant to fingerprints. Weighing in a little over 10 ounces, it was too heavy for a pocket and seemed better suited for the backpack or briefcase for a train ride to and from the office. (Apple's video-playing iPod weighs less than half as much.)
Once connected to the USB port of my desktop computer through a proprietary cable, the gadget was immediately recognized by Windows XP. I was quickly dragging about a dozen albums into the music folder and some videos into the video folder.
The Archos player recognized them all and helped me pass the time on the train ride to work.
It handles lots of popular audio formats (MP3, WMA, WAV and AAC) and some video formats (MPEG-4, WMV, and H.264). It also has a 30-gigabyte hard drive on board, which is plenty unless you need the entire season of "Lost" in your briefcase.
Like all media players not built by Apple Computer Inc., the Archos does not play songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store. Archos does, however, play purchased content from services that use Microsoft Corp.'s copy-protection system. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
A stylus tucked away in the carrying case allowed me to navigate the touch screen, though I preferred to use the buttons on the right front side of the device.
When used with the docking station, the Archos turned into a DVR. The dock boasts component and S-video inputs and outputs, and I connected it between my DirecTV satellite box and a trusty Toshiba TV. I tried my hand at manually setting it to record a Rachel Ray cooking show (guilty as charged) and a few minutes of a college football game.
The playback quality through the TV was great. When I watched it on the handheld during a train ride, it was easily the best video quality I've ever held in the palm of my hand.
I was a bit flustered to learn that the only TV programming guide that synchs automatically with the unit comes from DISH Network. There's no native support for the DirecTV guide, or TV Guide's Web site, for example.
So, I could manually set the start and stop times for recordings, but I couldn't browse the TV schedule on the unit and select my shows to record from there. That's a dud.
I also never found a really good use for the highly touted Wi-Fi feature. I could have spent some time streaming music, video and photos from a shared folder on my desktop through the unit and onto my television. But that's not what I wanted the docking station to do for me, and I doubt others will either. Music out of my TV speakers is a bit of a nonstarter and any home movies on my hard drive worth watching on the big screen have already been burned to DVD.
Being able to take television recordings on the road is where the Archos excels. The advertised battery life of up to 5 hours for video held up well. I watched a full college football game and a full-length movie recorded to the unit's hard drive without having to recharge. I never ran the unit dead listening to music.
Speaking of music, Archos still takes a back seat to Microsoft's Zune when it comes to music sharing. Two Archos Wi-Fi users can't quickly share their favorite tunes with each other, but the jury is still out on the usefulness of Zune's limited sharing capability anyway.
One downside of the unit is the wireless remote for controlling the unit while it's in the docking station. It is small, thin, flimsy and without enough buttons to get around the on-screen interface very well. Asking consumers to use that remote to burrow through their home Wi-Fi network and into their PC just to watch home movies is too much work and not enough reward.
If Archos shores up the channel guide feature and beefs up the remote, it's got a real winner. As it is now, it's an impressive performer that has some room for improvement in future versions.