Electronic Design

Consumer Electronics Series: Archos 7 Mobile Video Player

The Archos 7 (Fig. 1) was on my “Best of 2008” list for consumer products. I selected it in part for its potential, but we will have to see how The Archos 7 fares in 2009. It has a slick hardware design, but there are some things—like the lack of a built-in USB connector—that I would like to have seen. Also, there are only two buttons on the system, a power-on and volume control, which lends to its clean, sleek look.

The Archos 7 comes in 160 Gbytes and 320 Gbytes versions. It is base on a 600-MHz ARM Cortex-A8 that can drive the 800 x 480 color LCD touchscreen as well as 720p HDMI output if you have the DVR add-on. The built-in speakers are on either side of the screen with a headphone connection on the left side.

The screen is great for watching movies. It is also large enough to function as a reasonable Web browsing and e-mail platform. Both applications are included with the bundled software.

Communication is handled via USB or the built-in 802.11b/g wireless link. The USB connection is a bit odd, as there are two custom connectors on the bottom of the unit. An adapter is included, which plugs into these connectors with a USB client connection on the other end. This means the unit can be plugged into a PC and used as a device. The link can be used to recharge the Archos 7 but it takes about 8 hours. The optional DVR add-on has a host USB connection allowing connections to USB flash drives or hard drives but there is no similar adapter cord.

From the USB view, I like the functionality of the Archos 7. I dislike the implementation, though. The use of non-standard connectors was not a great idea. It means you need to drag around extra hardware for communication. Thankfully there’s wireless support.

The system runs Linux, but it is beyond the average user’s grasp. Likewise, adding applications is a specialized process, so dropping in your favorite Linux tool is not allowed.

The battery is almost a quarter of the system. It is easy to replace, but Archos will be the only source for replacements or extras. Airlines are removing the power outlet support from their aircrafts, so an extra battery may be required for those long distance flights.

Using The Archos 7
The system’s finger-pointing interface takes advantage of the touchscreen, so fingerprints on the screen will be common. It would have been nice to include a cleaning cloth or felt case.

The system starts with a simple menu interface with buttons about a few square centimeters in size. They are easy to hit with a finger, hence the lack of a stylus. It is possible to implement software add-ons, but I was not able to figure out how to add shortcuts from the main screen. This is handy because the typical user has only a handful of standard uses like Web browsing, e-mail, and movie viewing. The power on cycle is fast and most actions are only a couple selections away, but the lack of customization will likely be the most frustrating aspect of the system once you get used to it.

The top level menu provides access to media stored on the hard drive, TV/DVR support if you have the associated hardware, Internet access and Media Club access (Fig. 2). The latter is what Archos would like you to use since, for a price, you can rent or purchase movies, songs and games for downloading and playback via the Archos 7. I didn’t try buying any movies but they have a range of selections. It assumes a wireless connection is available. The system uses a browser interface so it is similar to browsing the Web.

Opera provides the Web browser. The main interface uses the large buttons common to the menuing system, but web pages are another story. Zooming is possible, but not as easy as systems such as the Apple iPhone. Explicit URL entry uses the built-in keyboard that takes up half the screen. It flashes keys when pressed and is relatively easy to use although it is more of a single handed operation. Touch typing is not practical as is the case with most touchscreen interfaces.

The e-mail and contact database will work with POP3 and IMAP servers. Exchange support is supposed to be on the way. There are predefined configurations for Yahoo and Gmail. E-mail is quite usable including attachment support but typing long responses will be limited by the on-screen keyboard.

HTML, Flash, and PDF files are supported in addition to a range of audio and video file formats. There are some pay-to-play codecs but the closed nature of the system may prevent use of some files in your library.

File management uses a dual column source/destination interface that makes copying easy. It can access network file servers, but I had a little trouble with Samba-based servers. The media access interface adds support for DLNA (Digital Living Network Association) servers but did not seem any way to copy from a DLNA server to the local hard drive. Luckily, most DLNA servers also have a file server interface.

For those that do not know, DLNA servers are designed to provide access to multimedia content. Most new NAS (network attached storage) devices support DLNA.

The one downer: no portrait mode support. This is not an issue with movie viewing but when it comes to reading, the wide screen is actually a limiting factor.

DVR Station
The DVR Station is an add-on the acts as a docking station. It has audio and video inputs and outputs. Most are paired but the HDMI support is output only. The system can drive the HDMI link at 720p.

Dropping the Archos 7 into the station provides access to the extra interfaces including the power supply, so it will charge the unit. There is also a USB connection on the side, allowing the Archos 7 to act as a USB host for devices such as flash drives. The connection is a bit different with a mini-USB and normal USB connection. The trick is a spring loaded sliding door that covers one or the other. It is not the easiest thing to work with.

The add-on comes additional software that is downloaded from the Archos Web site. This provides access to TV schedules. The big problem is that the unit does not have its own TV tuner. This means the tuner is external and must be tuned manually. Recording can be scheduled but as a DVR it falls a bit short. View this more as a video capture system with a nice video output.

Closing Comments
The Archos 7 works well within its design confines. If you want a multimedia player with a great screen with links to downloadable movies, games, and add-ons then take a close look at this platform.

It is a great hardware platform that has a lot of potential if Archos decides to open it up. This lack of openness as well as its inability to be used in portrait mode keeps it from replacing the Samsung Q1B that I continue to use on a regular basis.

Archos
www.archos.com

TAGS: Mobile
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