Review: Archos 604 Portable Multimedia Player

They promised us a review unit a good two months ago, it has taken quite a long time for the electronics maker to finally get it out to us. Let me tell you, though, I couldn’t be more pleased when I cracked open the box. Archos is known for being a leader in the portable media player market, and one of their latest offerings — the Archos 604 — is no exception. Being accompanied to the market by the 404, 504, and 604 WiFi, the Archos 604 is a widescreen dream of sorts, boasting an ample-sized 4.3-inch color display, support for a wide range of picture, music, and video files.

What’s in the Box?

Unlike the RCA Lyra X3030 which I reviewed last week, the Archos 604 doesn’t come with very much in the box.

As you can see in the video below, the PVR station is a separate, optional accessory. It costs $100 above and beyond the $350 asking price for the 604 handheld video player itself. Moreover, if you want to be able to charge your 604 through a regular wall outlet, you won’t be able to do it out of the box. There is no AC/DC adapter. Rather, all the charging must be done with the provided USB 2.0 cable (which you will also use to upload and download your multimedia content), unless you snag the PVR station dock (which does come with a DC adapter).

First Impressions

I’m impressed with the build quality. Just like the not-so-powerful Archos 104 DAP I reviewed several months ago, the 604 is quite solid in your hands. The brushed aluminum finish gives this player quite a touch of class, clearly exclaiming that is a device that means business. I did find it a touch on the heavy side though, but that should be expected with a player of this size, especially considering the weighty hard drive and removable battery found within.

The display, as previously mentioned, is a 4.3-inch widescreen. What this means is that while it is technically larger than the 3.6-inch QVGA (4:3 aspect ratio) screen found on the RCA Lyra X3030, the actual height is pretty much the same; it’s just that this display is quite a bit wider, making it a perfect portable companion for all those widescreen movies you have floating around on your computer hard drive (obtained legally, of course).

Controls and Interface

The menu system is gorgeous. Each of the functions is accessed by moving over to the associated icon (eight options are displayed at a time), such as Video, Music, and Browser (no, not for internet, but for the files on the hard drive). Now, I’m not one to read an instruction booklet cover to cover before delving into a product, so it took some guess-timating to figure how to get to the rest of the required functions like system setup, display setup, and the like. The navigation is simple and straightforward, while looking awfully attractive along the way.

A great added feature is that you can customize the menu to your tastes, selecting the predominant color scheme (which will be shown in the function icons, battery indicator, etc), wallpaper, and font color. While watching a video, you can even pause and use the screen capture to create a new wallpaper image. Eric Cartman never looked so great.

The buttons on the right side of the device are a different silver than the rest of the front fascia. What’s more, each key is actually two buttons, depending on whether you press it on the left side or the right side. I would have like to see a standard 5-way directional pad (or something similar) for ease of navigation, because the way that it is arranged right now — despite looking pretty good doing it — it is hard to control without actually looking at the buttons themselves. Depending on your perspective, this could be a minor or a major gripe.

On the left side of the player are a series of LED indicators to tell you what’s going on: Power, CHG, HDD, and TV/LCD. I’m pretty sure you can figure out what all of those mean. On the top of the unit are just two buttons: one to turn the unit on and off, and the other to switch to TV/LCD output. Simple enough.

USB Mass Storage Compliant

This is very big for me. I want all of my portable multimedia devices — MP3 players, my Sony PSP, cell phone memory card, etc. — to be USB mass storage compliant. Although some people swear by software like iTunes and the like, I much prefer just doing the simple dragging and dropping action found in Windows, managing my folders by right-clicking and so forth. Call me old-fashioned, call me whatever you like, but don’t call me unless you’re USB mass storage compliant.

Thankfully, the Archos 604 will happily show up as an external hard drive. There is also an option for it to synch up via Windows Media Player 10, in case you’re dealing with that DRM10 stuff (which the 604 supports). When you plug this player into the provided USB cable and plug the other end into your computer, the Archos will light up and ask you whether you’d like to connect via USB Mass Storage, Windows Media Player, or not at all (for charging purposes only). No nonsense.

Interestingly, when you create a new folder in the “Video” folder, it does not show up when you select video from the main Archos menu. Instead, you have to mosey on over to the file browser and access your files that way. This was a bit of a pain, because if you start loading a bevy of movies — which I’m sure you will, and you’ll quickly fill up the 30GB of storage found within — it can get a little messy without using folders to organize them.

Language Support

Archos doesn’t just want English speakers to buy their products. No matter what your mother tongue may be, Archos wants to have you covered. Sure, it’s got the usual French and Spanish, but what other device comes with a shopping list of languages including Russian, Chinese, Dutch, and Italian. I’ll just stick to English. Thanks.

Audio and Video

The display is bright and vibrant, offering three levels of brightness. Video was rendered reasonably well and a very adequate frame rate. A $5,000 home theater the Archos 604 certainly is not, but it will easily hold its own against other portable video watching solutions. If you are watching a movie that was originally recorded in 4:3, you are provided with a few options as to how you would like it rendered on the widescreen display (just as you would with a widescreen television): Auto, Fullscreen, Maximixed and Original. Choose the one that best suits your tastes.

Sound quality though the integrated speaker is weak and muffled at best. Of course, you really shouldn’t be enjoying your music and vids through that speaker unless you absolutely have to. In fact, even in quieter environments, you will have a hard time hearing anything at all without cranking it up to near full volume. In this way, I think it best that you opt for a decent set of headphones (some earbuds are included and they’re “okay”) or a compact speaker set. There’s plenty out there.

Conclusion

It may seem that the Archos 604 is $50 cheaper than the RCA Lyra X3030, but when you factor in the extra hundred bucks you’ll need to get your hands on the DVR station, you’ll notice that this offering will cost you an extra fifty dollars. That said, I enjoyed the Archos offering more and for several reasons: check out the pros and cons below for a quick breakdown.

In the end, you may find the 30GB a little anemic, so if you enjoy the 604, you’ll have a blast with the supposedly lower model 504. The latter is available in capacities as high as 160GB. Much of the functionality, design, and interface should be nearly (if not completely) identical.

Pros
- Fantastic, customizable menu with icon-based navigation
- Brilliant widescreen display
- USB mass storage compliant
- Replaceable lithium ion battery
- DRM support via WMP10
- Excellent photo gallery function (thumbnails arranged in a 6 x 9 grid)

Cons
- Only 30 gigabytes of storage
- Strange button layout
- No PVR solution included ($100 option)
- Remote not particularly responsive, not the same as on-board controls


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