Portable media players with touchscreens have been captivating users ever since Apple's introduction this summer of the iPhone. No need to wonder why: Imagine all your music, videos, and photos stored in a device slim enough for your pocket and available for playback at, literally, the touch of a finger. And if that wasn't enough, you also could use it to browse the Internet wirelessly.
Now, on the iPhone's heels, Archos has introduced four Wi-Fi touchscreen media players under the 605 WiFi series that jettison the phone but in other ways are more capable than the iPhone or the phone-free iPod Touch.
The 605 WiFi's differ mainly in storage capacity: a 30-Gigabyte model ($299.99, reviewed here) and those offering 80GB ($329.99); 160GB ($399.99); and 4GB ($229.99). The first three contain hard drives; the latter flash memory and an SD card slot. Archos also provided the DVR Station Gen 5 dock ($99.99) that makes it possible to record TV programs on the 605 and connect the player to an external display.
Included in the box with the 30-GB 605 WiFi player is a protective vinyl pouch, earphones, a USB cable, and two styli (which I quickly misplaced thanks to the lack of any storage slot on the device.)The player is able to read PDF files, and the manual stored on the 605 is more complete than the multi-language Quick Start Guide in the box. Since being able to charge the 605's embedded lithium-ion polymer battery from an outlet requires either the Gen 5 dock or another accessory, I plugged the 605 into a USB port on my PC. (The 605 is compatible with Windows Vista, XP, ME, 2000 or higher; Mac OS X; and Linux.) According to the Quick Start Guide, "The battery is fully charged when the green light blinks." A few hours later, it did.
Sitting on my sofa with the now wireless 605 on my knee, I examined the eight icons that dominated the bright display: video, music, photos, files, recorder, widgets (such as a calendar), Internet, and content portal. Out of the box the 605 plays photos (JPEG, BMP, and PNG) and some video (MPEG-4 and WMV) and audio (MP3, WMA, and WAV) formats, but optional software plug-ins include Cinema (MPEG-2 video, AC3 audio), Video Podcast (H.264, AAC audio), Real Video, and Internet radio. They're $20 each downloaded from Archos.com. Most important, if you plan to access the Internet via the 605's Wi-Fi capability, you'll need to purchase a plug-in for Web browsing ($29.99), which includes the Opera Web browser and Adobe Flash Player. (The browser plug-in isn't required to access the content portal.) Got all that?
I tapped the globe icon for the Internet, and the device quickly found my Wi-Fi network. I had the world on my knee.
Though the Archos and Apple's new devices have in common a touchscreen interface, there's a key difference. Unlike the iPhone and iPod Touch, the screen on the 605 WiFi does not support multi-touch operation: you can't initate actions from different parts of the screen simultaneously. This means in essence, that all tasks must be performed sequentially in the traditional manner. So, for example, on the iPhone you can pinch two fingers together, touch them to the center of a photo, spread them apart on the screen, and watch the image expand out. On the Archos, you can tap a finger (or the stylus) on an icon or a menu item to launch an application or file, or drag your finger across the screen to pull the next picture into view during a slide show. But to enlarge a photo, you must first tap the screen to bring up the tool icons and then the magnifier icon. That launches a scroll bar which you drag until the image reaches the size you want. Then, you can place your finger on the image and pull it around so the desired portion fits on screen. Similarly, to enlarge a Web page, you must first access zoom controls. While this one-touch-at-a-time interface seemed cool once-upon-a-time, in this Brave New World According to Apple, it's just cumbersome.
On the upside, I liked the set of six hard buttons to the right of the screen that the 605 offers as an alternative to tapping the screen to navigate and make selections: beyond a volume rocker on the iPhone's edge and the single hard button below its screen used for returning to the Home menu, Apple makes you stick to the screen interface almost exclusively. Multiple buttons can make it a little easier for new users to get lost, but once learned it makes for some efficiencies.
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