Falling into the seemingly ever-dwindling "not an iPod" category of flash media players, the Archos 3 dons new duds, puts on a brave face, and arrives to the party late but decently dressed.
2009 marks the unofficial eleventh anniversary of the flash memory based portable media player (PMP). In that time, we've seen capacities balloon 1000-fold from 32MB up to 32GB and beyond, with 100+GB promising to be commonplace in the not-too-distant future. The bottom-end of the market now boasts up to 3" diagonal screens, with full touch control and video display as well as music playback. Packing all of this into the sub-$100 category is the Archos 3 Vision positioned as a step above the postage stamp screen media players but also steering well clear of iPod touch territory.
The first impressions of the Archos 3 Vision are rather good: sleek glossy casing, a large widescreen LCD, and brushed metal back with a proper mini USB port and stereo headphone jack on the bottom. Kudos to Archos for avoiding the temptation of putting a proprietary "docking" connector on this unit. Good old standard USB interfaces means the most universal appeal - and when you're name's not iPod, that is not a bad thing at all.
Pick up the Archos 3 and you'll be surprised at how light it is for something of its size. Not to say that it's large; quite the contrary. To me, it sits firmly between an iPod touch (and its substantial heft), and the iPod nano (with its very nano screen). From here, Archos goes the one button route, instead relying on a capacitive touchscreen and a touch sensitive home button underneath the screen.
While the design is appealing in a modern techie sort of way, closer inspection reveals that it's not Apple or even Sony-class finishing or materials, with a slightly wavy plastic cover over the screen, and casing seams that are good, but not perfectly formed and fitted. None of this might matter to the target audience, however, iPods at every price point are built like tanks and finished like jewelry. There, I said it.
On to the bottom size of the Archos 3, we find a slider switch with 3 positions (off/on, lock and center default), a stereo minijack, and the celebrated mini USB jack. The bottom piece is chromed silver, but shows telltale mold lines, revealing its humble plastic origins. Something I found was that the Archos' size, while attractive, makes for very difficult one handed operation. It's too large for fingertip operation, forcing one to use the thumb for the majority of screen gesturing. Even worse, the on/off switch on the bottom of the unit is absolutely impossible to operate one-handed, and practically impossible to operate with two hands because it's so slippery and stiff at the same time.
The back of the Archos 3 is rather fine, with the majority of the rear surface being the stamped, anodized aluminum housing with a tiny pinhole reset button. I thought the days of visible reset buttons were long gone, but I never had to use it.
User Interface & Usability
When a media player goes the widescreen, single-button with touchscreen route, a lot is left to ride on the execution of the user interface. Archos ambitiously sets the iPod touch in their sights by employing the familiar "home" button below the screen. The 3" LCD itself is bright and contrasty, displaying both still and moving graphics with excellent quality. The resolution however, is rather middling, at 400x240 pixels. The home screen consists of eight icons, one for each of the following functions: music, photo, video, files, radio, recorder, calender, and stopwatch.
At the bottom of the screen, there is a row of four on-screen buttons with confusion-inducing icons:
Wallpaper Changer - press this button to change the background to one of a dozen selections, including a photo from the library of your own choosing. I didn't find any of the backgrounds particularly inspiring, except my own selected photos. Many of the backgrounds are either very dark (good for seeing the icons), or very white (making it very difficult to see the on-screen icons). Also, having this button so easily accessible means it was far too easy to change the background by accident.
Data - this button takes you to the /Data directory of the built-in flash memory. It isn't even documented in the manual, so I figure it was something added late in the software release.
Settings - accesses the "control panel" for the unit.
Power off - hold 3 seconds to power off the unit. Allows you to avoid the cumbersome slider on the bottom of the unit.
Generally, in a large-screen media player, I like to see antialiased fonts for their greater legibility and a more pleasing, refined look. From what I could tell, the Archos employs neither antialiasing, nor does it allow the user to change the system font. Hope you like Arial.
The Archos 3's 3" touchscreen itself is responsive in normal operation, and the unit responds fairly quickly to commands. The music player itself is modeled after the classic iPod scheme, with options to select music by Artist, Album, Genre or previously stored Favorites. To drill down into a particular display, one simply "touches" the selection and proceeds into ever narrowing selections until the desired selection is reached. During playback, one has the option to select the play and repeat mode, including shuffle, repeat (one, all songs), set the EQ from a variety of preset selections (Rock, Pop, Classic, Bass, Jazz or Manual), and choose what to display (on-screen frequency spectrum, lyrics, cover art, or a generic graphic of musical notes). I found myself not caring too much what was displayed, because the backlight would turn off after 30 seconds to conserve battery power. I would strongly recommend to set the lock on the screen when using the player because the touchscreen is so darn easy to press when handling the Archos 3.
Although it warrants barely a mention in the sparse user manual, Archos' novel feature is the virtual on-screen scroll wheel, dubbed the "virtual wheel selector". Located near the bottom right corner of the screen when in list view, it allows the user to scroll through a list by moving a finger in a circular motion. Just put your finger on the scroll wheel. It lits up with a green outline, signifying that any further finger movement will affect the scroll wheel (as long as your finger remains touching the screen). Move your finger in the clockwise direction to scroll down, and in the opposite direction to scroll backwards. The center portion of the wheel indicates the scroll direction, from what I could tell. It works OK once you get the hang of it, but it certainly has its drawbacks.
First, the wheel does mask a good portion of the three bottom lines of any list, preventing you from directly selecting those lines, unless you touch the far right side of those lines. Also, it requires you do your scrolling pretty accurately within the wheel, or else the input isn't recognized as you would expect. Thirdly, it's really sensitive. I found it difficult to select my list item without overshooting. Maybe I'm in the butterfingers minority, but real, tactile buttons will always have a place in my world.
A small, but much appreciated touch that seems to be lacking from the Archos 3's UI is any visual indication that a list extends beyond the limits of the display. For example, at a glance it is impossible to tell if there are more items (to scroll through). In my mind, this shows a lack of attention to detail that the segment's best players get right more of the time.
Basic photo viewing is done by selecting your photo from a list. There's no thumbnail view for photos (EPIC FAIL). Advancing through the photo display can be done with a swiping motion similar to what you'd do on an iPod touch or by touching the screen once to expose the control buttons, then pressing forward or backward from there. Only a slight delay ensues after selecting a photo, perhaps on part with other flash media players, but far faster than the super-slow Samsung P3. Zoom and scroll functions are supported, although I could find no options to change the display format (stretch to fit widescreen, or keep aspect ratio, to name a few). In short, photographers will likely be left disappointed that parts of their photos get chopped.
Sound quality, when used with the included headphones is solidly average. I found the headphones lacking especially in mids and highs, as compared to standard iPod 'phones. In contrast, the bass response is a bit better. In order to truly judge the Archos 3's audio quality, I connected a set of expensive, over-the-ear AKG K-401 studio headphones and enjoyed a dramatic increase in sound performance. Advice: get better headphones if you're serious about sound quality.
This headphone comparison highlighted to me the dramatic differences in the preset EQ settings stored in the Archos 3. Using the included headphones, I could hardly tell between the various presets, but using my high-end headphones, the differences were dramatic, and quite overdone. I suppose these are the kinds of compromises one has to deal with when faced with a product at the budget end of the market. Format-wise, the Archos 3 supports a generous number of formats, including .MP3, .WAV, .FLAC, .AAC and .OGG.
The support section of Archos' website is lacking any helpful information on the newly released 3, so I just started copying various movies I had on my hard drive to the /VIDEOS directory in hopes that something would play. Indeed, most .avi files played fine, along with bog-standard .mp4 movies. Videos that were straight DVD rips (480p resolution) played when converted to .mp4 or .avi format, but ran jerky, probably an indication that the limited CPU power is struggling with the resolution scaling and compression. I would strongly recommend compression your movies to save space and help them play better on the Archos.
One feature sorely lacking on this little PMP is an external speaker. While this may not seem like much, the lack of a speaker means you can't easy watch a movie with a friend, unless you are hooked into a full stereo system via the 1/8" stereo jack. Even more important for folks with kids like me is the ability to hand the PMP playing Barney or Dora to the little ones to keep them quiet in a fancy restaurant. Toddlers don't much like headphones, often choosing to wrap the cord around various body parts, but with no speaker, you have no choice.
One rather nifty feature is the inclusion of the USB to composite video cable. Plug this in to the Archos and your TV (okay, it will look much better on your legacy CRT), and enjoy 480i video on your big screen. Then plug in the stereo minijack to RCA audio cable to enjoy movies on your TV streamed from the PMP. Better than nothing, although we think something closer to HD output would have been nice for the HDTV crowd. And if you had to ask...well don't. 720p resolution videos don't play at all. With 8GB of flash memory on board, you're not going to get many on there anyway.
Calendar view provides a simple monthly calendar, nothing fancy. There is no ability to type notes or set reminders or alarms to go off at a specific time of day. FM Radio relies on the headphone cable to provide an antenna. I found reception so-so. Favorites and station scanning are supported, as well as FM Radio recording. Recorder is a basic mono audio recorder that stores .WAV format files on the internal flash memory. A little confusing aspect of the UI is that one pressed the "play" button to start a recording, as there is no record or stop button. Strange. The Archos 3 has a built-in mic that provides decent quality for voice/memo recording. One plays back the recorded files by surfing to the Files icon and selecting the "Record" subfolder. Lastly, stopwatch is a useful little timer app that seems to allow up to 8 split/lap times to also be recorded. In a UI flaw, the laptimes are overlaid on top of the timer itself, making for illegible numbers once you go beyond 4 split times.
Battery & USB Performance
I didn't use the Archos 3 for a single 14 hour listening session, although I can report pretty decent battery life in my tests. A full charge over mini USB gave at least 12 hours of continuous usage, and this included the odd video clip and lots of noodling with the display and its various controls. Charging performance seemed good as well, with the unit getting only mildly warm during a USB charging session, which lasts about 3.5 hours to full charge.
Syncing can be done in one of two ways:
Sync as a USB mass storage device. Basically, the method of choice for most of us with Mac or PC, just copy files in the Finder or Windows Explorer, making sure to drop them in the right locations (/MUSIC, /DATA, /VIDEO, /PICTURES). The Archos does support multi-level hierarchy, so it's possible to keep your photos sorted by folder for easier access. For this test, I just copied a portion of my iTunes-sorted library at the directory level to the Archos. For kicks, I took some individual songs and copied them to /MUSIC as well. Wouldn't you know it, all of the previously sorted content came through fine, but my individual files were nowhere to be found. I did try to find them using the "All Music" option rather than to search by Artist or Album, but with a few hundred songs, it was impossible to locate. I'm positive these individual files had their ID3 tags intact, so I can only assume the Archos doesn't know how to extract this information and catalog the media content accordingly.
Sync via MS Media Player (Windows-only). I cannot say I tested this method, but it's an option for those of you who rely on the Microsoft Media Player. Okay... there's problem.
Transfer speeds over USB are fairly slow. I transferred a small 539 MB library of MP3 files to the Archos 3 and it took 210 seconds, for an average transfer rate of 2.5MB/sec.
Shiny, sleek design
Attractive price for a touch-screen PMP
Good video playback, including video output
Large, high contrast widescreen LCD
Good audio quality
Touchscreen not responsive enough, not multi-touch
No thumbnail view for photos
Archaic/unrefined user interface
Cheap bundled headphones
No built-in speaker
All-in-all, the Archos 3 is an underwhelming entrant to the flash media player market. Despite an attractive price and look, what's under the hood fails to impress. User interface inconsistencies, difficult touch-screen navigation, poor bundled headphones, and substandard documentation make for an acceptable budget media player for the patient, non-discerning consumer.