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Archos 704 WiFi Portable Multimedia Player

Price: $549.99 (MSRP, 80 GB)
Pros: Large screen and lots of storage; easy-to-use interface, includes Web browser.
Cons: Limited native A/V codec support; DVR features require additional accessories.

Having a digital media player can really help pass the time on a long ride or flight, and it's even better if your portable device does other stuff like display movies or photos, especially if you don't need to bring along a jeweler's loupe to see them. The Archos 704 WiFi Portable Multimedia Player is just such a device; it lets you take your music, movies, and photos on the road, and provides copious amounts of both storage and screen real estate.

Design and Specs

Front and center on the 704 WiFi is a very nice 7-inch widescreen display capable of 800 x 480 resolution. Because of this relatively spacious display, you'd never mistake the 704 WiFi for an iPod, or even and iPhone. It measures about 7 x 5 x .75 inches (WHD), making it roughly the size and thickness of the old format TV Guide-- certainly not large, but then not small enough to stow in your pocket either. It weighs about 22 ounces.

The aluminum-clad 704 WiFi has a simple and uncluttered physical design. Save for a power button and another to switch between internal LCD and external display output, there are no controls on the unit itself-- everything is handled through a touch-screen interface. For those that wish to keep their display unsullied by fingerprints, a pair of styluses are provided. The extra may come in handy sooner rather than later, because there's nowhere on the 704 WiFi (or in the included protective case) to store it PDA or smartphone-style-- eventually it will get lost.


Archos 704

The 704 WiFi stores media on either a 40 or 80 GB hard disk. (My test unit was a 40 GB model, but I could only find the $599 80 GB model actually available for sale.) Audio comes from a pair of built-in stereo speakers that sound good and provide acceptable volume levels, but not surprisingly, offer limited bass. (A set of earbuds are included for private listening.) The 704 WiFi comes with a slim IR remote control and the back of the unit features a kickstand that keeps the unit upright for viewing.

The Lithium Ion battery in the 704 WiFi is rated for 5.5 hours of video playback or 25 hours for music. Based on my time with the unit, those estimates seem reasonable. The battery's easily removable and thus replaceable when it eventually loses the ability to hold a charge. Since it's a custom design that serves as part of the device's outer shell, you'll have to buy it from Archos, but fortunately, it's a very reasonable $30.

The Home Screen is the jumping-off point for the device's various functions and consists of large simple icons for each of the devices features. Some commonly used operations could be a little easier to access though. In order to adjust the volume, for example, you must first call up a display that fills the screen with a half-dozen audio-related settings.

Video and Music

The 704 WiFi's video codec support is limited, at least out of the box. The unit will play MPEG 4-encoded AVI and WMV files (including DivX and Xvid), but support for other common codecs and formats like H.264, MPEG 2, or ripped DVDs in VOB form is available only through a pair of optional software plug-ins that will set you back $20 each.

For audio, the 704 WiFi is a PlaysForSure device so it will work with compatible subscription services like Yahoo! Music, Real Rhapsody, etc. The unit natively supports MP3, WAV, and WMA/Protected WMA formats, and the same plug-in that enables H.264 playback also adds the ability to play back (unprotected) AAC files. You can sync it with a PC using Windows Media Player 10 or higher, or else use it as a mass storage device to manually copy files. (If you have a Media Center PC, Windows Media Player can convert your recorded television shows from DVR-MS to WMV format before copying them to the 704.)

Photos

For viewing photos, the 704 WiFi supports JPG, BMP, and PNG formats. You can find photos through a special photo browser or through a Photo Wall, a scrollable page packed with dozens of thumbnails. When viewing a photo, a left-to-right finger or stylus swipe displays the next photo, while the opposite motion calls up the last one. (It's also easy to set the current photo as your display wallpaper.) The 704 WiFi supports slide show viewing, which you can start from any photo.

If you want to take advantage of the large display and copious storage to view and/or store snapshots you just took, you can use the device's Type A mini USB port to load it with photos directly from a digital camera, card reader, or flash drive. (An included adapter provides conversion to a standard full-size USB port if necessary.)

The 704 WiFi also has a separate reader built-in for PDF documents (which are like photos when you think about it). The ability to view PDFs can come in handy, but it's usefulness-- especially with large or complex documents-- is limited since it takes several seconds to load and render each page.

Wi-Fi, Media Streaming and Web Browsing

Getting the 704 WiFi onto a wireless network is a snap. It allows connections to open or secure 802.11g/b networks, and along with WEP, it supports WPA and WPA2 encryption.

You can use a wirelessly-connected 704 WiFi in a variety of ways, such as stream multimedia files to the 704 WiFi from shared folders on your local network. Conversely, you can configure the 704 itself as a wireless file server (with either read or write access) so its contents are accessible from other networked systems.

Because it integrates a version of the Opera browser, you can also browse the Net with the 704 WiFi. Of course, given the lack of a keyboard URL input must be done by way of a “virtual” on-screen keyboard. While the on-screen keys are large enough to press without the stylus, the touch sensitivity is insufficient for anything resembling touch-typing.

The Opera browser supports tabbed browsing allowing you to keep multiple sites open, and you can display individual pages natively or in “smart” mode which reformats them to eliminate the need for horizontal scrolling. Given the roomy display size and relatively high-resolution, pages for most sites looked the way they would on a regular PC. On the down side, the browser doesn't work with Java or Flash sites (so forget about YouTube) and response/load times are definitely on the sluggish side.

DVR Features Optional

Although the Archos is billed as a portable DVR, it doesn't work that way from the get-go. It lacks any built-in audio/video inputs. A $99 DVR Station add-on serves as a charger and provides composite and S-Video inputs to record from external sources, as well as a Component and SPDIF for better quality playback on a television (the standard output cable-- which is also sold separately-- only supports composite video and RCA audio).

Although it's not nearly as portable as an iPod, quite as capable as a standard laptop, the Archos 704 WiFi offers the best of both worlds, and it will make a good travel companion for anyone that wants a spacious screen to enjoy more than just music on the road.