With digital audio, video, and pictures omnipresent in our lives, portable media players provide a handy way to enjoy and share multimedia collections. Archos is a French company that has built some innovative portables, and its new Archos 504 is a high-performance player that shows just how versatile this new breed of device can be.
With 40, 80, and 160GB versions, ranging in price from $350 to $600, the Archos 504 offers one of the biggest hard drives of any player currently available. Weighing in at 11 ounces and measuring 5 inches across, it’s significantly bigger than an iPod, but still small enough to slip in a coat pocket. The brushed-metal case looks and feels solid, and the 4.3-inch LCD screen with its 480x272 resolution and 16 million colors is the most impressive display I’ve seen on a portable player.
Operation is straightforward and easy enough using the large metal buttons along the right side of the screen. The main menu includes Video, Music, Photo, Browser, Resume, TV Scheduler, VideoCorder, and AudioCorder options. When you select any of the menu items, a more detailed submenu appears that allows you to browse and play files, or set up recordings. The Browser menu gives you a comprehensive view of all your files, and selecting the Info folder leads you to a PDF version of the lengthy operating manual, which has a TOC that lets you easily jump to any section you want to read.
For both audio and video recording you need to buy one of the company’s accessories. The DVR Station ($100) lets you schedule recordings from your DVR and other video sources; the recordings are made in MPEG-4 format. The DVR Travel Adapter ($70) lets you record from your digital camcorder (and other external video sources) to the 504’s hard disk. The Helmet Camcorder ($150) plugs directly into the Archos 504, and records in MPEG-4 format with up to VGA (640X480) resolution.
Battery life is a solid 5 to 6 hours for video and 17 hours for music, and the player can be charged through the USB cable when plugged into your computer; a Docking Adaptor ($30) is available for faster charging via an electrical outlet.
Pictures and videos look extremely sharp and bright on the 504’s screen, and even when you fast forward or rewind a video, the picture remains clear and smooth. If you hit the Menu button while a video is playing, it brings up a list of video-specific features. The Speed selection, for instance, lets you choose from three slow motion and fast forward speeds. The 504 has some great photo features, too. Browsing in thumbnail mode, pictures are magnified as you pass over them, and once you select a shot, zooming in or rotating is a snap. Creating a slideshow with transitions is also easy, and you can even play music while the show is running. Speaking of music, the 504 can play MP3, WMA, and WAV files, and it supports album art, gapless music playback (no pauses between tracks), and playlist creation.
Despite its impressive set of features and capabilities, the 504 does have its shortcomings. I transferred several video clips that I encoded with a Neuros MPEG-4 recorder to the 504 but quickly discovered that the player has limited audio and video format support out of the box. It will play WMV (protected, or not) and some MPEG-4 files (apparently not the ones made on the Neuros), but you need to buy the Video Podcast plug-in to play video encoded in H.264 format (.mp4, .m4v or .mov extensions) with soundtracks in MP3 or AAC format; the Cinema plug-in allows you to play MPEG-2 videos (.vob, .mpg and .ps extensions) with Dolby Digital soundtracks. Each plug-in costs $20. Archos offers a number of nice accessories to enhance the features of its media players, but I think it’s a mistake to nickel and dime customers for video plug-ins.
The Archos 504 does offer all-around solid performance and features, and if you don’t mind the extra bulk, it makes a compelling alternative to the iPod. TPV