Review: Archos 5 Internet Tablet with Android

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Short Version: After a handful of rapid-fire firmware updates, the Android-infused Archos 5 Internet Tablet has turned out to be quite a compelling device. The snappy web browser, marathon battery life, and nearly endless list of features and functions make Archos’ latest couch companion a worthwhile option if you’re shopping for portables. If you’re drawn to the Archos 5 Internet Tablet purely based on the fact that it’s running Android, though, you’ll likely come away disappointed as there’s no access to the popular Android Market.

Features:

  • Screen: 4.8-inch 800×480 touchscreen
  • Storage: 32GB flash memory
  • Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth, GPS
  • Codec Support: MP4, WMV, MPEG-2, H.264, MP3, FLAC, OGG, AAC, WMA
  • Promised Battery Life: 22 hours audio, 7 hours video
  • Expansion: microSD
  • Other: Android OS, web browser, downloadable apps, FM receiver, optional DVR
  • Dimensions: 5.63” x 3.1” x 0.4” and 6.4 ounces
  • MSRP of $379.99

Pros:

  • Jack-of-all-trades device handles audio, video, web surfing, radio, e-mail, GPS, media streaming, digital video recording, games, photos, and more
  • Impressive battery life — especially for audio and video playback
  • High-resolution screen works well for web sites and videos

Cons:

  • The $380 starting price is compounded by having to pay to unlock extras like MPEG-2/WMVHD video playback, GPS subscription, and DVR functionality
  • Built-in Archos-branded app store is severely limited, and there’s no access to the more popular Android Market

Review:

I’ve been playing with the Archos 5 Internet Tablet for about a month now. I have the 32GB flash version, which is a gorgeous slab of electronics sized small enough to fit in a roomy pocket but large enough to keep next to your favorite armchair in lieu of a full size laptop.

While the aesthetic appeal of previous Archos devices has traditionally been the subject of great debate, most would agree that this new one looks pretty nice inside and out.

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To say that the first couple weeks I spent with the device were worrisome would be putting it lightly. The UI was slow and clunky, the battery drained even when the tablet was in standby mode, and the web browser crashed out to the main screen during periods of moderate use.

Then came a firmware update. Then another. And another. And suddenly everything worked.

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I’m now happy to report that the tablet is much more stable, the battery life has greatly improved, and surfing the web and navigating the interface is sufficiently slick. I’m using firmware version 1.2.15 (Android 1.5) at the time of this review.

The Archos 5 Internet Tablet does many things and, as with most portable media players, the big question is whether or not it can do each one of those things well.

Basic Audio and Video Playback

For audio and video playback, the device handles everything with ease. Videos look great on the crisp 4.8-inch screen and the 800×480 resolution renders downscaled HD videos and standard-definition videos phenomenally. Archos has really nailed down the core functionality of its portable media players. Music and videos come first, everything else comes second.

I was skeptical of Archos’ claim of 7-hour battery life for video playback, so I set a playlist up to repeat indefinitely at 25% brightness and 25% volume just to see how close we’d get to that number. To my surprise, the tablet hit 6 hours and 15 minutes before petering out. That’s not too bad at all, especially considering I left the Wi-Fi connected the entire time.

Audio playback is handled via a simple interface that displays album artwork. I found the built-in speaker to be too tinny to listen to anything other than spoken-word podcasts – playing actual music sounds much better through a pair of decent headphones. Battery life for music playback is pegged at 22 hours and, again, those claims held up pretty well. I managed about 20 hours and 30 minutes with volume at 25% and Wi-Fi turned on.

And finally, just for good measure, here’s where I complain about Archos charging people $40 to unlock 720p WMV and MP4 playback. That functionality should always be included at no extra charge but Archos has been charging people for it for a long time now, so I give up.

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Web Browsing

The built-in web browser is quick and responsive, thanks in large part to the 800MHz ARM Cortex A8 CPU that powers the tablet. The 800×480 screen renders full versions of web sites relatively faithfully, although the browser will default to the mobile version of most sites if there’s one available.

Trying to use the Archos 5 Internet Tablet for web videos is, unfortunately, too hit-or-miss right now if one of your big goals is to watch YouTube videos all day. YouTube apparently tweaked their API recently, which caused videos handed off from the browser to Archos’ built-in video player to just freeze the tablet, requiring a reboot.

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There’s a standalone Dailymotion player included, and I’m currently having trouble getting those videos to work as well. There’s loose talk of a Flash 10 update coming to the device sometime but until then, browser-based Flash video is still pretty rough around the edges.

Not to say that YouTube videos never worked on the device – they used to, at least. They even played back in HD (see this post on ArchosFans.com for proof).

So if you’re planning on using the web browser for basic, straightforward stuff then you’ll like it just fine. It’s quick, the keyboard works great, and pages render nicely on the 4.8-inch LCD.

Battery life is pretty solid as well. Under heavy testing (a website auto-refreshing every minute and a different site simultaneously scrolling through RSS feeds like a news ticker), the tablet managed to stay alive for five hours.

Software

And now for the Archos 5 Internet Tablet’s Achilles heel: software. Part of the allure of an Android device is access to the thousands of great free and for-pay applications found in the Android Market. Unfortunately, though, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet’s 800×480 screen resolution and lack of dedicated Home and Back hardware buttons place it outside the list of compatible devices for the current version of Android (1.5) that it’s running.

That’s not to say that you’re completely out of luck. Archos has built its own app store into the device, called AppsLib. It’s a pretty clunky, slow-loading (sometimes freezing), repository with a mere handful of available applications (listed here) – a far cry from what’s available in the Android Market. There’s no Google Maps here, no Qik, no SportsTap, none of that stuff.

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That’s not entirely Archos’ fault and it’s possible that a future update might load Android 2.0 onto the device someday (which includes compatibility for 800×480 screens) but as of now, your options for new apps are very limited and the interface that’s used to deliver them is frustrating at best.

What you’re left with is a mish-mash of pre-installed applications that range from quasi-useful to downright unrecognizable. Archos is a French company, so some of the stuff (like Dailymotion and Deezer for instance) will be of little to no interest to U.S. consumers.

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Here’s a list of what you get:

  • GPS (called NDrive): Actually works pretty well. Free 7-day trial and then $39 one-time unlock fee thereafter. There’s 3D navigation, turn-by-turn directions, quick satellite lock – turns the Archos 5 Internet Tablet into a serviceable GPS system for the car.
  • Quickpedia: Wikipedia front-end. Also includes location-based searches via GPS
  • Dailymotion: YouTube-like video portal from France
  • Browser, E-mail, Contacts
  • Craigsphone: Craigslist front-end
  • Twidroid: Twitter
  • AppsLib: Archos’ app store
  • High Paying Jobs: Guess!
  • Deezer: French streaming music site
  • eBuddy: Universal instant messaging client
  • DVB-T: Digital TV front-end that requires Archos’ “TV Snap-On” accessory (I don’t think it’s even available in the U.S., though)
  • DroidIn-Lite: LinkedIn front-end
  • ThinkFree Mobile: Microsoft Office file viewer
  • Moov: Application launcher
  • Yellowbook: Phonebook
  • Video: File playback, network streaming, and schedule TV recordings (with one of the required $80 or $140 DVR accessories)
  • Music: File playback, network streaming, FM radio
  • Photo: View local image files or grab them over a network
  • Games: 8 Flash games available, 13 “Playin TV” games available – additional 4-packs can be purchased from Archos for $10 apiece.
  • Media Club: Web TV (streaming weather/public TV stations, video podcast directory), Web Radio (streaming radio stations, podcast directory), Music (links to Jamendo web service), Archos Store (premium Media Club services)

Conclusion

Are you interested in an attractive, lightweight portable media player with great battery life that you can use mainly to consume audio and video files that have been directly downloaded or streamed across a local network? If so, you’ll like the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. You’ll get what you’re looking for along with the added bonus of a great web browser, pretty good GPS navigator, and a handful of somewhat useful software.

If, however, you’re interested in an Android device with a large, high-resolution screen that you can use to watch YouTube videos, download cool applications, and surf complex websites in an attempt to replace your laptop or netbook, you’ll likely be disappointed. As with most jack-of-all-trades devices, it’s common to be a master-of-none. I’d say that Archos has sufficiently mastered the multimedia end of the portable spectrum, but there’s still plenty of work left to be done when it comes to the company’s Android initiative.

This is Archos’ first stab at an Android device, and early adopters will likely be willing to put up with various shortcomings along the way. And, again, those looking for video and music features first and foremost won’t have too much to complain about here. But Android fans looking for a killer tablet for Android’s sake would be better off waiting to see what’s next.

Achos 5 Internet Tablet [Archos.com]

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