The 605 WiFi, a fifth-generation portable media player from the French electronics firm Archos, is an impressive device. It boasts a vivid, high-res 4.3" touchscreen, 802.11g Wi-Fi (more on that later), and the ability to handle a reasonably broad array of media formats (although the larger, more expensive Cowon A3 handles far more). Plus, the 605 WiFi is available with hard drives of 30, 80, and 160 gigabytes or with 4GB of flash storage (the flash model also sports an SDHC slot for unlimited expansion). This review focuses on the 4GB flash version, which can be had for under $200 online and at a few brick-and-mortar electronics retailers.
After using the 605 WiFi for about two weeks now, I've come to appreciate it quite a bit. It's certainly not perfect, but it offers good value and some of its attributes that seem like weaknesses at first blush actually turn out to be strengths.
The Physical Unit
The 605 is 4.8'' x 3.2'' x 0.6'', about the same overall dimensions as an old PalmPilot, which is fairly compact for having such a large screen. The 4GB flash model weighs in at 5.3 ounces (the hard drive units weigh more, up to 9.2 oz. for the 160GB). The buttons to the right of the screen are two-way toggles (one function on each side, left and right), which take some getting used to. Thankfully, the touchscreen makes using the buttons unnecessary (although they're preferable in a few situations, such as changing volume). Two hardware buttons on the top of the unit include On/Off and a button to send video out via the docking station (when attached). The SDHC card slot is also on the top (nicely recessed so as to avoid any chance of accidental card eject). On the left is the headphone jack, and on the right is the pull-out kickstand (a very nice touch). The bottom of the unit has Archos' proprietary connector (which, of course, requires Archos' proprietary USB cable or dock to attach to it). The unit charges and syncs data through these connectors. The front also includes a very loud, clear mono speaker. The back is completely plain. In a departure from the 4th generation units, the 605 does not offer a user-swappable battery. But none of that really matters, for the 605's pièce de résistance is its screen. This 800x480 resolution beauty is simply stunning. It has an amazing angle of view and, at over 200 pixels per inch, gives every bit of clarity and detail you could hope for. Colors are well-saturated and there's no hint of screendoor or other effects that low-quality LCDs can have. Everyone I've showed this to has remarked almost immediately how good the display is. In the box, the 605 comes with headphones, a USB cable, a rudimentary slip-case, and some documentation.
The User Interface
You may have read somewhere (OK, everywhere) that the Archos user interface is terrible. It's not quite terrible...just very bad. But, I'm happy to say that (a) the touchscreen makes it a LOT easier to navigate, and (b) once you get used to certain conventions, it really isn't that bad (certainly no worse than Office 2007's new menu structure!). For example, the [X] button always takes you backwards (or back up a level) from wherever you are. Some have contrasted the 605 with the iPod Touch and come away saying the Touch is easier to use. I agree...for one main reason: the 605 has way, way more options, settings, and customizability than does the Touch, and all that requires a bit more complexity in the menus. For example, you can separately set the gamma, contrast, brightness, and backlight level of the 605's screen. The Touch, by comparison, doesn't even know what gamma is. So, if customizability is a desirable thing for you, the 605 will have you covered. But, if you're afraid of menus, then it may be a bit daunting until you read through the manual (a few times).
Overall, media playback is superb. Audio quality is high and videos look and sound awesome (even ones where the 605 has to up- or down-res to match the screen's resolution). The audio interface provides all the tag-based organization you'd expect -- Artist, Album, Genre, etc. -- with full album art support. The video interface even has nifty full-motion thumbnails, which is nice. Out of the box, the unit supports a variety of common formats (such as MP3, WMA, MPEG-4, WMV, and others; see the product webpage for complete info). Additional media formats (e.g., h.264 and MPEG-2) are supported through extra-cost plug-ins. One comment about the plug-ins: Archos takes the controversial approach of charging a fairly rock-bottom price for the hardware, but then charged non-trivial sums for plug-ins that provide additional functionality, such as the web browser ($30). If you don't need these plug-ins, then you'll likely feel like your 605 is a true bargain out of the box. However, if you do need several of the plug-ins, your sense of value will be diminished significantly. In the end, my feeling is that the 605 with all the plug-ins is competitively priced, just not the huge bargain it is bare-bones.
A couple of nifty things about media playback include the use of bookmarks (locations within individual files to go back to from the main screen) and playback at 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1X, 2X, and 4X normal speed. Plus, when playing back video, you get several options on how you want the video to be fit to the dimensions of the 650's 1.67:1 aspect screen (which is nice if you're picky about that like I am). Also, when viewing photos, you can use touchscreen actions to manipulate the images: a single swipe left-to-right (or right-to-left) advances to the next (previous) image; a swipe up (down) rotates the image counter-clockwise (clockwise); and holding your finger on a point on the image causes the 605 to zoom into the image until it reaches 100% resolution. A quick double-tap of the screen or a tap of the [X] button returns you to normal view.
Nobody buys a PMP mainly for web-browsing capabilities; that's always an afterthought. Thankfully, the 605's Opera-based browser is quite good. It provides Flash compatibility (for playing streaming video, such as from YouTube) and tabbed browsing (an Opera trademark). Rendering performance is so-so, but the screen's resolution means that typical pages are readable without a lot of side-scrolling. You cannot rotate the screen, so as long as you're OK with viewing webpages in landscape, you won't be disappointed.
The built-in 802.11g Wi-Fi is quite handy. The 605 not only includes a standard file management utility, it also lets you move and copy files from one location to another on your 605 and between your 605 and a computer elsewhere on the network you're on. Plus, it will stream media from locations on the network to the 605. I was able to watch an entire movie streamed wirelessly from a PC to the 605 without a single hitch...and it looked great! Fast-forward and rewind don't work when streaming, but pause does. Also, the 605 will talk to any UPnP media server active on the network, so if you're running Orb or TwonkyVision or something like that, the 605 will happily stream from it. You can also buy or rent content online through CinemaNow directly via the 605, which might be handy if you're stuck in an airport without a laptop and absolutely gotta have something to watch to pass the time.
Finally, the 605 offers a set of other functions that are nice touches. An Acrobat PDF viewer is included. Firmware updates can be done either via USB (after downloading to the PC from the Archos website) or directly to the 605 itself via Wi-Fi. If you purchase the additional DVR (digital video recording) dock and hook it up to a cable or antenna feed (via something else, though, as the dock only has S-Video and RCA inputs), you can schedule your 605 to record TV shows straight to MPEG-4. Of course, you can also record line-in audio and video as well, but that's not quite as trick as having your 605 emulate a mini-TiVo.
Overall, I like the 605 enough that I elected to keep it. It does what it does very well and tosses in some extra tricks in a fairly well-polished package. Sure, it has some rough spots -- the menu system and buttons are still a bit nutty and the codec support could be more extensive -- but it has met my rather modest needs 100%. Battery life is fair; I get about 4-4.5 hours of video playback on a charge (without Wi-Fi). I wish the unit had a regular USB port and that some of the codecs were included rather than handled via plug-ins, but these are all nitpicky details. The main thing that really matters, and the primary reason I'm happy with it, is the gorgeous screen. One look, and it was a done deal.
I'm sure I haven't covered everything here, so if you have questions about the 605, please ask.
Update: Mitch wrote in with a few comments and clarifications (thanks, mate!):
Very in-depth. A few things I would add:
Existence of the mini dock and battery dock. These will allow direct interface to USB disk drives and industry standard cables. They also give you the ability to keep the unit playing indefinitely as they allow more charging current from external battery packs.
The Archos file manager will also allow you to move files between two other computers on your network. Nice if you're already in bed and remember that you need to put something on your laptop for the next day.
The MPEG-2 plug-in activates the digital audio out for 5.1 AC-3 surround sound.
Also includes 2 styli (yay!)
The DVR dock turns it into an Apple TV with a screen allowing you to wirelessly play content to your big screen as well as browse the web, rent or buy videos, etc.
Update #2: A few other things that occurred to me after I finished up the review:
- SD card reading/writing via the 605 is much slower than it is via a card reader, so only use it for that in an emergency.
- The unit is mostly stable except when updating the firmware. Both times I've updated it, it's reset itself and/or behaved weirdly until after I did a full shutdown (complete "off" versus the "standby" mode it typically resorts to when you hit the Power button).
- The browser is quite good, actually. If you've used Opera on one of the Nokia Internet Tablets, you'll know what I mean (same res screen).
- Charging the 605 via the USB cable is sloooow; it takes 5-6 hours to go from empty to a full charge. Charging it via A/C using one of the docks Archos sells, however, takes about half that time. So, getting a dock has benefits beyond just a bigger variety of outputs and inputs.
- Accessing the bookmarking feature from the main screen only works on the most recently played file, so you can't easily jump between videos or songs without manually selecting each and entering into the menus to go to where you left off before.