Archos's 604 (link to PDF) represents the latest in an esteemed line of gadgets from the king of portable video players (PVPs, or PMPs). Superb construction and design, an all-encompassing feature list, and solid performance should make this übergadget a highly coveted item, particularly because of its shockingly low base price of $350.
The caveats? The 604 is limited to 30GB of storage (though the thicker 504 goes all the way up to 160GB), and you'll need to buy extra accessory kits to get the most out of the player (namely, using the device as an audio/video recorder). Throw in patchy out-of-the-box compatibility with some video formats and you've got reason to pause. But overall, we believe the 604, with its amazing screen, makes a worthy successor to the AV500.
Over the past few months, we have seen numerous blog postings regarding the 604 and its brethren, the 404, the 404 Camcorder, the 504, and the 604 Wi-Fi. Archos in fact has created a PVP design for everybody. The ultraportable 30GB 404 has a smaller screen and a price tag to match ($300), while the 404 Camcorder adds a 1.3-megapixel camera ($350). The 504 adds bulk but offers up to a 160GB capacity; the svelte 604 with its 4.3-inch wide screen and removable battery is the flagship model. For the ultimate gadget geek, the 604 Wi-Fi adds wireless connectivity and a touch screen. All 04 models are based on the same general design.
Designed to replace the AV500, the 604 is slightly bigger than the 30GB AV500 at 5.1 by 3.1 by 0.6 inches and 9.3 ounces, but it's more polished and has more screen real estate with less bezel (4.3 inches vs. 4 inches). It's quite a bit thinner and lighter than its chief competitor, the 0.87-inch, 10.5-ounce 30GB Cowon A2, which is more contoured and softer than the blocky 604.
Though it's not as pocketable as the 4 by 3 by 0.5-inch 404, in addition to other video-playing MP3 players, its big screen and removable battery are more than enough reason to make it a mobile companion. The built-in kickstand is also a sweet little extra. We've read some comments about the design being "ugly" but in person, the device is pretty hot.
The 604's brushed metal casing is extremely scratch resistant, and even its gorgeous 4.3-inch 480x272 pixel/16-million-color wide screen can withstand some punishment (though it does attract fingerprints). Like on its predecessor, the primary controllers line the right-hand side of the screen, though this time around the buttons are more intuitive. Unlike the AV500, which featured sets of unlabeled buttons of varying sizes (think Tetris), the 604's buttons are uniform and marked. Personally, I didn't mind the AV500's controls, but the 604 is much better.
Each button is designed to be pressed in either the left or the right direction, including the special set of diagonal buttons that act as page up/down when browsing and skip/reverse about 30 seconds when playing content. Like with the last version, the controls work in harmony with the GUI, with context-sensitive menus and submenus appearing on the expansive screen mapped to a specific button. Despite its simple control panel, the Cowon A2 can be a bit more difficult to use, though the 604 is very difficult to operate smoothly blindly or in the dark. Backlit buttons would have rocked.
Speaking of the GUI, it's been revamped, with slick animated icons and a more modern feel. Backgrounds as well as text and accent colors are customizable, and everything from the audio playback screen (with album art) to the photo thumbnail page (where pics magnify as you scroll over them) is refined. Archos manages to pack lots of info onto the screen without making it feel crowded.
The main menu includes Video, Music, Photo, Browser, Resume, TV Scheduler, VideoCorder, and AudioCorder options. Even without an FM tuner, the 604 is feature rich, though you'll need extra accessories to record video and audio (more on that later). You do get a good voice recorder out of the box, and the built-in mono speaker is decent, though not as crisp as the A2's stereo speakers.
Video playback is where the 604 shines. According to the specs, it's compatible with MPEG-4 ASP up to 720x480 at 30fps, AVI file container with MP4 file format, WMV9, and protected WMV. Unlike the Cowon, it's not DivX certified, and it doesn't play MPEG-2. However, many of our DivX files played without a hitch. You can also download plug-ins that will let you play H.264 and MPEG-2 files--they will be available soon at about $10 each (there's mention of AAC and AC3 support too). Though it doesn't cover the same ground as the Cowon, the 604 can handle your files, which in part will be transcoded via Windows Media Player, the de facto jukebox for the Archos. Though we'll comment on video performance later, the 604's screen is amazing, and video controls are superresponsive.