Turn the Archos Gmini 402 Camcorder around, and you'll find the biggest change from its predecessor. From the back, it looks an awful lot like a camera. Front and center is a slick-looking, 2-inch circle embossed with the Archos Gmini logo, flanked by a series of raised grip ridges to the left and the camera lens, nestled in a red oval, to the right.
On the front of the device, you'll see the same 2.2-inch, 262,000-color TFT LCD as on the original Gmini 402; if we could change one thing, it would be an increase in screen size--it looks a little 2004, and the iPod with its 3.5-inch screen has caught up to the Archos and other PVPs. The 220x176-pixel screen still looks pretty good, with rich color and plenty of detail, although the image turns negative when you're viewing it from the left at more than a 30-degree angle. The Gmini 402 camcorder lacks a built-in speaker, so you'll have to listen with headphones. Do yourself a favor and swap the chintzy included earbuds for a better pair.
The controls on the Archos Gmini 402 camcorder are as intuitive as ever, with a four-way navigational control and Select, Back, Stop, and Pause buttons flanking the main LCD. We especially like the three contextual soft keys that sit just below the display, allowing for a wide range of functionality as you're listening to tunes, watching videos, browsing photos, or shooting a clip. We still wish the Gmini 402 had a dedicated hold slider; instead, you lock the keys by pressing and holding the left-most soft key.
The Archos Gmini 402 Camcorder comes with two USB ports: One is for connecting the player to your PC, and the other is a master USB port for hooking it up to a USB-enabled storage device and grabbing data from most USB devices, such as a digital camera with a full memory card. This addition obviates the need for the CompactFlash slot included on some earlier Archos models. Along the top of the player is a built-in microphone for recording voices or environmental sounds, as well as a combination port that handles headphone output, A/V output, and line-level input (all necessary cords are included), in addition to indicator lights for power, battery charge, and drive activity.As with the original, noncamera Gmini 402, the new camcorder version boasts support for near-DVD-quality video playback: up to 720x480-pixel, 30fps images for the U.S.-based NTSC video standard and 720x576, 25fps for Europe's PAL standard. Only MPEG-4 Simple AVI files are supported for playback, and while a pair of included software utilities can help convert your videos to the proper MPEG-4 standard, the conversion process is still pretty complicated. However, the Archos Gmini 402 Camcorder supports DRM-protected WMV movies; we had no trouble transferring mobile-formatted videos from the for-pay CinemaNow service via Windows Media Player. But at the end of the day, the mobile video available on CinemaNow can't hold a candle to the video catalog on the iTunes Music Store. While more than 800 videos are available, the only movies on CinemaNow we recognized were Short Circuit and Victor, Victoria; the rest were either extreme sports, nature, travel, and anime titles, and the films had such bargain-bin titles as Vice Academy 3, When Thugs Cry, and Hey...Stop Stabbing Me!
The Archos Gmini 402's video interface remains one of the best we've seen in a portable player. A two-pane window lists your movies on one side and displays thumbnail stills from them on the other. When you're watching a video, you can pause and scan forward or back, and pressing the right-most soft key brings up file info, such as filename, volume, battery life, the current time, time remaining/elapsed/total, and a progress bar. During playback, you can also slow the video to one-half, one-fourth, or one-eighth speed; change the screen format from full-screen to 16:9 or "squeezed" (no overscan) mode; set a bookmark; or delve into the player's settings menu. Finally, the Resume function in the main menu lets you pick up a movie where you left off after powering down.
Of course, the crown jewel of the new Archos Gmini 402 is its built-in camcorder--part of Archos's plan to be on both sides of the grassroots video phenomenon of recording and viewing. It doesn't disappoint, as long as you're not expecting superhigh quality. Boasting VGA and 448x336-pixel resolutions, the camcorder lacks nighttime illumination, although you can choose between three video bit rates, as well as fiddle with the exposure settings and the white balance; presets include Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, and Tungsten. The Gmini 402 encodes videos directly to MPEG-4 AVI files, and a 1-minute, VGA-quality clip weighed in at about 30MB. While the video quality of our clips couldn't compare to those shot with a stand-alone camcorder, they were still impressively smooth and detailed (see Performance), especially compared with the camcorders you'll find in cell phones. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the Gmini 402 Camcorder can't record line-in video from a DVD player or other video component; for that, you'll have to step up to Archos's A/V line of personal video recorders.
Compared with its camcorder features, the Archos Gmini 402 Camcorder's 1.2-megapixel camera is a bit disappointing. Armed with all the basic functions you might expect in a camera phone, including a 5- or 10-second self-timer, exposure and white-balance settings, and a 2X digital (not optical) zoom, the snapshots we took with the Gmini 402 looked fuzzier and more washed out than camera phone images we've seen at similar resolutions.
You can view your snapshots using the same two-pane browsing interface found in the Archos Gmini 402's video player. Once you've snapped off some pictures or transferred images from your digital camera via the USB master port, select and click any image to see it in full-screen mode, or choose to view four or nine images at a time using the left soft key. Onboard image editing is restricted to zooming and rotating images, and you can't tweak the slide-show interval or play music during a slide show--too bad, given the Gmini's ready-and-willing music player.