The ESP is packin'
The ESP can also handle many other media types, including MP3,unprotected WMA and AAC, and WAV audio files, Motion JPEG, MPEG-1, MPEG-4 (up to 720x480 at 25fps, 640x480 at 30fps), WMV9, and XviD video. As long as they're not DRM-protected, most of your files will play back without a hitch, and playback quality on the bright display is very good. Other files will most likely be converted in Windows Media Player. Conveniently, the ESP can be switched from MTP (PictBridge/Media Player) to UMS hard disk mode.
While the ESP GUI lacks the sizzle of those of the Archos 604 or Cowon A2, it's not a total bore. The main menu features low-color bit icons for Pictures, Music, Video, Backup, Audio Recorder, Video Recorder, Radio, and Game. Additionally, player settings, the Browse Hard Drive feature, and any inserted media cards will show up on page two of the options. All browsing is done folder-tree style, and all items (including the main menu) can be viewed in either icon or list mode. Conveniently, you can copy and paste any file into any folder. The background can be customized with any photo. The music playback screen doesn't show album art, but it does display pertinent file info and a sweet spectrum analyzer. You also get one on-the-go playlist, the unit is compatible with standard M3U playlists, and you get seven good equalizer presets and a custom setting that includes 3D enhancement. The ESP can feel very much like an MP3 player, and yes, it sounds pretty good.
The decent FM radio is recordable (AAC) and features a neat retro interface. You also get 18 presets in two groups, and stations are autoscannable. The ESP is a voice recorder out of the box (performance is good at the highest AAC recording setting), but to get line-in audio and video recording, you'll need to spring for the $69 dock. The good news is that the audio-recording interface features a real-time graphical sound-wave monitor (cool!). Video recording (MPEG-4, 352x240 at 30fps) can be scheduled (up to eight events), and content can even be recorded onto media cards. There is no TiVo-like programming or even channel selection, though. Recorded video looks good, and the accompanying AAC audio is solid.
Battery life is rated for 3 to 3.5 hours of video playback and 8 to 10 hours of audio. CNET Labs was able to muster about 13 hours of MP3 playback, definitely better than the mediocre rating. I'll update this review with results of video playback draining. Good news here is that the lithium-ion rechargeable battery is removable and is actually a pretty affordable standard model ($30; Sanyo UR-18650F). The ESP ships with an OK case, earbuds, audio and video cables, a USB cable, a small wall-wart power adapter, a CD, and a user's guide. As mentioned, the recommended docking cradle is $69. Additional accessories such as a remote control are available here.
Overall, I'm pretty impressed with the unit's file compatibility, features, and playback performance, though I'd personally still opt for the fancier Archos 404 or 604, or if I really wanted the extra storage, the $599 160GB Archos 504. But still, if you're a digital shutterbug and don't mind the non-wide-screen display and the lack of DRM support, the ESP is a very good choice, especially at $399 for the 80GB version (the 80GB Archos 504 is $499, the same price as the 120GB ESP).
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