On paper, the Archos 5 touch-screen Internet tablet comes across like an Apple iPod Touch on steroids. Every spec is designed to be over-the-top, from the 720p HD video playback and 4.8-inch screen, to the integrated GPS, Bluetooth, and FM transmitter. The capacities on offer are also beyond belief, starting with a $249 8GB model with a slender body and microSD slot, all the way up to a chunky, hard-drive-based 500GB version selling for $489.
In short: every aspect of the Archos 5 is made to lure hard-core digital media nerds away from products like the Zune HD and the iPod Touch. Wish the iPod Touch had GPS? Try the Archos 5. Disappointed by the relatively small screen and limited video codec support of the Zune HD? The Archos 5 is a video junkie's dream come true. Even the open-ended appeal of the iPhone App Store is addressed with the inclusion of a handful of Google Android applications and a built-in Archos download store where a limited selection of additional applications can be installed.
And while the barrage of features included on the Archos 5 are sure to feel liberating for technically demanding users, we suspect that the majority of people will prefer the more refined qualities and characteristics of an iPod Touch or a proper Android smartphone with full application support.
This isn't the first time around for the Archos 5. In 2008, a nearly identical version of the Archos 5 hit store shelves; the device shared many of the features of this 2009 model, yet lacked compatibility with Android applications. The complaints we held with the design of the 2008 model still stand: the whole thing is a smudge magnet; the headphone jack is placed right where you would hold the device; and the reflective screen is a step backward from the matte finish used on the beloved 605 WiFi.
That said, there's plenty to appreciate about the Archos 5's design and the improvements made to the latest models. For example, we love the built -in metal kickstand that hinges out from the back--a brilliant feature, especially for watching movie-length video content. The dimensions also make us happy, with the thinner 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB models measuring 5.5 inches wide, 3 inches tall, and a relatively svelte 0.4 inch thick (hard-drive models are twice as thick). In real-world terms, that means the Archos 5 is just small enough to fit into the front or back pocket of your jeans.
Aside from the Archos 5's notable distinction as the company's thinnest portable media player to date, the device is also one of the first from Archos to use a Micro-USB PC connection. Compared with the proprietary cables used on most Archos players in the past, the adoption of Micro-USB is a step in the right direction in terms of convenience, making it easier to acquire generic replacement cables. Proprietary dock connections on the bottom of the Archos 5 help to maintain compatibility with accessories such as AV media docks and battery packs.
The Archos 5 is crammed with so many features, that to make sense of them all, we're going to break them out into separate sections for hardware, media playback, and Android. The most notable hardware features of the Archos 5 include Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, but lesser features such as an FM radio/transmitter, microphone, speaker, and accelerometer, are also worth mentioning.
If you're going to call your product an "Internet tablet," you can't skimp on Wi-Fi support. Fortunately, the Archos 5 juggles 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi bands with ease and handles hot-spot sign-on pages with a dexterity befitting of its name. Advanced users also have the capability of tethering the Archos 5 to their cell phones, allowing the device to piggyback on a cellular data connection. In practice, however, setting up phone tethering involves a complicated dance of carrier access point names and Bluetooth pairing that is not for the faint of heart.
Next up, we have GPS, a feature Archos offered with last year's Archos 5 but required an extra $130 for a car dock. Even then, Archos' previous dance with GPS was a car-only system that you couldn't walk with. In the latest Archos 5, GPS is built right into the hardware and users will only need to pay a one-time fee of $39 to activate the maps for a complete NDrive GPS navigation system.
In theory, the inclusion of GPS marks a clear advantage the Archos 5 holds over the iPod Touch. Unfortunately, real-world performance issues make the Archos 5 GPS experience more frustrating than it's worth. Under the firmware we tested (1.2.03), we found that GPS reception took an inordinate amount of time to locate a signal around the San Francisco Bay Area. In the few instances where signals were strong enough to pinpoint our location, the GPS capabilities were surprisingly thorough, allowing for turn-by-turn driving directions and an in-depth, relatively accurate selection of local points of interest. But with an average cold-boot time of 45 seconds and the unpredictable amount of time it takes to locate a valid GPS signal, our experience with the Archos 5 had us feeling that it was more of an obstacle for travel than an asset. We can't say that the GPS doesn't work, but it certainly doesn't work quickly and we're reluctant to characterize the feature as a reason to buy the Archos 5.
We have no complaints when it comes to the Archos 5's handling of Bluetooth. Our Altec Lansing Backbeat 904 stereo headset paired relatively easily with the Archos 5, offering the kind of audio quality and wireless range (around 30 feet) we expect from Bluetooth. Bluetooth 2.0 extras, such as AVRCP, EDR, and HID, help to extend the capabilities beyond basic A2DP audio streaming.
Unfortunately, the remaining Archos 5 hardware features either disappoint or barely warrant mention. For example, the microSD card slot included on the 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB models of the Archos 5 would sometimes declare various memory cards as being corrupted, yet recognize them after a reboot of the hardware.
The FM transmitter requires an attached pair of headphones in order to operate it, but it still failed to provide us with an acceptable signal among the clogged bandwidth of San Francisco. The FM radio receiver worked well and offers RDS station and song IDs, however, using a self-described "Internet tablet" for its FM radio feels like using a Lexus for its cigarette lighter. The integrated accelerometer is useful for reorienting Web pages but is slow to react compared with the iPod Touch or Zune HD. More often than not, we noticed the accelerometer as an irritation when it triggered accidentally while flat on a table or tipped too far back while walking.