A VCR No Bigger Than a Paperback

The Archos AV340, while flawed, is the first of what promises to be a nifty new generation of entertainment devices

As I settled in for the tedium of a transcontinental flight recently, I knew the onboard movie wasn't going to offer any relief: I had seen it on an earlier trip, and it was lousy. But I was prepared. I had a new Archos AV340 Video Recorder, a unit a bit smaller than a typical paperback book. While the AV340 is not the video player of my dreams, having Orson Welles's Touch of Evil and George Cukor's Born Yesterday to while away the time certainly beat the alternatives.

The AV340 is the first of what promises to be an interesting generation of portable entertainment devices. Made by Archos, a French producer of portable media players, the device can play music or display photos that have been loaded onto its hard drive. Sure, there are other products that handle those tasks better, notably Apple Computer (AAPL )'s iPod for music. But it's the ability to record and play video from just about any source that distinguishes this product.

Priced at $629, the AV340 features a bright, crisp, 3.8-in. diagonal screen. Use a book to prop it at a comfortable angle on a tray table, and it actually makes for better viewing than most airplane video systems. The 40-gigabyte hard drive (the 20-GB AV320 costs $60 less) can hold about 40 hours of video or thousands of songs and pictures in whatever combination you choose. In video mode, the battery lasts about 3.5 hours, enough for two feature films if they're on the short side. (A replaceable battery would be a welcome addition on long plane rides.)

archos AV340
Beyond battery life, the player has some major flaws. Poor design choices make it a lot harder to use than it should be. A bigger problem is that the lack of prerecorded digital content that can be downloaded directly to the player makes loading the video you want to see a considerable chore.

First, the design: The user interface has been a weak point of Archos' music players, and the AV340 improves the situation only a bit. The player is controlled by a mini-joystick, plus five buttons -- which are distinguished only by their shape -- down the right side of the unit. The top button turns the power on and selects menu choices. The second button turns it off or goes back to the previous screen. The function of the three remaining buttons depends on where you are in the menus, but it is hard to associate the vertical row of buttons with the horizontal row of labels across the bottom of the screen that list their functions. A bit of reengineering could vastly improve usability.

The content problem is much harder to fix. To get my movies into the player, I first recorded them off cable with a Replay TV digital video recorder. Then I transferred the recording by clipping an adapter to the AV340, hooking up the cables, and setting the Replay to play the movie while the Archos recorded it. A similar arrangement would work with a DVD player, a VCR, or some digital cable set-top boxes. In addition to being a great deal of bother, this method records only in real time: Transferring a two-hour movie takes two hours.

If you have videos on a PC or a Macintosh in the compressed DivX format, or digital video that you can convert to DivX, you can load them directly into the player using a USB cable. Archos supplies the software, but the conversion process is a bit cumbersome. The bigger problem, however, is that only a few obscure films are legitimately available in DivX. (There are plenty of pirated films on the Internet, but downloading them is simple thievery.) I believe you should be able to convert a film from a prerecorded DVD you own to a format you can watch on a portable player. But doing that by any means other than simply recording by plugging into a standard DVD player and showing the movie is both difficult and illegal.

Hollywood shouldn't have too much to fear from the AV340. Although you can use it as a player for a TV, the compressed movies look good on the small display but lose a lot of quality when shown on a bigger screen. And Archos says it is prepared to support digital-rights management systems, such as Windows Media, for the protection of legal downloads.

I hope that in the not-too-distant future you'll be able to take something like the AV340 to a kiosk in a mall or airport and quickly load it up with content you buy or rent. This will be a win both for content owners and for consumers. Until the content problem is solved, though, this promising class of products probably won't be much more than techie playthings.


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