Net TV: Coming Into Focus

Archos makes an advance, but the setup is tricky


The search for Internet TV feels like the hunt for the Loch Ness monster: Plenty of people claim to have seen the beast, and many will sell you expensive trinkets. Each month, there's more content out there on the Web that you might enjoy on a big screen. The long-elusive Internet TV device should let you grab what you want and watch it on the TV set of your choice.

The Archos 605 Wi-Fi video player, on sale Sept. 1, is one of the first Internet TV systems to hit most of the points on my wish list. People tend to associate Archos with portable media players, but the fetching silver-and-white model I tested ($399, with 160 gigabytes) also surfs the Web, downloads content, and docks with a TV.

Even novices should find it relatively easy to operate, thanks to intuitive icons on a high-quality 4.3-inch touch screen. The Archos Content Portal, represented by one of those icons, lets you download movies and TV shows from CinemaNow. There's also a music download service called BurnLounge and a link to YouTube (GOOG ), and Archos may announce several other content partnerships before the November launch of a new unit with a 7-inch screen. On all models there's a built-in Web browser with Adobe (ADBE ) Flash Player support, which improves the hunt for Web content. Videos, Web-based games, animation, and other offerings I downloaded all looked as good as they do on my laptop.

THE PART OF THIS PROCESS that has flummoxed other consumer companies is getting Net-based content to the TV. Archos gives you two ways to do it. Using Wi-Fi, the player establishes a fast link to your home network and lets you stream any Windows-compatible content from your PC to the Archos 605. A $100 add-on dock, called the Archos DVR Station, takes over from there. You connect it to your TV set via high-definition or standard-definition cables. Then simply plop the Archos into its dock, pick up the palm-size remote control, and begin browsing the Web or viewing content stored on the Archos hard drive. Want to take some recorded TV shows with you on a plane? You can connect this same dock to your cable or satellite set-top box and record programming in standard definition on the Archos player. To make the experience more TiVo (TIVO )-like, the company includes a programming guide that's free for the first year and $20 a year after that. In my test, almost everything worked as it should. To record ABC News (DIS ), all I had to do was tap that entry on the program guide. I also used the schedule function, which let me record while away from home, like TiVo.

Setting up the Archos 605 did require separate online registration for the unit, the dock, and partner sites such as CinemaNow. And some key icons such as settings and menu are crammed onto the bottom-right of the screen, making it difficult for people with big fingers to tap accurately. I also found the manual controls lining the right side of the player a little confusing. There's an unusual rocker switch on each of these side keys that serves a different function depending on whether you press the left edge or the right. Users must also figure out the infrared code for changing channels on the set-top box—a process that took several service calls.

And of course, downloading large files via Wi-Fi can take a long time; I had to restart a CinemaNow download of Wild Hogs several times because the unit, when it's not docked, turns off the Wi-Fi automatically to save battery life.

Archos, in other words, isn't nirvana. (And last I checked, there's still no Nessie.) But despite the occasional hassle, this device offers one of the best experiences available in the still-troubled arena of Internet TV.

Steve Wildstrom is on vacation.

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By Cliff Edwards

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