I have to confess. This is going to be a difficult review for me to write, as the Personal Media Player market is in an interesting state of flux: Smartphones are attacking the PMP market from the smaller screen size side, and tablets are becoming more competitive at larger screen sizes.

The ability for dedicated PMP’s to differentiate themselves is quickly evaporating; however, the one advantage a company will always be able to leverage is price.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Archos’ latest entry-level offering.

Don’t let them fool you. The Archos 32 Internet Tablet isn’t a tablet. It’s an Android powered, low-cost alternative to other PMP’s like the iPod Touch. The “32” identifies the device as having a 3.2” screen. That’s not Tablet territory. It’s not even close.

Nomenclature notwithstanding, the Archos 32 is a fascinating example of low cost compromise. Every part of the design decision is geared towards arriving at the lowest possible cost for a device which still accomplishes it’s goals of playing media and surfing the web. 8GB of storage space is built in, divided between apps and media. About 6GB is available for media storage, and 200MB is open for apps. There is no SD card slot to expand storage.

Screen size is small, and the resolution is low to match, only WQVGA (400×240). That low-res helps the unit get away with a lower power processor (single core 800MHz). The small screen and low-power processor allows the 32 to use a smaller battery and still have decent enough run time. I actually don’t know what the capacity of the battery is, but the Archos is DISTRACTINGLY light–so it can’t be a high-capacity cell. I was still able to run the unit for hours of music listening.

Let’s chat build quality.
Yeah, this thing is super light. I almost threw it the first time I picked it up off a table. In the hand it feels lighter than the battery of my Epic 4G…JUST the battery. The look is nice enough, glossy plastic in front, matte soft touch plastic in back. A pleasingly thin form factor (almost exactly the same thickness as an iPhone). Four touch buttons for Back, Menu, Home, and Search, but underneath those four keys are separate touch controls for volume. I found this to be an odd choice, as there’s already a dedicated hardware volume rocker on the side of the device. It was entirely WAY too easy to touch the wrong control because of the odd bottom arrangement and overall small device size, even with my girlie little hands…

The screen is another cost-savings compromise. The 32 uses a resistive screen instead of capacitive. Thankfully, it genuinely is one of the most sensitive resistive screens I’ve ever used, so sliding through home screens and selecting apps was almost indistinguishable from using a capacitive-screened device. Where resistive screens rear their ugly heads is in text entry. The less accurate screen coupled with the small size makes text entry in portrait a nightmare. You learn very quickly that every text field you encounter requires a trip to landscape town.

It’s honestly difficult returning to QVGA resolution. I haven’t used a QVGA screen since my HTC Apache in 2005, and QVGA was lean then. The first comment my wife made was a disappointed “oh… It’s like my old blackberry…”

The camera on board is pretty mediocre. It’s all VGA. Pics. Vids. You’ll be treated to 640×480 dots. Performance is slow. The lens is probably plastic. Output is somewhat drab, colors muted, and shutter speed is slow in anything but ideal outdoor sunlight. There’s no flash, so expect most pictures taken indoors to be blurry. The camera location is also curious. It’s on the bottom of the device. Where your fingers are when you’re holding it. It’s tricky to use AND produces blah images. Double trouble.

While this is certainly not a device for creating media, it does a surprisingly decent job of playing media. A number of popular video codecs are supported, and I was surprised to see that even though it doesn’t have an HD screen, 720p video files played fine for the most part. It doesn’t look great, but you can do it.

The music app on board was also a pleasant surprise, featuring a nice scrolling effect through cover art, and responsive performance in queuing up and skipping tracks. It’s not the loudest PMP I’ve ever used, but it got me through a week of workouts on my apartment’s loud treadmill.

Performance in general was better than I thought it would be. UI navigating is responsive. Games would take a while to load, but in-game play was usually fine, another reason to thank the low res screen. An accelerometer is on board, so racing games work. Small issues arise from the unit not supporting multi-touch. For example, you can’t zoom in or out on Angry Birds since pinch gestures won’t work.

The app situation is somewhat troubling. Enough has been changed that Google apps aren’t supported, and Archos manages it’s own proprietary app store. Apps purchased in the Archos App Library will only be accessible to other Archos devices–that’s a bit restrictive for my tastes. The Amazon App Store can be loaded, and I find that to be a better app “investment.”

So where does that leave us?

At a street price of $140, I’m having a REALLY hard time seeing where this device fits into the gadget landscape. PMP’s currently face tough competition from tablets. The purchasing landscape is already narrowed down to “people-who-want-a-small-screen-but-don’t-want-a-smartphone” buyers, a rapidly vanishing demographic. Within that demographic, the Archos then fits into an even smaller subsection of folks, those who absolutely must pay the least amount possible regardless of compromises.
The Archos 32 certainly stands as an achievement, but it’s only $40 less than a Samsung Galaxy Player 4”, which improves upon the Archos in every way. I don’t like writing negative reviews of products, especially when those devices actully fulfill their intended purpose, but the Archos 32 is destined for a very small audience.

 

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