Review: Archos AV400 Portable Video Recorder

I can remember attending meetings 10 years ago with data backed up on floppy discs, back in the days when a floppy disc was a viable form of data transfer. This was also back in the days when business traveling meant staying in a hotel with four TV channels (in the UK at least), so little in the way of in-room entertainment. Nowadays, transporting data requires the digital equivalent of a ten ton truck, with multimedia content easily swallowing hundreds of megabytes of space. While USB memory sticks have provided excellent convenience, they are still limited to single figure Gigabyte sizes.


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Enter the Archos AV series. This product has been around for a while, but has evolved nicely into the 400 series. As battery technology has improved, LCD prices continue to fall and hard drives increase there has also been a market driven need for a means of storing audio, image, video and data files for easy transporting and viewing. Finally there is a product that can handle this convergence of technologies.

The Archos is essentially a notebook hard drive with an LCD slapped on the front of it, a Compact Flash slot on the side, a speaker on the front and a microphone at the top. To the right of the 3.5" LCD display is an uncomplicated button layout comprising the usual four way navigation and five multi-functional buttons. Upon switching the unit on you are quickly greeted with a 9-icon menu, allowing you to either access your content, record new content or configure the unit. It connects to a PC via fast USB2, giving excellent data transfer rates.

There are several sizes of hard disc available, from 20GB to 100GB. The model reviewed contained a 40GB hard disc, which Archos claim can record up to 80 hours of video - this is at the lower of the two resolutions - TV or LCD, however the latter is perfectly acceptable for viewing on the LCD and only slightly noticeable when played back through a standard TV.


At the top of the unit there is a small hole that houses the microphone. This provides a more than adequate recording level for voice recordings, and as the file is digital anyway you could easily use a sound editing program such as Audacity to increase the volume if necessary.


To the left you'll find the Compact Flash type I slot, which can also take Archos's option card adaptor, allowing the AV400 to read SD, SM, MMC, MS and MS Pro cards. This turns the Archos into a very portable image library. A minor niggle is that the larger the image viewed the longer it takes to display it. A snap taken with a camera phone will be displayed almost instantly, but a 5 megapixel image can take 2 seconds. As the megapixel count continues to grow this will only increase the image display time, although by then no doubt you'll be buying the next generation of Archos with a much larger hard disc!


Where the Archos really comes into its own is its video recording facilities. I've used this for converting VHS tapes to digital files for archiving and editing with excellent results. The AV400 is supplied with a cradle so that it can be hardwired into your TV/VCR/Satellite setup. At the rear of the cradle is a plethora of cables - three in, three out plus S-VHS. The PSU (which, incidentally comes with both UK and European adaptors - unusual, but welcome) can be plugged into the cradle, along with another cable that hooks over the infrared eye of your VCR or Satellite receiver. This allows the Archos's remote control to also control your receiver. Overkill in my opinion but a nice touch nevertheless. A built in scheduler allows the AV400 to switch on the external device (via infra red) and record predefined programmes. Files are saved in MP4 format, giving excellent compression. A 2 hour video file at LCD quality will take about 750MB of space. If your company has an archive of old VHS material that needs transferring to digital this is a very easy way to do it. Videos can be 'clipped' or 'cropped', so you could, for example, remove the adverts from a program, or 'top and tail' it, removing surplus material at the start and end of the recording.


If you want to transfer your DVD collection in high quality you'll have to work a little harder, and you will of course be breaking the law! Any macrovision copy protected signal (which includes most VHS tapes as well) will record to the Archos, but will default to LCD quality - you wont be able to play it on an external display either. There are plenty of DVD ripping tools available, however it will take you the best part of half a day to rip a standard film, then recompile it to MP4 using Archos's provided software.


Viewing photos is simple enough - select Photos from the main menu and thumbnail images of either JPG or BMP files are displayed in 1, 4 or 9 thumbnail format. Pictures can also be zoomed/panned up to 3 times. MP3 and WMA audio files (including DRM protected) can be played, and you can also create your own playlists - useful if you decide to dump your entire CD collection on it.


Connecting to a PC is simple - just plug in the USB cable and most Windows systems will see it straight away - it'll simply be displayed as a separate drive letter. You can then drag and drop files between your PC and the AV400.


The AV400 intelligently manages battery usage. When used in audio or data transfer modes the display will shut off within a user-defined period. Watching the internal display is, understandably less forgiving on battery, with a quoted 3 1/2 hour life. Audio is quoted at 12 hours, however I think in reality you can shave 20% off of that. The 20GB has a removable Li-Ion battery, however larger units have batteries built in, requiring a return to the manufacturer when they require changing.


Overall build quality is excellent, with the four corners protected with rubber. The unit feels solid to hold (if a little warm after extended use!). The internal speaker is a little disappointing, but the provided headphones with integral volume wheel will no doubt be the general modus operandi. While the supplied case is of sturdy quality it does not allow for use while the unit it in it, but there are other cases available for under £15 that will allow access to all ports and the ability to view the screen while still offering protection.

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Conclusion
While this product is predominantly marketed as a consumer device I personally find it can hold its own as an excellent business tool. Imagine having a device only slightly larger than a PDA that can back up all of your important files, act as an audio or video jukebox, act as an excellent method for shuttling data around, play images/video on a standard TV, record video from a TV/VCR DVD and even act as a voice recorder. During the day you can record meeting notes, back up or refer to archived data and play back business videos or photos, and during the evening you can catch up on programmes that you recorded while the unit was connected to your home TV setup or share your entire photo album with friends.


Supplier's web site:
www.archos.com

Rating
Marketing your Business - 4 star award


Pro's: Very flexible device for both business and entertainment. Excellent build quality.
Con's: Battery not removable on larger models. Picture redraw slows down the larger the image filesize.