Compact and oh so cool, portable video players let you download, store, and view television shows, movies, and photos, on a single take-it-anywhere device. You can also organize and play your music files, as well as back up and view other digital documents (such as text files and e-books) on these devices.
Portable video players are available from companies including Archos, Creative, IRiver, RCA, and Samsung. The devices cost anywhere from $400 to $800. IRiver and Creative, for example, use Microsoft's Portable Media Center software platform to run their devices. Other companies, including Archos and RCA, create their own proprietary platforms.
This slim $500 Archos AV400 handles your music, photos, and TV and movie viewing in style, but hooking it up to your entertainment center and dealing with the video conversion are not for novices.
For a detailed look at the world of portable video players, see "The Big Picture on Small-Screen Players." And for a review of a player that uses Microsoft's Portable Media Center, check out "First Look: Creative Zen Portable Media Center."
Are these pocket-size entertainment devices ready for prime time? To find out, I tested the $500 Archos AV420.
Setup and Configuration
The Archos AV420 is a slick, pewter-colored handheld, measuring 4.9 by 3.1 inches. It's less than an inch thick, too (0.8 inches precisely), making it ultracompact. Using the player--and setting it up--is easy and intuitive. To the right of the AV420's screen sit two sets of silver navigational control pads. The upper one is a circular, four-way directional pad that moves the cursor exactly the way you'd expect: up, down, left, and right. A button in its center turns the unit on and doubles as the Enter key and the Play button. Jutting stylishly out of the cursor pad's lower-left side, like the tail of a letter y, is a combination Escape/Stop/Standby button. The lower control pad consists of three navigation buttons that correspond to current on-screen menu selections.
The opening screen consists of nine friendly icons, including Video, Music, Photo, Setup, and Help. Thumbing the navigational keys, I was able to quickly browse through Help, watch the two instructional demos, readjust Power Settings, turn the sound on, and increase the bass boost.
There are oodles of features to configure--such as sound settings, LCD brightness, and recording quality--but you don't have to do a thing to start loading or playing content right out of the box. The AV420 comes preloaded with video clips and music so you can quickly see--and hear--this bad boy in action. It offers four different screen-viewing formats, including full picture and wide screen. You can set each one manually or let the default auto setting determine the best viewing angle.
Archos's TV Cradle (included in the price) is an essential piece of equipment: It connects the AV420 to your entertainment setup. However, setting up the TV Cradle, which doubles as a charger, is another story. At first glance, the octopus of eight cables had me racing for the manual and quick-start guide. Once I realized that the composite A/V-in and A/V-out cables were smartly banded together, labeled, and color-coded, I calmed down. There's also an S-Video-in cable, so you don't even have futz with the A/V-in cable.
You also need to line up another wire-thin cable, called an IR blaster, to the IR receiver located in the front of your VCR or set-top box. This lets the Archos change channels for scheduled recordings. It's not exactly plug-and-play; if you can't set up a TiVo, VCR, or universal remote, the TV Cradle connection can be challenging. Plus, the TV Cradle may not work with equipment that's more than six years old. The hassle, however, is well worth it. Once properly connected, the TV Cradle makes the AV420 compatible with just about any home-theater video source--TV, cable box, satellite receiver, VCR, and DVD player, so you can transfer content from your VCR or DVD player or TV to the Archos. It also allows the included wireless remote to control the Archos, and for a single TV/LCD button to switch video output to an external TV, say, in a hotel room.
Content In and Out
How easy is it to get content onto the device? And when you do, what can you do with it? Archos handles these chores in a number of ways--and once the cradle is hooked up correctly, it's relatively easy to move the content to the device. With the AV420 in its cradle, three quick button clicks can record live television or grab content from a VCR or DVD (though you still may need to change the TV station, depending on your particular setup).