The Archos 5 Internet Tablet is the first Google Android powered tablet from Archos, a company best known for making MP3 players and portable media players. And at it’s core, the Archos 5 Internet tablet is a pretty good media player. It offers all the features you would expect including excellent audio and video playback capabilities and access to online media and files stored on your home network. It even has a built in FM radio tuner.
But what makes the Archos 5 Internet Tablet special is the underlying operating system which allows you to run thousands of Android applications. Out of the box, the tablet has a few Android apps installed including the Android web browser and the eBuddy instant message client. A few hundred more are available from the AppsLib app store. But with a little tweaking you can install the full Android Market, granting you access to many of the 16,000+ applications available for Google Android smartphones.
All this without the need to sign up for a contract with a mobile broadband provider. The lack of a service plan alone would make the Archos 5 one of the cheapest devices to run Google Android, since most Android Smartphones will end up costing you thousands of dollars over a 2 year contract. But with prices ranging between $250 and $500, this Android powered WiFi slate is truly one of the most affordable internet tablets around.
The folks at Archos were kind enough to lend me an internet tablet to review. The demo unit I received has 32GB of storage, an 800MHz ARM Cortex-A8 CPU, 256MB of RAM, 802/11b/g/n WiFi, a USB port, and runs Android 1.6 plus some custom Archos software.
The tablet features a 4.8 inch, 800 x 480 pixel resistive touchscreen display. It took That means you’ll get better results if you tap at it with a stylus or fingernail than with your fingertip, although because Android features large icons you should be able to perform most actions with a fingertip.
The case plastic case features a glossy finish, and there’s a shiny strip surrounding the screen. All of which is to say, that the tablet is something of a fingerprint magnet. Things get even shinier on the back of the tablet, where there’s a reflective almost mirror-like panel. But how often are you going to look at the back anyway?
Also on the back you’ll find a kickstand which you can pull out in order to prop the Archos 5 on a table for easy, hands-free viewing. A first I thought it was a stylus, but it turns out that no stylus is included with the tablet.
On the bottom you’ll find a micro SD card slot for additional storage. There are also a few proprietary ports on the bottom that you can use to connect an external battery or an optional docking station that lets you play video stored on the tablet on a TV.
The left side of the tablet has a headphone jack and a USB port which is used to charge the tablet and to transfer files to and from a PC.
On the front left side of the tablet you’ll find a speaker which provides reasonably loud, if not exactly stellar audio. On the back of the tablet, just behind the USB port there’s a reset button that you can poke with a straightened out paperclip to restore the tablet to factory default settings.
On the top of the unit you’ll find a power button and volume buttons. That’s it for the physical buttons on the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. All other controls are software-based. if you want to turn on the tablet, you press and hold the power button until it boots or resumes from sleep. If your tablet locks up, press and hold the power button until it shuts down.
There’s also an accelerometer which will automatically rotate the display depending on whether you’re holding the tablet in portrait or landscape mode.
Overall, the Archos 5 Internet Tablet has a rather cheap plasticky feel to it, especially when compared with a more expensive Android device such as the Google Nexus One smartphone. But I’ll let that pass, given that the Archos tablet has a larger screen and enhanced media playback capabilities with a starting price of less than half the cost of the unsubsidized Nexus One.
Measuring 5.6″ x 3.1″ x 0.4″ and weighing 6.4 ounces, the Archos 5 tablet is pocketable, but just barely. If you compare it to a smartphone, it’s enormous. Compared with a netbook, it’s tiny. That’s partly due to the fact that there’s no physical keyboard, something which dictates the size of a comfortable netbook.
I’ll touch on the Android operating system and application environment in a moment. But first I wanted to single out two different software features: The web browser and the media software. The browser is the standard Android browser, but it’s particularly well suited to a small tablet like the Archos 5. The multimedia software on the other hand, is all Archos and blows away the standard media playback software that comes with most Google Android devices.
One of the things that bugged me most about the original Asus Eee PC 701 was that it’s 800 x 480 pixel display just wasn’t quite big enough to handle most web pages and many PC applications. Surfing the web is a lot less fun if you have to constantly use a mouse or touchpad to scroll from side to side or if you need to continually reposition windows to hit the OK and Next buttons.
The Archos 5 Internet Tablet has the same 800 x 480 pixel resolution (albeit on an even smaller display), but I don’t find the experience of web surfing on this tablet to be nearly as cumbersome. That’s largely due to the Android web browser, which is designed for the even smaller screens found on smartphones.
Like the iPhone web browser, the Android browser is capable of displaying full web pages as well as pages that are formatted for small screens. If a page is normally formatted for a 1024 x 768 or larger screen, the text may look tiny and unreadable on the Archos 5 screen — especially if you’re holding the tablet in portrait mode. But you can double-click on the page to zoom in, or use the zoom in/out buttons that appear at the bottom of the screen.
This may sound like a clunky solution, but anyone that’s ever used an iPhone or other Android device can attest to the fact that it actually makes reading full sized web pages on a small screen rather pleasant.
Pages don’t render quite as fast on the Archos 5 as they do on the Google Nexus One, which has a faster 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. But they do still load reasonably quickly over my home wireless network. Surfing the web using the Archos 5 Internet Tablet and Android browser is almost as fast as using Google Chrome or Firefox on a Windows netbook. I was surprised to find that I was able to accomplish some tasks, such as checking the latest news and marking stories as read in Google Reader were even faster using a mobile device such as the Archos 5 than a desktop browser. Your results may vary.
The Android interface as featured on the Archos 5 features a toolbar at the top of the screen with a home, settings, and back button. You can also see the current time, battery and WiFi status and other notifications in this area.
Once you fire up the browser app, you’ll be taken to the browser homepage. To visit another page, hit the settings button in the far right corner to bring up a menu at the bottom of the screen which. Hit “Go” to enter a URL, “Bookmarks” to visit a bookmarked page or add the current as a bookmark, or “New Window” to create a new window/browser tab.
Flipping between open browser windows does take a few clicks, since you first have to hit the Settings button, then the “Windows” button and then find the window you want to open or close. It’s not quite as elegant as the way the iPhone and iPod Touch handle browser tabs. But it gets the job done.
If there’s one thing that the Archos 5 Internet Tablet has to offer that you won’t find on any other Android-based device, it’s the excellent multimedia software developed by Archos. Most Android phones can handle H.263, H.264, and some MP4 and 3gp video files as well as MP3, AAC, WAV, and Ogg Vorbis audio. But the Archos 5 can handle almost any format you care to throw at it with support for video resolutions up to 720p. Here’s a partial list of supported codecs:
- Ogg Vorbis
Basically, Archos took its multimedia software and ported it to the Android platform. I really wish the company would offer some of this software for purchase for other devices through the Android Market, but since Archos has no control over what kind of hardware other device makers use, it’s likely not going to happen anytime soon.
In addition to playing media packed onto the tablet’s hard drive, flash storage, or micro SD card, you can also stream content over a home network or connect to UPnP devices. Using the UPnP capabilities, I was even able to connect to my media center PC running Windows 7 and PlayOn‘s software — which allowed me to stream video from Hulu. Playback was nearly flawless, but this trick will only work over a home network. I would be able to stream Hulu at a coffee shop this way.
There’s also a video recording plugin that lest you record 720p TV shows as MPEG-4 videos using the optional DVR station docking accessory.
The Music application can play files from the internal storage, from over a network, or using the built in FM radio tuner.
You can also view photos stored on a network or the device, use the Archos Games section to download and install games including some Adobe Flash games. Did I mention that the Archos 5 Internet tablet supports Adobe Flash? Because it does. It’s not a new enough version to handle Hulu and some other web sites (without the help of PlayOn), but this is definitely another area where the Archos 5 Internet Tablet stands apart from other Android devices.
There’s also a “Media Club” section in the media software menu which lets you access web TV and Radio, as well as download stores for music and videos.
The Archos 5 Internet Tablet has a slightly modified version of Android 1.6. In addition to the media playback software, the UI has been tweaked so that the default layout is landscape rather than portrait, and the navigation buttons are at the top of the screen on the edges of the notification bar.
As with other Android devices, you can customize the layout of the home screen by tapping and holding on icons for a second and then dragging and dropping them to any location you like. You can also add widgets such as a calendar, clock, or music player to the home screen by tapping and holding on the desktop and then choosing the Widgets option. If you run out of space on the home screen or want to separate games from utilities, you actually have three home screens to choose from. Just drag the home screen to the left or right to open up a new workspace.
On the right side of the screen you’ll see a little tab with an arrow on it. You can tap this to open a complete list of applications. Any of these can be added to the home screen using the same tap-and-hold method I just described.
I’ve been using Android on a few different devices for the past couple of weeks and I’ve gotten somewhat used to the way the operating system works. I like the level of customization you have over the home screen, for instance. But Google sort of goes overboard when it comes to the settings menu, which has almost too many options, which aren’t always laid out in the most straightforward manner.
For instance, you want to know how to adjust the display brightness on the Archos 5? You open the settings dialog, click “Sound & display” and then scroll all the way down to the second last option to find “Brightness.” Tap that, and you can finally adjust the brightness using a slider. This setting comes below the Archos theme color, animation, storage notification, and equalizer settings. Maybe it’s just me, but I would have figured brightness would be right next to media volume at the top of the screen — or possibly even higher, since there are physical volume buttons on the Archos 5 Internet Tablet.
The on-screen keyboard that comes with Android 1.6 is usable, but not perfect. Since the Archos 5 has a resistive touch screen, I actually find it easier to tap on the keyboard using the back of a single fingernail rather than typing away with two thumbs. Generally I find the iPhone/iPod touch keyboard to be better for accuracy than the default Android keyboard, but the Archos 5′s large screen makes it pretty easy to enter text without too many typos.
One of the benefits of purchasing the Android powered Archos 5 Internet Tablet rather than a media player with custom software such as the Archos 5 without Android, is that there are thousands of third-party applications available for the Android platform. Unfortunately you can’t access most of them using the software that comes with the Archos 5 Internet Tablet. That’s because Google hasn’t officially approved the Android Market for devices that aren’t phones. Since the Archos 5 doesn’t make phone calls or have a camera, it might not be able to run some of the apps in the full Android Market, which I suppose is a bummer.
But the AppsLib marketplace that comes with the Archos 5 is no replacement. There are just a few hundred applications available at the moment. And while a growing number of apps are showing up in the AppsLib director, I’d much rather have access to the full catalog of 16,000 apps, most of which do work on the Archos 5.
Fortunately, there’s an unofficial tool that makes it incredibly easy to install the Android Market on an Archos 5 Internet Tablet. All you have to do is copy a file to the tablet using a USB connection, open it up in the Archos file browser, and then run the application once it’s been installed to add Google apps such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Talk, as well as the Android Market.
As I mentioned, some of the apps in the Market may not work on your device due to the lack of hardware support. And because the Archos 5 runs Android 1.6 rather than the newer Android 2.1 that’s running on the Google Nexus One smartphone, some programs such as Google Earth for Android won’t be available. But I’ve heard that Archos does plan to release an Android 2.1 update for the Archos 5 in the future.
Another thing I should point out is that while the Archos 5 has much of the functionality I’ve come to expect from an Android smartphone plus excellent multimedia capabilities, the device generally feels less stable. From time to time a program would crash or the entire device would become unresponsive. The solution was invariably to press and hold the power button to reboot the system and start over from scratch.
The Archos 5 Internet Tablet is one of the cheapest Android devices that will let you surf the web over a WiFi connection. It also happens to have excellent media player software. Or to put it another way, the tablet is a decent media player that has the added bonus of being a web browser and Android tablet that will let you run thousands of third party applications. And it gets pretty good battery life. I didn’t test it extensively, because it’s much tougher to do a run-down test of a device that’s meant to be used on and off throughout the day than a standard laptop. But Archos says you should get 7 hours of video playback time and up to 22 hours of audio playback time, and that seems about right from my experience.
But is it worth shelling out the money for an Archos 5 instead of an Android powered Smartphone or an iPod touch?
The smartphone comparison is tricky. If you’re not interested in paying a monthly fee for access to a mobile broadband network, the Archos 5 is a much better deal than an unlocked smartphone — even if the software is a little older and the system is more likely to crash than a newer phone such as the Google Nexus One.
But you can pick up an iPod touch for less money than an Archos 5 and you get a web browser, app store with more than 150,000 applications, and a decent media player. But the iPod touch ahs a smaller, lower resolution display than the Archos 5, and limited multitasking capabilities. Try listening to a streaming radio station while surfing the web on an iPod Touch. You can’t do it unless you jailbreak the phone.
You can buy an Archos 5 Internet Tablet with 8G of flash storage for $250 from Archos. It’s also available with 16GB or 32GB of flash storage, or a 160GB of 500GB hard drive, with the top of the line 500GB model selling for $500. Some models are a few bucks cheaper from Amazon, but not all models are listed there.