Archos AV400 & GMini400 Detailed Review

Originally created 11/12/2004, last updated 12/9/04

AV400 Out of the Box

When I first got my AV400 out of the box I was impressed with how it felt. It is solid, ergonomic, and well put together. The buttons feel the best of any Archos unit I've tried (AV300, GMini220, or JBM20). All the plugs are on the right-hand side - which is very pocket friendly. On the left-hand-side is a Compact-Flash Type 1 slot. There is a strange button on the top of the unit and on the back there is the removable battery.

When comparing the AV400 to the AV300 you immediately notice how thin the AV400 is - only 2/3rds the thickness of the AV300. The AV400 is a little longer and about as wide. The added length isn't really noticeable, but the slimmer body makes it ever so much easier to slip into a pocket. The new buttons are much better than the AV300s mini joystick.

In addition to the AV400, you get a TV-Cradle and some head-phones. Toss the head-phones - as always, they stink. Go spend $20 on some decent earbuds - you won't regret it. The Cradle fits the AV400 very easily with a rubber "pinch" gripper. You can rotate the AV400 about 15degress up and down and 30 degrees left and right. Left and Right rotation seems pointless to me because it is easier to just rotate the whole Cradle, but the up and down positioning is quite handy. Anyway, you place the AV400 in the rubber gripper and then plug the cradle into your AV400 with a single, multi plug. It connects the AC power and video/audio in and out with one quick snap. As docking stations go, this one works great.

On the back of the TV-Cradle are a bunch of wires going out - A/V In and Out and S-Video In. Also, there are three plugs coming in on the back. On is for AC power, one for the IR Blaster, and one for "keyboard" - which doesn't appear to be used. Connecting the TV-Cradle up is a snap. Plug in the Power, plug the AV In and Out to your VCR and TV and you are good to go.

The AV400 uses a standard Archos 5v adaptor just like the AV300 and JBM20. Thankfully it isn't something proprietary like the GMini220. The adaptor I got had a folding A/C plug making it great for traveling. As with all Archos AC adaptors, it works from 110 to 220v so, with a trivial plug adaptor, you can plug it in anywhere in the world.

Powering Up the AV400 and GMini400

Turing on the AV400 or GMini400 you are greeted with a screen which is very similar to the AV300s. There are some 3D highlights on the top and bottom bar, different, but not necessarily better icons than the AV300, and a different layout. You'll notice that the Camera and CamCorder icons are gone and are replaced with Resume and Help. The icons on the AV400 are as follows, reading from left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Video - the video browser
  2. Music - the music browser
  3. Photo - the photo browser
  4. Resume - the automatic, easy resume function
  5. Browser - the "all files" browser
  6. Setup
  7. VideoCorder - record with the DVR
  8. AudioCorder - line-in and built-in Mic recording
  9. Help - browses the "help" folder

The addition of the Resume icon is great, I'll talk more about that below, but the Help icon is under utilized. Under the Help icon you will find a JPG that tells you to read the manual and a moderately useful AVI that describes how to connect your AV400 to the TV & VCR for recording and playback. Though the AVI isn't bad, chances are it isn't going to answer the questions you really have. If the AV400 just had a text viewer and the entire manual in text right there... Or better yet, HTML? PDF? That would really be nice.

The Gmini400's icons are almost the same except the "VideoCorder" has been replaced with "Games"

The LCD on the AV400 looks great. It is truly superior to the AV300s in every way, even though it is a tad smaller (the AV420s) at 3.5" vs the AV300s 3.8". The transreflective LCD can be read in direct sunlight - you could even watch video that way, though it still isn't ideal. The AV400 defaults medium brightness which is brighter than the AV300s maximum brightness. I have never used max brightness on my AV400 - it is usually too bright! The minimum, battery saver brightness is on par with the AV300s medium brightness and is quite good. If you care about battery life, you'll be very happy using this LCD setting and getting an extra 20-40% video playback time.

The GMini400's screen isn't quite as impressive. The colors are vibrant, but the darks are over bright and washed out. Plus the viewing angle isn't very great. Last, the 2.2" screen defiantly feels cramped for watching video. If you care about video, the LCD on the AV400 is a must, otherwise, the Gmin400's screen is just fine.

Audio Player: Music Browser and the ARCLibrary

Selecting the "Music" icon on either unit brings you to the Music browser. When the ARCLibrary is enabled you are presented the following menu:

  • Browse hard disk
  • Artist
  • Album
  • Title
  • Genre
  • Year
  • Playlist

They all work pretty much as you would expect. The old Gmini's (120, 220) supported this function, too, but the AV400 and GMini400 have a serious advantage - they can generate the database for these browsing options without a computer! You can either tell it to do it manually (under the Setup menu) or, whenever you unplug your AV400 from your computer it automatically updates it (and pretty quickly thankfully). So, basically, you don't even have to think about it. The ID3 based browser just works, all the time. And you don't even have to install proprietary software on your computer to use it (hint-hint Apple!). To me that makes the AV400 the -best- music player on the market! Though I still want an iPod-like analog wheel on my Archos (hint-hint Archos!).

You will notice in my rankings that I only gave the AV400 and GMini400 an 8 out of 10 for music playback. It comes very close to a 9, but it falls short in a few ways. The key one for me is the lack of SPDIF in and out. With SPDIF I/O you don't have to worry about audio quality. If you ever need maximum audio quality, you have it, no questions. Without it you are limited to the analog audio quality of your player. Archos has always been decent here, but has never received (nor earned) any awards for exceptional audio quality. Note to Archos - if the AV400 had SPDIF I/O, it would be a 9/10 audio player.

The new Resume feature finally works how you'd expect. Whatever MP3 or AVI you were playing last can be resumed where you stopped no matter how or when you stopped or what you did in between (unless you played another MP3 or AVI). Unfortunately, the wonderful new Resume functionality can't resume unsaved playlists. A minor omission perhaps, but that is the most important thing for my style of use. I always generate a playlist of the albums I am interested in listening to at that very moment, shuffle it, and start it playing. I never use pre-saved playlists. I almost never use Resume because of this, which is a shame - it really works great in every other way.

Another new feature are the bookmarks. You can bookmark your position in up to 16 MP3 and AVI files. Once you set a bookmark, you can play other files, do basically anything, and when you come back later, resume that file right where you left off. It is a very nice feature that works just about right. There is only one limitation: you can only have one bookmark per file. That may be a problem if you have audio books and you share your player with someone.

Like the AV300 before, the AV400 and GMini400 both do an excellent job when it comes to on-the-fly playlist generation. When you bring up the Music browser you can split the screen with the browser on the left and your current playlist on the right. The large AV400 screen works great for this. The smaller GMini400 screen works works well, too, but the AV400 is just better. This is why I would recommend buying an AV400 over other options even if you only need music playback. At any rate, you can easily add files, folders, or all our music to the current playlist with just a few clicks. Then, you can shuffle the playlist to get a guaranteed random, no-repeat track order that you can skip forward and backward through reliably.

Audio Recorder & Dictation: AudioCorder

It is generally agreed that the AV400/Gmini400s take one step forward and two steps backwards in terms of audio recording. The AV300 had very poor signal to noise ratio for recording (about 64db by my tests). The AV400 scored a respectable 86db. Though I haven't tested it, I expect the Gmini400 is the same as the AV400. This is good! However, the sacrifice wasn't worth it (in my opinion).

The AV400 marked the first Archos AV player to -not- support SPDIF. I've already mention this for output, but it is also true for input. The AV300 can be used as a professional studio recorder -able to record digitally at 48khtz, 16bit stereo to uncompressed wav files. It is an excellent low-cost alternative to dat recorders. The AV400 and GMini400, however, have no such support. The -can- record in WAV files still, but only from an analog source.

The second step backward was dropping support for MP3 recording. The AV400 is the first Archos capable of recording audio that couldn't do it in MP3 format. The AV400 (and Gmini400) instead added the support to record in ADPCM, a compressed form of WAV. At best, ADPCM can compress at a ratio of 4:1 whereas MP3 can compress at 10:1 or more. The smallest bit rate the AV400 can record at is 128kbps where the AV300's smallest was 32kbps.

Personally, the lack of MP3 recording is only a mild annoyance to me. If I wanted to record something I cared at all about the quality of, I'd record in uncompressed WAV. Not all MP3 encoders are created equal and if I am going to compress my audio, I want to use the highest quality possible. I'd record in WAV and compress it later with LAME. The annoyance, though, is I also like to use my Archos to record dictation from time to time. Then I don't care about quality and it is all about file size. The AV400 looses in a big way here with its smallest file size being 4x bigger than the AV300s smallest.

The AV400 has another really annoying problem. The line-in plug on the AV400 is proprietary. In order to use it, you can either use the TV Cradle included with the AV400 - large and bulky, terrible from a portability point of view, or shell out more cash for the portable adaptor. The Gmini400 doesn't have a TV-Cradle, so it comes with it's line-in adaptor.

In the end, if you care about audio recording via SPDIF, just get an AV300. If you only intent to use line-in, the AV400 works just fine - even better than the AV300. Both the AV400/Gmini400 and the AV300 have their pros and cons.

Video Player: Video Browser

When it comes to video playback, the AV400 is a clear winner. It is better than the AV300 in every way. It has a better screen (though slightly smaller, but not enough that you notice) and can play pretty much full DVD quality video (finally!). Further, all video playback is scaled to fill you screen. Even cooler, you can select to zoom a wide-screen video to full screen. This is a great feature when watching a film on the AV400's LCD.

The Gmini400, too, can play back higher resolution video than the AV300. However, the Gmini400's 2" screen is really too small and the screen's quality is inferior to even the AV300s let alone the AV400s. The Gmini400's LCD has rather poor viewing angles and, even if you are in the viewing sweet spot, the darker parts of your video look very blotching much like the problems the RCA Lyra had.

Below is a table showing the maximum official resolutions supported by the units:

 
Official Max Res
Pixels Per Second
Max Res Allowed
Movie (24fps) Playback
AV300
5,836,800
640x480
640: 1.85, 2.35
Gmini400
7,680,000
720x576
640:
1.33

720: 1.85, 2.35
AV400
10,137,600
720x576
720:
1.33, 1.85, 2.35

AV300 doesn't hold a candle compared to either the Gmini400 or the AV400 for TV output. It can't play anything at "DVD" quality (720x??? resolution). The Gmini400 can play all modern movies at full DVD quality. Only the old Academy Standard aspect ratio (1.33:1) movies must either be cropped or reduced to 640x480 resolution. The AV400 can play any movie at DVD quality. It can also play PAL and NTSC TV shows at very-near DVD quality.

Learn more about movie aspect ratios here.

Though the maximum playback resolutions have been increased, the old limitations of the Archos line are still there. The AV400/Gmini400s can -only- play AVI files encoded with Mpeg4, Simple-Profile video. They are -slightly- more flexible than the AV300 in that they can now play back AVI files with either an MP3 soundtrack or a PCM/ADPCM soundtrack.

As with previous Archos units, you'll likely run into audio synchronization issues from time to time. The AV400s are pretty good, but I still run into a file that plays fine on my PC that is out of sync on the AV400 from time to time. I also have problems with audio sync in AVI files on my PC from time to time, too. At this point I blame AVIs more than Archos. Archos just needs to start supporting some other containers! How about OGG?

Here are the key features the AV400 and Gmini400 do -not- support that I think are key to the ideal PVP:

  • Playback support for Mpeg1 (MPG files)
  • Playback support for Mpeg2 (VOB & MPG files)
  • Playback support for Mpeg4 both Simple and Advanced Profile at full DVD resolution (720x575x30fps)

Video Recorder: VideoCoder

I'm afraid I can't do an adequate review of the AV400's video recording quality since I essentially never use it, but I'll do what I can. Note that the GMini400 can't record video at all.

The AV400 comes with a TV Cradle / docking station with all the cables you need to connect it to your AV system. Once you've connected all the cables, you can plug in your AV400 with one fat cable from the TV Cradle. Very easy and very nice. The TV Cradle also includes an IR emitter on a wire that you can attach to your VCR, Cable or Satellite box. Then the AV400 can change channels automatically and record multiple different shows automatically. This is a big step up from the AV300! However, setting up the AV400 to record shows is just not Tivo-simple yet. You have to log into Yahoo and go through a series of awkward steps to pick shows and transfer the information to your AV400.

Another way the AV400 -isn't- like your Tivo is you can't pause live television. The AV400 is just a slightly smarter than average VCR.

As to the actual video recording, the AV400 is generally better than the AV300. It can record at up to [email protected] where the AV300 could only do [email protected] However, in my experimentation I discovered that the AV400 does a sloppy job of de-interlacing video - it only captures one out of every two fields. I found that recording at 512x384 I got some unpleasant Morier artifacts due to this. As such, I'd actually recommend sticking to 320x240 resolution for video recording - it seems to look better to me.

The biggest downside of the AV400 on video recording is it now detects the Macrovision signal from your DVD. Thankfully, unlike the Lyra, it doesn't outright block you from recording your DVD. Instead, it forces you to record at 320x240 resolution and it encryples your file so that it can only be played back on the LCD of the AV400 that recorded it. No TV-out, no playing on any other AV400. No playing on your PC. Personally I find this both offensive and silly. If I wanted to "Record" a DVD to pirate it, I'd just -rip- it using my computer's DVD player. It's much higher quality (even if it takes a little longer).

When recording Video, you also want to record the Audio. On the AV300, with MP3 recording support, your audio stream was in MP3 format. That seemed a natural and obvious fit. Now, however, the AV400 doesn't support MP3 recording, so your audio stream has to be in ADPCM. This means bigger files for the same quality as recording on the AV300.

Portable Hard Drive

As a portable Hard Drive, the AV400 and Gmini400 are much like any other Archos product. They connect via USB1 or USB2 to your computer. Most operating systems immediately recognize them as a hard-drive without having to install any software. Then you can just copy files on and off them however you want. In addition, like past Archos products, you can rename, move, and copy files and folders on the unit itself without the need of a computer. This makes these babies much better than just a portable hard-drive.

The down side is you can't upgrade the hard-drive inside the AV420 / Gmini400. Archos has never supported hard-drive upgrades in their portable A/V products, but in the past this hasn't stopped the techies out there. The JBM20 was mildly difficult to upgrade and the AV300 was actually quite easy to upgrade. The AV400 and Gmini400 -may- be upgradable, but so far I know of no-one who has done it. It seems there isn't a HD bigger than 20gigs that will -fit-. I understand the current 1.8" 40gb drivers are a little different - physically.

The AV480, on the other hand, uses standard 2.5" drives. If you had to upgrade to a 100 or bigger drive, you can probably do it. Again, I haven't heard of anyone doing this yet, but in theory it should be possible.

Keep in mind, Archos doesn't support any of this. Opening any Archos player voids its warrantee.

Another minor gripe of mine is there is no way two connect to Archos units together directly. With modern Archos AV units (AV300, AV400, and the Gmini's) you really don't need a computer. Renaming files is still too painful to be practical without a computer, but you can do it in a pinch. However, you can't transfer files between Archos units without a computer. If you want to transfer your files anywhere off your AV, you must have a computer. This will likely be fixed by the AV500 which is supposed to have a USB host port.

In the end, the AV300 gets the nod for being a slightly better portable HD solution than either the AV400 or Gmini400 because its HD upgrading, though unofficial, is pretty easy to do.

Photo Album: Photo Browser

The photo browser in the AV400 and GMini40 shows some improvements over the AV300. As you browser your photos you can see thumbnails on the right-hand side of the screen. The current photo, the photo just above and just below each are displayed with an icon. Further, these icons are loaded from embedded thumbnails so they come up quickly.

The AV400/Gmini400 still support the same image types Archos has always supported: JPG & BMP. Further, progressive JPG images are still -not- supported. I would really like to see a few more images formats supported. Progressive JPG, GIF, and THM would be a good start. The various RAW formats would be even better for those photo enthusiasts.

Image loading times on the AV400 and Gmini400 are about 2x as fast as on the AV300. It takes about 4 seconds to load a 3.3megapixel photo now. Though tolerable, it seems to me the AV400 hardware should be capable of much faster loading. Since it can decode Mpeg4 video at a rate of [email protected] which equals 10,137,600 pixels a second of jpg-like decoding. That means it should be able to decode a 10megapixel image in one second or a 3.3megapixel image in 1/3 of a second.. Of course this is just a guess and it is surely over optimistic, but a 12x difference in speed between actual and theoretical speed seems like a very large gap.

Another lovely touch of the AV400 and Gmini400 is the built-in Compact Flash adaptor. Unfortunately it is only Type-1 for each where the AV300's CF module could do Type-2. However, you can buy an adaptor for Type 2 CF cards and even SD and other cards.

Like the AV300, you can zoom and rotate images. Unfortunately, also like the AV300, it is done poorly. Every zoom and rotate has to reload the image. So, with my 3.3mpix jpgs, every zoom and rotate takes 4 seconds. You can't save the image with the correct rotation either, so every time it comes up you'll have to rotate it to view it correctly. Last, when you zoom in, you may notice that the zoom isn't accurate. There are strange pixel glitches when you zoom in on an image. For every-day needs it isn't bad, but I'm a perfectionist and I find it annoying.

Games (Gmini400 only)

The Gmini400 is the first Archos to be able to play games. It uses the Mophun game engine which was originally designed for cell-phones. If you are curious about what kinds of games the Gmini400 can play, you should look at their web site. Many of the games have online demos you can play that are pretty accurate in terms of how the game will play on the Gmini400. The games themselves are about $7 a piece. When you buy one, you have to provide your GMini400's Product Key. The game is then encrypted so it will only play on your GMini400. The games is simply copied to a subdirectory of the Mophun games directory on the Gmini400 to install it.

Frankly, I'm not too impressed by the Gmini400 as a game machine. The biggest problem is the buttons are too stiff for gaming. They are fine for all the other uses you have for you Gmini400, but for gaming your fingers get tired fast and you can't push the buttons fast enough. It's really frustrating.

The other major problem is Mophun doesn't have any really good games. Some are better than others. Here are a few that aren't too bad: Chesswizz, RowsBlaster, Russpack, Syndroid, Warships, and my favoriate, SpaceBox. Even these are little more than diversions. They certainly aren't compelling games like you'll find on your gameboy and certainly not like PC, XBox or Playstation games. In fact, there are a great many of the original Nintendo games that are much better. Archos should talk to Nintendo about licensing their old titles :). I'm sure the Gmini400 has the horse power to play them!

Random Stuff

I just wanted to touch on a few last odds and ends. The AV400 comes in two different versions, the AV420 and the AV480. The AV480 is bigger and heavier due to the physically larger hard drive (2.5" vs 1.8"). The AV480 also has a slightly bigger screen and longer battery life. Last, the AV420 has a removable battery where the AV480 does not. I have an AV420 and I love its size and the removable battery. I'd love more storage, but not at the cost of a bigger unit. To see more info on the stats for the AV420 vs 480, click here.

The battery life of the AV420 seems even better than Archos' claims. In my tests:

  • 12 hours for audio
  • 5 hours of video on medium LCD brightness
  • 7 hours of video on low LCD brightness (the LCD still looks great even on low brightness)

That's excellent battery life for video! It's about 50% more than the AV300's video battery life. It's a shame it is only 20% better on audio playback. None the less, it seems to be plenty. If you plug it in each night, you'll never run out of power.

I haven't done hard test on the Gmini400's battery life, but my impression it is in line with Archos' claims. That means 10 hours of audio and 5 hours of video. There are no LCD brightness options on the Gmini400.

The TV Cradle for the AV400 is a great addition, but it has one major problem. It is the only way to record audio or video. That means in order to record A/V anywhere, you have to tote this huge TV Cradle around with you which is much larger and tangle prone than the DVR module for the AV300. In this view, though the AV400 has a built-in DVR, it is actually less potable than the AV300! Thankfully, Archos has recently released a portable adaptor for not too much money that solves this problem. It's just unfortunate that it doesn't come in the base package.

What Was Lost - What Was Gained? (AV300 vs AV400 vs Gmini400)

Usually, when you buy a newer model from a manufacture, you expect to get all of the previous models features and then some. Unfortunately this is not the case with the AV400. There are several important AV300 features that have been omitted in the AV400.

The AV300 is Better than the AV400 (and Gmini400) in these ways:

  • Has no Macrovision detect - the DVR can record from any source without problems
  • Can record MP3 audio
  • Has SPDIF IN and Out (av400 has neither)
  • Playback Pitch adjustment
  • Audio Preview while FF/RW (the av400 is silent while FF/RWing audio)
  • CF Type-II support
  • Does not require an adaptor to record line-in audio.
  • The AV400 is Better than the AV300 in these ways:

Supports higher resolution video playback and recording

  • Has better battery life
  • Smaller and has better buttons
  • Superior LCD
  • Custom background images
  • Automatic ARCLibrary ID3-based music browser
  • Much-better, fully automatic Resume function
  • 16 bookmarks for 16 different AVI and MP3 files (wav too, I'd guess)
  • Built-in speaker
  • Built-in CF slot (though only Type-1)
  • Removable battery
  • 2x faster JPG loading
  • 2-4x faster playlist generation

The Gmini400 adds games to the AV400 platform and is much smaller, but it has some drawbacks:

  • The LCD is much smaller and lower quality, though it is still quite decent.
  • It doesn't -feel- quite as solid as the AV400
  • It can't record video.
  • It can't playback video at resolutions as high as the AV400
  • vIt's buttons aren't as nice as the AV400s
  • It's one-handed operation requires your left-hand - a problem for drivers who sit on the left-hand side of the car.

Conclusion

AV400 vs AV300 vs Gmini400

I like the AV400 better than the Gmini400. The bigger, higher quality screen is not only much better for video, but just nicer to use for browsing. The buttons on the AV400 are all on the right - prefect for use while driving on the left-hand-side of the car (those in countries who drive on the right-hand-side of the car may prefer the Gmini400 for exactly that reason). I also just like the build and style of the AV400 more. The games on the Gmini400 are only barely diverting. They aren't worth the sacrifice of the AV400's beautiful screen. The Gmini400's slim size is very nice and light on the pocket. However, the AV400's larger size still fits fine in my pocket.

I'd recommend the AV400 over the AV300 to anyone, but I would always caution them about the things lost. The AV300 was a solid performer and still has some real advantages over the AV400. I wish I could give an unconditional recommendation of the AV400 over the AV300, but I just can't. No SPDIF, no MP3 recording, and annoying Macrovision detect are major negatives for the AV400. However, most the time even I, a power user, don't need those features, so I've found the AV400 is unconditionally better for your average, every-day use. Ultimately that's what matters to most of us.

Note to Archos: The next generation is always better, but I want to specify a few specific ways the next gen Archos could score significantly better in my reviews:

  • Give us back SPDIF In and Out
  • Give us MPEG1 & 2 playback
  • Give us Full DVD-res Recording and Playback
  • Lose the annoying Macrovision protection
  • Give us back MP3 recording

This article was originally posted on www.shanebrinkmandavis.com/homepage/archos/.

 

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