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Maybe you've never heard of Archos before.  After reading this review, you might want to rush out and buy one of their players!

The Archos 504 Portable Multimedia Player is distinctively different from - and better than - the more widely known iPod and Zune players.

 
 
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Archos 504 Portable Multimedia Player

Improved Fifth Generation with Video iPod
 

The Archos 504 has two enormous advantages over other competitors.

The first is obvious - its huge screen, much better suited for watching video on.  The second is more subtle, but equally advantageous - a less intrusive copyright management scheme.

 

 

Archos is insufficiently well known as an alternative to the iPod.  Archos has been consistently at the leading edge of MP3 and video player development, and the 504 unit reviewed here equals or exceeds the capabilities of its iPod and Zune competitors.

The Archos 504 is the only practical portable video player.  Both the iPod and Zune have ridiculously too small sized screens.

And the Archos 504 has the flexibility that the other two players lack in terms of how you set up your music directories on the player.

With plenty of plus features, and no relevant negatives, this is the player to consider.


What you get with your Archos 504

The Archos 504 MP3 player comes packaged in a cardboard box, somewhat larger than the iPod or Zune boxes, and without any of the clever design elements of the Zune box.

Inside the box is the player itself, a connecting cable that runs from a USB port on a computer to a connection on the 504 (this is, like with the iPod and Zune players, a unique size and shape of connector that is incompatible with other brands of players), a set of ear bud type headphones (colored black) complete with a volume control, a nice protective carry wallet, and an adapter 'saddle' to enable the unit to be mated to the Archos DVR Station (an optional extra accessory).

In terms of paperwork, there is a quick start guide in English, French and Spanish with 11 pages of helpful information, a six language booklet of legal and safety notices, a warranty sheet, a discount voucher for some music track downloads, and a promotional brochure of Archos accessories.

To get more detailed information on how to use your Archos 504, you need to download a manual from their website and/or read the manual that is preloaded onto the player.  The user manual I downloaded (version 2.1) was 59 pages in size.

Warranty

The warranty coverage is for one year, and there seems to be unlimited phone support (via an 800 number) offered.  This is the same as offered with the Zune, whereas the iPod - which also has a one year warranty - has a 90 day/single call support period.  To get more iPod support, you need to buy a $59 additional warranty.

There was no CD-rom or software supplied with the unit, other than that already loaded on it.

Accessories You'll Want to Buy

The Archos player (like the Zune and iPod) comes with no power recharger - it assumes you'll always be close to a computer or laptop with a USB port from which to recharge the unit.

If you want to get a separate recharger, you'll either have to get some sort of after-market recharger that ends in a USB socket into which you can plug the Archos connecting cable (stores such as Radio Shack and cell phone stores sell these devices that plug into car cigarette lighters) or else you'll have to buy a docking adapter and power supply.  There are three different options to choose from here :

The simplest is the Docking Adapter.  This provides a way to charge the 504, plus allows the unit to act as either a host or slave for USB connections.  As a slave, it could be connected to your computer, and as a host, you could connect your camera to it and transfer images off its memory card.  This unit lists for $29.99 and a power supply is extra.

The mid level unit is their DVR Travel Adapter.  This allows you to record video in various formats, including direct from cameras and camcorders.  It lists for $69.99, and a power supply is extra.

Their top of the line unit is the DVR Station, which offers all the functions of the other two units, plus allows you to record and play video in high quality as well as compressed format, and comes with a remote control as well.  This lists for $99.99, and includes a power supply, making it effectively the same price as the DVR Travel Adapter.

A power supply sells for $30 - either one that plugs into the mains (a nice kit with various different plug adapters included for international travel), or one that plugs into a car cigarette lighter.

We suggest you also buy a second battery; indeed, they're so inexpensive and lightweight, why not buy two or three extra batteries!  Batteries are $30 each.  You can also buy an oversized double life battery for $50 here (but be careful not to buy regular batteries from this company because they sell them for $10 more than list price).

You might also want to buy the software plug-in to enable you to play AAC formatted music and H.264 formatted video.  This is a $20 download.

Specifications

The Archos 504 measures approx 5.1" x 3.0" x 0.7" and weighs 11.1 ounces.  This is almost exactly twice the weight of either the iPod or Zune players, and almost twice the size too.

But there's a reason it is bigger and heavier.  It has a much bigger screen - this is such an important feature it is discussed in its own section, below.

The unit is made out of a brushed metal/plastic, and has a series of five control buttons on the right hand side, each of which can be clicked to the left or right, giving a total of ten different functions.  There are also two buttons on the top, and four LEDs on the left side, and the battery release lever, making for a unit that has a lot more controls than the minimalist iPod or Zune.  On the other hand, Archos is to be commended for not slavishly copying the look and feel of the iPod/

The unit doesn't impress as being of the same ultra-high quality and very polished design and build standard of the iPod.  Part of this is due to having a removable battery on the back rather than an enclosed 'all in one' case, and for sure, the slight reduction in 'slickness' this creates is a most worthwhile tradeoff for the benefit of being able to replace the battery (and travel with a spare) that it allows.

Like other units, it can play back audio and video, and display pictures.  But unlike many other units, it can also record audio through its built in microphone, or from any external line-level source in conjunction with the DVR Travel Adapter or DVR Station.  And it can record video, too - again in conjunction with either the DVR Travel Adapter or DVR Station.

It also has a miniature speaker to allow you to play back audio through the unit itself.  This is neither a high quality nor a loud play back capability, but to quickly check on something you've been recording, or to 'in an emergency' hear some audio, it is helpful.

The Magnificent Screen on the Archos 504

The huge screen is one of the two strongest features of the Archos 504.  Its screen measures 3.8" x 2.2" with a 4.3" diagonal.  It has a pixel resolution of 480 x 272 pixels in 16 million colors.

This screen is enormously bigger than the screen on an iPod or Zune, and has widescreen 16:9 proportions too.

The Zune and iPod screens have regular tv style 4:3 proportions, and are much smaller (3" and 2.5" diagonals), and both have 320x240 pixels, with 65,000 colors.

If you're watching regular 4:3 type programming, the improvement of the Archos is more limited - you'd have 363x272 pixel resolution and an image size with a 3.7" diagonal.  This is 30% more pixels and a 6.5 sq inch viewing area (compared to a 3 sq inch or 4.3 sq inch viewing area on the iPod and Zune).  So the Archos has more picture detail and a lot more picture size for regular tv type programming.

If you're watching a letterboxed movie or widescreen type television, then the difference between the Archos and the other two units really opens up.  The Archos uses its full screen and all pixels for 16:9 type programming, whereas the other two units are forced to have empty space above and below the picture on their screen.  The would be using a picture area of 320x180 pixels, and would have a screen area of only 2.3 sq inches or 3.2 sq inches.  The Archos has 2.3 times more pixels, and a screen that is more than three times the size of the iPod and almost three times the size of the Zune.

That is a huge difference in picture size and picture quality/detail (and don't forget it also displays finer gradation in coloring, with 16 million color levels compared to 65,000 in the iPod and Zune).

As I've commented in the iPod review in particular, the iPod screen is just too small to sensibly watch video on.  The Zune screen is only slightly bigger than the iPod screen, and has no extra resolution than the iPod.  But the Archos screen is big enough to be sensibly used for watching video, and is a great compromise between too big and bulky, with more weight and less battery life, such as is the case if you use your laptop or one of the larger portable DVD players, or way too small as is the case with the iPod and Zune.

If you want a portable and practical way to watch movies and other video, the Archos presents as the best compromise on the market today.

Removable Battery

Removing the battery is very easy - you simply move the battery lock lever to the unlock position, and then slide the battery out and off.  This reveals the inside of the unit and its hard drive, which is a Hitachi unit operating at 4200 rpm.

Some websites have recommended getting the smallest size Archos 504 and then upgrading the hard drive yourself to save money - this would of course invalidate the warranty and probably would require some complicated activities, especially in reloading the operating system onto the new drive.

The difference in list price between a 40GB equipped unit and a 160GB equipped unit is $250.  A replacement hard drive would probably cost you the better part of $200, so the saving is not major and probably not enough to compensate for the hassle.  If you do decide to do this, one suggestion - get the hard drive with the slowest rotational speed possible.  You don't need the extra speed of a 5400rpm or 7200rpm drive, and the faster drivers consume appreciably more power.

Being able to replace the battery oneself - or simply travel with two batteries for longer playing life - is a tremendous improvement on the iPod and Zune, both of which require you to return the unit to the manufacturer for a battery 'replacement' - in actual fact, they don't replace the battery in your unit, but send you back a completely remanufactured unit with new battery included.

A replacement battery costs $30.  This contrasts with the $66 cost (plus the hassle, time, and cost of mailing the unit) to get the battery replaced in your iPod.  The battery is slim and weighs only 3.1 ounces, and so I'd recommend you get a second battery, just for the sake of having, and to give you longer battery life when traveling.  For sure, the battery life when listening to audio is already good (17 hours) but if you're going to be watching movies, then the 5.5 hours you get from one battery might be a bit short.

Using the Archos 504

The Archos player is ready to go, right out of the box.  You don't need to load any software or drivers or anything onto your computer, you don't need to learn any new program, you just connect your Archos player to the computer via the supplied USB cable, copy over music, video and picture files, and start playing.

The lack of any custom software (unlike both the iPod and Zune) means also that you're not going to be confronting any new bugs, either (a welcome change from the bug infested Zune software).

It takes about 15 seconds for the unit to boot up when you first turn it on, about twice as long as the iPod.  But at least you never get embarrassed at forgetting how to turn the unit on and off - unlike the iPod is has a simple obvious On/Off button at the top of the unit.

The player uses a fairly intuitive series of menu options to guide you to the music or video or pictures you want, and has plenty of on-screen prompting, and even has a full copy of the 59 page manual loaded on the unit which you can read via its PDF viewing capabilities.  It is much easier to understand than the Zune.

Some people like the 'clean and simple' look of an iPod, but others find the interface a bit counter-intuitive, because the five buttons have to do various different jobs depending on what menu you're in at any time.  Perhaps it seems a paradox, but because the Archos has ten rather than five control buttons, you don't need to learn as much about what each button does and can quickly find your way around the unit's functions without needing the manual.

That's not so say the Archos interface is perfect.  It does retain some puzzling characteristics such as clicking the 'OK' button to pause the playing of a track.  There's nothing onscreen to tell you this is how to pause the playback, you just have to get lucky and find it by chance.

Loading Music onto the Archos 504

You can load music onto the player two different ways.  You can set it to automatically synchronize with Windows Media Player on your PC, or you can manually copy your music files from your PC to the player.

Synchronizing with Windows Media Player is brilliantly simple.  Connect the player to your PC, set it to the Windows Media Player synching option,  and answer 'Yes' to the question about synching, and it will then proceed to do exactly that, copying over the music you already have on your computer, together with all the related information about artists, genres, album art, etc.

Alternatively, if - like me - you have your music carefully indexed by folders to extend on the built in indexing offered by Windows Media Player, you can simply copy over the folders from your computer to the Archos.  You sacrifice nothing by doing this - all the other information about artists, genres, album art, etc is also copied too, exactly as if you synched through Windows Media Player.

The Archos gives you the best of both worlds.  You get the sophisticated automatic indexing that other players also offer, and you can also create your own indexing method at the same time.  As I've commented in other reviews, the automatic indexing completely fails if you have a large collection of classical music, and so for classical music lovers, the Archos and its flexible music management system is a major plus.  It remains a puzzle why Apple and Microsoft don't allow a similar flexibility with their players, and until they do, classical music lovers in particular, and any other music aficionados who wish more flexibility in general, will be forced away from the iPod and Zune and towards other units such as the Archos family of players.

Loading Video onto the Archos 504

Video can be copied to the player the same way audio is copied.  The tools for sorting and navigating through video files aren't as sophisticated as for audio files, but chances are you won't have as many thousands of videos on your 504 as you may have music tunes.

Copying video from DVDs, tapes, etc

If you want to copy or make your own videos, you'll need some sort of video editing/conversion program.  We've used the Movavi Video Suite and found it easy to use.  You might like to try their free demonstration version and possibly choose to buy their software too.

Storage Capacity

The 80GB Archos 504 that was tested showed a net of 75.6 GB free and 550MB of used space (sample video and audio files) as supplied.

The amount of space a music or video file takes up, per minute, depends on how compressed the file is.  The higher the compression (and/or the lower the sampling rate), the smaller the file and the more minutes of material you can squeeze into the same amount of space.

Most people will choose to have their audio files sampled at somewhere between a low of 128kb/sec up to a high of perhaps 256kb/sec.  We generally recommend either 160kb or 192kb.  At 192kb, you will get about 11 hours of music per GB of disk space.  The amount you get at other speeds is directly (but inversely) proportional - ie, at 96kb, you'd get twice as many hours.

Video settings are a bit more subjective, and you get to choose both the quality of the audio stream and the video stream.  To put this in context, whereas with audio, you're thinking about perhaps 160kb or 192kb data streams, when you add a video overlay to the audio, you're now talking about perhaps 1500kb or more per second.  At a setting of 1500kb/sec, you can get about 1.5 hours of video per GB.  A typical movie lasts maybe 105 - 110 minutes, so the complete 80GB Archos 504 would hold about 63 movies.

Note that if you're planning to play your movies back on a television rather than through the Archos screen, you should increase the video sampling rate way beyond 1500kb.

Most people seem to have anywhere from 5GB to 15GB of music (15GB would represent 165 hours at high quality 192kb sampling - about the same as 3000 - 3500 songs of about 3.5 minutes each).  On the 80GB unit, this would leave you 65GB for video, or enough for about 50 movies.

If this isn't enough capacity, then your choice is clear - get the 160GB unit instead.  Only $200 more gives you another 120 hours of video or 900 hours of music storage.

Which Capacity Archos 504 Player Should You Get?

The main reasons for choosing an Archos 504 player are for the freedom from copyright management and automatic indexing of your music, and for the ability to watch video on an acceptably sized screen.

If you're looking only at music storage, the chances are the 40GB unit will be sufficient for you, but because the 80GB unit is only $50 more, you may as well 'keep your options open' and get the 80GB unit.  That will allow you to record as much music as you want, and at a very high quality bit rate giving you best quality sound without any fear of running out of disk space.

If you're wanting to have video as well, forget about the 40GB unit.  You'll fill it way too quickly with video.  Instead, you need to choose between the two larger units, with a substantial price differential - $340 for the 80 GB or $540 for the 160GB unit.

If you're wanting to store high quality video to play back on a television screen, go straight to the 160GB unit.  But if your main requirement is to watch video on the 504's screen, then both units are worth considering.  Depending on the quality level you set the video recording at, you'll find that the 80GB unit can store anywhere from perhaps 80 hours of video (at higher  quality settings) up to 160 hours at lower quality settings.  The 160GB unit will hold twice this much.

Update Your Firmware

When I first turned my 504 on, it reported firmware version1.5.55.  I checked on the website, and the current firmware version was 1.6.10.

Was it necessary to upgrade the firmware?  Fortunately, there was a helpful log of changes, and I counted 16 feature improvements and 47 bug fixes between the version in the unit and the current version.  Plainly Archos are continuing to support the unit and both resolve bugs and add new features.

Fortunately, updating the firmware was quick and easy.  The new firmware was a 17MB download, but once it was downloaded to my PC, it was simple to transfer it over to the Archos player and quickly update it to the new version.

Comparison Table

So which is the best player for you?  Use this table to compare the three leading contenders.

Attribute

Archos 504

iPod 5.5 gen

Zune 1 gen

Size

5.1 x 3.0 x 0.8

4.1 x 2.4 x 0.5

4.4 x 2.5 x 0.6

Weight

11.1 oz

5.5 oz

5.6 oz

Hard disk capacity

40GB, 80GB, 160GB

30GB 80GB

30GB

List Price

$350, $400, $600

$250, $350

$250

Street Price

$290, $340, $540

$240, $340

$240

Screen dimensions

3.8" x 2.2"
4.3" diagonal
widescreen

2.0" x 1.5"
2.5" diagonal

2.4" x 1.8"
3.0" diagonal

Screen area

8.4 sq ins

3.0 sq ins

4.3 sq ins

Screen pixels

480 x 272 = 130,560

320 x 240 = 76,800

320 x 240 = 76,800

Screen colors

16 million

65,000

65,000

Battery life audio

 < 17 hrs

< 20 hrs

< 13 hrs

Battery life video

< 5.5 hrs

< 6.5 hrs

< 4 hrs

Replace battery

Yes - 3.1 oz, $30

No - mailin, $65

No - mailin, $unknown

Audio formats supported

MP3

WMA

AAC opt

MP3

AAC

MP3

WMA

AAC

Video formats supported

H.264 opt

MPEG-4

WMV

MPEG-2 opt

H.264

MPEG-4

Quicktime

WMV

Photo formats supported

JPG

PNG

BMP

JPG

PNG

GIF

BMP

TIFF

JPG

FM Radio

No

optional extra

built in

Attribute

Archos 504

iPod 5.5 gen

Zune 1 gen

Where to Buy

It is not easy to find a full range of Archos players in regular retail stores.  I bought my unit - at a very competitively discounted price - from Amazon, and would recommend you consider doing this too.

Summary

The Archos series of MP3/audio/video players are not as nicely designed and constructed as the Apple iPod series.  But they offer better functionality in all respects, for similar price.

If you just want to play music, the greater range of accessories available with an iPod might make it a better choice.  But if the iPod's ridiculously inconvenient copy protection system is a hassle, and if you'd prefer the flexibility of sorting/filing your music any way you wish, rather than the way iPod mandates, the Archos 504 and other units become better choices.

If you want to watch video, then the Archos 504 is clearly the best (if not only) choice.

Overall, a great unit and highly recommended.

 

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Originally published 23 Feb 2007, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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