11:32 AM

Review: Archos 104

Despite a low price, the Archos 104 has a crisp, 1.5-inch color display and Windows-like navigation. Also exemplary is the sound quality, which is crisp, balanced, and clear, and the volume is strong. It's no iPod-killer, however, and it won't be the best choice for most buyers.

The Archos 104 digital audio player sports lots of attractive features, but somehow all those good features don't add up to a compelling device.

The good stuff includes a low price -- at $160 for the 4 GB model we tested, the Archos 104 is the better part of a hundred bucks less expensive than a 4 GB iPod nano. It's also about $30 less than the SanDisk Sansa e260, which we previously reviewed and which the Archos 104 resembles.

Despite the low price, the Archos 104 has a crisp, 1.5-inch color display, which is larger than the nano's screen and smaller than the Sansa's. Also exemplary is the device's navigation, which is Windows-like. Depending on the context, the system first displays either icons or a text list for basic items such as music, showing images, data and setting up the device. From there, you navigate through folders and subfolders much as you would in Windows. And, like most other players, you also can navigate through your music by factors such as artist, album and genre. It's easier to do than to explain -- it's really is quite simple.

Also exemplary is the sound quality, which is crisp, balanced and clear, and the volume is strong. Another admirable feature is the ability to listen to changes in how the music sounds as you select either the pre-set equalizer settings or create custom equalizer settings. The Archos 104 also supports PlaysForSure subscription sites --we tested it without a glitch on both Yahoo! Music Unlimited and AOL Music Now.

We also liked some of Archos' smaller design decisions. While SanDisk, like Apple, uses a proprietary USB connector on its new generation of audio devices, Archos uses a standard mini-USB connector, so cables are easier to replace.

So What's The Problem?

So with all these nice features, what's the problem with this entry-level device? Much of our discomfort comes from a "feature" that isn't immediately apparent until you start using the device. Specifically, it uses a micro hard drive instead of flash memory for storage. This design choice runs so counter to the nature of small audio devices that it somehow just feels wrong.

For one thing, there's the issue of size. The device is the same height as the nano and a quarter inch wider. But it's the better part of three times thicker than the nano, undoubtedly due to the use of the microdrive. As a result, the Archos 104 doesn't feel svelte or elegant, a feeling reinforced by the slight vibration and sound that the hard drive makes.

There's also the lifestyle issue. Flash players are designed to be both small and more amenable to somewhat rough uses, such as using it while jogging. Will you really feel comfortable taking the 104 out for a long run? Perhaps the microdrive can take that level of jiggling, but I'd be nervous about it.

There's also the issue of battery life -- it's rated at a relatively paltry 12 hours, undoubtedly because a microdrive requires more juice than flash memory. By contrast, most small flash players get, at the very least, a third again as much life from a charge.

That leads to the issue of value. If you have what the marketers like to call an active lifestyle, it will likely be worth spending the extra twenty or thirty bucks for a competing flash-based player. On the other hand, if you're comfortable with a hard drive-based player, you'll probably be willing to pay $50 or $60 more and get a higher-capacity hard-drive player such as one of Creative's Zen 20 GB players.

It's tempting to consider the 104 Archos' 'iPod killer.' After all, SanDisk is clearly positioning its e200 series audio players as such and Archos puts a very iPod-like graphic on the box for the 104.

This isn't an iPod killer, but an interesting option for those who simply want a low-cost music player and don't have any plans to get sweaty or jiggly -- or aquire a 20 GB music collection.

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