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7/26/2005
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Review: Archos Pocket Computer Combines Audio, Video, And Personal Information Management

The Linux-based gadget is powerful and versatile, but it has its trade-offs, and it's kind of pricey.

The Archos PMA430 wants to be the only gadget you have to carry. While it looks like some sort of media player, it's really a tiny Linux PC focused on audio, video and personal information management.

That means the PMA 430 leverages the power of Linux to do a lot of things, including connecting to the Internet wirelessly. However, while powerful and versatile, the PMA430 does have its downsides, as inevitably seems to be the case with jack-of-all-trades devices. And, at a hair under $800 (that’s list price; we found it online at press time for $629), all this power comes at a price.

The Sum Of Its Parts

The PMA430 begins life as a 30G hard drive paired with a 3.5” LCD screen. Add an infrared port, 802.11b adapter, video output and input, and USB 2.0 device and host ports, and it becomes clear this is a lot more than just another media player.

All of this is rolled into a device just slightly larger and heavier than a typical PDA. When you power it on for the first time, however, any illusions of a typical PDA are lost also, as you are greeted with a text based Linux boot-up screen. After a few moments, you arrive at the device's graphical interface.

Navigation of the interface can, for the most part, be handled by the hardware buttons on the right side of the unit, but a stylus is included to interact with the touch screen. Battery life was surprisingly good, considering the added draw of the hard drive, getting about 5 hours of play time out of a charge.

The PMA430 not only handles video playback, but also can record video through the included TV stand. The stand features standard RCA video and audio inputs, allowing you to connect to a VCR, cable box, or satellite receiver. Recordings can also be scheduled on the PMA430, with the included IR transmitter configured to change channels on the host tuner.

So, with a little effort, the PMA430 can be set up to save your favorite television shows to its hard drive and play them back wherever you go. While this record capability is unique for a PDA, this function is somewhat diminished by the fact that it cannot record a program directly and requires another source to serve as the tuner.

While the PMA430 handles its own recordings well, other media files may prove more difficult. The unit will playback videos encoded only in the MPEG4 format, so any other format will have to be converted. Archos included Virtual Dub software to handle the conversion, but you still have do the conversion for each one of your videos before copying them to the hard drive on the Archos.

Included with the PMA430 are drivers to connect to Windows Media Player or iTunes on the Mac. While getting music to the device can be as easy as copying files to a hard drive, the drivers do make setting up playlists easier. One thing I did note is that music needs to be copied specifically into the “Music” folder on the Archos’ hard drive or it may not be recognized properly by the music application. It should also be noted that the music player application on the device will only play MP3’s, so music downloaded from the iTunes music store or created in AAC within will not play on the Archos device.

The Music app itself was pretty simple to navigate and use. It took advantage of the color screen and displayed any included album art of the currently playing song. Audio quality was poor using the built-in speaker -- I had to keep the volume level at about 75% to prevent distortion. External speakers made the sound quality issues disappear, however.

Network access is available from the PMA430’s built in 802.11b network adapter. While the default settings worked fine with open access points, a manual configuration is required to work with a WEP encrypted connection. Unfortunately, an encrypted connection isn’t even visible unless manually configured. In addition, I had to manually reconnect after the device came out of sleep mode.

Once a connection is made, Web sites can be accessed with the included Opera browser. The Web client has a number of viewing modes available to support making a given web site fit on the handheld’s screen. Also included are a basic e-mail client and a software update tool that supports downloading updates directly from the Internet.

The Archos device also lets you carry of your digital photos with you and display them. The pictures look good onscreen, and surprisingly good exported to a TV. If your digital camera supports the Mass Storage Class (MSC) standard, the Archos can transfer photos to itself through its USB Host port and cable. While I was unable to test this function with a supported camera, I was able to attach a USB flash drive and copy files to the handheld.

The PMA430 includes the Qtopia desktop, which sets synchronizes information between the Linux PIM applications on the device and The PC. If Outlook is present, the desktop software serves as the conduit between the software and the device. Synchronization was very straightforward and worked well. It appears to actually do two conversions, one from the Outlook to the Qtopia desktop, then another to the device itself. This double hop effect made the time to synchronize quite a bit longer than a typical Pocket PC or Palm device.

With all of its capability and function, the PMA430 is a Linux enthusiast’s dream, but is a little too manual for the rest of us, especially with the video conversion and WiFi configuration. I would have been happy with a few less options with a friendlier experience with the core applications of the video and music players. All of the additional components add to the cost, putting it at the high end of a price point for both the current crop of personal video players

The Good • Good battery life • PIM applications sync with Outlook • Built in Wi-Fi connection

The Bad • Videos have to be manually re-encoded to be viewed • Needs a tuner from another source to record TV • Too many things have to be configured manually

Archos Pocket Media Assistant PMA430, $799 http://www.archos.com

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