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Archos 704 WiFi review

Gone are the complex controls

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Our Verdict

Archos has got it most of the way right here. If it could erase some usability frustrations the 704 would be a real winner

For

  • Excellent Wi-Fi mode
  • Great for watching movies
  • Nice interface

Against

  • No stylus slot
  • Not actually touchscreen
  • Calibration issues

Archos' rise through the ranks of gadget purveyors has been heartening to see. Gadget historians will surely remember the company's first device, which was little more than a huge hard drive coupled with a tiny screen.

Grainy video playback on the move was a revelation, albeit an unwieldy one, but the market (which also included Creative's monstrous Zen Jukebox) wasn't exactly flush with svelte media players at the time.

Fast forward to now. Everything is small. There are a hundred companies making devices which play back video. Archos has released a number of market-leading players, but the majority failed on one particular point: the controls.

Or, more specifically, the huge number of them. Using the previous model, the 604, was described by our sister magazine T3 as akin to "one of the trickier puzzles in The Crystal Maze", and even that was considered an improvement over the incomprehensible AV500 which preceded it. Archos is clearly listening, though, as this latest incarnation does away with physical buttons in favour of a touchscreen.

The interface is well presented, with nice-looking icons and controls, perfect for jabbing with a finger. Unfortunately, that isn't actually an option.

For some reason, the touchscreen only responds to pin-point touches. Press the fleshy tip of your finger onto a control and your touch will simply not be recognised; carefully angle a long fingernail (or use the stylus), and you might have a bit more luck.

Clearly, control still baffles Archos; there are calibration issues too. Most seriously, the calibration once managed to slip so far that a click in the centre of the 7in screen registered at the bottom. For all its flaws, this remains a better control system than previous efforts, but Archos' work-in-progress attitude has to stop now.

Wireless playback

Time for the redeeming features. The Wi-Fi mode is absolutely brilliant, and far less clunky than we'd imagined. There's web browsing, albeit in a limited flash-free capacity, thanks to Opera's brilliant browser, but it's streaming that gets the most accolades.

As long as you'd set up a shared folder on one of the machines in your network, the 704 can wander on and find any files you've shared. No need to set up any fancy streaming servers, no need to transcode your video, just straight-up folder access to your networked media.

This compensates very nicely for the relatively small hard drive that Archos has chosen to include, and SD video plays absolutely flawlessly over the airwaves. You'll struggle to stream HD at this point, but given the middling resolution of the 7in screen (and the mild grainy haze applied to it by the touchscreen digitiser) pinpoint definition won't be your biggest concern.

On the plus side, watching movies on the 704 is a distinct pleasure. The screen is larger than most, and your videos can be neatly upscaled to fit the screen, or cropped if they're 4:3 formatted.

The refresh rate is decent, with little of the blurring that you can see on some smaller screens, and there's a huge variety of formats natively supported by the unit. And that lack of buttons means the screen has been allowed to bleed all over the unit; there's none of the extra case size that chunkier units demand. It's thin and neat all around.

Also, 704 features a hinged stand on the back of the unit so that it can be stood up, although the screen isn't fantastic at extreme angles so its lack of potential adjustment may hurt. And why Archos couldn't find the room to include a stylus slot in the unit is pretty unfathomable - there's a little pocket in the soft case that comes included, but it smells like an afterthought to us.

Missing dock

Spend a little more money and you can increase the versatility of the unit with a dock, so you can attach it directly to a television for network-streaming video, or to an analogue TV signal for recording purposes.

This equipment wasn't included with our review kit, and it almost feels as if the 704 has been hacked down at the knees by default; there's a lot more to it than initially meets the eye. For instance, you'll need to pay for additional plug-ins before you can play back H.264 or MPEG-2 files.

Even with the quirks, this is light years ahead of everything Archos has done before, and most of that was brilliant for its time. But the market has not been kind: Korea and Japan are producing some incredible devices, and big-name companies are bringing competitors to public attention with more force than the French upstart could hope to repel.

Its idiosyncrasies make the 704 frustrating despite its power, but we've got big hopes that the next player in the line will finally iron out the remaining issues.