The netbook market is so crowded that even companies that have never made computers before are jumping on the bandwagon. Exhibit A: Archos, a brand known primarily for its portable media players. The Archos 10, its first netbook, offers a fast hard drive and a well-rounded software stack. Unfortunately, these perks aren’t enough to excuse its cramped keyboard and short battery life, especially when there are other $399 netbooks that look and perform better.
Considering the attention to aesthetics Archos puts into its other products, we were somewhat surprised at the pedestrian looks of the Archos 10. Although it costs $399—not inexpensive for a netbook with a three-cell battery—it looks cheap next to the competition. The matte black lid has Archos’ logo stamped on it; everything inside—the keyboard, palm rest, and thick bezel—is plain black, too. With the lid open, an awkward gap separates the display and the hinge; although not as pronounced as on the decidedly ugly Everex CloudBook, it still is unappealing. The area above the keyboard has thin horizontal grooves, which look chintzy.
The worst aspect of the Archos 10’s design is its keyboard, which is so cramped it makes other netbooks feel like ThinkPads. We’ve seen plenty of 10-inch models recently, including the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE and the HP Mini 2140 which make good use of their keyboard decks. Archos left 0.7 inches on either side of the keyboard, when it should have extended the keys from edge to edge.
Moreover, the palm rest is unnecessarily wide, which means, again, that the keys are more squashed than they should be, and also that you have to crane your hands over lots of blank space to get hands-on.
As for the keys themselves, several are misplaced: the Backslash key is in the lower left (not upper right) corner, and the right-hand Shift key is to the right of the up arrow. The Backspace key, shoved all the way up in the upper right hand corner, is more difficult to reach while touch typing than it is on other keyboards.
While we typed, the keyboard panel showed visible flex and didn’t feel sturdy. In the end, we scored an abysmal 43 words per minute (wpm) on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, whereas we scored 83 wpm on the 10-inch Lenovo IdeaPad S10e and 88 wpm on our desktop.
On the plus side, we enjoyed the large touchpad, which measures 2.6 x 1.6 inches, and had just the right amount of friction. The two touch buttons were easy to press, too.
The 10.2-inch (1024 x 600) display is plenty bright and, thanks to its matte finish, has good viewing angles from both the front and the sides. As we’ve noted with other netbooks, the 24-pixel difference between 1024 x 600 and 1024 x 576-pixel resolution (as seen on netbooks such as the HP Mini 2140) translates to a much better viewing experience, with less scrolling.
The twin speakers, located on the front side of the notebook, produced pleasant sound, but the volume is only sufficient if you’re in a quiet room, sitting close to the netbook (which you would be if you were watching video clips, but not necessarily if you were playing music).
Ports and Webcam
The Archos 10 has a standard selection of ports: Three USB 2.0, VGA, Ethernet, a 4-in-1 memory card reader, headphone and mic ports, and a Kensington lock slot. It also comes with a 1.3-megapixel webcam, but to our dismay it wasn’t enabled out of the box, and there also wasn’t any accompanying software.
The biggest reason to consider the Archos 10 is its robust software: it comes with $100 worth of applications, including IBM Lotus Symphony, a productivity suite with document, spreadsheet, and presentation programs; Skype; Windows Live Messenger; a shortcut to Archos Media Club; vTuner Player; eMusic; Xnview (a photo viewer); and six-month trial versions of Parental Filter and BitDefender Antivirus 2009.
Archos Media Club is a Web-based service from which users can download movies (the service is also accessible from Archos PMPs, such as the Archos 7). The notebook comes with a $50 credit so you can jumpstart your collection for free. The cost of the movies varies: $2.99 to $3.99 for rentals, and $7.95 to $19.95 for purchases.
Annoyingly, you can only download movies using Internet Explorer 6 or 7. The files are in the WMV format, too, so you can play them in Windows Media Player and any other PMP that handles that kind of file. The site allows you to browse movies by genre; you can search, too, but only by title (not actors or directors). As for the selection, we noticed some fairly recent popular titles (such as Babel), but also many older ones (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop II and the remake of Bad News Bears). In total, users have between 85 and 100 titles at any given time to choose from.
Although most netbooks have hard drives, we tend not to think of them as machines on which to play movies, since they don’t have optical drives. But access to Archos Media Club, combined with the bright display, could make the idea of watching movies on a 10-inch screen more palatable.
For those not keen on paying for digital media, the Archos 10 also has vTuner, which allows users to stream more than 1,000 Web channels, 11,000 Web radio stations, and 110,000 podcasts. Although the interface is crude and slow to open folders, it’s foolproof. We were able to find podcasts from NPR, BBC, and many others. Although there were many source folders, there wasn’t much content in any of them. For instance, we checked the WNYC (New York City’s NPR affiliate) folder for Radio Lab, our favorite program, but only found two other programs. On the TV front, don’t expect a desktop version of Hulu: the TV stations, many of which are international, include local content, such as regional news and college stations.
The netbook also comes with 50 free downloads with eMusic, the music-subscription service, but some users will balk at having to hand over their credit card number (normally, customers get 25 free downloads when signing up for a trial account).
Additionally, the notebook has Parental Filters software, which allows parents to create login accounts with passwords, as well as add and delete users. Parents can also configure remote access and block sites they deem inappropriate.
Like many other netbooks, the Archos 10 has a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and Windows XP Home. While its score of 1,464 in PCMark05 is about 80 points higher than the netbook average, it’s more than 100 points lower than the Eee PC 1000HE. Generally, though, our other tests suggest this is a strong performer.
It booted up in 52 seconds, whereas the average netbook takes 55. Moreover, the 5,400-rpm 160GB hard drive transferred 4.97GB of mixed media in 6 minutes and 12 seconds, a rate of 16.3 Mbps. That dwarfs the average netbook, which transfers the same file in 13.8 Mbps (the Acer Aspire One and MSI Wind U120 both bested the Archos 10, managing 17.7 Mbps and 16.6 Mbps while the 1000HE lagged at 14.6 Mbps).
In our hands-on testing, too, the Archos 10 felt fast. Even with various programs open—Skype, antivirus program BitDefender, and several tabs in Internet Explorer—the system still responded quickly, and barely made any noise. Despite all this, we wish our configuration had room for more memory: it can only accommodate 1GB of RAM.
Perhaps one of the reasons the Archos 10 felt fast was that it delivers better graphics performance than the average netbook. Despite having a modest integrated Intel graphics card, it notched 706 on 3DMark03, almost 100 points above the category average. Its 3DMark06 score of 84 was right in line with other netbooks (though the Aspire One still beat it in both categories, scoring 722 and 123).
Now, this doesn’t mean you should play Far Cry 2 on this netbook. But it does have a bit more graphics might than the competition (the 1000HE, for instance, scored just 558 and 66 on these two benchmarks). Certainly, the relatively strong graphics performance is fitting for a notebook whose parent company specializes in mobile entertainment.
Battery Life, Wi-Fi, and Warranty
The three-cell battery lasted a measly 2 hours and 2 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). Not only is that 2 hours and 21 minutes below the category average (which, to be fair, includes netbooks with six-cell batteries), but it also underperformed every other recent three-cell notebook, such as the BenQ Joybook Lite U101. While you can purchase a version of the Archos 10 with a six-cell battery for $449 or buy a six-cell battery on Archos’ Web site for $89.99, it’s possible to buy less-expensive netbooks that last much longer: the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE ($399) lasted 7 hours and 8 minutes.
We were unable to benchmark the Archos 10’s 802.11g Wi-Fi radio. However, in two different testing situations, we found that it would not connect to routers unless it has at least three out of five bars of connectivity. Even when we were sitting in the same room as our router, it showed only two bars, and would not connect. In our office, where we use a commercial N router, it connected, but we still had to wait longer than usual for our Hulu.com clip to start streaming (once it did, the quality was smooth).
The Archos 10 comes with a one-year warranty, including 24/7 toll-free phone support.
At first glance, the Archos 10 seems like a real bargain: it includes $100 worth of free software, and has a faster hard drive and boot time than many of its competitors, as well as better graphics performance. But for the same $399, many other 10-inch netbooks, including the Acer Aspire One AOD150 and the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE offer much longer battery life and more comfortable keyboards. Ultimately, the question is whether you’d rather pay a premium for better software or for more endurance and better ergonomics. We prefer longevity and comfort, but the Archos 10 is worth a look.