Pros: Good overall performance; Excellent audio quality; Plays video and 3D games smoothly; Compatible with wide range of audio and video formats; Several useful apps included
Cons: Resistive display has lots of glare; Frustrating touch keyboard; Archos app market isn't as robust as Google's; Poor camera; No speaker
Verdict: This Android-based portable media player does more than the iPod nano for the same price, but is it a better deal?
Archos has a pretty successful history as the maker of excellent MP3 and portable media players, but the company's past forays into the tablet business haven't been all that impressive. There was a lot to like about the Archos 5 Internet Tablet, not as much to like about the Archos 7 Home Tablet, and the Archos 9 PCTablet we'd rather forget. However, the Archos 32 (pronounced "three two," not "thirty-two") is part of a new family of Internet Tablets, all out to show that the company can learn from its mistakes and build better, stronger, faster devices.
At this size, it's strange to think of the 32 as a tablet at all. Given its 3.2-inch screen, it's more of a PMP with benefits. That benefit comes from the OS: Android 2.1, which makes the 32 more of an iPod Touch competitor than a challenge to the iPad. Seen in that light, this little player has many pluses. However, the inaccurate keyboard and inability to access the Android Market will turn off some shoppers.
If not for its incredibly light 2.5-ounce weight, the Archos 32 could easily be mistaken for a value-priced Android phone. The rounded edges and corners, sleek profile, tasteful buttons, and cool metal backing give the device a sturdy feel. The front, unfortunately, is a different story. The entire facade of the Archos 32 has a glossy, reflective plastic covering that looks as if it's meant to be removed. Worse, there's a serious gap between this top layer and the display itself, which makes on-screen items feel far away from your finger.
You'll find the standard Android buttons at the bottom of the screen--Back, Menu, Home, Search--plus touch volume controls right underneath. A separate volume rocker is on the lower left side of the device just above the power button. A headphone jack, internal mic, and microUSB port line the bottom, and there's a small camera on the lower back of the device.
Measuring 4.1 x 2.1 x 0.3 inches, the Archos 32 is about the same size as the HTC Aria (4.1 x 2.3 x 0.46 inches) and has the same size display. We couldn't help comparing the two while testing the Archos, as the miniaturized Android experience offered many of the same advantages--and frustrations.
Display and Touch Surface
It's no secret that we prefer capacitive touchscreens to resistive ones, because the former type offers better accuracy. The good news is that the Archos 32's 400 x 240-pixel LCD responded fairly well in most cases. Swiping through photos in the gallery was pretty smooth, and we didn't have any problems selecting links using the browser. However, we had to be really deliberate when swiping through the home screens. The buttons underneath the display were responsive.
One major drawback of the 32's display is that some elements are small and hard to navigate properly, the most annoying of which is the keyboard. Its keys are so skinny that it was far too easy to hit the wrong letter. Even when using a fingernail or a stylus we found that we made too many typing errors to use the 32 in portrait mode. When we switched to landscape modes we encountered fewer errors, but the error rate varied depending on who used the device. Those with longer fingernails were faster and more accurate, while those who use the pad of their thumbs had to be slow and deliberate with each press, which can be annoying.
Currently, the 32 runs Android 2.1, but the company will push Froyo to users as an update next month. Archos didn't do much to tweak the interface, but it has added a few touches to signal the device's media player capabilities. For example, on the app menu you'll see the music and video player right up top. By default, there's no lock screen enabled, so users don't have to go through an extra step to get to the media player controls. Also, the screen rotates in all four directions, even on the home screen (a feature most, if not all, Android phones lack).
Archos replaced the stock Android music player with a better-looking app. On the left you can scroll through album covers (all albums, recent, and favorites) to find music, or narrow it down by artist, album, song, or playlist via the icons on the left. The Now Playing screen offers the usual assortment of options: Shuffle, Repeat, and Track List, plus Info, Add To, and Audio Settings under the Menu button.
The full-screen Home widget for the music player offers more than just Pause and Next Track. Users can also access recently added or played tracks as well as a list of favorites. For users who primarily use the 32 as a music player, this widget can live on the primary home screen so it's easily available when you turn on the device.
To test the Archos 32's audio quality, we loaded half a dozen songs from different genres onto the device. The included earbuds weren't very comfortable nor did they pump decent sound, but we were impressed with the sound when we switched to a premium set of buds. Songs with complex, overlapping instruments, such as "Escape Artists" by Zoe Keating, retained their depth. S. J. Tucker's vocals on "Raven in the Library" were clearly distinct from the acoustic guitar under them, never blending into muddy sound. And the bass beat from DJ Rekha's "Bhanghall" vibrated nicely. Even lower bit rate tracks sounded great--we picked out the flute in Guns N' Roses "November Rain" without straining.
Aside from MP3s, the 32 can also play WMA, WAV, AAC, AAC+, OGG Vorbis, and FLAC files. Unfortunately, the Archos 32 doesn't have an external speaker, so you'll have to use headphones to hear music or games sounds, and you can't use the device as an alarm clock.
As they did with their first media tablet, Archos bundles the 32 with several codecs to widen the range of media it can play. Out of the box users will be able to load 3GP, ASF, AVI, FLV, MKV, MOV, MP4, MPG, PS, RM, RMVB, TS, VOB, and WMV files. The one missing element: Flash. But that should be resolved in October when Archos releases its Froyo update.
Watching video was a pleasurable experience given the size of the screen. Despite the annoying glare from the display, colors were vibrant and blacks deep, and we were able to make out details just as well during dark scenes in Batman Begins as in the lighter ones from Saving Private Ryan. Playback of HD and SD content proved smooth with no discernible dropped frames or hitching.
Like the Archos 5 Internet Tablet, the 32 can output video to a TV via an optional video-only cable. This RCA connector will enable users to connect the 32 to most TVs or external DVD players. When connected, the 32 acts as a touchpad to move the cursor around the screen. We like that this feature is accessible to users with older sets, but wish there were an HDMI option, too.
Due to the small 3.2-inch screen, web surfing, however, wasn't the best of experiences. Most text is tiny by default, and you need to double tap or use the Zoom buttons instead of the more convenient pinch-to-zoom functionality. But we can see the stock browser working well for mobile sites. As with Android phones, there is inertial scrolling for getting around web pages faster.
Camera and Camcorder
The 0.3-megapixel camera on the back of the device isn't worth giving up your Flip camera, or even your point-and-shoot. The still images we took were fuzzy and indistinct around the edges. The short VGA video we shot seemed to be playing back in slow motion on our device at first, but after a few seconds the footage played at normal speed.
Aside from the stock Android apps, Archos pre-loads some of its favorites: eBuddy for instant messaging, Touiteur Twitter client, File Manager, and the Raging Thunder Lite racing game. The 32 isn't Google Certified and thus doesn't come with Google Mobile Services apps such as Gmail, YouTube, Talk, or the Android Market.
To get new apps, users can download them from Archos' AppsLib, which works the same way as the Market, but there are currently only 5,000 apps, compared to the Market's 80,000. Users who hope to find the same apps they're used to on their smart phone may not be pleased with the selection. We searched for 42 of our favorite free apps in Archos' market and were only able to find 14 of them. The range of apps is decent--Dolphin Browser HD, Yelp, ttTumblr, TripIt, Aldiko--but there are key apps still missing, such as Pandora, Shazam, Kobo eReader, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Evernote, Photoshop, NPR News, Groupon, QuickOffice, and even the official Facebook app. Though there are ways to sideload apps, most users don't want to jump through hoops.
The 800-MHz ARM Cortex A8 chip inside the Archos 32 is robust enough to load apps fairly quickly, play media, and handle 3D games. We did notice that having two apps running in the background at once did cause the device to slow a little, but the included system monitor killed the tasks quickly and restored the 32 to its former speed.
On the Linpack for Android benchmark, the Archos 32 scored 7.8, a smidgen behind the Samsung Vibrant and Epic 4G scores (both 7.9) and well ahead of the HTC Aria (3.6). Like most phones, the Archos 32 trails the HTC Evo 4G's Froyo score on this test (33.8), but it still stands up pretty well to other popular models like the Motorola Droid X (8.2). In NBench, the 32's memory score of 3.2 is above the Evo (2.5), Aria (1.0), Droid X (2.9), and Vibrant (3.0).
In Benchmark, the Archos' graphics score (88.6) is well above most Android phones we've tested, even the Evo 4G (26.8) and the Droid X (31.5). It also rendered 3D graphics well, earning a 6,226 in An3DBench. That showing is ahead of the Evo 4G (3,386) but a little behind the Vibrant (6,637) and the Epic 4G (6,599).
We expect to see even better results when Archos updates the 32 to Froyo, as most phones gain a few performance points after the upgrade.
Battery and Wi-Fi
Archos rates the battery life of the 32 at up to 24 hours when just listening to music, up to 6 hours watching video, and up to 8 hours when surfing the web. The device lasted 6 hours and 20 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test for Android (continuous surfing over Wi-Fi), which isn't bad. With the Wi-Fi off, we found that we could use it on and off for more than a day before the battery depleted.
Though we couldn't measure throughput, when using the 32 we noted that once we got about 20 to 25 feet from the router, the Wi-Fi signal would waver between Poor and Fair, mostly staying on Poor. Sitting just 10 feet from the router, we were able to load the full versions of Laptopmag.com and NYTimes.com in 14 and 9 seconds, respectively. Mobile sites m.CNN.com and m.ESPN.com loaded in a speedy 5 and 4 seconds, respectively.
For $149, the Archos 32 is a pretty good deal, so long as you're willing to live with some trade-offs. It's a solid portable media player that can also surf the web and access (some) Android apps. We especially like the wide range of supported audio and video formats. You just have to be willing to put up with a lackluster touch keyboard and a resistive display that kicks back reflections. Overall, we prefer the new iPod nano at this price because of its more accurate and crisper capacitive display--despite its much smaller size--and better overall design. But the Archos 32 is worth a look if you want more functionality.