In a valiant attempt to dethrone the Apple TV as the best digital media adapter for the living room, the Archos uses a "throw everything at the wall" approach with its TV+ Wi-Fi DVR. In addition to streaming video and music, this device can surf the Web, download premium content from CinemaNow, and record your favorite shows to its built-in hard drive. You can even transfer content to portable USB drives and Archos' own line of portable media players. The Archos TV+ certainly does a lot, but the execution could have been better.
Archos TV+ Design and Setup
Where the Apple TV is small and white, the Archos TV+ uses a brushed metallic enclosure that's stocky and heavy enough to sit flat next to an HDTV. Hook-ups are easy and mimic the design of a DVR. On the back is a row of inputs (component, VGA, S-Video) for recording media to the 80GB internal drive (a 250GB version costs $349) and a row of common video and audio outputs, including HDMI. It also has an S/PDIF port for outputting surround sound.
The feather-light Archos TV remote is shaped like a BlackBerry and features a full QWERTY keyboard, but the controls are not as intuitive as we'd like. On the upper left are a scroll wheel and mouse buttons, and on the right are arrow keys and an OK button, but we were never clear on when to use what. Looking for the Menu key? It's the button marked "M". To access numbers you press ALT, and you have to press it again to access the alphabet.
Setting up the Archos TV+ takes only a few minutes because it has clear options, and there is no software to install; the Wi-Fi setup worked smoothly, too. The device comes with two audio RCA cables and two S-Video cables, although we would have liked an HDMI. Even if you have an HDMI cable, however, you'll need to configure the device using RCA because you can't enable the HDMI port until after the setup completes RCA, which is a hassle. Also, configuring the device to record from a DISH Network ViP 622 was difficult because the Archos TV+ does not directly recognize your set-top box and merely records whatever is playing from the connection.
Once you have it configured, you can access media files on your laptop over 802.11g via Windows Media Player or UPnP, which is a media-sharing standard for storage devices. We would have preferred the faster 802.11n technology, which the Apple TV uses.
Media Playback on the Archos TV+
We streamed the Lord of the Rings trilogy in standard definition from a home-built Windows Home Server, a Netgear ReadyNAS network drive, and a Sony SZ laptop to a Westinghouse SK-32 1080i LCD without any problems. Video playback was smooth enough when we streamed an episode of The Office recoded using an ATI All-in-Wonder desktop card and saved as a Windows Media file.
Considering that the TV has a 1200:1 contrast ratio, videos that should have looked vibrant and clear in HDMI were grainy and not as good as a DVD. This is because the highest resolution setting on the Archos TV+ is only 576p. Archos has promised an update to support higher-res video playback at some point this year, but for now quality is not as good as the Apple TV, which supports 720p.
The Archos Content Portal lets you access Internet media, such as CinemaNow's premium movie and TV service and Daily Motion viral videos. As of press time, Apple's library of over 400 movie rentals (at $2.99 to $4.99) pales in comparison to CinemaNow's stock of around 5,000 films and television programs (for $1.99 to $3.99 per film), especially considering the fact that Apple promised over 1,000 available movie titles by February's end.We downloaded the movie Michael Clayton and were impressed with how easy the rental process is, but the playback looked just as muddy as a recorded TV show. While Archos' portal has a limited selection of this content, the company intends to add more over the next year, but it's not clear what they will add or when.
Audio file support is a mixed bag. We tested a collection of MP3 files recorded at a bitrate of 96 Kbps with good results, but uncompressed MP3 files would load and then stall, presumably because our Wi-Fi network could not keep up. To play AAC files, you have to buy a $20 plug-in at Archos.com, and they're buried in the online store with a link on the left-hand side that's easy to miss. H.264 support for podcast files also requires a plug-in, at $30.
Archos TV+ as DVR and Web Browser
Using the device to record video worked reasonably well, though we had to install a free plug-in for our DISH ViP-622 set-top box. The Archos TV+ offers a program guide, and you can configure the remote to change channels using infrared. We recorded the latest Harry Potter movie and saved it to the Archos TV 80GB drive, then saved it to a USB drive and watched it on a laptop; this process was quick and easy. In much the same way, you can also transfer media to the latest Archos portable media players, like the 605 Wi-Fi, with a maximum 640 x 480 resolution.
The recording interface is not nearly as user-friendly as, say, TiVo. For example, the Archos TV+ lets you view listings from previous days' programs, which are not available to record anymore. This might be useful to see what you missed, but not to record anything.
A Web client on the Archos TV+--again, as an optional $30 plug-in--worked flawlessly for Google searches and Gmail. Web browsing using the Opera browser was fast and worked well, although there's still some question as to whether a television is really that well suited to browsing. This plug-in also enables you to watch the latest online videos from YouTube and other sites, although their choppiness and graininess limited our enjoyment.
Archos TV+ Verdict
Although the Archos TV+ has more features, it's not as easy to use as Apple TV, does not support true high-def, and has a confusing remote. In its current form, the Archos TV+ is a pale Apple TV imitation, even if it can record video.