On Monday, I finally received the Archos 43 internet tablet I ordered from Amazon back in the middle of October. The device is Android powered and primarily intended as a personal media player. I picked it because it is an excellent price for the specs which include a 4.3 inch screen, 16GB of internal storage, a micro-SD card slot, and a 2 megapixel camera. It sports a 1Ghz ARM chip with an integrated DSP so also is a nice speed bump over my two year old iPod Touch. My requirements are very specific and sadly seem unusual. I do not want a phone (I hate the interruption factor), but want a screen size that is almost exclusively used in phones. I want something that will easily fit in a jeans or coat pocket, so definitely not a seven or ten inch tablet.
Specifically I wanted an Android based personal media player (PMP) or mobile internet device (MID) to be able to severe my last tie to Apple’s proprietary software ecosystem. I’ve documented the process of installing Linux for everyday use on my Mac Pro. I have been itching to install Linux on my Macbook Pro. With a substantial iTunes library and the idiotic proprietary sync mechanism of the iPod, my laptop has been relegated to an iPod peripheral. I actively avoid using it out of the sheer frustration arising from losing OS X muscle tone and my newly ingrained Linux reflexes constantly leading me to tap the wrong booster keys and generally fumbling the Apple interface conventions.
The Archos PMP/MID devices all are capable of mounting as mass storage devices over USB which works with all the popular desktop OSes. No need for any proprietary anything to get my music library onto it. I can simply use rsync if I want an exact copy of my main music library mirrored to my portable device. Of course, I can also use a file manager, music buying and sharing apps, and network storage services like DropBox to manage my media collection even more powerfully if I want. Like using Linux on my desktop, the move to Android provides a lot more possibilities.
After several days, I’ve got a good sense of the drawbacks and benefits of this new device. My iPod Touch is currently cleaning itself out preparatory to handing it down to my wife. My Macbook Pro is busy copying my iTunes library to my Linux desktop where I will sift through it deciding what to pull into Amarok and onto my Archos. All of that is simply to say that on the whole I am very happy with the Archos, with only a couple of qualifications.
Costing only 250 USD it is clear where Archos cut costs with the 43 IT. The performance of the touch screen is inconsistent. Some times it works very smoothly, as smoothly as my iPod Touch. Other times it freezes for several seconds, being utterly non-responsive. Another portion of the time, it simply mis-registers touches, double tapping or tapping somewhere else on the screen. This is frustrating but not enough so that I am looking to return the device. Most of the time, it simply sits in my pocket or on my desktop, playing media. The flaky screen is irksome when pushing status messages out to my social network but to be honest, the tiny onscreen keyboard and inconsistent landscape support under iOS was just as frustrating. I am hopeful that the problem is software and will improve with firmware updates from Archos.
Speaking of the firmware, the device did not arrive with FroYo, Android 2.2 as advertised. There is a footnote, now that I double check, and some clarification in the support section of Archos’ site. The device is FroYo capable and a new firmware build based on 2.2 is scheduled to ship this quarter. Looking at past firmware updates from Archos, they clearly invest extra effort to polish the Android builds to work better with their hardware, an effort I appreciate. I’ll post a follow up after it arrives.
Also on the software front, the biggest question everyone has is whether the Archos tablets include the Android Market. They do not. If you read the CCD, it is pretty clear why–they lack a GPS and compass as well as hardware buttons for home, menu and back. Archos confirms this in their FAQ. I think Archos’ handling of the buttons in software that the CCD requires to be hardware is actually much nicer. Most of the time, the soft buttons are present and actually change orientation when the screen turns. With video playback and viewing slideshows of pictures, they disappear altogether. I have only noticed one app, Aldiko, where the available screen area is a bit off because of the soft buttons. (Aldiko, an ebook reader that supports ePub, is thoughtfully one of the bundled apps.)
If you search, as I did, you’ll find ways around the lack of the Market. I cannot endorse or condone this as it is pirated and illegal software. I really wish Google would just let me buy my own way into the Market with the understanding that some apps may not work right, without a cell modem or GPS. The vast majority of them are agnostic of the hardware specifics, it is very odd that the compatibility definition is so tied to a minority of applications. The process od Installing apps of any kind exposes what capabilities of the device the apps may use, both in software and hardware. It would seem to be a simple enhancement to also have this address less capable devices and possible hardware compatibility issues. Until then, if you do choose to break the law, just be aware that your mileage may vary and that Google undoubtedly has some visibility into unauthorized devices using the Market.
The only other frustration is the camera quality. Given the size of the optics, it is understandable. The default quality setting in the picture taking software exacerbates the noise arising from the small glass and tiny sensor. On the maximum quality setting, with bright lighting, the photo quality is quite good. It drops off very rapidly in darker conditions, reminding me of an old Casio point-and-shoot I had with really stinky low light performance. The lack of a flash makes this more of a problem. However, to supplement proper cameras, either point-and-shoot or DSLR, I am entirely happy. I rarely carry a camera outside of specific, planned occasions, so even a lower quality camera is better than none at all as I carry my MID with me everywhere. Having it on the network, ready for posting to social networks, microblogs, and photo sharing sites also offsets the lesser quality considerably. I also plan on experimenting with the micro-SD card, shooting with my point-and-shoot using the standard SD card adapter then using the MID is a quicker means of sharing than downloading to my desktop library.
If, like me, you primarily are looking for a media player, I think the Archos is a solid buy, especially for the price. I consider the apps and other capabilities as bonuses. If you are looking for something more, you may want to wait for future iterations or devices from other vendors. Maybe hanging onto my 1G iPod Touch has set my personal expectations very low. I love having physical volume buttons, an external speaker, and a camera, all things the original Touch lacked. The bundled media apps are very nice, back porting some features from what my friends have shown me to be standard in FroYo. The included app market is OK, though no real replacement for the Google Market. You can also install standalone packages, like I did with the Firefox Mobile beta (review pending). My usage patterns minimize the frustrations I’ve noted though your mileage may vary.
I am also hoping that my order helps send a market signal that there is strong demand for non-phone, non-tablet (that is smaller than 7 inches) internet devices powered by Android. I choose to think that the long time it took my order to be filled is due to the high volume of orders, a reason for optimism. In the meantime, the Archos 43 IT is pretty much what I hoped it would be, a very pleasant way to step into the Android space without tying myself to a cell carrier.