Archos 43 More than 6 Months Later: Largely Fail

I purchased an Archos 43 notaphone a little over six months ago. I have little use for cell phones or expensive data plans as I am usually within easy range of WiFi and Google Voice neatly takes care of the few instances where I have to give someone a working cell number even though I prefer just about any other means of communication. A few months ago I even popped for a pay-as-you-go mobile hot spot for those occasions when I am traveling or otherwise need connectivity and the availability of WiFi is unknown or unavailable.

At first, the lack of the Android Market was my biggest complaint, followed by the crummy resistive touch screen. Over time, those two complaints have swapped places. A bit of hacking got the Market onto the device and only occasionally does it present problems, mostly around major firmware updates from Archos. The screen, however, has not worn well and continues to get worse and worse.

There is a broad strip down the righthand side of the screen that no longer reliably works. If I re-calibrate the touch screen, it will work for a few minutes before it settles into its usual semi-functional state. If it was just an inoperable chunk of the screen, rotating would mostly overcome it at the expense of some small hassle. The problem is the accuracy on the rest of the screen is absolutely abysmal. All the way over to the left, it is pretty much spot on but the further to the right you touch, the worse it gets, registering touches as offset increasingly to the left. I am convinced the non-working portion of the display is part of this mis-registration, that the offset just gets so large you’d have to tap beyond the physical boundary of the screen to register successfully.

As you might imagine, typing on the soft keyboard with this idiosyncratic touch screen is an exercise in frustration. More often than not, after the third word of a message or update, I want to hurl the accursed devices into the nearest hard surface as hard as I possibly can. I try to avoid any applications now that require any typing, resigning myself to media consumption. You’d think that would alleviate the frustration with the damn thing a bit but not hardly.

Just reliably hitting the play, pause and next buttons often is an utter crap shoot. A miss can result in sending me back to the home screen or bouncing around to another podcast episode or track. Usually I have to rotate the thing around repeatedly to get the most reliable, left most edge to line up with the buttons I need. The amount of effort involved just to keep up with my podcasts and occasionally listen to some music when I am reading on my morning train ride is tiresome to say the least.

To add insult to injury, I finally installed a firmware updated from Archos that I’ve been avoiding for weeks. I was uncertain whether it would undo my Market hack, hence my hesitation. My (undeserved) that the update might improve the screen operation finally overcame my reluctance and yesterday I installed the patch. Not only did it do absolutely nothing to alleviate my existing woes, now it has introduced a new glitch. Whenever the screen automatically shuts off to help manage battery life, media playback goes out the window. I have disabled the auto shut off just so I can continue to listen to podcasts, otherwise that app would be utterly unusable. I also realize this may be a worsening of an existing bug that was interfering with some music files that previously had been glitchy. Leaving the screen on while using the built-in music player actually seems to work better on files I thought were just mis-encoded or had some metadata that was culpable.

Heck of a workaround, risk destroying my battery life or weird series of app activations and utilization as a result of the MID floating around my pocket with its screen on or give up on the core reason I bought the stupid thing in the first place.

So what to do? The gadget is still within its warranty but I am not optimistic about the vendor’s ability to address any of my complaints. I am also loathe to give up even a brain damaged media player for the duration it would take to get it repaired or replaced. I struggle enough to keep up with podcasts as it is.

I looked around a bit online today for a possible replacement. In short, there really are none. I could get a simpler, non-Android media player. There are several that work well with Linux. Even if I set aside how deeply habituated I am to having Internet access with me constantly, I cannot imagine going back to a device that has to be routinely synchronized with a computer. Of the other Android powered devices that are not phones, the vast majority of them are full sized tablets. For reasons I may discuss in some other post, I don’t want anything larger than my shirt pocket. Besides, judging by customer reviews of at least one WiFi only version of a popular seven inch tablet, the device makers often hobble the non-cell modem equipped tablets as a subtle and irritating prod towards the more lucrative versions.

Samsung has released an interesting media player that bears some passing resemblance to its popular Galaxy line of phones. It has not reached the US though and reviews so far have been mixed. I am not convinced it would be a worthwhile purchase.

As a last resort, I’ve looked into unlocked smart phones. A could see carrying around a Nexus S or some Galaxy based phone but haven’t been able to find any discussions about how reasonable it is to leave such a device unactivated. All the posts and forum threads I’ve found assume you’ll pop a SIM in from some carrier or another and start using it as a regular phone, voice + data plan and all.

I even considered biting the bullet and getting an Android smartphone with a plan of some kind. I can’t get past the fact that any contract option still costs more each month than I am willing to pay considering how lightly I’ll use the minutes and bandwidth. See my comments on access to WiFi and my ingrained aversion to mobile telephony. There are now Android phones available with pay as you go plans which could be a reasonable upgrade to the 2G dumb phone I still carry for when I absolutely, positively have to make or receive a mobile call. Of course none of the smart phones on offer with that option are ones for which I actually would pay good money.

Am I being unreasonable? Is there an option I haven’t considered to get an Android powered, small form factor media player and Internet device? If you have an answer to the latter, I sure would like to hear about it in the comments. Or if you can clarify how well an unactivated phone might work, I’d like to hear that too.