The Archos 32 Internet Tablet is a handheld device that’s either a portable media player that happens to run Android or a tiny Android tablet that happens to have spruced up multimedia capabilities, depending on how you look at it. In some ways, it’s probably best to think of the Archos 32 as a cheaper alternative to the iPod touch.
The Archos 32 is the first available of five new Android devices the company plans to release this fall, with screen sizes ranging from 2.8 inches to 10.1 inches.
Like Apple’s portable media player the Archos 32 can play music and videos, surf the web, and run third party apps. But at $150, the Archos 32 is about $80 cheaper than the latest iPod touch and has video output capabilities as well as support for a wider range of audio and video formats.
On the other hand, the Archos 32 has a smaller screen, a thicker body, a plastic case, a lower resolution display, a resistive touchscreen, and no speaker, which explains why it costs so much less than an iPod touch.
That doesn’t mean the Archos 32 isn’t a good buy though. It just depends on what you’re looking for in a handheld tablet/portable media device. Archos sent me a demo unit to play with for a few weeks for the purposes of this review. In October Archos will offer the Internet Tablet with Google Android 2.2, but the review unit is running Google Android 2.1, like other Archos 32 models shipping today.
The Archos 32 as a 3.2 inch, 400 x 240 pixel resistive touchscreen display. I know there are some folks who instantly see the word resistive and move on, but I should point out that this little guy has one of the most finger-friendly and responsive resistive touchscreens I’ve used. I had few problems launching apps, swiping the notification bar, or flipping between home screens using a fingertip, although the screen was definitely more responsive when I tapped or slid a fingernail over it.
Entering text is a little trickier. In landscape mode, I was able to tap out letters reasonably well, although you have to press a bit harder than you would on a machine with a capacitive touchscreen.
The best way to enter text in portrait mode, unless you have tiny hands, is to use a fingernail or stylus. I should also mention that the plastic screen feels softer to the touch than the glass displays on my Google Nexus One phone or iPod touch.
The display does a pretty good job of showing off color, and pictures, videos, and web sites looked pretty decent at the usual viewing angles — unless you’re in an area where glare might be an issue. The screen has a glossy finish and reflects glare like nobody’s business, which seriously reduces visibility if you’re not looking straight at the screen. It also has a tendency to collect fingerprints, which can obscure the picture a bit, but I honestly didn’t find the fingerprint issue to be much worse on the Archos 32 than on other touchscreen devices such as the iPod touch or most Google Android phones.
The screen appears to be sidelit rather than backlit, and you can see a bright white light around the edges of the screen if you view the internet tablet from an angle. But honestly, if you’re holding it in your hand and looking straight at the tablet you probably won’t notice anything.
Although I’ve grown used to using mobile devices with higher resolution displays, the 400 x 240 pixel screen looked reasonably good while watching HD videos and reading eBooks or web pages. It’s definitely no “retina” display, as you can definitely pick out individual pixels. But it gets the job done in most situations. I’m not sure I’d want to use a larger screen with this resolution, but for a 3.2 inch display you don’t get the feeling that you’re staring at a field of enormous pixels.
Below the display you’ll find soft buttons which you can press to trigger your usual Android actions including Back, Settings, Home, and Search as well as volume up and volume down. These buttons do not light up, which means that you’ll have to memorize their locations if you plan to use the Archos 32 in the dark. Fortunately the button position is identical to that on my Nexus One phone, so I had no problem reading the news and flipping between applications in bed.
There are three physical buttons on the left side of the device, two for volume and a power button which you can use to turn the display on or off or long press to turn off the device. I don’t know why Archos decided to put volume buttons on the front and side of the unit, but I guess the company is focusing on the multimedia capabilities.
Still, I’d much rather have a physical button that can play and pause media — something which is difficult to do on any touch-only device if you’re listening to music with your phone or media player in your pocket.
On the bottom of the Archos 32 you’ll find a headphone jack, built in mic, and a mini-USB cable, as well as an LED light which flashes when the internet tablet is charging. There is no separate charging cable, so you fill up the battery by plugging in the USB cable.
You won’t find anything on the left side or the top of the unit, and on the back you get the Archos 32 label, FCC information, and a VGA camera.
The camera is nothing to write home about, but it’ll do in a pinch. It shoots photos and video, but there’s no flash or auto-focus and the 640 x 480 pixel resolution is pretty underwhelming, as is the color quality. Still, it should be good enough to scan barcodes and perform other basic camera tricks if you install the appropriate software.
The Archos 32 Internet Tablet has an 800MHz ARM Cortex A8 CPU, 8GB of storage, 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1. I found that the wireless often took a while to connect after the device had been off for a while, but I didn’t have any problems with the wireless dropping out while in use. There’s also an option to tether the Archos 32 to a cellphone via a USB or Bluetooth connection so you can access the internet on the device using your phone’s 3G data plan.
The Archos 32 has a Lithium Polymer battery which is not user replaceable. Testing battery performance on this sort of device is tricky because usage scenarios can change so much, but Archos promises up to 24 hours of audio playback, 6 hours of video playback, or 8 hours of web surfing. Clearly, you get much better battery life if the screen is turned off. In fact, after fully charging the tablet, I left it unplugged for about three days, occasionally turning it on for about 30 to 60 minutes at a time, and after three days the battery was still holding more than half its charge. So I’m willing to believe the battery life estimates Archos has provided.
The Archos 32 measure 4.1″ x 2.1″ x 0.3″ and weighs just 2.5 ounces. while it’s thicker than the latest iPod touch, it’s also a full ounces lighter.
Media Player functions
The Archos 32 really shines as a portable media player… mostly. It can handle almost any media file you throw at it, and while I didn’t test every single audio and video format on the list, it easily handled 720p HD DivX and Xvid, and WMV videos as well as MP3 audio files. They played just as smoothly when streaming over a home network as they did when playing from internal storage.
Archos also offers its own audio and video players which, aside from supporting media formats that are unavailable on most Android devices, also offer a number of features you won’t find in the default Android music and video apps.
In fact, Android doesn’t actually ship with a standalone video player. Instead you typically have to launch the gallery app which bundles photos and videos together. Archos, on the other hand, has developed a video player which lets you sift through videos in your library by looking at all videos alphabetically, recently added, or recently played videos. There’s also a not yet played section.
What’s more, you can choose between internal and external storage, which means you can stream video from a shared network drive on your home network or a UPnP device.
You can bring up on-screen controls including a timeline, forward, reverse and pause buttons by tapping the screen. You’ll also see the clock, battery, WiFi and video title status for a moment when you tap.
I noticed that it can take a few seconds for a video to start playing — and to exit a video once it’s started. But once a video is up and running, skipping along the timeline couldn’t be much faster. The Archos 32 may not have the speediest processor, but the graphics processor is more than capable of handling 720p HD video playback.
The music app has two views on the main screen. On the left you see a Cover Flow style list of albums. It’s pretty, but not really that useful, since it’s kind of hard to tell one album from another on the small display. I’m guessing this view is probably more effective on the larger Archos tablets with higher resolution displays.
On the right you see a series of tabs for Artists, Albums, Songs, Playlists, and Storage. You can tap any of these to open new list-style windows, where you can search for tracks alphabetically or by pressing the Search button to pull up the search function.
The music player lets you create and manage playlists right on the device, and once a song is playing, you can easily open the Now Playing window from the thumbnail icon in the bottom right corner of the main menu.
Archos also created home screen widgets for the music and video players which make it very easy to manage your media playback from the home screen without having to pull down the notification bar to open the full apps if you want to play or pause a track.
The music widget features a now playing window, play and pause buttons, recently added and recently played tracks, and a link to your favorites. It’s almost like having a full audio player right on your home screen — although it also takes up the full screen, which means you’ll need to dedicate one of the five screens Archos gives you to this widget if you want to use it.
The video widget lets you play or pause a video or quickly jump to recently added or recently played videos.
There’s also a widget for “Switch to TV,” which is kind of useless right now.
Archos also plans to offer a cable which you can use to connect the Archos 32 to a TV using a composite connection. When the tablet is plugged into a TV, the Archos 32 essentially turns into a touchpad, allowing you to control an on-screen mouse on the TV to launch apps and perform other tasks. You can also use the on-screen keyboard on a TV, or play games using the accelerometer controls.
Unfortunately Archos didn’t send me the TV connection cable to test, but you can see how it works toward the end of the video below:
The Archos 32 also features detailed audio controls in the settings that I haven’t seen in most Android devices. You can adjust the bass, treble, 3D, and balance individually, or choose from a series of presets including Pop, Rock, Jazz, Classic, or Flat.
There are a few things I didn’t love about using the Archos 32 as a media player. While it can handle 720p HD video content, for instance, the 3.2 inch, 400 x 240 pixel display is awfully small for watching movies — especially if they have an aspect ratio that isn’t 16:9, meaning you’ll probably see black bars on the sides of the screen and the video on a portion of the display barely bigger than a postage stamp.
There’s also no built-in speaker, which means that you can’t listen to music or watch movies without wearing headphones. This doesn’t just affect the media player functions. It also means you won’t hear alarms go off, or be able to listen to audio in games unless you have headphones plugged in. While it’s not unusual for a portable media player to ship without an internal speaker, the fact that Archos is positioning this little device as an Internet Tablet which can run Google apps makes its absence kind of notable. Then again, it would be difficult to put a decent speaker into a device this small.
I’m also still not convinced that it makes sense for any portable media player to ship without physical buttons that you can press to play/pause, fast forward/rewind, and skip tracks. If you’re listening to music or a podcast with the Archos 32 (or an Android phone, iPod touch, or any newfangled touch device) in your pocket, you’ll have to pull it out of your pocket, turn on the display, and fiddle with touch controls to pause playback — which can be kind of a pain if you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, getting on a bus, or doing any of the thousands of other things you might be doing that could prompt you to want to pause your music at a moment’s notice.
While the multimedia apps on the Archos 32 are among the best available for any Android device, it turns out that’s the only software that truly shines on this little Android tablet. Built in apps include the Android web browser contact manager, email app, and photo gallery. But you won’t find the official Gmail app, Google Calendar, or Google Maps.
What’s more, the Archos 32 doesn’t have the Android Market preinstalled. Instead Archos loads its Android internet devices with the third party AppsLib market. While the official Android Market has more than 80,000 apps available for purchase or free download, the AppsLib Market has just about 5,000 — and I couldn’t find any of the apps I use most often on my Android smartphone. There wasn’t a single general purpose eBook reader. The New York Times Reader was unavailable, and several of my favorite games are absent from the AppsLib market.
To be fair, Archos isn’t entirely to blame here. Google refuses to let hardware makers install the Android Market on devices that don’t meet strict requirements. For the most part, that means the Android Market only shows up on smartphones and a handful of other tablets that have 3G and/or phone capabilities. If Archos added the hardware to turn the Archos 32 into a phone just to add Market access, it would probably cost much more than $150 — and it probably wouldn’t be as thin and light.
That’s why it’s probably best to think of the Archos 32 first and foremost as a multimedia device that allows you to load any audio or video file you like, in almost any DRM-free format. You don’t need to use iTunes or use a PC application to convert your video collection into a compatible format. If you’ve shot your own video with a camera, downloaded a video from the internet, or ripped your own DVDs, odds are the Archos 32 can play it. The internet tablet also happens to have a web browser and the ability to run some third party apps, which may make it more appealing than a media player that just plays audio and videos.
I also found that you can load many third party apps manually, but it’s kind of a pain in the behind to do it. While PC users are used to simply downloading an app from the internet and clicking on it, few Android apps are available for grabbing from the web. Instead, the easiest way to transfer most apps to an Android device is to use another Android device.
Here’s how it works. I install apps on my Google Nexus One. Then I use an app such as Astro File Manager or Titanium Backup to backup the files I want to install on the Archos 32. Titanium even lets you backup protected apps like the NY Times Android app.
Then I had to plug my Nexus One into my PC and turn on USB mass storage so that I could copy the APK installer files from the backup directories on the microSD card. I also plugged in the Archos 32 and enabled USB mass storage. I copied the APK files from the Nexus phone to the Archos media player. Then I turned off USB mass storage mode, opened the Archos 32 file browser, found the files, and clicked on them one by one to see which would work.
I managed to get the Aldiko and Amazon Kindle eBook readers, Dolphin Browser HD web browser, and NY Times app to install. They all ran fine, although the NY Times app clearly expected a device with a higher resolution display, because the article text was awfully tiny even on after I adjusted the fonts to the largest setting.
I should point out that hackers have figured out how to install the Android Market and other Google apps on the older Archos 5 Internet Tablet which has been available for some time now. But the Market4Archos hack was designed to run on Google Android 1.6. It doesn’t work on the Archos 32, which currently runs Android 2.1 and which will be updated to Android 2.2 in October. Someone may develop a new version of the hack eventually, but right now installing apps is harder than it should be unless you’re happy with the limited selection available in the AppsLib directory.
I also tried installing the AppBrain App Market and Fast Web Installer to see if I could get around the Android Market, but it appears these apps require the Android Market to be installed in order to work properly.
That said, the built-in apps work reasonably well. The web browser renders pages almost as quickly as the browser on my Nexus One. There’s no support for multitouch, which means you’ll have to double-click to zoom in and out, or use the on-screen zoom buttons which feel painfully slow at times.
Archos also preloaded eBuddy and Touiteur on the tablet for accessing Twitter and instant messaging services, and a file browser which looks very similar to the open movies/music dialog in the video and music apps. This is notable because most Android devices ship without file browsers.
The demo unit also came with Raging Thunder, a 3D racing game which looks absolutely fantastic on the Archos 32. Controlling the race car with the G-sensor couldn’t have been much easier, and the 3D graphics are about as good as anything you’re likely to see in an Android game right now.
I had kind of hoped that Universal Androot would allow me to gain root access and take screenshots from the phone, since I was unable to get the Android SDK tools to work properly, but alas Universal Androot isn’t quite as universal as the name would imply — although the latest version is said to work with the Archos 5 Internet Tablet.
There’s also a System Monitor app which lets you do things like “stop all programs” or view a list of currently running apps which you can close with a click. You can also view alarms and apps which could prevent your device from going to sleep. The System Monitor app will also show you how much memory you have free.
There’s a Home Screen widget which you can use to quickly toggle the WiFi and Bluetooth, adjust the screen brightness, turn on cellphone tethering, or automatic data synchronization.
Archos also built a Uninstall application that does exactly what you would expect — making uninstalling applications as easy as clicking a button.
The Archos 32 is a pretty good portable media player — if you’re cool with a device that has a 3.2 inch, 400 x 240 pixel display, no speaker, and very few physical buttons.
The internet tablet was able to handle most audio and video files I threw at it, and they looked pretty good on the little screen. I also really like the custom music and video software and widgets that Archos developed for its newest Android devices.
If all you’re looking for is a portable media device that can handle a wide range of audio and video tasks and which can also surf the web in a pinch, the Archos 32 might be a good buy at $150. On the other hand, it has limited support for third party applications. When apps run, they often run pretty well, like the Raging Thunder game. But installing apps can be a chore if they’re not available in the AppsLib market.
The resistive touchscreen is good enough to rebuke people who immediately scoff at any device that has a resistive instead of capacitive display. But typing on any 3.2 touchscreen in portrait mode is going to be a challenge. Text entry is easier in landscape mode, but it would be even easier on a larger device.
The Archos 32 can play HD video, but the small, low resolution display doesn’t really take advantage of that feature, and the VGA camera on the back of the tablet isn’t really much use at all.
All told, if you’ve got $230 to spare, you can get a much more powerful device in a 4th generation iPod touch. But if you’re cheap, have limited needs, or just love Google Android, the Archos 32 makes an interesting alternative.
I’ll be posting reviews of the other new Archos internet tablets as they become available, and I suspect that some of the larger models with larger, higher resolution displays, built-in speakers, and capacitive displays may address some of the problems I experienced with the Archos 32, but the biggest problem is one that still plagues most Android tablets: lack of Google Android Market access, and that’s going to be a difficult challenge to overcome.
You can check out a brief video review below: