Hot on the heels of Creative's Microsoft-backed Zen Portable Media Center is the new AV420 Pocket Video Recorder from French company Archos.
Like Creative's $999 Zen, the AV420 allows you to store and view photos, movies and listen to music, but also lets you record from any video source (TV, VCR etc) straight to its built-in 20GB hard drive.
The AV420 is about the size of a PDA and weighs 280g. It features a 3.5in back-lit colour LCD display (320x240) with great side and top viewing angles, but a poor bottom viewing angle.
The custom operating system and right-side control buttons make navigation and use of the device quite easy.
You connect the AV420 to your PC or Mac via USB 2.0 and treat it just like an external hard drive capable of also storing everyday data like spreadsheets.
The AV420 has a directory structure for organising content. Place your JPEG or BMP images in the photo folder, your MP3, WAV or WMA (including protected) files in the music folder and your MPEG-4 video files in the video folder. Although XviD and DivX (4.0 and 5.0) video files should playback with little problem, you'll need to use the supplied converter software (that works alongside VirtualDub) to transcode most video files that the player may not be able to play. Depending on your PC, a typical DivX movie can take more than an hour to be converted.
The bundled Archos AV cradle conveniently saves you the hassle of repeatedly setting up cables and is used to output the contents of the AV420 to a TV. When the cradle is connected to an input source such as the TV (via Composite or S-Video) and you've entered recording mode, the AV420 will automatically detect the video signal and will allow you to record the input onto the hard drive in real time. This is also where the full sized infrared remote control comes in handy. Recordings can be scheduled individually or by importing a Yahoo! Australian TV Guide calendar file (although we did not have time to test the latter). You can select high or low recording resolutions intended for playback on either a TV or the AV420's own display. You can also adjust a recording's bitrate to conserve space. This allows at least 80 hours of video or between 300 to 1500 hours of music.
Audio recording (in WAV format) is also available (there's even a built-in microphone). A mono speaker is integrated, but the supplied earbuds worked best.
Testing recording and playback using default settings, we found the stereo sound and visual quality to be excellent. The aspect ratio of the video can easily be changed anytime from 16:9 to 4:3 from just one of the many comprehensive icon-based option menus.
Archos claims the rechargeable 3.7V Lithium-ion battery should last for about four hours of video and around 14 hours of music playback - enough for an entire movie. That claim is backed up by our tests. The battery is also removable and you can purchase extra batteries in anticipation of long trips.
A built-in CompactFlash slot lets pictures be copied to the AV420's hard drive, and an optional 4-in-1 adapter accommodates other media cards. Further options include an FM radio/headphone remote, but there's no word on camera attachments like those designed for the AV300 series. We would also really like to see a TV tuner option - the AV420's upgradable firmware and Archos' track record of quality products in this area means that anything may be possible.