Whilst in China they may be preparing to celebrate the year of the rabbit, in the tech industry we are all getting set for what is without question going to be the year of the tablet. Electronics manufacturers far and wide are on the verge of launching their own entrant into the tablet market, most likely at CES, but Archos has once again got stuck in early with no less than five Android tablets.
Though, when I say tablets, what I have here is the Archos 32 Internet Tablet, which as the name suggests is a 3.2″ touch screen device that will connect you to the internet. But, stop right there, because if you are looking at this as an internet browsing device, then you’re barking up the wrong tree, because as we will find out, the label ‘tablet’ is indeed a marketing façade, which to the untrained eye places it alongside the likes of the iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Tab etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. That’s not a good place to be.
Having said all that, the Archos 32 does offer some interesting functionality and delivers pretty well, obviously I will expand on that in due course, but for now let’s just get one thing straight: this is no tablet, it’s an Android Personal Media Player (PMP), and that’s just the way it has to be for this thing to survive.
Look and Feel
The first thing you notice once you’ve unboxed the device is how lightweight it is. That may be because the majority of the casing is crafted from a cheap-feeling plastic, or it may just be because it’s so small, but compare it to the iPod Touch of any generation and it feels a featherweight. It’s hard to decide whether that’s really a good thing or not though. Of course, you don’t want to be carrying a brick in your pocket, particularly when you’ll no doubt be packing an oversized smartphone as well, but to me it just feels a little too light. A little too flimsy. A little too… cheap.
If we get past that, the back cover is made from a brushed metal, which definitely gives it more of a premium feel when you’re holding it in the palm of the hand, and the bronze colour which is spread over the entirety of the device is comparable to that of the original HTC Desire or Wildfire, which I have previously expressed my love for.
In terms of the external buttons and controls, down the left hand side as you face it there are volume controls and a uniquely positioned lock button. Strangely, the face of the device also dons a volume control which actually dominates the lower half of the device. It’s useful, but seemingly pointless when the aforementioned controls are just as easily accessed. I would have preferred this space to be used to extend the display, perhaps, but OK that would entail enlarging the device and encroaching on another of Archos’ various tablets.
The bottom of the Archos 32 sports a 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB port, power indicator and a microphone. Nothing outstanding here, but provides all necessary functionality and connectivity for a PMP.
Design-wise, it’s pretty standard. Curvaceous edges and a slim, rectangular frame won’t make it stand out from any crowd, but again that could be taken as both a positive or a negative, because we all know we’ve seen some pretty disastrous designs before, which just pounce right off the shelf, straight through your eyeline and hopefully into the bin with the lid closed. This isn’t true here, though, just to clear up, it actually on the face of it looks pretty decent.
As with any touchscreen device, the quality of the display is key. A bad touchscreen can lead to no end of problems, especially when key functionality depends on an on-screen keyboard. Usage of which can be severely hampered by a poor quality touch display, and unfortunately the Archos falls into that trap. The 3.2″ resistive touchscreen is not the worst I’ve ever experienced, but due to it’s diminutive figure and sometimes inaccurate touchscreen (and probably my chunky thumbs), it didn’t really stack up when typing.
However, this thing is primarily a PMP. A PMP, excluding the odd piece of searching or web browsing, doesn’t require a great deal of typing. You don’t need to send extensive text messages or anything, it’s only an occasional evil. So, what really matters is how navigation feels, and it’s not all bad. Swiping through album artwork, lists of videos, pictures etc. is not bad, it’s actually a decent experience despite the resistive screen and mostly exceeds other resistive displays I’ve used in terms of responsiveness and accuracy.
Unfortunately, I’m going to have to finish on a slight negative, which is that the display is glossy. Very glossy. So glossy, in fact, it almost functions better as a mirror than an LCD, and at times I’ve found myself trying to pick away a plastic cover that just isn’t there. Very disappointing, but when switched on with bright images, it’s not a noticeable problem.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the Archos 32 makes up one fifth of the french company’s current Android line-up. At the moment the device runs the increasingly archaic version of the open source OS, 2.1 Eclair, which might be old, but a firmware update taking it to FroYo is promised in the near future.
Unfortunately for devices like this, Google currently restricts access to the traditional Android App Market on devices that don’t have access to 3G. That would usually be a nightmare, but thankfully due to the open-ness of the platform it can be sideloaded if you know what you’re doing, but if not there is the AppsLib store for tablets, which does provide a wealth of applications, although not quite on the same scale as the traditional market we know and love.
The device comes preloaded with a good few apps, including Touiteur to cater for your social requirements and a variety of music/media applications which combined make this a fantastically useful PMP, including Deezer, which in case you aren’t aware is a great online music streaming application with some decent social integration to boot.
Overall, the lack of the latest version of Android isn’t as big a deal as it might be on the latest phones due to the lack of Market, which restricts the knock on effects of the fragmentation which plagues the platform. Thankfully, Archos have refrained from modifying the stock OS too much, adding only a few little tweaks and preloaded apps. There are no fancy frills on the UI, just the standard Eclair experience minus the market, which is of course, a sizeable blow.
The Archos 32 packs an ARM Cortex 800MHz processor, which is slightly less than what we have come to expect with modern smartphones, but does provide ample juice to play music, watch videos and access the internet and social applications smoothly. I haven’t noticed any drop in performance in the few weeks I’ve had the device, so in that respect I have no qualms.
Battery life is another aspect which occasionally lets these Android devices down, but here it stands the tests well, with average usage (music, web etc.) withstanding the best part of a day. Of course, constant playback of movies will drain the juice a bit faster, but you can’t really have too many complaints.
Just for good measure, and to ensure that you don’t waste resources, Archos has thrown in a system monitor application, which will allow you to kill unnecessary processes and not waste that valuable battery life.
Now, as Android PMP’s go, this is not bad. I say that because there are those that are better than with news emerging of a Samsung Galaxy Player, the standard is only going to get higher. As a budget Android PMP, though, this is probably one of the best and more than justifies the pricetag.
The device provides great playback quality of music and movies and even features a rear facing camera, though the quality is woeful and the positioning is down right awkward. However, it’s a nice touch that others may not have and just go that little bit further to set it apart in a market in which it can be difficult to differentiate on a budget.
I would gladly buy the device if my budget was pre-determined, and for £100-ish I wouldn’t be disappointed. Having said that, if the restrictions on money weren’t so tight, I would be more satisfied spending that little bit extra for something with maybe a bigger, capacitive touchscreen.
If you were to be carrying a phone as well, you may want to consider converging the two into a budget Android device such as the HTC Wildfire, even if it’s only for the Android Market access.