Let’s get one thing straight; 3.2 inches of screen does not make a tablet. Archos, the French purveyor of portable multimedia that has been selling PMPs since before the iPod forever changed the industry, made the unfortunate mistake of calling the Archos 32 an “Internet Tablet.” While you could argue the semantics of the word and say that any flat and slim touchscreen computing device could hold the moniker of tablet, we can’t help but feel that we’re being fooled. If anything, the Archos 32 is an attempt to pull an iPod Touch with the Android operating system.
Apple’s iPod Touch, the consequence of a design shift at Apple that also spawned the iPod Classic, used the critically acclaimed iOS operating system found on the iPhone, and just stripped out the telephone functionality. It was a move that proved to consumers that all the layers of technology and entertainment that went into the iPhone OS weren’t just feature-fluff that was secondary to the phone. You could take away the phone and still be left with an impressive stand-alone Internet-connected PMP. The strategy worked wonders for Apple, and Archos is attempting the same feat with Android. The Archos 32 promises all the openness, flexibility, and customization that Android has to offer, with a proprietary media player that improves on the stock Android player, and at an affordable price point. In theory, this seems like a great idea. In practice, Archos could have done a lot better.
Lifting the device out of its casing reveals one of its strengths and weaknesses. This is one of the lightest and smallest Android devices we have come across, weighing in at 2.5 oz. and 9mm thickness (making us wonder once again why Archos decided to call this a tablet), but it also feels flimsy. The build quality of the device took a hit in the buttons department. While the main navigation buttons below the screen are soft keys, and blend nicely with the device, the volume rocker and standby button on the left side of the body make the whole thing feel like a plastic toy. They are not properly seated and are loose in the casing, making it feel almost broken when you touch it. With the rest of the device feeling solid and well-built, it’s a shame that the volume rocker has to give it such a cheap feel.
The hardware on the device is pretty decent for its class and price range. It’s packing an 800Mhz ARM Cortex A8 CPU, 8GB of internal flash memoriy, Bluetooth, b/g/n WiFi and VGA camera/camcorder. Even with a relatively under-powered CPU (by today’s standards), the device has snappy response times, and wasn’t affected so much by slowness and/or lag. We didn’t run into any problems with wireless connectivity, either. While the camera is pretty lackluster (VGA is VGA, no way around that), it is there, and it works.
The device runs Android 2.1, Eclair, and you can download the 2.2 Froyo version of the software on Archos' website. However, the OS is crippled in one very important area. Android Market is nowhere to be found, and that’s Google’s fault; Google is still restricting the market to devices with 3G and phone capabilities. It comes with AppsLib, a limited alternative to Android Market, but the software on our review unit refused to populate the market and we were left with just the apps that Archos preinstalled, like Touiteur, Racing Thunder Lite, and Quickpedia. The preinstalled apps worked great, but we were disappointed that we couldn’t manage to download other apps through AppsLib.
While Android 2.1 and the ARM processor make the UI a snappy experience, two important aspects of the device cheapen the overall experience. The touchscreen, a resistive affair that is very hard to control accurately (and no fingernails due to its resistive nature), is actually not too bad as far as resistive touchscreens go. However, it provided just enough frustration, mainly in the feel of the screen itself and in the inaccuracy of swipe gestures, that we would have sacrificed some performance for a much better capacitive touchscreen. The other aspect is the screen quality. In a device that touts itself as a multimedia player, a good screen would seem necessary. The screen on the Archos 32 is lackluster at best. Everything is slightly pixelated and washed out, and it's glossy to the point where you can barely use it in direct light. Watching video isn’t horrible on the device, but it’s easy to see where a better screen would have benefited the user considerably.
Speaking of multimedia, this is one area where Archos successfully delivers their trademark flexibility and broad format compatibility. In the audio arena, the device can play standard MP3, WMA, and WAV, as well as AAC, OGG Vorbis, and FLAC. An optional plugin enables AC3 5.1 sound as well. In the video department, the device is capable of playing MP4, H.264, WMV, M-JPEG (for the VGA videos), MPEG-2, MOV, MKV, VOB, FLV, RM, ASF, and 3GP. All this is done through a proprietary media player that is definitely an improvement over the stock Android player. The media player includes a faux cover flow system that works nicely, and is a nice way to browse your media. It includes a file browser to fetch media from anywhere on the device, and generally runs pretty smoothly. As media playback is the focus if this device, it’s nice to see Archos getting this aspect right. Sound was generally good from the device, but there aren’t any phone speakers, so you’ll have to use the bundled earbuds or supply your own cans.
The wireless Internet works just fine, and the browser is the stock Android 2.1 browser, which definitely does the job as far as web browsing goes. Battery life was OK for a PMP; I was able to get through a day of average PMP use (this is not a phone, so it likely wouldn’t be getting the same amount of use as a comparable Android phone), and then some. Obviously, battery life increases dramatically with WiFi and Bluetooth turned off.
The Archos 32 tries hard to fill an Android niche that has yet to be filled. While it delivers on the promise of having Archos-level quality of format compatibility and a streamlined proprietary media player, it fails to deliver on key points like the screen, build quality and camera. When you can get an iPod Touch at a marginally higher price than the Archos 32 (which ranges from $130 to $150), and get a better quality capacitive touchscreen, a better camera, and a fully featured OS, some users will think twice before picking one of these up. For the budget-minded, however, this Android media player might fit the bill.