Archos – 32 internet tablet review

Android-powered rival to the iPod Touch
Photo of Archos – 32 internet tablet
£129

There are plenty of portable devices around that let you enjoy media, access the internet and organise your life. But while many tech-obsessed types are announcing the demise of more limited handhelds in favour of all-singing, all-dancing smartphones and tablet computers like the iPhone 4 or iPad, these aren’t practical for everyone. For those who aren’t on a contract deal (and therefore don’t get subsidised handsets) – or simply want to keep business and pleasure separate – there’s the Archos 32.

The Android-powered Archos 32 is a 3.2 resistive touchscreen internet tablet that does pretty much everything you’d expect from a top-of-the-range phone, aside from making calls and sending texts. This mobile-sized device is an impressively slim 9mm in thickness, and weighs in at just 72g – but is still kitted out to handle the majority of modern entertainment.

Powered by an 800MHZ A8 ARM Cortex processor, the Archos 32 also features a 3D OpenGL graphics processor to cope with the latest games. It comes installed with the new Android 2.2 (Froyo) OS, and has 8GB of internal memory as standard – though sadly there’s no microSD slot to increase this.

The front of the device is mainly taken up by the touchscreen, which displays the main Android display as well as the usual touch-sensitive controls for browsing and navigation shortcuts, along with a volume control – although this is effectively redundant, due to the tactile volume rocker mounted on the side. Also tucked in on teh side of the device are a standby/lock switch and a handful of ports including a 3.5mm jack and mini-USB connector.

Battery life is decent considering the player’s size, with a quoted life of around 20 hours for music playback, six for video and eight for browsing the internet.

Given Archos’ experience in making portable media players, it’s no real surprise to see some excellent support for audio and video formats here. Aside from more traditional file types, you’ll also find more esoteric fomats like WMA-Pro 5.1, OGG and FLAC for audio, and H.264 HD, WMV9 and M-JPEG for video – though sadly Archos is sticking with its optional plug-in system, so movie lovers may have to invest in a plug-in to boost support.

On the whole, audio and video quality are extremely impressive, largely down to the device’s extremely crisp and clear screen. Unfortunately, the screen’s relatively low (400×240) resolution means HD video is largely wasted on it – but content that’s optimised for this lower resolution looks superb. Audio quality is also very good, though the volume is a little quiet. We’d have liked a little more oomph to cope with our noisy commute – but while you’ll probably have to replace the typically mediocre in-ear ‘bud’ earphones supplied with a decent set, there’s a wide range of effects here that can seriously enhance the experience.

The Archos32 also comes complete with a camera mounted at the rear that’s capable of a spot of casual picture-taking, though results were a little grainy. Its VGA resolution limits it to producing still pictures of up to 0.3 megapixels – but it doubles as a video camera, to slightly better effect. As a token addition it wouldn’t be fair to criticise its capabilities in this area too much, but suffice to say we’ve seen a lot better from similarly sized handhelds.

Where we expected the Archos32 to excel was in internet access, and we had no issues at all connecting to a wireless network and browsing around. Support for Flash 10 is a welcome convenience – and something you won’t find on Apple’s iOS 4 device. Pages loaded quickly, with straightforward zoom controls making content easy to manage on the relatively small display.

One thing we did find a bit frustrating was the on-screen keyboard – and although the device’s four-way accelerometer makes it easy to switch the screen to a landscape view, giving you a larger keyboard area for easier text entry, we still found it took a fair bit of concentration and precision to avoid errors.

In addition to browsing the web through a wireless network, it’s possible to tether the Archos 32 to a mobile via Bluetooth and access internet content via the phone’s data plan. You can also stream music and video via wireless to the device from a home computer using SAMBA or UPnP sharing, and an optional cable will let you hook it up to a TV to play back HD content on the large screen.

In spite of our reservations over text entry, the Archos 32 excels in many other areas of usability. We found the Android OS extremely intuitive and accurate to use when browsing the various features of the phone, and there’s no lag when the screen refreshes to update shortcut views. These include helpful album art and video thumbnails, as well as fast and customisable access to some of the phone’s lesser features, such as contacts, a sound recorder, clock, gallery and system monitor.

It is, however, worth mentioning that users who are accustomed to the wide variety of downloadable applications and games available for Android, will find their legs taken out from under them somewhat with the Archos 32. It only supports applications downloaded from Archos’ Applib library. This offers around 5,000 apps – compared to the Android Market’s 80,000-ish – so it’s well worth looking into this before you buy if you’re expecting a similar degree of flexibility to more dedicated Android handhelds.

So, while the Archos 32 has clear gaps in its armour, its wide range of features, diminutive size and impressive performance still represent very good value for money. Though it may cost a bit more to upgrade and take advantage of some of the more advanced features, the Archos 32 is a great buy for those who don’t have the money or inclination to pick up a smarthone that will tie all of this into one device.

Company: Archos

Contact: N/A


Verdict
The Archos 32 certainly does the company's reputation justice, and though these sorts of features may not be restricted only to high-end mobiles for much longer, this sort of 'cut-down' approach didn't do Apple any harm with its iPod Touch. The Android OS will rightly hold significant appeal for users who appreciate its flexibility - and although many of the features here are effectively lite versions of their full potential, the low price still makes it a seriously appealing device.