Price: $799 US
Lightweight, compact, stylish and well made.
Removable battery, ten-hour life span.
Good user interface.
Poor DivX video syncing.
Limited media format support.
Until now, people looking to buy a media player have had to choose either speed and mobility or storage and connectivity. The Archos PMA400, however, aims to provide users with all the essentials in one player that previously had been separate entities. The PMA, or Personal Media Assistant, is an MP3 player, PDA and 30GB hard drive all in one. As such, the PMA400 seems to be the first of its kind and the start of a new class of mobile devices.
The PMA400 comes with a tiny Hitachi hard drive that has a roomy 30GB to spare. The display is a 3.5" TFT touchscreen with 320x340 resolution, which is better than your average media player. What really sets the PMA apart, though, is it runs embedded Linux along with Qtopia, the standard GUI for Linux-based PDAs. Qtopia has turned the PMA from a simple MP3 player into a more functional PDA. To top it all off, the PMA is equipped with an internal 802.11b wireless card. When you combine a PDA, storage and the Internet, you have a fairly powerful device.
The PMA has a sleek and elegant design that doesn't detract from its usability; the design is comfortably ergonomic. The removable Li-Ion battery allows the unit to play around four hours of video or ten hours of music.
The PMA is controlled by a four-way directional pad with a center confirmation button. On the outside of the pad is a cancel button that also is used to put the unit into standby mode. It also has a button that scrolls through open windows and takes the user to the home screen and to the menu.
Users should find themselves using the touchpad much less than expected, because nearly everything can be accessed through the navigation pad. I have never been happy using handwriting recognition or an on-screen keyboard, however, which happens to be the case here. For quick input, the stylus isn't terrible, but writing long e-mails or even inputting several contacts can be grueling. I was dissatisfied with the provided stylus, as it was bulky and awkward to use and annoying to take out. Because the stylus is the only means of inputting data I found it to lack the quality it should have.
The Qtopia interface has not changed much since the one used in the Sharp Zaurus 5600, which is good and bad. When booting up cold, not from standby, you may want to find something else to do, as it takes about a minute and a half for Qtopia to get up and running. When you aren't using the unit for a short duration, the screen dims and eventually shuts off. The unit is fairly quick in response, though, and can handle multitasking decently. Coming from a Palm OS device, it is a great feeling that you can run more than one application at a time. Qtopia is based on Qt, a powerful and fast open-source graphics library for the X Window System made by Trolltech. Qtopia makes the PMA400 a perfect candidate for a superior mobile media center, when it is given the right software.
The Archos bundled software is plentiful and smoothly integrated with Qtopia. The software covers all aspects of media playing and recording. The PMA also is able to handle the playback and recording of both audio and video. It comes with several accessories for input and output, both audio and video. Support for MPEG was fine, but when testing DivX, I experienced massive time gaps between audio and video that seemed to be nearly ten or so seconds. This made watching a movie rather intolerable. After trying several DivX movies, I became fed up. After speaking with Archos representatives about this DivX support problem, they suggested I install the new firmware update, available from the Archos Web site. Sadly, I have noticed no difference since applying the updates.
The PMA400 supports both images and documents. I successfully viewed several PDF files as well as many images through the included applications. The photo application has some nice zooming features that work well with the d-pad controls. The only thing I felt was lacking in terms of the photo software was a slide-show feature.
Overall, I found the image and document support to be disappointing. According to the fact sheet that came with the unit, the PMA400 is supposed to support Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents, but it doesn't. I was informed by Archos that the document types are not supported by default. Rather, you must install Qword, Qsheet and Qpresenter. According to the Archos representative with whom I dealt, the applications do not come with the PMA and are optional. However, there is no trace of them on the Web site as of this writing.
The newest and by far most innovative idea that I have seen in a media player is that of Wi-Fi. The PMA400 is equipped with an 802.11b wireless Internet card. This is integrated into the device, and Qtopia has a graphical utility for configuring the wireless network, including up to 128-bit encryption, which I found to be nice. Additionally, you can have the PMA search for available access points. I happened to find the wireless signal on the PMA400 to be horrible compared to other devices. Right on top of the access point it was showing only 11 / 92 for signal strength.
Overall, the support for Internet connectivity in general was fairly poor. There are three ways of connecting the PMA400 to the Internet. You can connect through Wi-Fi, Infrared or USB. As I have mentioned, the Wi-Fi support was nothing to brag about. To get support for the classic wired Ethernet, you must purchase an adapter.
Once I finally established a connection, I wanted to see what the PMA400 had to offer me in terms of Internet applications. Two applications of this sort are pre-installed on the PMA400, the Opera Web browser and an e-mail application. Personally, I feel that Opera on Qtopia handles scaling poorly and makes viewing fairly difficult. As for the e-mail application, it is rather difficult to compose a message with the tools provided; namely, the PMA does not have a QWERTY keypad. Instead you must use an on-screen keyboard. With a small screen, this type of keyboard can be difficult to use. I also found it frustrating that no word completion feature is offered. The e-mail application was fine for receiving messages, but as I said before, it is not a viable method for composing messages.
When transferring files to the PMA through my LAN, I received an average speed of 100kb/ps, which was even slower than CNET's bandwidth tester over the Internet. That is almost exactly half the bandwidth that I achieved with my laptop. I felt like I was using dial-up when Web browsing with the PMA. For anyone who is serious about using a mobile device for wireless Internet, get a laptop.
The Qtopia Desktop personal information manager really impressed me, however. Once you are connected to the Internet, you can do a network sync to the PMA with little to no hassle. All I needed to do was connect and obtain my IP address, which is found under current network information in the configuration. I then entered the PMA's IP address and was asked to accept or deny access. Apparently, the PMA has a firewall that prevents any intrusion by asking the user for confirmation. After I accepted, I was pleased to see that the single contact I made on the computer was transferred over to the PMA. Although the feature is not essential, it is nice to be able to sync your PMA wirelessly over the network.
The PIM applications offered on the PMA are fairly standard and work as expected. I was able to beam a contact from my Treo 650 to the PMA400 with no problem at all. I also was able to beam a text file, which was supported.
In conclusion, the PMA400 has great potential, but it doesn't succeed at all the ambitious tasks it takes on. It is a great MP3 player and a decent PDA. The really good things about the unit are the Qtopia interface and the music aspects. However, I found its wireless and video capabilities to be severely lacking. The DivX support is sluggish and poorly synced, and photo and document support is not at the level it should be.
Some individuals will find the PMA400 to their liking, but I believe that the unit, on the whole, is only a beginning step toward the next-generation multifunctional device. The Linux back end provides developers with the power to make additional applications for the PMA400 and expand its functionality. However, at the time of this review, the SDK was unavailable for testing. All in all, I suggest that you save your money for a rainy day and something worth the $799.
Dovid Kopel is a longtime supporter, user and developer of free software. He is the project manager of mUnky and now is the COO of namethatJam.com.