Archos Gmini 400

Ok, let's get it out of the way first: no matter what there are going to be a bunch of people out there that will never ever accept the whole concept of a personal video player or the prospect of watching video on a very small screen. And that's fine. Not every gadget is right for every person, which is why we here at Engadget try not to take the one-size-fits-all approach to this stuff, and why we're going to skip most of the pseudo-philosophical arguments about whether there really is any demand for a "video iPod".

Either way, it's probably best that you don't think of the new Gmini 400 from Archos as a personal video player in the first place. Just completely push that thought out of your mind and try and think of it as a 20GB MP3 player that's roughly the same size and price as the iPod (or at least at $400 it was before they dropped the price of the 20GB iPod down to $300) with a nice 2.2-inch color LCD screen, and a few extras (like being able to handle video clips and play games).


Archos Gmini 400 music

So yeah, you're going to watch movies on the thing, we know. The screen is small, but it's surprisingly watchable, and it's better than you'll find on most MP3 players. I've been watching video on my Treo 600 for months now and never minded the small screen size all that much—the grander concept here is the convenience of having a couple episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm in your pocket when you have a half an hour to kill. You're not going to want to waste your time watching Return of the King on this thing, but it's just fine for short stuff where often times the dialogue is just as important as what's being pictured.

But even if it couldn't handle video, the Gmini 400 would be a great music player. The sound quality is good, and the biggest advantage it has over most everything else out there is the sheer quality of the its display, which is not only a higher resolution than that of the iPod (220x176 pixel vs. 138x110 pixels), but its full 262,000 colors iPod's easily outclasses the iPod's grayscale LCD. The bigger, easier to read screen makes navigation a lot more pleasant than on, say, the tiny read-out on Cowon's iAudio M3, and it can display cover art for the song you're listening to. My only complaint is that it'd be nice to be able to skin the audio player differently; the default skin is a little bland.


Size and weight

Gmini 400 and Treo 600

 

Archos Gmini 400

Apple 20GB iPod

Rio Karma

Treo 600

Height

4.1-inches

4.2-inches

3-inches

4.4-inches

Width

2.4-inches

2.4-inches 

2.7-inches

2.4-inches

Depth

0.7-inches

0.57-inches

1.1-inches

0.9-inches

Weight

5.64 ounces

5.7 ounces

5.5 ounces

6.2 ounces (CDMA version)

The Gmini 400 is smaller than you'd think; it's actually almost exactly the same size and shape as the Treo 600 (if they could somehow squeeze a 20GB drive into the next Treo I'd probably toss the Gmini 400 right out the window), and it's weight and size are very competitive with the iPod. Obviously if Apple popped a color LCD screen into the current iPod there wouldn't be much competition in the aesthetics department, but we've definitely seen worse portable audio and video players.


Video

Archos Gmini 400 video
Archos Gmini 400 main video screen
What you're most interested in hearing about is watching video on this thing: it's actually more enjoyable than you'd expect. You wouldn't exactly want to have two or three people trying to crowd around watching, but it works. It has support for playback of MPEG-4, XviD, and DivX 4.0 and 5.0 video files (no support for Windows Media Video or QuickTime), but you'll have to make sure whatever you try and watch on it has compatible resolution of 640x400 or less. I just copied over a bunch of files to see what worked and what didn't, and most of it didn't (but I was also being lazy and not bothering to check all that stuff out beforehand). What did work played well for the most part; in fact, the only noticeable problem was the audio and video being out of sync on one of the videos. Otherwise it had no hiccups, ghosting, slowdowns, or any other weirdness you sometimes get playing video on a PC.

But there is one glaring flaw when watching video: there's no (built-in) stand to prop the Gmini 400 up on a flat surface; you might get a little tired of holding it your hands for a couple of hours.

Useability

Archos Gmini 400 Main
Anyone who spent some time with any of Archos' earlier personal video players knows that they had a ton of work cut out for them in the user interface department. Those people will be relieved to hear that the Gmini 400 is a lot better than its predecessors.

While the icon-based interface isn't particularly complicated, the buttons aren't exactly intutive, and we have this bad habit of obstinately refusing to consult a user's manual except under the most of dire of circumstances (not that they usually yield much in the way of useful information anyway, hence the habit). In fact, the buttons are almost counterintuitive at times, and you can find yourself bouncing out of a menu when didn't mean to, or accidentally exiting out of a video you were watching. Though the four-way directional pad pulls double-duty as volume and fast-forward and rapid-rewind, there aren't dedicated volume controls and you might immediately find yourself wondering where the pause button is (if the Gmini was a NES controller, it would be the A button). Anyone planning on loading a large music collection on here will long for the iPod's or Rio Karma's scroll wheel.

But the one thing thing you will love is how easy it is to get your files on here. Just hook it up over USB 2.0 and it will automatically be recognized as an external drive. Just drag-and-drop your files over, no lame client applications or interfaces to have to deal with.


Battery life

I'm not gonna front. The battery life won't blow you away, but then again, nothing that plays video is gonna make you happy (even a laptop playing a DVD is usually lucky to get three hours). The screen automatically switches off when you're listening to music, so assuming you don't need to sneak a peek at your display that often you should be able to get about ten hours of audio playing time out of it. Over the couple of weeks we have had this, the amount of life we've been able to get out of the battery has varied with video. They claim it should get up to five, but we were usually only able to get a solid three hours (give or take a half an hour) of video before the situation started to look dire.


The other stuff

Archos Gmini 400 games
After the video and audio, everything else is gravy. And it's all well and good that you can play games on this thing (it uses Mophun's video game engine—get it, "mo' fun"?), but the five games that come pre-installed are nothing to write home about, and certainly won't impress any of your friends (at least not like the video), especially once the PlayStation Portable comes out. They're really just for killing time, and hopefully you'll have enough decent stuff to watch that you won't have to bother.

Archos Gmini 400 CF card
Archos Gmini 400 video-out
The other niceties are a Compact Flash memory card slot for uploading photos from a digital camera (transferring photos over from a Compact Flash card was a snap and viewing them was pretty easy, too, but you'll have to get an adapter if your camera uses another kind of memory card), a built-in digital audio recorder, and a video-out port for watching your videos on a proper television (there is no video-in recording capability like on the AV400).

Conclusion

At this point what you really want to know is, should I buy the damn thing? If you don't care about video, well obviously the answer is no. Go with something less pricey, like a Karma, an iPod, or an M3. Likewise, if you really care about video a lot, then, actually, the answer is also no, since you'd probably be better off with a larger personal video player or even a Portable Media Center. But for what it's worth, I'm actually going to ask Archos if I can buy this from them in a couple of weeks when the loan is up and I have to send this bad boy back. In six months or a year there might be a few more options, but if you're looking for a truly pocketable way to carry a hundred hours of video, this is the best way to do it and right now that happens to be exactly what I'm looking for.

The Flasher V7, Virgin Mobile's first cameraphone