byJoanna Stern||September 24th 2010 at 12:30pmSeptember 24th 2010 12:30 pm
With there now being five (oh yes, five!) Archos Android Internet Tablets on the market, it's understandably hard to keep 'em all straight, but in our minds the 32 is easy to separate from the rest – it, along with the 28, is more of an Android PMP than anything else. With 3.2 inches of resistive touchscreen, the 32 packs the specs of a typical media player: 8GB of storage, media player software with support for loads of audio and video formats, and a VGA camera. But unlike most, it runs Android 2.1 (2.2 will be a firmware update, we're told), which adds quite a bit more functionality in terms of applications and web browsing. And it's also got an accelerometer for playing games. At $150, it seems like a pretty good deal, especially when you consider that it's cheaper than an iPod Touch or even a Zune HD (depending on where you're shopping), but there are a few issues that may hold you back from forking over the cash. You'll want to check out our full review after the break to find out just what those are. %Gallery-103173%
32 Internet Tablet
Support for lots of audio and video formats
Responsive resistive touchscreen
Good sound quality
Lacks access to Android Market
Awkward camera placement
Look and feel
When powered off, the Archos 32 looks like the company's typical music player – it's primarily crafted of black plastic, though the back is made of some sort of brushed metal. However for weighing just 2.5 ounces we're fairly impressed with the build quality of the .3-inch thick "tablet." The little thing felt right at home in our pocket at the gym and didn't protrude much when we put it in our jeans pocket. There's no carrying case included, so we'd strongly suggest nabbing a small pouch for protecting it against bumps and bruises in a bag.
The front of the device is mostly glossy screen, although below the display are six touch-sensitive buttons that actually happen to be more responsive to finger taps than we expected. However, they're not backlit so seeing them in the dark is a struggle. The left edge holds the 32's power button and volume rocker, while the bottom is home to micro-USB and 3.5mm headphone jacks. There's a small mic on the bottom as well, but the device is missing a speaker. It's a fairly odd omission considering most of the other Archos PMPs have had it in the past. Your run-of-the-mill plastic earbuds are included in the box – they're loud, but outrageously uncomfortable in comparison to our Shures.
Admit it: you've been cringing at the fact that the 32 has a resistive touchscreen since you read the introduction. We don't blame you, but it's nowhere near as bad as you'd think. We found the 420 x 240-resolution LCD to be responsive to light finger swipes and taps -- at first we actually thought it may be capacitive, but the old fingernail test proved us wrong. You can check it out for yourself in the video below, but lightly swiping a finger to scroll through albums or down a web page was rather smooth – much smoother than on the Archos 7 Home Tablet or any of the other resistive tablets we've reviewed lately. Our major issue with the display is really how mushy it feels. While we realize we're used to glass displays, the plastic one on the 32 feels like it's caving in every time you make a selection. The display is also overly glossy, which makes it hard to see in bright situations.
As far as actual screen quality goes, we're less than impressed. Even with brightness cranked all the way up, colors are fairly washed out and just not as bright as you'd expect – greens and blues in an HD clip of the Caribbean just weren't as crisp as we'd hoped it would be. The accelerometer is a nice addition, but at times it can be a bit slow to readjust – we had to shake the device a few times to get it to reorientate itself. At least there's an option to turn it off within the Settings menu. However, when it comes to gaming it's much more accurate. Turning around the bend in Racing Thunder Lite by tilting it to the right or left was quite responsive.
Music, video player and camera
The 32 can do a handful of things, and we'll get to them in a bit, but its real talent is music and video playback. On the music front, the little guy handles a slew of audio formats, including MP3, WMA, WMA-Pro 5.1, WAV, AAC, OGG. Also, Archos has done some work to the music interface – they've added a Cover Flow-esque UI for easily sifting through recently played albums. There's also the typical Artist, Songs, Albums and Playlist organization, and scrolling through the long lists is particularly easy with the alphabetical option that appears over the scroll bar. We transferred over a bunch of our newest albums and had no complaints about the sound of our tunes. Oh, and to whoever preloaded our review unit with Journey's Greatest Hits... thank you! We should mention that we do wish the 32 had an FM tuner, you know, so we could stay hip and listen to the American Top 40 on Sunday mornings.
The video application, which is just a basic list of files, isn't as polished, but still gets the job done. It also can play a variety of formats including 720p MPEG-4 clips, H.264 HD, and WMV9 files. Our review unit also came preloaded with Archos' MPEG-2 codec / plug-in that allows for watching AVI, MP4, MKV, MOV, FLV and other video files. A sideloaded 720p AVI Scott Pilgrim trailer as well as some other AVI movies played quite nicely. Archos will carry a composite out cable for $12.99 for outputting the video to a larger display.
So, how's that VGA cam on the back? It's, well, a VGA cam. In terms of quality we really didn't expect much better than the grainy shots we snapped in the gallery below. To its credit the automatic white balance is fairly decent. However, you'll notice some of the photos have the tip of our finger in them. That's the result of the awkward placement of the camera on the bottom rear of the device. Sure, we've just about mastered having to hold it in our left hand and use our right finger to tap the shutter button, but we wish we didn't have to make that adjustment in the first place. Similarly, the video quality is mediocre at best, though it'd be fine for shooting some quick footage, of say a airline attendant flipping out, and uploading to YouTube. %Gallery-103219%
Apps and browsing
Archos preloads the 32 with a handful of useful apps. There's eBuddy for the heavy chatter, Touiteur for the Twitter addict, and Racing Thunder Lite for the gaming-inclined. Unsurprisingly, there isn't access to the Android Market – Google is still restricting access on non-phone device or devices that lack 3G – but Archos' AppsLib store is an alternative for getting some apps over the air. (We wholeheartedly realize there'll be plenty of you out there that will just sideload the Market .apk.) While there are some mainstream apps in Archos' store, such as the Dolphin browser and Twidroid, the game and video application selection is seriously lacking. Chances are Angry Balls won't replace your undying need to play Angry Birds and you'll notice the difference in app selection immediately. Still at this point AppsLib is better than having no storefront at all. We should mention that the future Android 2.2 update, which Archos promises will hit in October, will add a lot of functionality to the device -- you'll be able to watch YouTube and other Flash videos through the browser, but for the time being that's not an option.
Not having some of those apps is a bummer, but the stock browser works quite well for visiting sites and checking the news – which is what we assume you'd use it for the most. Sites loaded quickly over WiFi and scrolling, as we mentioned, is smooth. The experience is fairly pleasant for those sorts of activities, well, save for instances that require you to use the keyboard. It's extremely cramped and trying to write out a Tweet or even a short URL was rather painful. It was better once we calibrated the screen in the settings menu, but the best bet is to switch to landscape and use a finger tip. A stylus actually works the best, but holding the 32 in our hand and taping with a stylus was a huge throw back to playing with a PalmOne m500.
Performance and battery life
We don't have any real complaints on the performance front. The 32's 800MHz ARM Cortex A8 processor provided plenty of enough power for playing back music while surfing the web and periodically checking our Twitter feed in Touiteur. It also was able to push those videos we mentioned earlier along smoothly. Thankfully, Archos includes a system monitor application for easily killing background processes and apps.
The lithium polymer battery lasted just shy of four hours on our video playback test, which loops the same video at 60 percent brightness with WiFi on. While just playing music and periodically surfing the web the device lasted close to ten hours. Note that we turned Bluetooth off for all the tests. Speaking of, there's a tool for tethering the 32 to a phone or laptop via Bluetooth, but we couldn't get it to work with our locked down Verizon BlackBerry.
As we mentioned at the get-go there are a few things that perturb us about the Archos 32 – its mushy, glossy screen, poor camera placement, lack of a speaker, and the missing Android Market are all up there -- but we still found the experience of using the Android PMP or tablet, call it what you will, to be rather enjoyable. If you're looking for a gadget with a smaller screen for playing music, watching videos and occasionally surfing the web the Archos 32 is a fine choice. Of course, for $80 more you can grab an $229 8GB iPod Touch, which has none of those application, screen or camera issues. Is it worth the extra cash? Hey, we can't answer everything for you!