Portable Video With a Twist

Every so often--about once a day--a new gadget comes out that I've just got to try. The $300 Archos 404 Camcorder is a prime example.

Archos is a consumer electronics company with a variety of sleek and stylish portable media players. The company says its 404 Camcorder is the first portable media player with a built-in camcorder. On one compact device you can watch video that has been downloaded from the Internet, recorded from a DVD or TV (using an optional accessory), or recorded on the 404 Camcorder itself.

Why would this be of interest to a mobile professional? My guess is that there have been plenty of times you've wished you'd had a camcorder. For example, when attending a trade show, you might want to pull a thin, lightweight camcorder out of your pocket and shoot video of a product demonstration. Then you could share the video with co-workers when you return to the office.

How Does It Compare?

Many cell phones today have camcorder functionality. But the quality is usually poor, and in most cases there's no easy way to display the video on a TV or other monitor. (Cingular/AT&T recently announced a potentially cool new way to share cell phone video, however.)

Meanwhile, dedicated digital video camcorders have dropped in price and size. But unlike the Archos 404 Camcorder, most camcorders are still too big to easily slip into a pocket. Also, many digital camcorders record on DV tape, which must be imported into a PC application before it can be burned onto a DVD. Still other digital video camcorders burn directly onto built-in DVD recorders or store video on internal hard drives. But videos from these camcorders are often difficult to import into video editing software.

Many digital still cameras have video capture capabilities, too. But I don't think you'll find a consumer digital camera with a 30GB hard drive for storing your videos, as the Archos 404 Camcorder has.

The Archos device isn't hindered by any of these limitations. Weighing just 6.7 ounces and measuring 3 by 4 by 0.6 inches, it's small enough to fit in a pants pocket. The 3.5-inch screen, bigger than most consumer camcorder displays, makes it easy to set the scene. The device captures video in MPEG-4, a standard file format that's easily imported into most video editing software.

Once you've captured your video, you can play it back on the 404 Camcorder itself; connect the device to a TV using Archos' $100 DVR Station or $70 DVR Travel Adapter Kit; or use a USB 2.0 cable to connect the device to your computer. In the latter option, you can drag and drop the MPEG-4 video file you captured onto your PC, where it can be played with Windows Media Player or imported into a video editing program.

Does It Take Good Video?

In my tests, the image quality of the Archos 404 Camcorder's video (captured at 640 by 480 resolution) was so-so. Skin tones looked a bit reddish and fine details were a little muddy. If you're shooting video for informational purposes, such as in my trade show example, and you've got good lighting conditions, the video quality should be just fine. It's also adequate for doing a quick video to upload to YouTube or MySpace, though I didn't try that. But if you're looking to capture golden memories, like the moment the Pin the Tail on the Donkey game goes hilariously awry at your kid's birthday party, keep looking. This is not the camcorder for the job.

Audio quality was good, though of course that can depend on the conditions in which the video is recorded. The Archos 404 Camcorder can record audio only as well, in .wav format; the sound quality in my tests was quite good. The device also makes a fine digital music player, delivering rich sound.

The Archos 404 Camcorder is great at displaying photos, and you can capture serviceable still images using the built-in 1.3 megapixel camera.

To test the battery, I let the camcorder run until the device shut down. In this test, the battery lasted 2 hours, 37 minutes. That's excellent for a camcorder, but so-so for a portable media player. I didn't test to see how long the battery would last when playing back video, music, or other media, however.

The device has no flash, though in fairness, neither do most consumer digital video camcorders. Zooming is accomplished by selecting the zoom feature via an on-screen menu, which is awkward and time-consuming. A dedicated zoom button would be just the ticket. The Archos graphical interface is attractive and fairly straightforward, but it takes some getting used to. So do the hardware control buttons, which are required for scrolling to on-screen menu choices--the display is not touch sensitive, which would have been nice.

So Who's It For?

At $300, the Archos 404 Camcorder is just $50 more than a 30GB Apple iPod, yet offers more features. If you'd like the ability to easily record decent-quality video, primarily to capture information or just goof around, and you're in the market for a portable media player, this device is worth a serious look. Those who want the best video-capture quality should get a camcorder instead. And those who aren't interested in recording video should stick to an iPod, or check out Archos's other portable media offerings.

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