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Archos is a French company best known for its portable media players. Over the last few years, however, it has been branching out into the ultra-portable PC market. Last year, they introduced the Archos 9 PCtablet (retail value $550) as a competitor to the Apple iPad. Over the last couple of months, I have been using a review model provided to me by the company. Much like the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t, which I reviewed in last month's e-newsletter, the Archos 9 is an intriguing piece of technology. However, I found that like the IdeaPad S10-3t, the Archos 9 failed to deliver on the promise.
A "Hybrid" PC Tablet
Archos touts the Archos 9 as the "next generation of Netbooks." It is a full Windows 7 OS device that attempts to meld a portable media player and a Netbook laptop. My recent experience with such devices has left me more than a little skeptical. Furthermore, having thoroughly enjoyed my Apple iPad for the last few months, I know that companies face a tall order in coming up with an "iPad killer."
Out of the box, I found the Archos 9 to be an attractive piece of technology. It is easy to carry in one hand, although it does require both hands to operate. While thin, it is definitely not flimsy, tipping the scale at nearly two pounds.
The Archos 9 is built around the Intel Atom Z515 1.2GHz processor, which is an upgrade from the Z510 that was used when the Archos 9 first launched last year. While the Atom family of processors is a popular choice among Netbook makers, the Z-series is the slower of the two series now available (Z and N).
Archos chose to use the Windows 7 Starter version for the Archos 9, an interesting choice. Most Netbook makers choose Windows XP. For running Windows 7, the Archos 9 comes with 1G of onboard system memory.
Although the Archos considers the Archos 9 a Netbook, it lacks a physical keyboard. As a result, using the Archos 9 is definitely a full touch experience more akin to using a tablet. You use your fingers to tap the screen to open programs and to manipulate items on the screen, or you can use the built-in stylus. To that end, the Archos 9 sports an 8.9-inch screen with a 1,024 x 600 pixel resolution. The screen has a matte finish, which I found to be much more preferable compared to the high-gloss finish found with many tablets. This made the screen much easier to view, especially in bright-light situations.
For data entry, the Archos 9 does have a custom on-screen keyboard. To summon it, you press the dedicated control button on the left side of the screen.
For navigating the Archos 9's screen, there is an inconspicuous micro touchpad to the right of the display. It is so slight that I first thought it was an infra-red sensor or receiver. After reading the user's manual, and discovering its true function, I was surprised to find the touchpad to be responsive and accurate using only my right thumb. There are also dedicated left and right mouse buttons to the left of the display, which also double as the volume up and down controls.
The Archos 9 is a bit lacking when it comes to the ability to connect external devices. There is only one USB connector and no SD slots for memory/storage cards. You can purchase a port replicator for $75 with two additional USB slots and an Ethernet connection.
There is a 60G hard drive for saving data and installing programs. However, the recovery drive partition robs you of over 15G of hard disk space right at the start. Lastly, the Archos 9 supports 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi (but not "n") and BlueTooth 2.0 and comes with a 1.3 megapixel Web cam.
My Experience: Too Much OS, Not Enough Power
When a company claims its product is the "next generation" of anything, they set a pretty high hurdle for themselves. As a consumer and a reviewer, I certainly expect the product to live up to that statement. Unfortunately, right out of the box I knew the Archos 9 had a ways to go to fulfill its mission.
After taking about three minutes to boot up Windows 7 Starter, it immediately became clear that the Archos 9's processor was slow. Sadly, this became a recurring theme while using the Archos 9, as it appears that even the stripped-down Starter version of Windows 7 was too much for the Atom Z processor and the 1G of physical memory. Unfortunately, too, you do not have the option of upgrading the processor or the amount of memory.
Once the Archos 9 was up and running, I ran into another roadblock-the fickle touch screen. As another reviewer put it, "a tablet PC is only as good as its touch screen." Sadly, the touch screen of the Archos 9 isn't very capable. I quickly found myself jamming my fingers into the screen to get it to respond. The discovery of the built-in stylus offered my fingers some relief, but it didn't do much to lessen the frustration. The Archos 9 uses a resistive screen, which is much less responsive and accurate than capacitive screens used on devices such as the iPad. The touch screen also negated much of the usefulness of the custom Windows-based keyboard.
The selection of Windows 7 Starter is also interesting, especially since, according to Microsoft, the operating system offers no touch screen support.
It's not a big thing, but I was also surprised that the Archos 9 lacked a physical screen rotation button. By default, the screen orientation is horizontal, which is preferable for watching video or viewing most websites. However, if you want to view full-page documents, having an easy way to change the screen orientation to vertical would be a nice feature.
At $550, the Archos 9 is more expensive than an entry-level Apple iPad, which offers a much more pleasant user experience, despite not being able to offer flash-video playback. The multimedia experience I had with the Archos 9 was equally frustrating. I was able to stream audio over the pre-loaded vTuner Player, but I gave up trying to view streaming video. Given Archos' background in mobile media players, this was quite a surprise. While Archos claims that the Archos 9 can play full HD video, full HD video will not fit entirely on the screen!
About the only "bright spot" I found with the Archos 9 was its battery life. While the company claims the Archos 9 has five hours of battery life, I got approximately four hours of general use out of a single charge.
I was also pleased with the overall portability of the Archos 9, although some may find it frustrating to use both hands to operate it efficiently. If you are able to view streaming video, the Archos 9 also comes with a fold-put stand so you can set it down without having to view it perfectly flat.
The Archos 9 is a clear example of not judging the book by its cover. While the exterior of the Archos is clean and attractive, the insides are woefully lacking. Overall, I found that it was a struggle to perform even the simplest tasks with the Archos 9, something I don't expect for a product costing $550. Before it can confidently (and accurately) proclaim itself the "next generation of Netbooks," Archos needs to go back to the drawing board. Upgrades such as a more powerful processor, additional on-board memory, and a more responsive touch screen are needed before the Archos 9 can begin to match the iPad.
Archos 9 PCtablet
$549 to $599
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of "Gadget Corner." All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.