Video Killed the MP3 Star?

Palm-size jukeboxes that hold hundreds of hours of MP3 music on an embedded hard drive are no longer a novelty. Now Archos has taken the category to the next level by adding a 1 1/2-inch color LCD, the ability to store and play photo slideshows or highly compressed but full-motion video, and direct A/V output to a TV. At $420, the Jukebox Multimedia 20 (the "20" signifies gigabytes) is as much a miniature source component for your TV or stereo as it is a computer peripheral.

Weighing 10 3/4 ounces (including battery), the Jukebox makes for an entertaining commuter partner. Instead of using it to serve up some 264 hours of music on the train or plane (at the typical rate of 128 kilobits per second), you could chuck the tunes and browse through your photos or, at least in theory, catch up with your favorite TV shows.

At 3 inches wide, 1 1/8 inches high, and 4 1/2 inches deep, the Jukebox sports a built-in microphone for voice recording, a line input for MP3 recording without a computer, and a minijack for the supplied backphones that doubles as an A/V output. Archos also supplies a miniplug connector on a cable that splits into stereo and composite-video plugs at the other end. Sure enough, after I plugged the jacks into my TV and held the on button down a few seconds, a series of music, picture, and video directories appeared onscreen in jaggy text. I used the navigation buttons on the face of the Jukebox to select one of the music collections I'd transferred from my computer.

Archos supplies an introductory version of the MusicMatch software for ripping your own CDs into MP3s and managing the Jukebox from Windows 98 (Mac software is also provided), but I was unable to get the Win 98 PC at my office to recognize the device. However, the Jukebox was plug-and-play with my Windows XP computer at home. All I had to do was attach the USB cable, and the Jukebox showed up as my PC's F drive. Opening two Explorer windows let me drag scores of songs into the Jukebox. With the LCD shut off most of the time, the internal lithium-ion battery played music for 7 hours before it needed recharging.

An expansion port at the base of the Jukebox is used to attach a SmartMedia or CompactFlash module, both of which are included. I was able to quickly dump images from a flash card and regain the memory for use in my camera. Pictures are shown on the Jukebox's LCD (one or four at a time), and there's one level of zoom. The TV connection is especially handy if your camera doesn't have a video output.

I also transferred some JPEG-format images from my computer by plugging the supplied cable into the Jukebox's USB port. My neighbor, a new mother, had e-mailed an image of herself flanked by her twins, and the picture looked stunning on my 36-inch TV. As options, Archos offers a USB 2.0 or FireWire cable that attaches to the expansion port.

Archos preinstalled a couple of MPEG-4 video clips on the Jukebox, including a trailer for Semana Santa, starring Mira Sorvino, which came across with VHS-like quality on my TV. (On the small LCD, the picture appeared very sharp.) Archos claims that the drive can store up to 100 hours of video. Unfortunately, getting video into the Jukebox is a whole other matter. You can't simply use your computer to browse the Internet and download clips into the Jukebox as you would MP3 files. The Jukebox only plays AVI audio/video files that comply with a format known as MPEG-4 Simple Profile. The maximum display resolution supported is 352 x 288 pixels at 30 frames per second. So first you have to compress the files. But since software to do that isn't included, the manual suggests you use the DivX compression program. You can download a free version at www .divx.com. Then you still have to run a translator program, which is included.

After spending many hours downloading video clips in various formats and trying to make sense of the Archos software, I managed to get only one short clip to play on the Jukebox. The manual is nearly useless for dealing with video, even if the instructions are repeated in five languages. More vexing is the lack of good technical support. If we couldn't get the help we needed, what can the average user expect?

Archos is planning to make a $99 camera module available this fall to smooth the path of video into the Jukebox. The company also plans to introduce an A/V input/encoding module that would let you record TV shows from your cable box or VCR directly onto the Jukebox. If all goes as planned, reaching for a handheld TiVo-type device instead of the portable CD player as you go out the door would fulfill the true meaning of the phrase "personal video recorder." That day isn't here yet. For now, consider the Archos Jukebox Multimedia 20 a good value for music playing and photo viewing.

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