In a way it seems tacky to talk about what I got for Christmas. But I have talked on the blog about gadgets and gimcracks before so why not?
The biggie (and something I was entirely not expecting, even though it was on my wish list) was an Archos 605 WiFi 4G. This is a PMP (portable media player) whose virtue over its many rivals is simply this: that it has WiFi.
I already have my music collection (also photos and video but that's secondary) on a file server where I could access them from any computer in the house. Since I got my TiVo, then a D-Link, and finally a PS3, I have had these shared on a UPnP server (TVersity at present) as well as the more usual file shares. Yet with all this, if I go into the bedroom, I suddenly don't have my music available unless I lug my laptop along.
Sure, I can synchronize playlists into handheld players, my cell phone, heck, I can practically synchronize a playlist with my toaster oven. But I don't want to synchronize, at least not actively -- if it happens automatically and it's ready when I want it, fine, but if I have to stop what I'm doing to do it, bah. I just want to get up and go. And I don't want to have one playlist in one place and then have to switch to another when I move. My music is already available everywhere my WiFi reaches. Why can't it just follow me?
It seems to me if you took any tiny little MP3 player and any tiny little USB WiFi dongle, and you merged them, you'd have a tiny little device that was a better MP3 player than anything on the market, at least within your house. The space the WiFi hardware takes up can't hardly be any bigger than the space taken up by an SD card slot or internal memory, nor will the WiFi take up substantially more power. But in one bang, you've got a device that weighs a few ounces but plays playlists from a library of thousands of songs, that can play the same playlist you were just streaming to your big stereo a second ago. Heck, if you work at it you could make it built into the headphones.
The Archos 605 isn't quite that, because it's big enough to have its own storage and an SD card slot and a video screen for watching video on and other stuff. But it does let me stream my existing playlists on my existing servers from my existing collection right to it as I walk around the house. And that rocks. Anything else is gravy.
And it turns out the Archos is well-supplied with gravy. It turns out its video capacity is really remarkable, streaming in 800x480 at a pretty flawless frame rate even over the network, and flawlessly from local storage. The picture is fantastic. Unfortunately, a lot of video I have won't play on it without an extra plug-in that costs $20... I could transcode it but unless I sit down transcoding everything I own, which would take forever, how would I even know something needed transcoding until I ran into it? It also turns out that the Archos has a free plugin to load video from my DISH Network DVR, which is a nice coincidence. Then it turns out that it won't load HD programs down -- obviously it couldn't load them in HD but it won't even downsample them -- and since the vast majority of what we record is in HD that feature turns out to be "easy come easy go".
The picture viewing functionality is fantastic too, with some remarkable quality, the ability to play the pictures right out of my camera, a nice slideshow feature, and a good user interface. Too bad I don't have more reason to take pictures with me places.
I was looking forward to playing with the web browser for one simple reason. I have a web browser and WiFi on my cell phone already: however, every time I turn the phone off (most of the time it's off) it loses the connection, so if I have WiFi enabled, every time I turn it on, it reconnects, which makes the device slow for fifteen seconds or so. Since most of the times I turn it on it's to jot something down and then turn it off, that means it's slow the whole time I use it. So I leave WiFi disabled. After all, the one time I might want WiFi out of a hundred isn't worth either the slowdown or the battery consumption. I thought the Archos might not turn the WiFi off when I turn it off, so it would come back up connected and ready, or at least close. In which case, it might be a beautiful choice to run Rover on, to control my home automation system.
However, it turns out that the browser is not built in. Or rather, it is, but not licensed; I have to pony up $30 to license it. Which feels like nickel-and-diming me, especially considering they're asking $20 for the extra codecs. In principle, I agree with this approach: don't make me pay for the functions I won't use. However, this time it's leaving a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, it wasn't as clear as it should have been that the browser wasn't included; it was made to seem like a feature. Second, the device's menus are full of items that only give you a "Buy now" function -- you can't hide the things that aren't actually installed, all over the interface. Third, several secondary functions are linked to the browser, like being able to view text files or use the "free" downloaded widgets which look fairly cool. And fourth and perhaps worst, there isn't even a demo. How should I know if I want to pay $30 for a portable browser when I can't even see how well it works?
Ultimately, since the WiFi doesn't come back on already ready, I probably won't get the browser. Anything I'd use it for I can do on my cell phone which is already ubiquitous (even if its screen isn't as nice). That's not so bad since the main point of this was music. But it's nagging at my irrational geek curiosity.
Surprisingly, the lack of the browser means I can't read plain text files, but I can read PDFs, which makes this a fair eBook reader. I've loaded a few roleplaying game PDFs onto it just to see how they worked and they're quite readable, without tedious scrolling left and right.
I spent most of the day yesterday playing with it, trying to work out kinks with the file sharing and transcoding, etc. And being astonished at how good the picture is. It's a very impressive little toy.