If there's any gadget out there comparable to the National Football League's Detroit Lions, it's the Archos 605 WiFi.
Like the Lions, this portable media player turned heads this year with impressive range and whispers of giant-killer (read iPod contender). Like the Lions, the 605 WiFi rose from obscurity. Just as you might've asked, "Who's Tatum Bell?", you might also be asking, "Who's Archos?"
Better known in Europe, Archos makes media players with innovative features and ho-hum design. When I first hold the Archos 605 WiFi ($299 U.S.) in my hands, it doesn't look as stylish as some of its competitors - bulky for an MP3 player, unattractive in general.
But that initial reaction fades when I take in the gorgeous video screen: a 4.3-inch touch display bursting with a 800 x 480 pixel resolution, compared to iPod Classic's 2.5-inch LCD and 320 x 240 resolution. It's obvious I'm in for a visual treat.
Sure, this loaner 605 has a 30 GB to carry 15,000 songs. Never mind. It's the wide screen that gets me jonesing to shuttle some vids to the player, and so I spend a lazy afternoon in my hammock watching some Windows Media files.
It feels surreal to be outdoors in the sunshine watching Saturday Night Live sketches and Tool videos, but the 605 makes the experience a pleasure. I select videos by tapping a stylus on the touch screen and use the included earbuds to block out my neighbour's dog. To watch with friends, I can use the handy internal speaker.
The resolution is the best I've ever seen on a portable media player, even in harsh sunlight. My chief complaint in this department is battery life. It's advertised as five hours for video, but sometimes the screen blinks off after just three hours of Seinfeld reruns.
Back in the old days, a company like Archos would have made a media player with video, MP3 player and photo viewing capabilities and called it quits. But not today, when mobile Web is the Holy Grail.
The 605 WiFi earns the latter half of its name by being able to access a Web browser using an optional plug-in ($30 extra). The 605 detects a wireless network and connects automatically. With an Opera browser, you can check e-mail, hit up any website and surf YouTube, all the while using a simple QWERTY keyboard display on the screen.
One of the more intuitive applications is the content portal feature, easily accessible from the main menu screen. This feature connects me to providers like YouTube and CinemaNow so I can nab videos wirelessly. The only drawback is the limited selection and file protection, which means I can't get all the high-quality movies I want to see.
These are not all the goodies bundled in the gadget. The 605 WiFi does Apple one better by turning its portable player into a home entertainment system. By using another hardware add-on, the $100 DVR station, I can stream PC content to my TV, surf the Web on my TV and turn my 605 into a mini TiVo device.
Yes, this little gadget can record TV shows right to its hard drive. It's not incredibly easy to connect the 605 to your TV and find the correct programming guide, but who said any new technology would be finger-snap simple?
You might think the 605 is trying to do too much. What's important to note is that many of the extras - Web browser, TV recorder - indeed require extra cash, yet the unit by itself is a powerful, stripped-down media player worthy of its $300 U.S. price tag.
Anyone looking for a clean interface and a brilliant screen should consider the 605, but skeptics might be wary about buying a product from a company practically unknown in Canada. Where's the company visibility? Where's the Feist-led marketing campaign?
That could be the beauty of a sleeper hit like Archos media players. The Detroit Lions don't need any marquee names to steal our attention, and the 605 doesn't need any skyscraping billboards to prove its mettle.