Archos 5 Android Tablet review

[Archos 5]

I have the 16G flash version. I've had it for a couple of weeks now and I'm very happy so far. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to a newbie (due to the Android Marketplace's ban on tablets -- see below), but it's a lovely toy for someone fairly tech savvy.

↑ Screen

I love the screen. It's gorgeous, very sharp (800x480), and fonts and colors are beautiful compared to the Palms. It gets bright enough to use outdoors, though it'll never be as comfortable as an e-paper screen for reading in natural light. On the other end of the scale, the system brightness settings don't get anywhere near dim enough to use in dim light, but individual apps can dim the screen further.

I saw a lot of reviews on the web panning resistive (instead of capacitative) screens. Nearly all Android tablets (including the Archos 5) use resistive screens. Many reviews said the Archos 5 screen was about as good as resistive screens get, and I have to agree. Maybe it's because of my long years of PalmOS use, but I find the screen responds about as well as any touchscreen I've used. I use a fingernail if I'm trying to be accurate, a fingertip if I'm being lazy, and they both work fine.


I haven't used the GPS enough yet to make a detailed report. It's quite slow to get a fix, but so is my older Garmin Vista CX, so I'm not complaining. I expect I'll have a lot of fun with it.

↑ Talking to Linux

It uses a micro-USB cable for charging and to connect to a computer. For Linux, you have to set it to USB storage in Settings: Device storage & USB connection -> USB connection mode and then it mounts like a normal external disk (ext3). If you add a micro-SD card, that shows up as a separate disk.

Mine was flaky for a while, sometimes showing up and sometimes not, until I realized that it was having trouble with the USB hub I was using. I switched to using a direct USB connection, and it's been fine since then.

By the way: if you need to copy a lot of data onto the micro-SD card on the Archos, like a collection of music or map data or whatever, do not use the Archos as a mass-storage device. That works okay for small amounts of data, but if you copy a lot, you'll eventually get filesystem corruption. You'll get it sometimes with small amounts of data too, but it's a lot rarer then. So far I've been able to repair the filesystem by popping the card out of the Archos, mounting it on my Linux box and running fsck.vfat -rw /dev/sdb1. Fingers crossed.

↓ Battery Life

Battery life is nowhere near what Archos advertises (22 hours of music playback, 7 hours video playback). Flashing the latest OS update from Archos (which was very easy to do over wi-fi, but didn't work at all downloading from a computer and copying to the device -- the file on Archos' site seems to be corrupt) didn't help. I probably won't be using it much as an MP3 player for this reason.

The obvious culprits (screen and wi-fi) don't seem to matter; I can put the device into "Airplane mode", turn the screen off and let it sit for 8 hours while I'm at work, and it'll still drain more than half the battery right there. It doesn't seem to have the concept of "sleeping" when it's idle. And it's very slow to charge from a computer's USB port -- around 8 hours for a full charge. (It's somewhat faster using a dedicated charger, like an iPod charger, but it still takes over 6 hours.)

The saving grace was discovering Deep Sleep. Hold the power button down for a few seconds to get a menu; choose Power off, then Deep sleep. It warns that it can't show alarms in this mode, but the important thing is that it can sit in deep sleep for most of a day and only lose about 5% of its battery life. I use Deep Sleep any time it's going to be idle for more than five minutes or so.

Froyo might help this (see next section).

— Android

This was my first Android experience. Some things about Android seem franky a little nutty, while others work very well, but that's a topic for another post.

The Archos 5 runs an old version of Android, 1.6 ("Donut"). Supposedly 2.2 ("Froyo") has much better power management as well as other improvements. There aren't any reasonably-priced 2.x tablets in this size range yet; the Archos 43 looked interesting, but you can't actually buy one yet and it doesn't have a GPS.

If I get desperate for Froyo, though, the community OpenAOS project looks very promising and already has an Alpha release available. I'm tempted to try it, but first I'll learn how to use what I have.

There's also the very interesting Angstrom option, a full Linux (not Android) for the device.

— The Android Marketplace

The Archos 5, as shipped, cannot access the Google Android Marketplace. Archos has an alternate app store, which has a rather poor selection of apps and didn't work for me anyway. This is apparently not Archos' fault; Google for some reason won't let tablet manufacturers use the Marketplace, saying it's only for phones.

Fortunately, there's a hack, Market4Archos, which works fine.

If you ever find that the market mysteriously stops working, check your system date. My date reverts back to 1970 any time I have to press the hard reset paperclip dealie (see next section). It took a while to realize this was happening and notice the bad date. But Google Marketplace won't work if your date is wrong: it'll show apps but they'll fail to download and install, with no error message as to what the problem is.

↓ Stability

Why? Because every few days, it locks up or reboots randomly in the middle of a task, for no apparent reason. Last night I missed the first 5 minutes of a movie because I was rebooting, paper-clipping the emergency reset button, rebooting and rebooting again, just to try to get it to a state where it was either OFF or in deep sleep so it wouldn't be sucking battery.

This is quite annoying, especially since it makes the date revert to 1970 and it takes quite a while to reset it back every time. And the "set date from network" option doesn't work; I suppose it's written for phones, not wi-fi.

Since then I've learned that holding the power button for about 7 seconds will force a power off (without resetting the clock the way the paperclip-reset button does). I still have to reset the clock after its random reboots, but not after a freeze.

I initially wondered if the instability might have something to do with "ARClib update", an Archos-specific service that runs periodically to re-index all your media files whether you want it to or not, and which has a tendency to get stuck (at which point you can't do anything that involves accessing the filesystem). It can't be disabled, or killed from the task manager. But after a week or so, ARClib update settled down and hasn't gotten stuck, yet I still get random reboots every few days.

I thought it might be some app I've installed; for a while I suspected "Smart Battery Monitor" (it's amazing that Android doesn't have a reasonable battery monitor built in on the taskbar) but removing it didn't cure the problem.

A year after I originally wrote this page, I've noticed one factor: temperature. If I turn on the Archos on a cold winter morning, it'll lock up soon thereafter. But if I blast it with a hairdryer for half a minute before turning it on, the chances of a reboot are much lower. If I carry it in my jacket pocket on the way to dinner, it'll almost always crash during the trip and have to be booted once I get there (and I'm very careful not to bend or bump it, so temperature is the only other factor I can figure).

In addition to random reboots, it's also very flaky in how it handles its microSD card. I store my RSS feeds on the card and add new updates daily. Roughly once a week, while plugged in to USB, the Archos will lose its place and disconnect (Linux says "umount: /droidsd mount disagrees with the fstab" when I try to unmount it). Once this happens, the Archos needs to be rebooted before it will see that there's a card there at all (ejecting and re-inserting doesn't help), and then I have to reconnect it to USB and run an fsck.vfat from Linux to correct the filesystem errors, then re-copy whatever I'd been trying to copy. After that it'll be okay again for another week to ten days.

There doesn't seem to be any solution, so I just accept that sometimes, once every few days, when I hold the power button to wake up the Archos, it will reboot instead of coming out of sleep, and I have to spend a few minutes resetting the time and date. And sometimes it will hang in the middle of doing something, or the green power light will come on but the screen won't, and I'll have to hold the power button for 7 seconds to force a power down.

↑ Multi-Boot and OpenAOS

Added since this review was written: my A5 is now a triple-boot system! I have the original Android 1.6, OpenAOS 2.2 "FroYo", and the open-source Angstrom Linux. FroYo has a lovely UI and a very cute boot screen complete with animated robots. Unfortunately it's not really usable yet because it can't read the micro-SD card nor communicate with my desktop over USB, but nevertheless it shows a lot of promise. Angstrom is a normal Linux running X11, and looks very cool; I haven't experimented much with it yet but I'm looking forward to it.

Instructions for setting up multi-boot on the Archos 5.


So its disadvantages are poor battery life and random reboots/lockups. Advantages: everything else. It might not be ideal for a non-technical user, due to the need for market hacks and periodic reboots, but it's a good trade-off for me. As an ebook and RSS reader it's far beyond anything else I've seen yet ... and if the GPS works out well I'll be even happier.

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