If 2004 was the year that the iPod went mainstream, 2005 promises to be the year of the personal video player. French company Archos enjoys an early advantage in this market, and the 20GB Gmini is a more chic, streamlined version of its universally applauded AV400.
While the AV400 is great, it's quite chunky, and the buttons can be fiddly to use. The 400, however, has Gallic charm by the bucketful: it's slick, silver, and feels just as compact as a conventional iPod. Add a 20GB hard disk and video support and you've got quite a package, Oh, and did we mention the slot for your camera's CompactFlash card?
While we wouldn't go as far as saying the Gmini is an iPod killer, it's an excellent alternative. And if bragging rights are important, the Gmini will certainly attract more attention than the iPod.
The interface design is still not quite there on Archos players, and the Gmini takes a bit of getting used to: it feels more like Windows 98 than Mac OS X. Once you're up to speed though, the Gmini rocks. Music playback is great: clear, detailed, with a bass boost that kicks up the lower frequencies without distortion.
Wear some decent Sennheiser headphones and you'll be dancing in the street. Copying over tracks from Windows Media Player is easy too, so musically the 400 matches the iPod blow for blow. The smooth lines make it very pocketable, though the headphone jack would be better placed at one end.
Music is only one part of the package though. The screen is very clear and colourful, and it doesn't seem to unduly drain the batteries, so the Gmini is great for simple video playback. MPEG-4 and DivX are supported, but unlike its bigger brother, you can't record from the TV (though the player does enable TV playback via the supplied AV cable).
Obviously 20GB is not a great deal for video storage, so while this option is nice to have, we suspect it won't be used as much as the music and photo functions. The inclusion of a CompactFlash slot, however, is a stroke of genius, and puts Apple to shame.
The Gmini's clear screen - again, the same size as the iPod's - makes it an absolutely brilliant photo album, and 20GB stores a lot of shots. You can even make slideshows. Battery life is comparable to the standard iPod, though video playback takes its toll.
The Gmini 400 works out better value than the £180 iPod, though it still doesn't look as nice, gives the 20GB iPod a run for its money and shows up the iPod Photo for the expensive stop-gap it is. For most shoppers, we reckon the decision to go for Archos or Apple will hinge on the relative appeal of the brands. It's a hard one, though, and Archos is now a serious rival to the bigger names.