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Navigating with the Archos 5

September 26, 2010

I’ve been doing a lot of traveling this summer and almost all of it driving. 5 or 6 hour drives have been the rule, not the exception. I decided to get an MP3 player to while away the drive time. For a number of reasons, commercial FM radio doesn’t usually appeal to me. Even when I find a station I like, it rarely has enough variety to suit me.

So I bought an Archos 5 because I could get it with enough capacity to store my whole MP3 collection (~40 GB), it had an FM transmitter so I could listen in the car without earphones, it had a GPS receiver built-in so it might work as a sat-nav system and it looked like a cute toy. It’s an Internet tablet; functionally, at least, it’s comparable to an iPad. It runs Android and I’ve been interested in checking that out too, so that decided me. I did not want something as big as an iPad. Nor did I want all these features packed into my phone.

Archos 5 Internet tablet

As an MP3 player over FM radio, the Archos works pretty well. Getting my library transferred was a snap and it’s easy to use the music player app, though it did take me a bit to find the Shuffle setting. I don’t use Microsoft’s Windows Media Player on my Windows 7 desktop, so I didn’t follow the recommend method of transferring files by synching via Media Player (with all that DRM funkiness). Since you can mount the Archos’ hard drive over its USB connection, it wasn’t hard to spot the Music directory, verify that the MP3 samples resided there, and then copy my own MP3 tree to it.

My only complaint about these features is that the FM signal seems a little weak. I have to run the radio volume all the way up most of the time to hear the Archos output as I’d like. When I switch to an on-air station at that volume, it’s far too loud. But that’s a minor kvetch.

I’m not crazy about the Archos’ gesture-based user interface – but I’ll get used to that. For hand-held boxes, it’s better than many other choices. I still wish the Archos supported an external keyboard and mouse; trying to use the browser with hunt-n-peck typing is teh suxor.

But the most interesting part has been trying to use the Archos as a navigation system. It came with a trial copy of NDrive so I installed that and checked it out. NDrive did a respectable job: it calculated a route and it kept the E.T.A. calculation fresh and accurate while traveling. The map database was good: lots of detail, including speed limits on the roads I traveled. And it played well with others: I could run the MP3 player and NDrive at the same time without major problems. NDrive didn’t (often) slow down the UI response.

NDrive showed an annoying quirk while I was driving on an interstate – following the route it had chosen. It would intermittently decide that I was on some local road running parallel to the highway and start re-calculating on that basis, telling me how to get back onto the highway that I hadn’t left. The first time or two, this was sort of amusing but after that, not so much.

I thought this might be in part because the GPS accuracy on the Archos isn’t that great: it’s in the 1 – 10 meter range, based on what I saw in the GPS Diagnostics app. Maybe that accounts for this ‘getting off the track’ problem. Or maybe not: when I mentioned this problem to my wife, she told me that her Garmin (a dedicated sat nav box) sometimes does the same thing.

And the NDrive user interface seemed pretty lame to me. So I decided to look for an alternative since NDrive isn’t free. I ran across this summary of sat nav apps for Android machines. There were a number of interesting choices but I was surprised at the number that required a constant Internet connection to work. What? We’re all supposed to have 3G or be navigating in cities with free WiFi everywhere? Did the authors of those never take a road trip? Get a clue, guys.

Based on that summary, I decided to try Copilot Live. I bought a license and tracked down Copilot’s APK file – which doesn’t come with its distribution. (WTF?) My first impressions were very positive, though. The user interface was much easier to use than NDrive’s and it had many more features. It reminded me of Garmin’s UI, which I like (as well as I like any sat nav interface). So I had high hopes for Copilot Live.

One thing I’ve noticed with both NDrive and Copilot is that the Archos’ GPS decoding system seems pretty slow. It takes a long time to acquire a set of satellites when it launches and it seems to fall behind the vehicle fairly often. These are things you don’t see in a Garmin or TomTom unit; even Garmin’s old GPS V was faster than the Archos GPS subsystem. But, of course, the Archos isn’t a dedicated nav box, like the Garmin and TomTom (much less a Trimble).

The Archos’ GPS decoding slowness looks much worse in Copilot than in NDrive, though. Copilot made NDrive’s navigation performance look great. Copilot was always falling behind the vehicle, even at moderate speeds: 40 MPH, for example. I hadn’t noticed that problem so much with NDrive.

And Copilot seemed to be bogarting the box, too. Everything ran slower when Copilot was running; the difference in UI performance was striking. I have the impression now that NDrive’s code is a lot more efficient than Copilot’s.

But the worst was waiting to be discovered. Since my primary use of the Archos is as an MP3 player, I was surprised to find the Copilot audio prompts showing up in the Music player when it plays in Shuffle mode. I’m not sure why this is. It may be a quirk of the Archos but I think the most likely thing is that the Copilot installer told the Music player to look in its speech folders, since Copilot uses the Music player to deliver its audio (pre-empting whatever’s playing at the time).

What this means that if I use the Shuffle feature (as I usually do), then I hear navigation snippets at random times in a number of different languages. What’s worse, Copilot’s audio files often seem to hang the MP3 player. Not always, but too often to overlook.

By contrast, NDrive plays over the music – like a voice-over – and I never heard its prompts in the Music player. My guess is that the NDrive folks did it right and NDrive uses the audio API directly; the Copilot guys took a shortcut and spawn a copy of the Music player for their app’s audio delivery. I could be wrong, though. What do I know about Android dev?

In any case, Bzzzt! Game over, Mr. Copilot! Thanks for playing…

A $30 lesson learned and I’ll be re-installing NDrive now.

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