PMA430: The Swiss Army Knife of Portable Media Players
by Kyle Rankin
Related link: http://pma400.com
I recently picked up an Archos PMA430, an all-in-one portable media player that combines their old AV400 series that can play and record both MP3s and DivX, display photos, and output to a TV using an included wireless remote, with a touchscreen PDA running Qtopia. Read below to find out what I've discovered so far, including the hackability of the Linux OS running underneath.
About a year ago I was in the market for my first hard-drive-based mp3 player. I wanted to carry all my songs around with me, and my MP3 CD player just wasn't cutting it. After doing a lot of research, it came down to a choice between a 40Gb 3rd Gen iPod, and an Archos AV340. Both were about the same price, with the AV340 being a bit cheaper, both had 40Gb of storage, and both had advantages and disadvantages. In the end, the fact that the AV340 had about five times the featureset of the iPod won out over the fact that the iPod was thinner and had the nifty wheel interface. Well, that and I've never really gotten into the whole whiter-than-white color scheme.
I've always been someone who has liked single devices that can do many things (Swiss Army knives, Perl, Knoppix). Of course, some of my iPod-apologist friends chided me for going with the Archos: "But the iPod does one thing and does it well--play mp3s" they said (while they checked their addressbook, hooked up a microphone, looked at color photos, and installed Linux on their iPod). The iPod is fine, but my AV340 fit in well with this multitool philosophy. I could listen to mp3s in the car, go home and hook it up to the TV and watch a movie (or even record a movie to it), and when I was on vacation I could unload my digital photos using its CF adapter without having to carry around a laptop. Plus there was the fact that I didn't have to jump through any hoops or install anything to add files to the Archos under Linux--plug it in to a USB port and copy mp3s or music to their respective directory.
My AV340 was great, but when I saw the PMA430 (more tech specs here), I was ready for an upgrade. It had all of the features of my AV340, but it added all of the features of a PDA--a touchscreen, all the PIM tools, plus integrated wireless so I could browse the web on its included Opera browser. Plus it includes a USB host port so you can not only use it as a USB hard drive, you can plug other USB devices into it like cameras, other USB hard drives (even an iPod), USB keyboards, and even USB network and bluetooth adapters. All this and it was much thinner than my AV340. Then I found out it used Qtopia and ran Linux under the hood (like the Zaurus) and I was sold.
My expectations for the PMA430 were pretty high, but so far it has met and in some cases exceeded them. For one, the interface is much improved. The arrow keys, OK, and close buttons are situated where it is easy to navigate through them, and what used to be three identical general-purpose function keys are now individual buttons that perform special functions such as tab through open windows, open a window's menu, or go to the application window. Plus with the addition of a touchscreen you can also do all of these functions with the included stylus or even with your finger. Like with the AV340, you hold down the close button for 3 seconds to power it off, and the OK button to power it on, only now it actually suspends instead of completely powering down so it starts up almost immediately and remembers state so any open applications are still open. Also, the PMA430 can multitask, so I can browse the web, IRC, or check my email while I am listening to MP3s. The new docking station is really nice as well--all of the cables are integrated so it's easy to load a video on the PMA: pop it on the docking station, connect a single cable, and start playback on my television with the included wireless remote.
Beyond the initial interface improvements, the new featureset is very impressive. Now I can connect to the wireless network at home and browse the web, IRC, ssh to another machine using the terminal app, and even sync my data all over the connection. I also recently bought a generic RTL8150 chipset USB adapter for $12 so I can connect to regular wired networks (It sure beats the $40 Archos wants for their network adapter). You can also use the integrated IrDA port to use the GPRS connection on your cellphone. In many ways the PMA430 is in a different league of competition than standard MP3 players or even MP3 and video players. Probably the closest device in terms of features is the Palm Lifedrive, which also adds bluetooth and an SD slot, but only has 4Gb of space to the PMA's 30Gb.
It has been some time since I've actually carried around a PDA with me (my Palm III is collecting dust in a drawer) so I haven't used the PDA functionality too much yet, although I did just start adding to the contact list. The PIM apps seem pretty standard--no frills, just the general stuff you would expect. I was able to grab the Linux version of Qtopia Desktop and sync with the PMA430 over the wireless connection with no problems.
Linux under the hood
As I mentioned before, the PMA430 uses the Qtopia environment like a Zaurus, and if you open up the terminal application, you can throw standard Linux commands at it. Because it uses Qtopia, there has been a lot of talk about the potential to run Zaurus apps on it. Kevin Boone's PMA430 FAQ goes over the specifics, but basically a lot of the newer apps (written to work on both the old Zauruses as well as the clamshells) might possibly work without any additional work, although many require that you at least repackage them to change some of the directories they use (PMA430 prefers /opt for packages instead of /usr). Other applications, especially those with hard-coded portrait dimensions, might require some extra hacking and recompilation to get working. Kevin also covers some of that on his page, and Archos has also recently released a software development kit for the PMA430 so you can write your own applications. A few programs have already been written including a a streaming audio player, and there are a few sites that have a number of ported Zaurus applications on it such as http://www.kevinboone.com/pma430_conversions.html and http://www.jbmm.fr/index.php?ind=downloads&op=section_view&idev=1.
The Archos SDK also includes the source and config to their 2.4.19 Linux kernel, which means you have the potential to add extra hardware support to the device (particularly for usb devices) if it doesn't include it. Already there are packages around to add USB serial adapter and GPS device support. The important thing to keep in mind is that the Linux environment on the PMA isn't exactly like a Zaurus. The PMA uses a few loopback filesystems with a number of symlinks for its root filesystem and mounts the general storage under /media. When the device reboots, anything that isn't under /media (or isn't a program installed in the /opt loopback filesystem) gets erased. This means you can't just copy files wherever you want, you need to do a bit of planning and (ideally) package up your files first.
The PMA430 is great and I can't say enough good things about it. There are a few little nitpicks however. For one, it can be quite a pain to use the integrated touchscreen keyboard with the terminal. The keyboard uses up a bit less than half the screen, and as this is a landscape orientation most apps have to shrink pretty small to fit. Unfortunately the terminal app doesn't really attempt to resize at all, so if the cursor is at the bottom of the screen you have to type blind and then minimize the keyboard to see the contents of the terminal. I actually just ordered a folding USB keyboard like you might use with a PDA, so this will become less of an issue, and the resizing problem only seems to really affect the terminal. Also, I have had a few crashes here and there. Granted I have been busy installing all sorts of random Zaurus apps to see if they will work, so that might have something to do with it. Basically I had to hit the hardware reset key and everything was back to normal. Also one time I had to reinitialize the internal MP3 database it keeps, as it got corrupted, but that was a simple matter of deleting a file and telling it to rescan. Any other issues I've had with the PMA430 are basically program crashes on Zaurus programs I've tried to get running that haven't been fully ported yet.
What can I say? I really am impressed with the PMA430. It does all of the stuff my old Archos did in a smaller package, adds a ton of new features, plus there is a great potential for new functionality on the horizon. There are a number of communities behind the project including archosmultimedia and archos_PMA400 Yahoo! Groups, and more apps are being ported or written every day. If you like hackable feature-rich devices, I recommend you give this a try.
The price is really a killer
For that price, you can get a zaurus with a 640x480 screen and a real keyboard. Or two because that was a few years ago that you had to pay $750 for a zaurus.