This has been a very, very difficult review for me to write. Most gadgets, I find I either like them, or dislike them, or just feel kind of “eh” about them. The, on the other hand, arouses some pretty powerful conflicting feelings in me. I’ll try to give you all a full idea why throughout the review, but the bottom line for me with this device is, I’m totally conflicted, and there is no bottom line. So read on, and decide for yourself.
I’ve been playing with the Cowon A2 personal media player (PMP) for a few weeks now, and am ready to give y’all my thoughts and impressions. First, if you’re interested, take a look at the unboxing. I thought the packaging was pretty durn well-done.
And yes, it’s pretty much as brick-like as it looks. This is not a very sexy device; definitely a form-follows-function kind of deal. Also, being a guy, I’m disappointed that it’s not flat-black. Your milage may vary, as the saying goes.
The A2 is almost exactly the same size and weight as my HTC Universal, a little bit heftier than my Tapwave Zodiac, and a lot bigger than my wife’s Treo. The Cowon A2 has the following specs:
- 10.5 oz (298g)
- 4″, 480×272 (widescreen, landscape-mode only) screen
- 5.25″ (wide) x 3.1″ (high) x 0.87″ (thick)
- 30 GB hard disk space
- 8 hours of battery time (I don’t know if this is true, but I certainly was unable to drain the battery very easily; most impressive)
- built-in mono mic
- built-in external stereo speakers
- FM radio
- 2 USB ports
- standard headphone jack
Here are some size comparisons photos. First up, a top view of the A2 with a Motorola V180, a Treo 650, and a Tapwave Zodiac.
Here’s a side view of the foursome; as you can see, the A2 and the Zodiac are very similar, although the A2 is thicker, boxier, and about 4 ounces heavier.
Bottom view of the stack.
The A2 comes with pretty much what you would expect, accessory-wise:
- Leatherette case
- hand strap
- Installation CD
- User Guide
- Ear buds
- USB cable
- Line-in recording cable
- USB host cable
- A/V cable
- AC adapter
Nothing earth-shaking, but a reasonable collection.
Taking a look at the A2, honestly I can’t help but admire how clean the design is. A lot of these PMPs struggle to incorporate all the needs of various media playback features–audio, video, text, and sometimes web browsing–and sometimes they end up with a lot of buttons, jacks, doors, plug-holes, and the like. The Cowon A2, on the other hand, is darn clean looking.
On the face of the device, there is the screen, and down the right side something Cowon calls a “jog button,” and four buttons labelled “Back,” “A,” “B,” and “C.”
That’s it. Since the device does not have a touch-screen, all control is through these five controllers (which definitely led to some frustration). More on the functionality later in the review; for right now, let’s finish looking at the hardware.
The rest of the A2 is very Spartan. The top has only two stereo speakers and a microphone for recording.
The right side (that is, next to the buttons) has the power switch and a loop for the lanyard.
The bottom has the recessed reset switch (very much like a PDA), and a three-way switch.
LCD is the main mode, i.e. when you are viewing movies, listening to music, copying files to the device, or otherwise using the A2 in stand-alone mode. AV Out enables you to use the A2 as a driver for an external system–either an audio or a video system. I never tried it in this mode, so I can’t discuss it other than to say that the specs indicate that you can get a maximum video resolution of 720×576 pixels, with an audio rating of 48KHz, and a maximum of 448Kbps. Other than that, your humble reviewer is ignorant.
The left side (i.e., the side away from the buttons) contains all the plugs.
At first glace, it looks like there are only two ports: one for the charger plug, and one for the headphone jack. But in between there’s a door that covers four additional ports:
Two ports are audio out and video out, should you want to use the A2 as an A/V driver. The other two ports are your standard USB ports.
Personally, I am of two minds about the door. On the one hand, it makes the design of the device nice and clean, in addition to helping keep the ports more free of dust and dirt. On the other hand, the hinge design on the door, well, basically sucks. It’s cheap and rickety, and every time I open the door, I’m afraid I’m going to bust the silly thing. While I’m not a big fan of those rubberized door/slot covers, this may be one of those times when one is called for.
Our tour ends on the back side of the A2, which is featureless; it contains the battery, which is not replacable.
I know this honks some reviewers, but honestly, with a battery life of about 8 hours, I don’t really care. And by the time the battery is no longer able to keep a charge, two more generations of this device will have been released, so I’ll want to buy a new device anyway, not a new battery. “I’m not fussed,” as Harry Potter would say.
The first thing I noticed was, well, there’s really no instructions to tell you what to do. The documentation includes one (1) manual, which does not even contain a listing of all the features, let alone procedures for doing basic things like, oh, I dunno, transferring files? And what’s this here CD-ROM for? Do I have to install it? Or is it optional? What’s the “Hold” switch for? The doc talks about a firmware upgrade, so I surf to the web site as instructed, but there’s very little instruction. A little head-scratching and downloading, and I have indeed upgraded the firmware (annoying on a brand-new device, but whatever).
As far as a new user is concerned, the device is most definitely not friendly.
I would like to use the A2 for all three of its main functions: movie viewing, listening to music, and looking at text files. Let’s take them one at a time. I have a huge library of eBooks, MP3s, and converted movie files in both DivX and *.avi format (the A2 is “DivX Certified“), so testing files is not going to be a problem.
I have an enormous library of already converted files that include cartoons, action films, drama, and lots of other stuff to give the device a good workout and see how she does. After a few hours of charging (it charges quite quickly), I plug ‘er in and use regular XP software to move the files across. Is this the right thing to do? Who knows? The docs don’t say, and neither does the online help, so I’m on my own!
First things first: let’s look at the interface:
I like the intial interface. Again; very clean and easy to understand. The main functions of the A2–watching movies, listening to music, looking at photos and documents, listening to the radio–are easy to access and obvious from the main interface. To navigate you use the jog button to move around, and press down on it to select. Which is the first love/hate item; half the time (or more) when I try to simply press the jog button, I end up pushing it one way or the other, and so instead of selecting, I move to a different item. Very annoying. In some windows you can use the “A” button to select instead (sort of), but the main way to select is by pressing the jog button, and it’s a pain in the tuckus, honestly. Big negative here.
All the buttons are state-sensitive. That is to say, other than the “Back” button, which always takes you “Back” to whatever you were doing before, the buttons function differently. For instance, at the top level, if you press the “A” button, it gives you “Recent Files”. But in movie playback mode, if you press “A”, it gives you “Pop-up Menu”. All of these devices have tried to solve the problem of how to deal with a multiplicity of functions, and Cowon has gone for the minimalist approach. Personally, I think they should have used more buttons, but maybe the state-dependency thing won’t bother you. Caveat emptor.
Before we move on, let me say that the screen is beautiful; the colors are sharp and crisp, and the viewing is good in dark and sun. But on the other hand (yet another love/hate problem!) you have to view it absolutely flat on. Tilting the device up (i.e., so the bottom moves towards you) seems to be the worst, but all angles are not very good. I have ordered a glare-reduction screen protector, which I’m hoping will help, but it’s still disappointing.
(Also disappointing is the fact that this sucker really takes fingerprints. Let’s just say that I’m very much looking forward to the arrival of that screen protector.)
I will say right up front that I am primarily interested in this device for movie viewing, with secondary functions of music listening and document viewing.? At the risk of irritating folks, let’s dispose of the latter two first, and leave the best function–movie viewing–for last.
As I mentioned, the lack of documentation means you have to figure out how to move files over to the device on your own. Fortunately, it’s fairly logical: you plug in the USB connector, and move them over as if it were an external device. Easy. It’s possible that somewhere on this collection of nonsense on the CD that they supply is something that also does it, but I have to be honest: wading through it without even so much as a “Getting Started” card was not high on my list. So just move your files across to the appropriate directories (Movies, Documents, Music, what have you), and you can get going.
One thing to note: the A2 is a little persnickity with regard to transferring. It has to be turned on, and the screen remains on, when you are transferring files. This means the battery can drains slightly while you are transferring. If you try to transfer a whole lot of files at once–and I actually did this–you can drain the battery while transferring files across. To be on the safe side, I kept the device plugged in while transferring movie files, or only transferred one file at a time. (The device does charge, slowly, when plugged in to the USB port.)
The other thing is, Windows 2000 and Windows XP both treat the A2 as an external hard disk, which means that you have to use the desktop software to safely remove the device. I personally find this annoying; why is it I can just unplug my Palm device or my Windows Mobile device, but have to select “Hardware > Stop USB Mass Storage Device” on the desktop simply to unplug the A2 from the USB cable? I find that pretty irritating, personally. However, perhaps when I test the Archos and the Creative Zen, I will discover that it is standard. For now, though, it stinks.
With regard to documents, I simply cannot recommend this device for document viewing. You cannot rotate the display to portrait mode, and I find viewing documents in landscape mode to be an extremely uncomfortable experience. Second, you can only view text documents or “converted” PDF documents–my extensive library of eBooks was unreadable. Finally, the backgrounds available for document viewing were very limited; you can choose a dark or light background, or transparent mode. You cannot adjust the fonts, or the size, or many other things that I consider fairly basic in a document reader.
In addition, paging down is a pain. The jog button is used to move up and down; pressing the button up moves up a line; down moves down a line. Pressing to the right moves down a page; left moves up a page. While you can navigate one-handed, it is hardly easy, and the lack of portrait mode makes it particularly difficult. As a document reader, the A2 is a flop, frankly.
I didn’t spend a lot of time testing music on the A2. I downloaded a number of music MP3s and podcasts, and they all sounded just fine through the default earbuds, and much better (of course) through my personal set of Phillips headphones. The interface for the music player is clean and straight-forward, and didn’t require a whole lot of skull-sweat to figure out.
The only down side music-wise is the fact that the A2 is a pretty heavy little guy. Now, I listen to music all the time on my HTC Universal, which is almost exactly the same size and weight, so that really isn’t an issue for me. But for you, lugging around a 10oz gizmo for listening to music–when these days you can get a device the size of a fever thermometer–might be a big detraction. Totally up to you. The A2, of course, is not being sold primarily as a music-listening device, anyway, a’course.
Which brings us to movies. And it’s clear that here is where the good folks of Cowon have lavished their attention, because the A2 really is pretty wonderful when it comes to viewing movies. There are still quite a few things about the interface that irritate me–which I’ll mention–but overall, the movie viewing experience on the A2 is excellent, and you just can’t deny it. The images are sharp, crisp, and clean. The sound through the earbuds is good, and through my nicer Phillips headset it was wonderful. Heck, even the built-in speakers weren’t too bad.
I tried a number of different movies in a number of different formats at a number of different rates. For you fanatics out there, here’s what I found.
- Test files: The Incredibles, The Matrix Reloaded, Serenity
- Test conversion rates, video: 900kbps; 1100 kbps; 1300 kbps
- Test conversion rates, audio: 80kpbs, 120kbps
I found no frame drops in any test files until 1300 kbps in The Incredibles. Pretty durn impressive. I have since watched the following movies (all converted between 900-1000kbps): Batman Begins; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Superman Returns; Sense and Sensibility; Amadeus; Equilibrium; Treasure Planet; Office Space. Everything looks great.
On the down side–and here we are, back to the love/hate thing–I really hate the controls. The jog button is, quite simply, insanely annoying. Perhaps it will work fine for you, but for me it’s a constant battle. Clicking it to start and stop movies, select files and bookmarks, and so on, is difficult; at least 50% of the time I don’t select, but rather move the toggle (increase the volume, fast forward, rewind, what have you).
Secondly, the jog button is also used to rewind and fast forward. However, the functionality is variable depending on the length of time you’ve pressed it forward or back. For example, if you just toggle it once forward, the film jumps ahead (I believe) 12 seconds. If you toggle and hold, it goes longer. After you hold, it appears to fast forward in a logarithmic manner; in other words, it goes forward 12 seconds for the first second you hold the button, then a few minutes for the next second, then 15 minutes, then 40, and so on. I practiced with this a lot, and never got the hang of it. I am certain some people will like it, but personally I despise it. (Compare it to TCPMP, where you use the touch screen and your stylus to just slide to the part of the film you want to be; what could be easier?) Further, there was no way that I could find to go to a particular minute part of a film. In other words, if you know you want to start at minute 55:00, you were out of luck; you just have to use the jog button and hope for the best.
The only thing I didn’t have a problem with was using the jog button for increasing or decreasing the volume. For that, it was fine. Cold comfort, honestly.
Another point of frustration is bookmarking. Bookmarking is actually pretty simple; any time you press one of the three soft buttons, the display notifies you of their functionality.
To create a bookmark, just select A, and a bookmark is placed. (“So what’s your problem then, Doug?”) I’m glad you asked. There are several:
- You can’t view the bookmarks for an individual film; all bookmarks are viewed in the same flat list.
- When you create a bookmark, it’s called “bookmark.” When you go looking for the bookmark you just created, however, it’s not called a bookmark. Nope; it appears in the aforementioned flat list, which is called “Playlist.” The documentation mentions nothing about this; I actually had to contact tech support to find it out. Bad design, Cowon folks!
- There is no way to distinguish different bookmarks in the same movie; at least, no way that I was able to find (and it certainly isn’t in the extremely spartan documentation). You can’t modify the text of the bookmark, nor is there a timestamp displayed with the bookmark. So if you happen to want to add 5 or 10 bookmarks to “The Matrix,” they all end up in “Playlist,” and they are all called “The Matrix.” Best of luck!
The entire bookmarking issue pretty much sums up my experience with the A2: all the right pieces are there, but they are put together in a frustrating, non-intuitive, user-unfriendly way. So do I give it good marks for having the features? Or bad marks because the implementation is so lame? Makes me want to pull my hair out, honestly.
Bottom line: I’m probably returning it, honestly. This had all the hallmarks of a good device, but after a couple of weeks frustration, I just don’t want to keep it. The viewing angles and the jog button alone are enough to turn me off of this thing, but there’s plenty of other things that bug me about it. Using TCPMP (Betaplayer) on my Tapwave Zodiac is a better solution; it may not do bookmarks, but at least I can navigate using either the touchscreen or the analog controller, and there are more audio and video controls available. Yeah, it’s awkward swapping 2GB cards all the time, and the battery life (comparitively) sucks, but that’s a minor price to pay.
There are lots of other areas where I could nit-pick–the chancy hinge on the USB door cover, the lack of rubber feet, the lack of a kick-stand, and so on–but I’ll just leave it there. Maybe this device is a good one for you, but for me: not.
Next up (hopefully): either the Archos 604 wifi, or the Creative Zen Vision W. Let’s hope I have better luck!
MSRP: $314.99 (Amazon.com)
What I Like: Stupendous battery life; nice interface; clean overall design; beautiful screen
What Needs Improvement: awkward, non-intuitive controls; poor (really poor) documentation; bad viewing angles; no portrait mode for document viewing; hard-to-figure-out features (e.g. bookmarks in movies: easy to put in, but after two weeks of trying, I still had trouble); on the hefty side