Beautiful screen, awesome format support, and plenty of storage.
The navigation joystick is frustrating to use; no carry case.
If you’re willing to look beyond everyone’s favorite fruit company when you shop for a digital media player, you’ll encounter some wildly underrated alternatives. Cowon manufactures more than a few, including the nearly divine A3.
In fact, there’s just one feature that kills our enthusiasm for this chunky player: The joystick you must use to control the player and navigate its user interface.
Pushing the tiny, sturdy stick to the left or right (to skip tracks or navigate menus) is easy enough, as is moving it up and down (to control the volume, for instance); but pushing it in to select a file requires the kind of pinpoint accuracy that’s nearly impossible to achieve with as blunt an instrument as your thumb. The slightest amount of off-axis pressure pushes the stick to the right, left, up, or down, triggering an unintended action.
Navigating the graphic user interface with the thumb stick is a snap—until you want to select a file or initiate playback by pushing down on the stick. In our experience, nine out 10 depressions resulted in an unintended action (such as the selector moving to a different function or target file or folder).
It’s an unfortunate flaw, because the rest of the A3’s feature set is absolutely delicious. The player has a four-inch display boasting resolution of 800x480 pixels (16:9 aspect ratio), for starters. It supports a wide variety of video codecs (DivX 3.11 through DivX 6, XviD, H.264, WMV, MPEG-4—even M-JPEG!), every important non-proprietary audio codec (MP3, AAC, WMA, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, and more), and a broad range of digital photo file formats (JPEG, GIF, PNG, TIF, BMP, and RAW). The A3 also has CSD viewer software that enables it to convert and display documents saved in PDF, DOC, HTML, PPT (PowerPoint), XLS (Excel spreadsheet), and several other formats.
We listened to a wide variety of FLAC-encoded tracks (including Lyle Lovett’s cover of “Bears,” from Step Inside This House) and were very impressed with the A3’s audio fidelity. We used TBI’s Millenia amplifier and Majestic Diamond IR speakers for our playback tests. The screen does a fabulous job of displaying digital photos and video clips, too.
The player has every input and output port you could want: headphone, mic, audio in/out, and video in/out (using a proprietary cable with S- and composite video jacks). There’s a set of built-in stereo speakers, too. We wouldn’t recommend listening to them for very long, but they are convenient. The device can function as a USB host, which means you can plug it straight into your digital camera and offload photos from that device’s storage media.
The A3 is a tad too thick (0.75 inches) and heavy (9.8 ounces) to carry in a shirt pocket for long, but much of that bulk can be attributed to the fact that it’s packing a 1.8-inch 30GB hard drive (higher-priced models with 60- and 80GB drives are also available). A padded carrying case is the only other accessory we can think of that Cowon should consider throwing in the box.
Now if they could just do something about that finicky joystick.