Cowon Q5W Review

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$549

Pros: Large, beautiful display; Built-in stereo Bluetooth; Compatibility with a wide array of audio/video formats; Rich sound

Cons: Sluggish performance; Hit-or-miss touchscreen controls; Earbuds required for FM radio; Switching between interfaces when tweaking system; Low storage capacity

Verdict: Cowon's jack-of-all trades portable media player does audio/video, Web-surfing, and GPS, but does it do them well?

The Cowon Q5W blurs the line between multimedia-centric handhelds and Ultra-Mobile PCs by packing in an absolutely gorgeous display, wireless capabilities, almost limitless media compatibility, and an easy-to-use interface. However, in our day-to-day use, we found several flaws that prevent this device from taking the PMP crown.

Cowon Q5W Design

Measuring 5.5 x 3.5 x 0.8 inches and weighing 13.8 ounces, the Cowon Q5W is larger and twice as heavy as its closest competitor, the Archos 605 WiFi, but with the extra girth comes an extremely sturdy feel and a massive 5-inch TFT LCD. Aesthetically, the unit resonates a subdued elegance with its simple black-and-steel-gray color scheme. A slew of buttons and ports surround its perimeter: Volume keys, stereo speakers, power button, and a mic are built into the top; a retractable Wi-Fi antenna, USB and mini-USB ports, jacks for a headset and earbuds, and a power adapter adorn the right.

Schizophrenic UI, Finicky Touchscreen

The Q5W first boots Windows CE 5.0 Pro before launching Cowon's own clean interface. Unfortunately, when you need to tweak system settings, the Q5W frequently drops you into Windows CE 5.0 Pro, which is annoying because you're forced to relaunch the separate Cowon interface. The sluggish 600-MHz Alchemy Au1250 processor and paltry 128MB of RAM caused the system to drag at times.
We came across another major issue; the touchscreen often missed our inputs when we used a finger. The stylus improved matters, but we saw the best interaction when we plugged in a USB mouse. That's cool, but who is going to do that?

Q5W Media Playback

This robust PMP supports a wide array of photo and video formats, which looked stunning on the crisp 800 x 480-pixel resolution display; we had zero compatibility issues, and the PMP played back a homemade birthday party video at a smooth 30 frames per second. The 16 million-color palette kept the visuals vibrant and true to life, and the included remote let us kick back on a sofa and enjoy content on a big screen using the bundled component and composite A/V cords.
The Q5W has a laundry list of compatible sound formats, and we were impressed by the sheer volume that it could produce, although the loudness also brought some distortion. When we cranked Stoned Grace's Cast the First Stone, Cowon's JetEffect audio technology gave the tracks a surprising amount of richness. Unlike most PMPs, the Cowon Q5W has built-in stereo Bluetooth, which was effortles to sync with out wireless headphones. The Q5W also has an FM radio with unlimited presets, and you plug in the bundled earbuds to get reception. The player is rated to achieve 13 hours of audio and 7 hours of video, but we saw close to 10 hours of audio playback and 5 hours of video.

Connecting with the Cowon Q5

Connected to Windows XP and Vista notebooks via USB, the Cowon Q5W was recognized as an external drive to which we could drag and drop content. On Macs, however, the data exchange was only a one-way street; you can upload content to an OS X machine, but we couldn't transfer files onto the player. The company says this glitch is fixed with the latest firmware updates. The Cowon Q5W also acts as a USB Host for transferring content from Windows CE-compatible devices (such as digital cameras and USB keys) without need of a PC.
It was a breeze to connect to the Web using the Cowon Q5W's 802.11b/g radio, but like the Archos 605 WiFi, we found Web surfing slow, especially when visiting streaming media sites. It took just 9 seconds to load YouTube's landing page, but when we tried to watch Tay Zonday's latest viral video extravaganza, "Chocolate Rain," the video stuttered. Image-heavy pages such as CNN.com, unfortunately, took over a minute to load, so if you need to check out a Web site in a hurry, you're better off using your notebook.
On the plus side, we like that Cowon included Flash support out of the box (unlike Archos, which charges extra for that plug-in). Using the integrated MSN Messenger client, we were able to chat with friends but found typing with a stylus quite tedious.

Robust Software and GPS

It's odd to speak of a portable media player's software package, but since the Cowon Q5W is powered by Windows CE Professional 5.0, we were able to create documents using WordPad and view Word documents; Excel and PowerPoint file-viewing require an optional Windows CE Professional Plus add-on. Another unique aspect is the optional $199 Cowon GPS package that features Tele Atlas' North American maps, more than 11 million points of interest, NavMate's navigation software, and a cradle with a receiver antenna. The GPS cradle connects to the Cowon Q5W via a port on the bottom of the device, and a mount is included to attach it to the dashboard.

Verdict

Whether the $549 Cowon Q5W is worth your money depends on what you're looking to get out of it. As a media player, it's top-notch, but the scant 40GB hard drive may be a turn-off considering that Archos sells the 80GB 605 Wi-Fi for $249. The Microsoft Office compatibility, Web-surfing, and GPS capabilities are nice additions, but they're nothing you couldn't find on a smart phone for far less money. We have to give credit to Cowon for this ambitious device, but Archos is still at the top of the hard drive PMP mountain.

Related Links:
Archos 605 WiFi Review
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Display 5 inches/800 x 480 (16.7 million colors)
PC Interface USB
Audio Formats WMA
Audio Formats APE
Audio Formats WAV
Audio Formats OGG
Audio Formats MPC
Audio Formats MP3
Audio Formats FLAC
Audio Formats ASF
Video Formats Xvid
Video Formats WMV
Video Formats OGM
Video Formats MPEG-4
Video Formats DivX
Video Formats AVI
Battery Type rechargable
Wi-Fi Yes
Bluetooth Yes
IR No
FM Radio Yes
FM Recording No
Voice Recording No
Size 5.5 x 3.5 x 0.8 inches
Weight 13.8 ounces
Company Website http://www.cowonamerica.com