It doesn't pack Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or any other fancy features, but the Cowon A3 does one thing extremely well: play back your multimedia files. Featuring a gorgeous display, superb sound, and compatibility with a mind-blowing number of multimedia files, the A3 is a sure pick for audio and video enthusiasts who want a top-notch A/V experience in a device that's relatively easy to carry. We just wished that Cowon had opted for a better control scheme and music menu layout.
Cowon A3 Design
The 9.9-ounce A3 looks identical to the Cowon A2 and is easy to slide into your bag, but it's too thick, wide, long, and heavy to rest comfortably in a pants pocket. Both still and moving images looked especially sharp and vivid on the 4-inch, 800 x 480-pixel LCD (with 16 million colors), which is one of the best in the biz.
Unlike the Archos 605 Wi-Fi or Apple iPod touch, the Cowon A3 forgoes a touchscreen for a wonky miniature joystick. Getting used to it and navigating the player properly took several minutes, as we found ourselves accidentally pressing up or down instead of in when we wanted to make a menu selection. We did like the four buttons beneath the joystick, which let us quickly back out of menus, assemble playlists, bookmark files, and more, depending on context.
Excellent Codec Support and Sound Quality
We've grown accustomed to the MP3, WMA, and AAC compatibility that most portable media players offer, but Cowon went the extra mile by packing the A3 with a laundry list of codecs: OGG Vorbis, OGG Flac, Apple Lossless, AAC+, AC3, True Audio, MusePack, WavPack, G.726, PCM, and Monkey Audio. Even if you never bother with the more obscure (but higher-quality) formats, Cowon's JetEffect processing technology and 10-band equalizer produces stellar audio. When we loaded the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Dani California," the ripped MP3 bounced with a fresh vibrancy, even through the included stock earbuds.
The built-in stereo speakers produced quality sound, but became muddy as we cranked the volume. Music fans who love the all-you-can-eat subscription DRM stores such as Rhapsody to Go should steer clear, however, since the Cowon A3 doesn't jive with those services.
What really got our goat is that the Cowon A3 doesn't let you sort tunes by artist or album, as it lacks support for sorting by ID3 tags; if you have lots of music, you'll have to wade through a long list of files sorted alphabetically by song. Cowon is looking to fix this oversight in a future firmware update, but until it's released, we recommend grouping your favorite songs into playlists for easy access.
FM Tuner and Podcast Support
The Cowon A3's radio lets you tune into FM signals (albeit with slight static) and save a whopping 25 presets; you can even record your favorite station's programming to the 30GB hard drive. Podcast fans will be pleased to learn that the A3 comes preinstalled with PodcastReady's myPodder software, which we used to download ESPN and NPR's daily audio shows quickly and easily. The A3's built-in mono microphone lets you record audio of your own in the high-quality, lossless, Flac format--the first PMP to offer such an option.
Cowon A3 Video and Photo Playback
The Cowon A3's still image and video compatibility lists also run pretty deep. You can view JPG, GIF, PNG, TIF, BMP, and RAW photo files or watch AVI, WMV, ASF, MPEG, OGM, VOB, DAT, MTV, MP4, and Matroska (MKV) video clips.
You can also record TV directly to the player at up to 1,280 x 720-pixel resolution in the ASF format. Thanks to Texas Instruments' DaVinci dual-core CPU, the A3 can play back 1,280 x 720 video, which the A3 downsamples to fit the display. The included composite cable let us output our vacation videos to a 22-inch television (you can also connect to a TV via bundled component and S-video cables). We saw very little loss in video quality.
The A3 is rated to have 10 hours of audio playback and 7 hours of video playback. However, we got closer to 5 hours of endurance while enjoying a mix of music and video.
If for some reason you stumble across an incompatible file, such as one from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or a PDF, you can download the mTrans conversion software from Cowon's site to your PC (sorry, Mac users). This converts your Office files into CSD format, which you can then transfer to the Cowon A3. Word, PDF, and PowerPoint files were a cinch to read and scroll through, but Excel data was a bit jumbled. You can't edit the converted files, but it's a nice tool for reading documents on the go without having a notebook in tow. The Cowon A3 also lets you view TXT files by default.
You can also use the player as a USB host, which lets you transfer content from such devices as USB keys and digital cameras.
Cowon A3 Verdict
Despite a few flaws (most noticeably the lack of ID3 music-sorting tags), the Cowon A3 is a good portable media player that should prove an intriguing alternative to audio- and videophiles seeking the complete multimedia experience without the file-type limits on Apple's and Archos' players. Priced at $349 and $399 for the 30GB and 60GB models, respectively, the Cowon A3 is a PMP that is hard to pass up if you cherish robust sound and excellent video.