Cowon's portable media players have always been known for robust format support, but the manufacturer's devices have been a step behind other PMP heavyweights when it comes to features like Wi-Fi, DRM support, and video recording. Although the Cowon O2 doesn't address any of these shortcomings, we still recommend it because of its large, easy-to-use touchscreen and good sound quality. Plus, the $219 starting price for the 8GB model ($10 less than the iPod touch) represents a good value for media mavens on the go given that you can easily expand the memory.
Cowon O2 Design
At 4.7 x 2.9 x 0.7 inches and 7.2 ounces, the O2 has too much heft and bulk to fit comfortably in a pants pocket, but its smooth contours feel very clean in-hand. And thanks to minimal emphasis on perimeter buttons, this PMP slips easily into a bag or coat pocket. The O2 is not much smaller than the more attractive Archos 5, which weighs in at a substantial 8.8 ounces, but then the Archos 5 has integrated Wi-Fi and a much larger hard drive (starting at 60GB).
Though it's a little unwieldy, there is an upside to the up-sized nature of the Cowon O2: its 4.3-inch TFT LCD screen is one of the largest we've seen, second only to the 4.8-inch display on the Archos 5. Surrounded by a white bezel (also available in black), the O2's 480 x 272-pixel display shines out with a stunning 16.7 million colors.
Along the device's slick edges are a 3.5mm headphone jack, an SD/SDHC Card slot, volume controls, an AC adapter port, a mini-USB plug, and a two-way sliding button that locks the device.
The included ear buds are made of bothersome inflexible plastic, but they didn't hinder the O2's audio quality. Still, audiophiles will get more use out of this device if they spring for more-comfortable headphones. The O2's internal speaker can be turned on or off with an option under the sound menu, but because playback was flat and thin, we don't recommend using it.
Save for volume controls and the on/off switch, interaction with the O2 takes place entirely via the the roomy touchscreen. Though a stylus is included with the O2's packaging, we had little trouble using our fingers to navigate the device's menus and select files. The stylus doubles as a viewing stand, but there's no receptacle for it on the device, so it's likely to get lost.
We've seen some glitchy user interfaces from products such as the Cowon Q5W, but navigating the O2 was a relative dream. The home screen has BlackBerry-esque icons for Music, Video, Photos, etc. When you select an option, a window opens with a list of folders containing your multimedia files. For example, select a music file and the appropriate album art displays on the left side of the screen; the right side shows elapsed time information, volume controls, and equalizer settings. We liked that the system allows you to multitask; we were able to fast-forward through tunes while viewing photos in the picture viewer, and we played a video while searching for another.
Navigating through the O2 isn't as peppy as on the iPod touch, but we did enjoy the supported gestures, such as moving your fingers in a circle to rotate images in the photo viewer and cycling through photos with just a tap of the left or right portion of the screen. We couldn't zoom in or out with a pinch motion, though, nor rotate pictures at all if music was playing in the background.
Loading files onto the Cowon O2 couldn't be easier. PC users can sync the device using the bundled Cowon MediaCenter desktop media suite; Mac users must drag and drop files into the appropriate folder on the O2.
No Metatag Sorting
Though the Cowon O2 supports internal metatags (such as ID3) that allow you to sort multimedia files by artist, album, genre, or song title, it doesn't sort files using that data. Users must instead group their music into a folder structure similar to any PC operating system and that searching by title, artist, or album name is not an option with the O2 unless the files are manually organized in folders.
Curiously, the O2 does make use of metatags when a file is playing, displaying its title, album, and artist name. Users can have a particular song added to a customizable favorites list with the touch of a button, but playlist pros should be warned that there's only one favorites list and they'll have to either edit that list constantly or group individual tracks into folders before copying them from the PC hard drive over to the O2.
File Support and Sound Quality
Cowon has a reputation for prolific file support, and the O2 continues the tradition by being able to play a plethora of file formats (including FLAC and OGG) as well as a longer list of audio codecs. iTunes fans and supporters of all-you-can-eat music services should note that the Cowon O2 does not support DRM-protected files.
On our tests, the O2 offered solid audio quality that was bolstered by BBE Sound's enhancement technology, including Mach3Bass, MP Enhance, and 3D Surround. Tracks sounded best when we tweaked the 10-band equalizer presets and used BBE's adjustable audio solutions. For instance, MP Enhance, designed to restore lost harmonic quality to compressed files, added bold resonance and crispness to the piano and horn sections of the jazz tune "Kathleen's Theme."
Videos and Photos
The O2 also supports a wealth of video and photo formats, including H.264 video files and RAW images. There is just one problem: Like the O2's music player, the video player does not support DRM files, which means such premium video services as CinemaNow are off limits.
The O2's screen made watching video during subway commutes a real treat. Because this PMP supports a maximum external resolution of 1280 x 720 at 30 frames per second, the visual quality is high enough to output video to a television in either 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios--if you purchase the optional composite cable ($8.99). When we used the cable to output video to a 42-inch TV, the left and right edges of our downloaded AVI video clips from Revision3.com were cut off slightly; video was slightly darker on the O2 than on our laptop, but the slight tonal variation wasn't distracting.
In addition to housing your video and music files, the O2 also comes with a voice recorder, text document reader, and a timer for alarms. It also includes programs for a calculator and a notepad that are early products of a Software Developer's Kit that Cowon will release in late December. The idea is that savvy users will design software for the device and share those programs with others.
Of the bonus features, the voice recorder worked the best; the O2's mic picked up our voice as well as a surprising amount of other conversations taking place in a coffee shop. We were disappointed to find that we could not use the Cowon-designed calculator or notepad while the device played music, and that the notepad did not include a keyboard but instead forced you to write notes with your fingers or the stylus. As of now, the SDK from Cowon does not support audio/visual playback while an app is in use, but there may be plans to fix this in a future developer kit.
The O2 is rated to last 8 hours of video use and 18 hours of music use. We listened to music for more than two hours a day for three days without needing a recharge.
Cowon O2 Verdict
Though its touch interface doesn't match that of the iPod touch, the $219 Cowon O2 is a good choice for those who want a bigger display, broader format support, and expandable memory--but find the Archos 5 too large and expensive. The inability to sort tunes by ID3 tag info is a bummer, but overall the O2 is a solid pick for the price.