Thursday, February 12, 2009

My Cowon O2 PVP

It hasn't been a terribly exciting year for portable video players. Despite its relatively small screen, the iPod Touch is one of the few PVPs we've been giving an unqualified recommendation for in 2008. The Archos 5 is ambitious, but the battery life just isn't there; the Q5W is overpriced and bulky; and the A3 left us feeling kinda "meh." Thankfully, the Cowon O2 looks like it's going to close-out our year of PVP reviews on an upnote.
First off, let me mention the official U.S. MSRP for the O2, because I know there have been a few guesstimates floating around. The Cowon O2 will retail for $219 (8GB), $249 (16GB), and $299 (32GB), which you can pick up in either black or white. If 32GB isn't enough storage for you, keep in mind that the O2 includes a SDHC card slot for quickly swapping out content and increasing storage as you need it.
The second thing to notice about the O2 is its stupefying amount of file support. On the video end the O2 can play back AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MKV, OGM, DAT, MTV, DivX, XviD, MPEG-4, WMV 9/8/7, H.264, M-JPEG, and MPEG 1. The O2 is also agnostic when it comes to video resolution, accepting files all the way up to 1,280x720 at 30fps. For me, native format and resolution support is huge deal, because my home media collection is all over the place and few things test my patience more than re-encoding batches of video files.
Another huge deal for me is battery life, and Cowon is claiming that the O2 will get up to 8 hours of video playback (under "optimal" conditions) before surrendering. If Cowon's right, 8 hours of video playback would put the O2 far beyond the 4 hours of video life on the Archos 5, and ahead of the 6 hours of video on the iPod Touch and even the iPod Classic. Audio battery life isn't as impressive, with only 18 hours, but it's still ahead of the 12 hours of playback time on the Archos 5. Another thing to bear in mind is that all of the O2's competitors require a proprietary cable to recharge the battery, which can be a huge pain if you lose the cable while traveling. The O2 charges best when using the included AC adapter, but you can charge over its mini-USB connection, as well.
Battery life, compatibility, and price are the headline features on the O2, but there's still more to love about this Korean import. The O2 uses a 4.3-inch touch-screen display, sized at 480x272, with a display range of 16.7 million colors. The screen on our engineering sample is bright and crisp with only slight contrast shifting when you tilt it up and down. The touch interface is responsive and the GUI is clean and spacious, with the exception of file lists, which are a little cramped and tricky to accurately browse with your fingertip. An attachable stylus is included that doubles as a fold-out stand, but I never felt like I needed it.
From an audio perspective, Cowon blows the doors off again with exhaustive format support, including: MP3, WMA, AC3, AAC, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, OGG FLAC, Apple Lossless, True Audio, Monkey Audio, MusePack, WavPack, G.726, and PCM. In typical Cowon style, users also get access to tons of audio enhancement features, including the same EQ presets and BBE enhancement effects found on the Cowon D2 and iAudio 7. The O2 goes one better, however, by including a customizable 10-band EQ with independent frequency bandwidth settings that can be switched between narrow and wide.
Then there's the other stuff: a photo viewer that supports JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and raw images; a voice recorder that encodes to FLAC audio; a text reader; calculator; and a notepad. Bonus features on the hardware end include a built-in speaker, an optional composite video output (you'll need to buy an extra $9 AV cable from Cowon that plugs into the O2's USB port), a volume rocker switch, built-in microphone, and an SDHC memory slot.
So what's the bad news? In general, the O2 isn't a flashy or sexy device. It's an elegant and practical workhorse PVP perfect for video addicts. If it wasn't such a slow year for PVPs, I'd hesitate comparing the O2 with the iPod Touch, since they really are two very different products. The O2 isn't going to check your e-mail, stream YouTube videos, tweet your friends, or show you where to find a nearby ATM machine. It also doesn't play games, tune FM radio, or stream music over Bluetooth. Instead, the O2 is unapologetically single-minded: it's just a damn fine portable video player with a good-looking screen and a great price. It probably won't be a runaway holiday hit, but I have no doubt the O2 will find a loyal audience.

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