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Old 12-13-2005, 12:00   #1
austinv
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Default Cowon A2 Review Part 2 (firmware 1.46)

Continued from Part 1 of the Review, HERE.


Video Playback

The latest generation of portable media players, including the A2, have the ability to play most types of videos in their native format and resolution. Videos are automatically scaled to fit best on its screen or on a TV. This makes life a lot easier than before. With older models, videos needed to be resized to fit the exact dimensions of the screen and/or transcoded to a particular format. Most DAP/PMP hybrids like the new iPod and the iAudio X5 still require such things.

To start playing a video, you choose the Movie section in the Main Menu which brings up a file browser. This gives you a list of all the video files and folders containing video files. Use the joystick to select the one you want, click right, and you can choose to Play File, Add to Playlist, or Delete. Hit the joystick right again (on Play) and it will start. Videos usually take 3 to 6 seconds to load. The OSD (on screen display) will show for a few seconds and then disappear.


The OSD displays the file name in the upper left corner, and along the bottom is the video progress bar, the current position in the video (time), the total length of the video, and the current volume level. Below that are the options to Bookmark to Playlist (A), Settings (B), and Hide OSD (C).

Being able to adjust the settings directly from the OSD is very convenient. You can set the Aspect Ratio (auto, 16:9, 4:3), Subtitle (normal, double, off), Subtitle Sync (+/- in 0.5 increments), Subtitle Color (white, red, violet, green, blue, grey or black), Subtitle Tracks, Audio Tracks (track1, track 2, etc), 3D Stereo (on/off), LCD brightness (1-10), and Contrast (low, high). You also have the Screenshot option, which lets you take a still picture of whatever is on the screen, saved as a BMP image file.


(screenshot taken from the A2 while playing Star Wars III)

During playback you can hit any button to bring back the OSD, or you can use the joystick to adjust volume (move it up or down), or you can Fast Forward and Rewind by holding the joystick in the left or right position. The longer you hold it, the faster it will accelerate through the movie. A tap left or right will rewind or advance the video by 10 to 15 seconds.



Video Playback Quality

Arguably, the most important element of a portable media player is the quality of video playback - as viewed on its own screen. The characteristics of the display are a big part of that, but so are the hardware components, the embedded software, and the source material (video files).

Most of the videos I've been playing on the A2 are rips from DVD and HDTV, encoded to MPEG-4 with the Xvid and Divx codecs, at bitrates of 800-1200kbs and resolutions of 520px-640px in width. This is more more than needed to fill the A2's screen (480px width) but the higher resolution is beneficial for playback on other devices (TViX, HTPC, etc) and I only want to encode a rip once because it takes so long.

Using good quality rips, video on the A2 looks just as sharp and plays just and smoothly as you'd expect from a portable DVD player with a similar screen... which is about the highest praise I can give. Picture quality is excellent (colors, contrast, clarity) and you can see all of the details that you normally would on a big TV.

I don't have another PMP to compare it with but I do have the new iPod. For TV shows, the iPod is OK... it works. But for movies, TV shows, and everything else... it's a lot more enjoyable to watch them on a portable media player like the A2. The bigger screen and better resolution make a huge difference. It helps you get more involved in the content and the playback device becomes less of a distraction.


Video Codec Support

The A2 supports MPEG-4 SP (simple profile) and WMV v.9 MP (main profile) type video files. MPEG-4 support includes most Divx and Xvid encoded videos, at any resolution up to DVD-quality, while maintaining a smooth 30fps (frames per second).

• Divx version 3.11: up to 640x480 at 30fps
• Divx version 4 or 5: up to 720x576 at 24fps, 720x480 at 30fps, or 800x450 at 30fps
• WMV version 9: up to 352x288 at 24fps or 352x240 30fps
• MPEG-1 support was just added with firmware 1.46, but it's a little buggy

I have tested videos with resolutions up to 720x400, 2gb in size, and videos with bitrates over 2000kbs, and they all play just fine on the A2.

The only major format that's missing is MPEG-2, which would be useful for playing .VOB files ripped from a DVD. Support for the H.264 codec would also be a welcome addition since it's an emerging standard that offers the same kind of quality as MPEG-2, but at half the bitrate.

While the A2 does support WMV playback, it only works with the one type (WMV9 MP). This excludes WMV versions 7, 8, some types of version 9, and WMV9 videos with an audio track using WMA9 Pro, lossless, or the voice codec. Many of the WMV videos I downloaded from the web would not play on the A2. I'm hoping that support for WMV videos will be improved in the future because it's not very useful as it is.


The Audio in Video

Many MPEG-4 videos use an MP3 audio track, and WMV videos use a WMA audio track. Both work just fine on the A2.

The A2 is one of the only portable media players with support for AC3 audio, which is a big advantage over competing models from Archos and Creative. Movies distributed through the web often have an AC3 audio track, and people commonly to use AC3 as the audio format when ripping movies from DVD using applications like DVDdecrypter and AutoGK. More than half of the Divx and Xvid movies in my own collection use AC3, which means they wouldn't work on other portable media players unless I re-encoded them again. And that's not fun.

The benefit of AC3 is that it supports more than 2 channels, which is the limit of a standard MP3 audio track. Typical AC3 tracks have 5.1 or 6.1 channels for full surround sound when played through a home theater system. However, you don't get the full benefit of this on the A2 since AC3 tracks are down-mixed to two channels. It makes sense for portable playback but unfortunately there's no option to use the surround sound channels for playback on TV. To do so would require a digital output (optical or coaxial) which the A2 does not have. Regardless, I'm happy the A2 supports AC3 even if only the front channels are available. I can use the same high-quality movie rips on my TViX and on the A2.

For stress-testing, I ripped a full length movie from DVD into a 720x400 Xvid video with 5.1 channel AC3 audio. The audio track was almost 500mb by itself! The A2 had no problem playing it, even with the 3D audio effect enabled.

The A2 has one audio enhancement available only for videos, called 3D Enhance. I mentioned this in the JetEffects section and provided an example. I like this feature quite a bit and leave it on most the time. When listening through headphones, movies sound more like they do in home theater system.


Soft Subs

The A2 supports subtitle overlays, useful for watching foreign language films. To use this function, you need a subtitle file that was made specifically for your particular movie. These are kind of tricky to make but there are several free databases on the web where you can get subtitle files for most popular movies, in a variety of languages. The most common file formats used for distribution on the web are .SRT (SubRip) and .SUB (VobSub), but the A2 only supports the .SMI format (SAMI). I was disappointed by this until I found a couple of freeware applications which can convert subtitle formats.

SRT2SMI
Subtitle Workshop

I tested the subtitle feature with a Japanese language movie, Oldboy. I downloaded the corresponding subtitle file in SRT format, converted it to SMI, and loaded it onto the A2. The subtitle file and the video file have to share the same name (but different file extensions) and be in the same folder in order for the A2 to associate them. When you play the video, the subtitles are then displayed across the bottom of the screen. The text is easy to read, even from across the room. Timing was perfect throughout the whole movie - which is a credit to the A2 as well as whoever made the subtitle file.

As of firmware 1.46, the A2 also supports DivX bitmap subtitles and SMIL subtitles. I don't know much about these and haven't tested them.


TV output

Using the included AV cable, the A2 can output audio/video to your TV and stereo system. This is a great feature since the A2 can function as a home video player as well as portable video player. The output format can set to NTSC (American standard) or PAL (European).


After connecting the A2 with a TV, you need to put the hold switch in the AV OUT position. The A2's screen will go blank and the GUI appears on the TV. Start up a movie and you're good to go. The GUI will disappear after a few seconds.

I asked one of the developers, and the video output resolution is 640x480. The A2 can play files with higher resolution, but anything bigger will be scaled down to 640x480.


About half of the time I use the A2, it's for playback on TV when I'm at a friend's house. For the most part, the A2 does nicely as a home video player. You only need to one cable to hook it up, it can run off battery power (one less cord to deal with), and the picture quality is pretty good. The main thing it's missing is a remote control. You don't realize how convenient a remote is until you don't have one...

One way to minimize trips from the couch to the TV/A2 is to create a playlist of videos, if you know what you want to watch in advance.


Video Output Quality, Testing

While the A2 appears to put out a good quality picture to TV, it's hard to tell just how good it is until you compare it with something similar. I tested the A2 against a DVD player and another digital video player running the same movie.

I'll point out that it's not very fair to compare a portable player like A2 with a home DVD player. For starters, they can't play the same source material. Video on a DVD is encoded with MPEG-2, which is not a format that will play on the A2. MPEG-2 videos need to be transcoded into a format that is supported by the A2, like Divx or Xvid. DVD players also have the advantage of better hardware components (they don't have to be particularly small or power efficient) and better output/transmission interfaces like S-video and Component video.

Anyway, I gave it a try with a DVD and a copy of that DVD in the form of 1gb Xvid file that was made with AutoGK. As expected, DVD provides a much better picture in terms of clarity (resolution) and color accuracy, and you don't have the compression artifacts that are occasionally visible (especially in dark scenes) on the Xvid version. This is as much a comparison of codecs as it is hardware.

A better test was to put A2 against another digital video player of mine, a TViX. This is a transportable Divx/Xvid player that is designed specifically for output to TV. Media is stored on an internal hard drive just like the A2. With this, I can play the exact same video files on both devices. I used several movies that were ripped from DVD to Xvid in various resolutions at or less than 640x480. I plugged both players into different AV inputs on the same 32-inch TV, started the same videos, and used the TV remote to flip between the two sources. I used a plain RCA-to-RCA cable to connect the TViX with the TV, comparable to cable used to connect the A2 to the TV. Display options on both players were set at the default values.

Video quality from the TViX was clearly better. The TViX provided a brighter, higher resolution picture with colors that were more balanced and realistic. Video from the A2 was quite dark in comparison, and the resolution wasn't as sharp. Some details that were easy to see in video from the TViX were drowned out in the video from the A2. Movies sound better on the TViX as well, since it can decode all 5.1 channels from an AC3 audio track within a Divx or Xvid file, while the A2 downmixes AC3 audio to 2 channels.

This was to be expected, for some of the same reasons as a home DVD player. The TViX is many times the size of the A2 and contains power-hungry components that wouldn't work in a portable device.

While videophiles will want to stick with a DVD player or something like the TViX for use at home, I think the average guy will find the A2 is perfectly adequate for playing videos on TV. Video quality is equal or better than cable television.


Video Recording

One of the more interesting features of the A2 is its ability to record video. Video can be captured from just about any analog source, including cable TV and DVD players. The A2 encodes the video stream into MPEG-4, the audio stream into MP3, and wraps them into an .ASF type file. Video quality can be set to a resolution of 368x272 at 500kbps or 800kbps, and 640x480 at 800kbps or 1Mbps. Audio quality can be set to 64, 128, or 192kbs. You can record continuously until the file size reaches 1.8gb. The encoding is done in real time, so soon as a recording is done, you can view the results.


To make a recording, first connect the A2 to a video source. The same AV cable used for video output is also used for recording, by plugging the end with the mini-jack into the AV In port. From the main menu of the A2, you select Record, and then Video. In the Video Recording screen you can see the video stream coming in from the source and the OSD (on screen display) shows the current recording settings, recording status (stand by), and a time counter. Press the B option button to change the settings, including line-in volume (1-9), audio channel (mono, stereo), audio quality, and video quality.

To start recording, you hit the C option button. The record icon burls red, the name of the new video file appears, and the recording timer begins to increment. To stop, tap the C button again. You can press the joystick down to play back the video. Easy stuff.

While recording in 368x272, you can watch the video being recording on the A2's screen. When recording at 640x480, the video signal does not appear on the A2's screen. Only the OSD is visible.


Video Recording Test

Method:
1. Cable my DVD player or cable TV receiver to the line-input jack on the A2
2. Start a movie or TV show
3. Start recording with the A2

dvd recordings, set 1 (RAR, 17.4mb)
dvd recordings, set 2 (RAR, 10.8mb)
dvd recordings, set 3 (RAR, 23.8mb)
dvd recordings, set 4 (RAR, 25.5mb)

Content:
• Desperado 368x272 500kbps MPEG4, 128kbit MP3.asf (1)
• Desperado 368x272 800kbps MPEG4, 128kbit MP3.asf (1)
• Desperado 640x480 1Mbps MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (1)
• Desperado 640x480 800kbps MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (1)
• office space 368x272 800kbs MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (2)
• Shaun of the Dead 368x272 500kbs MPEG 4, 128kbs MP3.asf (3)
• Shaun of the Dead 368x272 800kbs MPEG 4, 128kbs MP3.asf (3)
• Shaun of the Dead 640x480 1Mbs MPEG 4, 128kbs MP3.asf (3)
• Shaun of the Dead 640x480 500kbs MPEG 4, 128kbs MP3.asf (3)
• UFC 52 368x272 800kbs MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (4)

tv recordings, set 1 (RAR, 11.4mb)
tv recordings, set 2 (RAR, 16.3mb)

Content:
• The Daily Show 368x272 500kbps MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (1)
• The Daily Show 368x272 800kbps MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (1)
• The Daily Show 640x480 1Mbps MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (1)
• The Daily Show 640x480 800kbps MPEG4, 128kbs MP3.asf (1)
• Law and Order 368x272 500kbs MPEG4, 128kbs audio.asf (2)
• Law and Order 368x272 800kbs MPEG4, 128kbs audio.asf (2)
• Law and Order 640x480 1Mbs MPEG4, 128kbs audio.asf (2)
• Law and Order 640x480 800kbs MPEG4, 128kbs audio.asf (2)

You'll notice on the TV recordings there is a line of noise at the very top. I don't know what was causing that but I tried from two separate cable TV receivers and recordings from both had the same issue. It was not visible on the TV.

Results:
Overall, I was disappointed with the video recording quality. At 640x480, the framerate at which it records is only about 15fps, which is choppy and distracting. Colors are washed out and compression artifacts are all over the place. At 368x272, framerate is closer to 30fps and colors are a little better but compression artifacts are still noticeable. The best results I could manage were made at 368x272 resolution, 800kbps video, and 128kbps audio. This gives you something like a tape recording made on a VCR. For playback on the A2, it looks decent enough.

I don't know if the quality can be improved through firmware enhancement or if this is simply a limitation of the hardware, but as it is, video recordings are mediocre at best. I wouldn't recommend the A2 for this purpose.

Compare a video from the A2 with this one, made with an Archos AV500, from a cable television show. Thanks to Jeff of MisticRiver.net for providing the sample.

Archos AV500, TV Recording (bitrate: 2.5Mbs) (21.5mb)

The AV500 is clearly the more capable device for video recording.

To be fair, I will say that having some form of video recording is certainly preferable to having none - like the Creative Zen Vision. You may not want to archive your DVDs with the A2 but it could still be useful for grabbing a TV show every now and then.

Update for firmware 1.46:
tv recordings, set 5 (RAR, 23.4mb)

Content:
• arresteddevelopment_368x272_800kbs_fw1.46.asf
• arresteddevelopment_640x480_800kbs_fw1.46.asf

Not much difference.


USB Host

Like the iAudio X5, the A2 features USB Host capability, aka USB on-the-go (USB OTG). With this, you can connect the A2 with other USB mass storage devices, and transfer files between them. For instance, you could connect with a USB Thumb-drive, or a digital camera, and download the files to the hard drive of the A2.

The A2 has a mini-USB port specifically for USB Host. One of the accessories you get with the A2 is a short interconnect that has a mini-USB plug on one end and a full-size USB port (female) on the other. You plug the small end of the interconnect into the USB Host port on the A2, and in the other end, you insert a storage device or another cable that goes to that device. For a USB Thumb-drive, the interconnect cable all you need. For most other types of devices, you need an intermediate USB cable. For instance, my camera has a mini-USB port, so I need a standard USB cable (with a mini-USB plug on one end and full-size USB plug on the other) to connect the camera with the dongle. It's easier than it sounds.

To start, you connect a storage device to the A2 and turn it on (if applicable). Then go into the Browser section from the Main Menu and hit the C option button to Enable USB Host. The A2 will attempt to communicate with the other device. If successful, a list of files and folders on the storage device will appear on the right hand side of the file browser. You can select any file, hit right on the joystick, and the option Copy to Host will appear. You can copy entire folders using the A option button, which is listed as Function at the bottom of the screen. If you have a particular place where you want to store the files on the A2's hard drive, then before copying, you can toggle back to the left hand side of the screen with the B option button and select a folder of your choice. Hit the B button again to toggle back to the file list on the connected device and copy away. When done, use the C option button to break the connection.

I plan to make use of this at the next CES convention as a backup device, because we can't afford to lose a day's worth of pictures if something unexpected were to happen, like if the memory card in my camera failed. With the A2, making backups from a camera is fairly quick and easy, and it's a lot less to carry around than a laptop PC. I think photographers and other types of mobile professionals will appreciate this function.

Testing:
The USB Host feature on the iAudio X5 is well developed, more so than any other DAP. It supports over 200 devices that have been successfully tested by members of iAudiophile.net. It even supports a special protocol (PTP) used by Canon brand cameras. See this thread for a list. I was hoping that the A2 would be equally capable.

Unfortunately, it's not. Not yet, anyway. I was able to connect with a Lexar USB key and transfer some files to the A2, so I know the feature works... but my Olympus D40 camera, which works fine with the X5, will not successfully mount with the A2. I've tried many times but eventually it times out and says Connection Failed. It looks like I'll be using the X5 for backups at CES...

Also, with the X5, you can copy files and folders bidirectionally with a connected device. On the A2, you can only copy files one direction - to the A2. You can't copy files or folders from the A2 to the connected device. That limits your ability to share music and movies with another player.

The current list of tested devices can be found here but the A2 is so new that we don't have a lot of data yet. I expect this feature will improve as the firmware is further developed, as was the case with the X5.


Radio

The A2 features an FM radio receiver with 25 station presets. You can tune in stations manually by dialing through the radio spectrum in .1MHz increments, or you can have it auto-scan for stations in your area and it will save the 25 best (strongest) signals. You can delete any presets that you don't want and create new ones which appear at the bottom of the list. You can't re-arrange the presets, however.

Reception is fairly good. Not the best I've ever heard, but respectable. I was able to tune in all of the stations in my area.


You can play the radio through the built-in speakers as well as your headphones. While listening, you can hit the Back button and browse around the GUI. You can even look at pictures in the photo section while listening to the radio.

On the Radio Play screen, it displays the current preset number, radio frequency, a region indicator, and a 5 x 5 grid of presets. Options along the bottom of the screen include (A) Delete Preset, (B) Settings, and (C) Start Record. Hit the B option button to change settings: Auto Scan, Record Channel (mono/stereo), Record Bitrate (64, 128, or 192kbs), Region (America, China, Europe, Japan, Korea, Russia), Stereo (stereo/mono), and Clear Preset. There is no option to apply EQ effects to the radio.

You dial through the presets by moving the joystick left or right, but you can't move up or down in the grid. Not a big deal, but it would be more intuitive if you could. Also, it would be nice if you could name the radio stations as you can on some of Creative's players. Stations are identified only by frequency as it is.

If you want to record from the radio, you just need hit the C option button and recording will begin in about 1 second. Press the C button again to stop recording.



Radio Recording Test

Here are some examples of various radio stations in my area, captured using the radio recording feature. These were made from inside my suburban home. Most stations are transmitting from the city, 5-10 miles away. As with any radio tuner, YMMV.

radio recordings (RAR, 6.4mb)

Content:
• radio_station1_128kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station1_64kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station2_128kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station2_64kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station3_128kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station3_64kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station4_128kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station4_64kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station5_128kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station5_64kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station6_128kbs_MP3.mp3
• radio_station7_128kbs_MP3.mp3

Results:
The recordings at 64kbs are too rough for music, but at 128kbs they sound pretty good. Quality is close to that of the broadcast. 64kbs is more suitable for talk radio.


Picture Display

Besides playing music and movies, the A2 is useful as a digital photo album. Pictures look sharp and detailed.

The A2 supports JPG, BMP, and PNG image formats in their native resolution. Unlike the iPod, pictures do not need to be processed on a PC before they can be viewed. The A2 can load JPEGs of up to 6.5mb in size, which includes high-resolution pictures from an 8 megapixel camera. Images are automatically scaled for a best-fit, full screen display.


The picture display feature is one of the options in the Main Menu - Photo - which leads to a file browser that displays only image files and folders that contain image files. When a file is selected, a thumbnail of the image is displayed on the right side of the screen along with some details about that image file. The thumbnail can take 1-3 seconds to generate depending on the size of the file. Likewise, when you click the joystick to view an image, it can take 1-3 seconds to load depending on the size of the file.

Images are displayed against a black background. Since most photos are made in 4:3 format, and the A2 has a 16:9 widescreen, you may see black bars to the right and left of the image. From here you can click the joystick to zoom in, or hit left or right on the joystick to load the previous or next image.

When viewing an image, press the joystick once to zoom, once again to zoom in closer, and third tap on the joystick cycles you back to the full screen (normal) display. These two levels of zoom are each equivalent to about 4x magnification. Fully zoomed, the 4-inch screen is like a window that looks onto a 6-7 inch wide version of the image. The window's position within that image can be moved (panned) in any direction with the joystick. Each movement is like taking a 10-15% step across the image. On the highest level zoom, with a 1600x1200 image, I counted 7 steps horizontal and 9 vertical.


The A2 has a basic slide-show function as well. In the file browser, when you select an image and hit right on the joystick, options in the context menu include Play File, Slideshow, Add to Playlist, Delete, or Set Wallpaper. Choosing slideshow will start displaying all of your images, one by one, starting from the file you selected. Each picture is displayed for 5 seconds before loading the next. There are no image transition effects and the display duration (5 seconds) is not adjustable. When you're done, click any button to stop the slideshow.

In the file browser, you can add images to the photo playlist, and run a slideshow using only those images in the playlist.

The radio works while in slideshow mode but not the digital audio player. Kind of a bummer, but not something I would use very often anyway.

Thoughts:
While the A2 offers a powerful image viewer, it's not as fast or convenient as the photo album feature on the Apple iPod. With the iPod, you select images from a preview screen that has 30 thumbnails per page. Both the preview screens and the images you select are displayed almost instantly. You can run through images as fast as you can run your thumb over its wheel controller. For casually showing your pictures to friends and family, this is hard to beat.


The drawback is that you cannot zoom in on pictures, and pictures have to be loaded through iTunes - which is why they display so fast on the iPod. iTunes optimizes images by resizing them to the exact dimensions of the iPod's screen, making smaller file sizes, and by creating a cache of thumbnails which is stored on the iPod. Basically, iTunes does all of the hard work so the iPod doesn't have to.


The A2 does not rely on any PC application so it has to do all that work on its own, using your full-size images. In turn, it's much slower. Still, there should be some way to improve performance. Maybe the A2 could make its own cache of reduced-size images and thumbnails. Save them to a local system file or whatever and update as needed. As it is, every time you select a different image in the file browser it has to reload the image and make a thumbnail from scratch.

The iPod trumps the A2 for having a more versatile slideshow feature as well. You can set the display duration, it has some creative image transition effects (various wipes, page turns, 3D photo cube, etc), and most importantly - you can play digital audio while watching the slideshow.


Text Display

The A2 has a text file reader, good for storing notes or contact information, reading ebooks, or whatever. The widescreen display provides a generous amount of space for text. A plain DOS-like system font is used which is easy to read and sized about right.


The text display feature is available from the Main Menu, which brings up a file browser that shows only text files and those folders that contain text files. After selecting a text file, you can click on the joystick to play it or press the joystick left which gives you the option to Play File, Add to Playlist, or Delete.

After launching a text file, the text is displayed across the full length of the screen. Lines of text that are too long for one line are wrapped to the next line, ending at an embedded carriage return. The default background is white and the text is black, and there are light guidelines between each line of text. Similar to notebook paper. You can hit up or down on the joystick to move up or down a line, or hit right or left to move up or down a full page. In the upper right hand corner of the screen, the current position you are at within the text file is displayed as a percentage of the whole.

You can hit the B option button to bring up the settings, where you can choose Colors, Text Encoding (EUC-KR, EUC-JP, GB2312, Big5, ISO-8859-1, UTF-8), and LCD Brightness. The Colors setting lets you choose from various color schemes for the background and text.

It works well enough as a basic text reader, but I'd like to have a variable-speed autoscroll function for use with ebooks so I don't have to manually flip through all the pages. A selection of fonts and font sizes would be helpful, including at least one monospace type font. Some of my files were formatted in Windows Notepad, which uses a monospace font, and the formatting is messed up when viewed on the A2. An option to turn off the word-wrapping would also be helpful, along with the ability to scroll the window from side to side. A number of ebooks were formatted with longer lines in mind and the automatic line-wrapping makes them hard to read when viewed on the A2.


Voice Recording

The A2 features a built-in microphone on the top edge of the player. You can use this to record voice notes, lectures, meetings, etc. Recordings are saved in MP3 format and the quality level is selectable at 64kbs, 128kbs, or 192kbs. You can set the recording volume from 1 to 9, with 9 being the most sensitive. The only other option is AGC (automatic gain control) which is supposed to help normalize the recording volume.


One thing I miss from the iAudio X5 is the dedicated recording button, which makes it quick and easy to start a voice recording. With the A2, you have to go from the Main Menu to the Recording Menu to the Microphone Recording screen before you can start a recording. Not a problem, but it's less convenient this way. I would like to see an option in the Settings menu to program the A, B, or C button as a (dedicated) start/stop recording switch.

The microphone recorder would benefit from input level meters just as the line-in recorder would, so you can tell if the recording level needs adjustment.


Microphone Recording Test

Method:
1. TV on in my living room
2. Recorded from halfway across the room

radio recordings (RAR, 1.7mb)

Content:
• mic recording, TV room, CNN, 128kbs MP3.mp3
• mic recording, TV room, CNN, 64kbs MP3.mp3
• mic recording, TV room, king of the hill, 128kbs MP3.mp3
• mic recording, TV room, king of the hill, 64kbs MP3.mp3

Results:
The built-in mic works well enough for typical voice recording needs at 64kbs. I tried the AGC feature but didn't hear much of a difference.


Alarm & Scheduling System

The alarm feature is more than a just simple alarm to wake you up, its a versatile scheduling system for most of the A2's primary functions. The Alarm setup is available in the Settings menu, under System.


• Alarm mode: Off, Movie Player, Music Player, FM radio, Record FM radio, Recode Line-in Video, Recode Line-in Audio, Record from Microphone.
• Wakeup time: any hour and minute in a 24-hour period.
• Duration: 10 min, 20 min, 30 min, 50 min, 1 hour, 2 hour, 3 hour, or Continuous.
• Recurring mode: Once, Daily, Weekdays.

At the appointed time, the A2 will wake itself up (from being powered off) and execute the assigned action. If you have it set for Movie or Music Player, the A2 will play the last movie or song you were listening to, at the same volume setting you last used. If you choose radio or radio recording, you can also select which radio station preset will play. If you choose any of the recording options, they will be made with the same quality settings that were last used.

I can imagine some interesting uses for this feature. You can use it like a VCR, to record a TV show or radio program at a specific time, or you could use it as a stealth audio recorder to catch what's going on when you're away. Or, put on your headphones when you go bed and have it wake you up in the morning with a fresh serving of Slayer.

I only wish you could set it for specific dates, like on a calendar.


The Competition

As one of the latest generation of portable media players, the A2 doesn't have a lot of competition yet. Not in the North American marketplace. There are more players like it in Korea (i-station v43, Viliv P1, Maxian T600, etc) but they are hard to get in the West so I'm not including those.

Criteria:
20gb+ hard drive, 3.5-inch or larger color screen, primarily designed for video, most MPEG-4 videos do not need resizing or conversion, available through US webshops.

Competitors:
Archos AV500 (pictured left)
Creative Zen Vision (pictured right)


See this comparison chart of the A2, AV500, and Zen Vision - provided by Cowon.

Advantages that the A2 holds over the competition:
• OGG codec support
• JetEffects (BBE) sound effects
• 5-band EQ (Vision has this, but not the AV500 - treble and bass control only)
• Audio recording to MP3
• Supports AC3 (5.1 channel) audio tracks in videos
• FM radio, radio recording
• Supports high resolution video playback up to 800x450
• USB Host (AV500 also has this, Vision does not)
• Nearly double the playback time for video
• 20-40% longer playtime for audio
• Support for PNG image display
• Ability to zoom in and pan around inside of images (supported on AV500 but not the Vision)
• Supports images up to 6.5mb in size
• Text file reader (AV500 has this, the Vision does not)
• Ability to take screenshots during video playback
• Mass Storage Compliant (AV500 is, but the Vision is MTP)

While the Vision has a 4:3 aspect display, the resolution is 640x480, so it can display widescreen movies in 16:9 ratio at a higher resolution than possible on the A2 or AV500, both of which have a 480x272 pixel display.

Advantages of the competition holds over the A2:
• More storage for the same money (Vision, 30gb)
• Bigger top-end capacity (AV500, 100gb)
• Supports WMA DRM (AV500, Vision)
• Supports WMV DRM (AV500, Vision)
• Supports MPEG-2 and Motion JPEG (Vision)
• Higher-resolution screen (Vision, 640x480)
• Removable battery (AV500, Vision)
• Video record to AVI format, at higher bitrates (AV500)
• CF memory card slot (Vision)
• Audio recording to ADPCM (uncompressed) (AV500)
• Album art display (AV500)
• Wireless remote (AV500, Vision)
• Dock (AV500, Vision)
• Ability to rotate pictures (AV500)
• Select images by thumbnail preview page (AV500, Vision)
• id3-tag based music sorting (AV500, Vision)

There may be other little things but this is what I can gather. I do not have an AV500 or Vision for direct comparison.


Value

Best prices I can find on the web as of early December, 2005:

Cowon A2, 20gb: $ 370 (newegg.com)
Cowon A2, 30gb: $ 410 (newegg.com)
Zen Vision, 30gb: $ 375 (newegg.com)
Archos AV500, 30gb: $ 430 (compuplus.com)

In my opinion, the 20gb version of the A2 represents the best deal, taking into account all of its features and putting more value on battery life than storage capacity and video recording. I would rate the AV500 as my next best choice even though it is the most expensive of the bunch, since you get high quality video recording and it includes both a remote control and dock. The Zen Vision is a decent player but seems rather mediocre compared to the other two, especially when taking into account reports of its screen which is supposed to have a very narrow angle of view.


Conclusion

All things considered, I believe the A2 is the best portable video player available at this time. It has some unique features that give it an edge over its two main competitors, the Archos AV500 and Creative's Zen Vision. The A2 has double the battery life (8+ hours video playback), support for AC3 audio tracks in movies, and a 3D audio enhancement effect which livens up the experience.


Most importantly, videos look great on its sweet widescreen display. The picture is sharp and playback is smooth. I like the convenience of being able to play most any Divx or Xvid type video (MPEG-4) without the hassle of resizing or format conversion. It plays WMV type videos as well, but only one form of WMV9 (main profile), and most of the ones I downloaded from the web would not work. I'd like to see better compatibility with WMVs, along with support for MPEG-2 and h.264 at some point.

As a digital audio player, the A2 offers excellent sound quality, some interesting sound enhancement effects (BBE JetEffects), and a 5-band EQ for fine-tuning. It's one of the only PMPs to support the OGG codec, but it's missing support for WMA DRM, which you need in order to play tracks from online music stores and music subscriptions services - a critical omission these days for any player other than the Apple iPod. Also missing is the kind of categorical music organizer (sort by Artist, Album, Track) that is standard on most audio players.

As a portable video recorder, the A2 is a disappointment. The mediocre quality of recordings limits its usefulness. The Archos AV500 offers superior video quality and a more flexible scheduling system.

As a home video player, the quality of video on TV is adequate but not up to par with home theater components (which is understandable). It's not as convenient either, since there's no dock or wireless remote like you have with the AV500 and Zen Vision. For me, the AV output feature is most useful for watching movies on TV when I bring it along to a friend's house. As long as it's charged, the A2 will last for several movies and all you need for setup is the one AV cable.

To sum it all up: for watching videos on-the-go, the primary function of a portable media player, Cowon's A2 scores a win over the Archos AV500 and the Creative Zen Vision. It offers a good value and great performance. Recommended.


Note: the A2's firmware is still in development and it's likely that we'll see some improvements as time goes on. I had to revise this review FOUR times during the course of writing it (6 weeks) in order to keep up with all of the fixes and features added in the latest firmware releases.


Summary

Hardware... 9.5/10
+ Bright, 4-inch widescreen display
+ Professional build quality, very solid
+ Nice-looking design
- No dock connector or IR receiver

OS/GUI... 8.5/10
+ Looks polished
+ Logical organization
+ Easy to use
- A bit slow to respond at times
- Rare glitches

As a portable video player... 9.5/10
+ Videos look sharp, play smoothly
+ Plays most any Divx and Xvid type video
+ Supports AC3 audio and soft subs (subtitle files)
+ Battery lasts for 8+ hours of video playback
+ Multiple bookmarks, video playlists
- Limited WMV compatibility
- Doesn't support MPEG-2

As a video player for the home... 7/10
+ Good quality TV output
+ Setup is simple: one cable, one switch
- No dock or remote control
- Doesn't support 5.1 channel sound
- Video quality not up to par with home-based digital video players (which is understandable)

As a voice recorder... 5/10
+ Voice recordings sound decent considering the small, mono-channel mic
+ Mic can pickup sounds from across the room
- Too big to carry around just for this purpose
- Doesn't have a dedicated record button
- No input level meters during recording

As a video recorder... 6/10
+ Video quality is fair at the lower resolution
+ Easy to make recordings
+ Recordings can be scheduled using the Alarm
- Video quality is poor at highest resolution

As a portable audio player... 7.5/10
+ Excellent sound quality
+ Supports the OGG codec
+ Has JetEffects sound enhancers and a 5-band EQ
+ Pretty visualization during playback
- Does not support id3-tag based music organization
- Does not support WMA DRM/DRM10, not compatible with online music stores and subscription services
- Does not support album art during playback
- Too big to use primarily as a portable audio player (like all PMPs)

As a portable radio... 9/10
+ Provides 25 presets, will auto-scan to find the best signals
+ Good reception
+ Record from radio up to 192kbs MP3
+ Works with built-in speakers
- EQ effects do not work with the radio

As a portable audio recorder... 6.5/10
+ Recording quality is fair
+ Records to MP3, up to 192kbs
- No input level meters
- No option for uncompressed recording or high-bitrate MP3 encoding (256kbs or 320kbs)
- Not up to par with encoding audio on a PC (which is understandable)

As a portable backup and storage device... 7.5/10
+ Mass storage compliant (works with any OS, no software/drivers required)
+ USB Host
- USB Host feature isn't compatible with some cameras, including mine
- With USB Host, can only copy files onto the A2, not from the A2 to a connected device

As a digital photo album and image viewer... 7/10
+ Supports JPEG, BMP and PNG type images
+ Can display images up to 6.5mb in size
+ 2 levels of zoom, ability to pan around inside zoomed images
+ Displays EXIF image metadata
- No preview page of thumbnails
- Images and thumbnails can be slow to load
- Unable to play digital music while viewing images

As a text/ebook reader... 8/10
+ Big pages, text is easy to read
- No autoscroll function


A2 Resources

Cowon A2 Review, by Martin (eXity) at iAudiophile.net
Cowon A2 review, by PMPmaniac.com
More Cowon A2 reviews, compiled by MCSmarties
Official A2 webpage
Newest A2 firmware
History of firmware releases
A2 forum at iAudiophile.net


Requested Improvements

• Support for WMA DRM and WMA10 DRM
• Support for FLAC audio
• Support for MPEG-2 video (.VOB) and the H.264 codec
• iD3 tag based music sorting
• Improved high-bitrate video recording quality (may not be possible due to hardware limitations)
• For browsing images, a preview page of thumbnails (and thumbnail caching for faster operation)
• Ability to listen to music while viewing pictures
• Album art display during music playback
• Support for subtitle formats like SRT and SUB
• Autoscrolling text in the text viewer
• Gapless MP3 playback
• More than 1 custom EQ (User 1, User 2, etc)
• Station presets and custom settings are preserved after a firmware upgrade (currently, they are not)
• Ability to customize the function of a long-press made to the A, B, or C buttons as you can with the buttons on the iAudio X5
• Some kind of marker for items in a playlist that have been bookmarked


Specs

Size: 133 x 79 x 22mm
Weight: 298g (both 20gb & 30gb models)
Display: 4 inch, 480 x 272px resolution, 16M color TFT
Video Output: NTSC & PAL
Headphone output: 32mW/channel (into 16ohm load/earphones)
SNR: 95dB

Built-in stereo micro-speakers (2)
Built-in microphone
FM radio tuner: 76 - 108 MHz in .1 MHz steppings, 25 custom presets, auto-scanning
Built-in battery, Lithium polymer, 4300mAh capacity
DC power input: 5.0V, 2A
Charge from USB (LCD switch must be set to HOLD)
Storage: Hard disk, 1.8 inch, 20gb or 30gb capacity, FAT32 file system
Transfer Interface: USB 2.0 high speed, USB Host 2.0 full speed

Video formats supported: AVI, ASF, WMV, MPEG-1
Video codecs supported: Divx 3/4/5, Xvid, MPEG-4 Simple Profile, WMV 9 MP-Low Level (352x288)
Max. video playback resolution: 720 x 586px, 30 fps
Max. video output to TV: 640x480 (NTSC, 30 FPS), 640x576 (PAL, 25 FPS)
Audio codecs supported for video playback: MP3, AC3 6.1 (down-mixed to stereo), WMA
Max. audio resolution for video playback: 48 kHz, 448 Kbps
Subtitles format: SMI, DivX bitmap subtitle, SMIL
Max. video playback time (continuous): 10 hours (MPEG4 SP, 480x272px, 24 fps, Volume 20, headphone output)

Audio codecs supported: MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV
iD3 tag support: iD3 v.1, iD3 v.2
Lyrics support: LDB
EQ: 5-band custom EQ, 7 presets
Sound effects: BBE, Mach3Bass, MP3 Enhance, 3D surround (doesn't work with OGG)
Max. audio playback time: 18 hours continuous (MP3, 128 Kbps, Volume 20, headphone output, LCD off)

Image formats support: JPG, BMP, PNG
Max. image resolution support: JPG - 4M px, PNG - 3M px, BMP - 4M px (24 bit), 6M px (16 bit), 12M pix (8 bit)
Image zoom: 2 steppings, 4x magnification per stepping

Text formats supported: TXT, including EUC-KR (Korean), EUC-JP (Japanese), GB2312 (Simplified Chinese), Big5 (Traditional Chinese), ISO-8859-1 (Latin), UTF-8
Max. text file size: Unlimited

Video recording format: ASF
Video recording codec: MPEG-4
Video recording resolution: 640 x 480px - 1 Mbps, 640 x 480px - 800 Kbps, 368 x 272 px - 800 Kbps, 368 x 272 px - 500 Kbps
Audio recording codec for video: MP3
Audio recording codec for line-in, microphone, and radio: MP3
Audio recording resolution: 64 Kbps, 128 Kbps, or 192 Kbps

OS: Linux 2.6
CPU: TI DM320
Audio DAC: Wolfson


End

Austin Vaughan
Editor and Administrator, DAPreview.net and iAudiophile.net
Copyright (c) December, 2005
__________________
[SIZE=-1][/SIZE][SIZE=-1]References: [URL="http://heatware.com/eval.php?id=1892"]heatware[/URL] | [URL="http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f12/austonia-19728/"]head-fi.org[/URL] | [URL="http://feedback.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewFeedback2&userid=austonia1&ftab=AllFeedback"]eBay[/URL][/SIZE][SIZE=-1]
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Last edited by austinv; 08-09-2008 at 22:42..
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