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Old 12-06-2006, 13:00   #1
Martinp
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Default Cowon iAudio F2 Review

Cowon iAudio F2 Review
for iAudiophile.net by Martin Plappert


Introduction

The iAudio F2 takes a new design approach in comparison to the failed iAudio F1. But Cowon have learned their lesson from mistakes they made. The F2 looks a lot more sophisticated and better designed than its predecessor.

For those of you not familiar with Cowon – they have been in the digital audio player (DAP) business for a long time now. They launched their first player long before Apple released the iPod. Over the years they have managed to build a reputation of designing high quality players with great sound quality. Their most successful model is probably the Cowon iAudio X5 – many people are still waiting for an upgraded version of this model. The Cowon A2 – a portable media player (PMP) is also one of their very successful models.


The F2 is another of Cowon’s flash players - not offering a huge amount of innovations in comparison to previous models. It’s more of a gradual evolution.

We’re going to take a detailed look at the player, testing all the numerous features this player has to offer.


Specifications

Here are some of the specifications of the iAudio F2 grabbed off Cowon’s website:

• MP3, OGG, WMA, ASF, FLAC, WAV, Movie Playback, FM Radio Receiver and Recording, Voice Recording, Line-In Recording
• TXT (Text), JPEG (Image) File Viewer (Image Enlargement, Background Screen Designation)
• Built-in Flash Memory with 1GB, 2GB & 4GB with USB 2.0
• 260,000 Colours 1.3 inch TFT-LCD, Resolution 128x160
• Long Playback Time : Up to 22 hours playback
• Size 34.8 x 72.9 x 16.7mm (W X H X D)
• Weight 39g (Includes Lithium Polymer battery)

Please note, that the F2 does not support USB-OTG. I don’t find this a terrible loss, but if you are looking for a device with a USB-Host you might want to consider a different player.


Package Accessories

The box the F2 comes in is nice and small. It has a nice and simple design, and you can see that you are buying a quality product. There isn’t a huge amount of accessories in the box, but no less than other manufacturers are selling with their products nowadays.


• CD with Software and User Manual in PDF form
• Quick Users guide in many different languages
• USB cable
• Mini USB plug that goes on your key ring
• iAudio headphones
• Line-In cable

The headphones are of reasonable quality, but as always I recommend getting some good headphones to go with this player to be able to really appreciate this player’s sound quality. The headphones are comfortable though, and don’t fall out of your ears all the time (like the headphones included with previous iAudios).

There is not much to say about the other accessories. Mainly just cables – not much to say there, except for the fact that they work. What I do like though, is the mini-USB plug that you can hang onto your key ring. It’s very practical and allows you to use the F2 anywhere without having to “lug” around a cable.



Data Transfer & Music Management

Transferring sata to the iAudio F2 is very easy and requires no extra software, seeing that the player is UMS Compatible. This also means, that the F2 works with any modern Operating System (Windows, Linux, Mac OS X) – it basically acts like an external hard drive and you can put any kind of file on it that you want to. I would also like to note, that this player uses a standard USB port. This port is also found on Canon cameras and many other electronic devices. This reduces the amount of cables you need to take with you, when you go travelling.

The iAudio F2 is also Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) compatible, which means that you can transfer songs with DRM to the player and also sync it with Windows Media Player. I talk a little more about this later on in the review under “Audio Playback”.


Loading data onto the player is done via USB. Although the F2 is a USB 2.0 device it only uses the High-Speed standard and isn’t a “Full Speed device”. It’s still pretty fast though.


Cowon’s new players now all have the ability of id3 tag browsing, but file/folder browsing is still an option if you prefer that. This is one of the great new features the iAudio F2 offers, and it is quite handy too, if you don’t have your music sorted very well, but your id3 tags are in order.

There are still a few minor bugs with the id3 databasing though. Some of the artists appear three times, although my tags are in order. Also, the F2 can’t real ogg tags … Cowon really needs to fix this in a firmware upgrade. Also, it currently isn’t possible to view text files in Tag browsing mode. This just doesn’t make sense if you ask me.

So although id3 tag browsing is a great addition, Cowon haven’t sorted it out yet completely.


Design and Build Quality

The unit has a nice slim black design with a slight angle on the casing without trying to look too cool. It just is. A lot of people’s first comment when they saw the F2 was “Is that your new phone.?” Well, it does look a little like the LG Chocolate and that phone is pretty hot.

The keypad has a nice red background illumination; the back of the player has a lovely “swing” in it. The USB port sits centrally at the bottom of the player without obstructing anything at all. I could go on for a long while, but I think it will suffice to say that Cowon really put a lot of thought into this player while designing it.


The Build quality is also very good. The player can stand a whole load of stress. I have sat on it quite a few times, dropped it and it still works just fine. The only thing I am not so impressed with is the fact, that the screen already has minor scratches. I haven’t really abused the player - I might have had in my pocket at one point in time with my keys but my Sony Ericsson mobile phone doesn’t mind this at all! The screen looks nearly as good as it did on the first day – this is not the case with the F2. I hope that Cowon uses a more durable screen surface on their next player.


Screen, GUI & OS

The screen on the iAudio F2 is an LCD with a resolution of 128x160 pixels. The brightness is high, and it is also possible to read when sunlight is shining directly onto the display. The picture quality is also nice, and the GUI is also very pretty.

Recently many mobile phones and other DAPs such as the Samsung K5 have started to use animated graphical user interfaces (GUIs). My Sony Ericsson W550i has such an animated interface, and although it’s just a gimmick, it makes the whole package feel more “rounded off” and thoroughly thought out.


The Operating of the system of the F2 is very stable – I haven’t managed to crash the player, except for with the latest firmware version; the recording mode is broken in 1.11 beta.

The player starts very quickly: In about 1.5 seconds it will power up and be ready to your music. So all in all there are no complaints in this section at all.


Navigation & Controls

The F2 uses a 9 button keypad as its control system. Cowon dubbed this “Dynamic Matrix”, but the term doesn’t really do much for me. In theory the control system is pretty good, but it is admittedly missing dedicated volume controls. In practice they keys are often too small to press, especially if you happen to have big hands.

In fact this is probably the biggest shortcoming of the iAudio F2 – the keys are just too small. Cowon really needs to remember, that there are a lot of people out there with big hands.


Over time I did manage to get used to the control system, but it does have a learning curve. I believe that a control system should be adapted to the user, and not the other way round.

There is also an “blind controls test” devised by Michael from epiZENter. Basically try and control the player while it is in your pocket. This works okay on the F2 – I figured it out after a while, but due to fact that the keys are small, I sometimes hit the wrong button.

There is a hold button on this player, but I have never actually used it, seeing that the controls hardly ever misfire, especially in the Noreve case I have it in.


Audio Playback & Sound Quality

The audio quality on the iAudio F2, as always on Cowon players, is top notch. The power output is specified at 23 + 23 mW @ 16 Ohm. This player has enough power to drive pretty well any “normal” set of headphones at stupidly high volumes.

While listening to music I couldn’t detect any distortions, even at high volumes. The sound outputted by the device is uncoloured and a pleasure to listen to.


Of course there is always the BBE enhancement system coupled with a customizable 5 band equalizer, if you are not happy with what you hear.

I haven’t been able to do any huge audio quality test though, seeing that my Sennheiser PX200 are a bit stuffed at the moment. I am getting some Grado SR80 for Xmas though, and my future reviews will have longer sound quality sections.

I should also take a second to mention that the F2 played nearly all the files I threw at it without a hesitation. That’s including all kinds of mp3, wma, ogg and flac files. I was not able to test any subscription based services and did not do much testing of the device in MTP mode, seeing that I am not signed up to a service like Napster or Yahoo Unlimited. If you want to use your player with one of these services, I recommend that you check our forums. But I think there is nothing to be worried about, seeing that the F2 is an officially certified “Plays for Sure” device by Microsoft.

Uh, gapless: no. That’s the easy answer. But it is a very small gap though, about a 10th of a second.


Playlisting & Bookmarking

The playlisting system on the iAudio F2 is still very simple and has not really evolved since the iAudio 4 was released a few years ago. I have been asking Cowon to add something like the “Rio DJ” feature on the Rio Karma, or even just the ability to save your dynamic playlists. Alas, they haven’t yet found time to implement a system like this yet.

So we are still stuck with the standard dynamic playlist, to which one can add songs and remove them, but it isn’t possible to change the order of them, or to save the list.


The iAudio M3 and X5 are able to read *.m3u files, but the iAudio F2 doesn’t seem to recognize this format.

Bookmarking is a feature that was introduced way back with the iAudio M3, and made listeners of audio books very happy. The bookmarking feature allows you to save your progress in an audio file, so you can go and listen to something else and then go back to your audio book without having to do a whole load of scanning and searching.


Additional Features

The F2 offers a whole load of features that other players such as the iPod Nano do not. This makes the player a more attractive choice for people looking for more fully featured device.


Video Playback

Let’s start off with video playback. I consider this feature to more of a gimmick to be honest with you, seeing that the screen has a size of 1.3 inches. It’s a nice thing to have though, and all your mates will gasp in awe when you whip out your tiny player and start watching music videos.


Sadly the videos only play at 15 frames per second (so they look slightly jerky) and they have to be converted first using jetAudio VX. This isn’t really problem though, seeing that conversion is fast, and as simple as clicking the mouse a couple of times. I converted a movie the length of 1:40 hours on my Dual Core Asus Laptop in just under 15 minutes. I would have expected the file size to be a little smaller though. The original file with a resolution of 576x320 and a file size of 700 MB is now still a whopping 400 MB even though the resolution is 160x128 @ 15fps.


Picture Viewing

Picture Viewing is another feature this player offers, and again it’s not super duper useful, seeing that your mobile phone will probably do a better job than the F2. It is possible to look at photos though while simultaneously listening to music.

The iAudio F2 has no problems handling large images (5 Megapixels) – they just take a long time to load.


The best part of the image viewer is probably the ability to set your own background picture though. This means that you can customize your player, and this is always a nice thing. The best thing to do if you really want to look at a load of pics on your F2 is to manually downscale them. It would be nice if jetAudio could take care of this though, instead of the user having to do this.


Text Viewing

Well, the iAudio F2 also has a text viewer, with which you can look at text files that have no formatting included. This is not terribly useful either, but sometimes I quickly write up some short notes on the PC and then review them on the player shortly.


I guess this could also be used to cheat in class if you really wanted to … I don’t recommend this though, seeing that you might get your player confiscated.

Text viewing still has an old issue - words get broken up in the middle. You can see what I mean if you look at the above picture. You can also bookmark certain positions in a txt document and jump through it really easily, if you do happen to be reading a long document.


FM Radio

FM Radio is undoubtedly one of the more useful additional features that the iAudio F2 has on offer. If you should happen to get bored of your tunes at any time, or just want to catch a quick news update, then you can easily switch to the integrated tuner. The FM Radio reception on the iAudio F2 is really good, and you have the ability of being able to save a bundle of presets.



Recordings

As usual the iAudio F2 offers a whole bundle on recording options. I will just outline the formats the iAudio F2 is able to record in here shortly, because they are the same for all recording modes. The recording format is wma, and you can select bitrates of 64kbps, 80kbps, 96 kbps and 128 kbps.

This is a bit of a shame really, especially for people on Linux and MacOS, because wma isn’t really a “standard”. Also the maximum bitrate of 128kbps is pretty low, and people have been pushing Cowon for pure wav recordings on all iAudios for quite some time now.


FM Radio Recordings

Recording FM Radio is really simple. All you need to do is switch to the FM Radio mode and hit the record button. Thanks to the great integrated FM tuner radio recordings sound just great, and if you really wanted to, you could add the recordings to your collection. Here is a sample recording:

Sample FM recording (please note that I don’t normally listen to this kind of shit, but this is the best I was able to pick up at the spur of the moment)


Line-In Recordings

I tested Line-In recordings extensively, and found the quality of the line-in on the F2 to be sub-optimal. The recording works fine as such, and the auto-sync feature which automatically separates one song from the next by detecting the gap works fine too.


The thing that brings the whole experience down is that the line-in recordings lack the original bass and doesn’t portrait the mid-high range very accurately. The recordings sound slightly skewed and I really wouldn’t want to digitise my record collection with the F2. By contrast I have used the line-in on my iAudio M3L many a time, because of its excellent quality.

Sample Line-in recording

Original Source File

In case you are wondering what set up I used for this test: I have a FLAC version of “Poets of the Fall – Locking up the Sun” that I played through the headphone output of my iAudio M3L at volume 38 and recorded it with the iAudio F2. The Source File has been converted and trimmed with jetAudio to a 192 kbps VBR mp3 file for you to download and compare with the recorded version.


Voice Recordings

Voice recording has been a feature on all iAudio players since the CW200. The quality of the microphones used in the players has varied over time, but I found the one in the F2 to be okay. The only thing is that it picks up a little white noise, but it makes up for that by having a very good range. Take a listen to a sample recording I made with the F2 in my room:

Sample Voice recording


Battery

Battery life on the F2 is really good. It’s specified to be 22 hours, and I got a little over 20 hours while playing a mix of various 128kbps CBR mp3s, 192 kbps VBR mp3s and some ogg files with pretty high quality. This is pretty good, especially seeing that the battery takes next to no time to charge up at all. Usually connecting the F2 while you are putting some new tunes on it for a few minutes will give you more than enough juice to keep it running during the day.



Price

At the time of writing, the price for the iAudio F2 is 129 USD for 2 GB. This is a good price, seeing that the 2GB iPod Nano costs 149 USD, and the iAudio F2 offers significantly more features. Obviously this price will change over time. Check it out:
[ame="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000KE1BJU?ie=UTF8&tag=dapreview-20&creativeASIN=B000KE1BJU"]Amazon.com: Cowon iAudio F2 2 GB Digital Media Player (Black): Electronics[/ame]

Conclusion

All in all the iAudio F2 is a great little player. It’s stylish, small, has a great screen, great features and good build quality. The only problem I see for some people is that the controls might be a little too small.


So if you are looking for a small player with a bundle of features, good battery life and at a great price, then the iAudio F2 might just be right for you!

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, the Cowon iAudio F2 does not really offer anything dramatically new – it’s just a gradual evolution, not a revolution. If you are looking for a revolutionary device from Cowon, you might have to wait a bit longer. It always depends on what you want …


Score

Category name% of total scoreScore
Accessories1070
Design1390
Data transfer/management1090
Screen895
Navigation & handling1470
Sound quality1695
Battery efficiency1090
Additional features880
Price1195
Totals10084
Deductions/Bonuses-2 for firmware bugs* 
End totals 82/100


* Player does not read ogg tags, sometimes has problems databasing
* Firmware version 1.11beta cannot record files
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