Cowon's A3 is the brother of the Q5W -- an extremely capable portable media player, that even came with Wi-Fi and Windows CE 5.0. The A3, while very similar to the Q5W, is a very different player and costs a very different price: the 30GB A3 costs £250 instead of around £400 for the 40GB Q5W. But what's interesting is that its core functionality is very similar to its more expensive sibling.
With hard disk capacities of 30GB or 60GB -- costing around £320 -- plus a dual-core processing chip and support for high-definition video, the Cowon A3 has potential to be the most advanced handheld media system on the planet. We just had to explore to see if this South Korean behemoth was worth the hype and the money.
A 100mm (4-inch) screen with an 800x480-pixel resolution takes up the majority of the A3's glossy face. To its right sit four buttons and a tiny navigational joystick. Excluding the 'back' button, the functions of each of these buttons change depending on what mode the player is being used in -- on-screen displays always tell you what does what. While this is a great way to keep things simple, it doesn't quite make up for the tiny joystick being a real fiddly pain in the neck -- not to mention the thumb -- to use; it's really tricky and imprecise.
The system itself is rugged, chunky and very well-built, if a little less attractive than the Q5W. USB ports, composite and component inputs and outputs sit behind a small flap on the left-hand side, below a 3.5mm headphone socket.
Like the Q5W, there's no kickstand to prop the player up for hands-free movie watching. The mind seriously boggles at this oversight.
With support for H.264, DivX, Xvid, WMV, MPEG-4, MKV and VOB -- to name just a few -- the A3 is a seriously versatile video player. And yes, you saw VOB format in that list, meaning you can drag files of almost any ordinary DVD onto the player's hard disk, and it'll play -- no DVD ripping and no transcoding needed. This in itself is an amazing feature, but you can also record video from any video source over composite cable directly to the A3's memory.
The same is true for audio. Not only can you record live FM radio -- and of course listen to it -- but you can also record stereo audio into MP3 or FLAC, and it'll play the most comprehensive list of formats we've ever seen, including MP3, WMA, Lossless WMA, FLAC, OGG, Apple Lossless, AAC, Monkey's Audio and WAV, to again name but a few. Images up to 15 megapixels in resolution are also supported, with zoom controls should you need them.
You've also got a 10-band equaliser to play with, adjustable playback speed, support for multiple audio tracks and even subtitles. And all this media is managed simply with drag-and-drop file management within Windows and OS X via mini-USB. Every cable you'll need is in the box, including component and composite video leads.