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.
Let's get bad stuff out of the way quickly: navigation looks simple but getting used to the extremely fiddly mini-joystick is nearly impossible. No ID3 tag data is read from music for some inane reason, so you'll need to sort by folder and file name. There's also no support for gapless playback.
Now, while audio quality is close to perfect -- especially when listening to lossless audio -- it's video that shows how capable this system is. Let it be known that this has the best screen we have ever seen on any media player -- it's so crisp it's hard not to smile. Playback for most videos is smooth and glitch-free, but we had poor results with HD content. With some HD XviD videos encoded at 1,280x720 pixels at 6Mbps we had smooth audio but juddery video. The same happened with HD WMV. And H.264. Safe to say this was a disappointment.
But with standard definition content it's unrivalled, even by the Q5W or the 605 WiFi. It even puts the iPod touch to shame. DivX and Xvid videos are stunning, and outputting them to TV is both simple and visually rewarding. Recording video gave decent results, too. Using the supplied composite AV cable, recording with 720x480-pixel resolution at 3Mbps from DVD, we recorded the whole of Mission: Impossible into perfectly acceptable quality, though a direct DVD transfer using the VOB files will be your best bet.
The A3 is probably the most capable portable video player on the market today. For its price, it's a killer, as long as you can get used to navigating with a joystick that we'd pay good money to have removed. It beats its brother the Q5W in both price and functionality; it beats the Archos on performance and file support and beats the iPod touch on image quality. But where the Archos and the iPod beat the A3 is on ease of use.
There are clear areas in which it has obvious competitors: if you want more storage, look at the Archos 605 WiFi. If you want painfully simple operation, look at the iPod touch. But if you want the most capable handheld video player on the planet, look at the Cowon A3.
Available from AdvancedMP3Players.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday