Cowon's iAudio 7 is the latest and supposedly greatest MP3 player to take a swing at Apple's iPod nano. The fearless new contender to the ever-expanding portable audio market comes loaded up to the eyeballs with features, but as with all players, it'll need to prove itself in the arena if it stands a chance at beating down Apple's iPodtropolis.
With 4GB and 8GB capacity options, this is a no-holds-barred player. Previous models from Cowon have surprised us with functionality, but have lacked the key cool factor and usability that Apple has bestowed unto its devices.
We couldn't have been more pleased to see Cowon has left the iAudio F2's control system in the cesspit it deserves to lay dormant in. In the iAudio 7, the Korean manufacturer has adopted the swing-touch interface -- a touch-sensitive alternative to using navigational buttons. It takes very little getting used to and feels natural from the get-go. Using nature's pointing tool -- the finger -- you simply need to sweep the touchpad in the direction you want the cursor to move. It's accurate and fun to use.
Two touch-sensitive function buttons sit on the front too, and after playing with this interface we can't help feeling the volume, power and menu buttons on the top of the player are a tad boring. Still, as buttons go, they don't disappoint. There's also a pair of 3.5mm sockets on one end: one for headphones and one for line-in sources.
Support for a shed-load of audio codecs is always admirable. Cowon frequently throws in support for FLAC and OGG music files, but in its last player -- the iAudio F2 -- memory maxed out at 2GB, so what use are you going to get from a lossless audio codec? In the iAudio 7 8GB is the limit, which could mean up to 32 albums compressed into the lossless FLAC format. This is a terrific feature for audiophiles who are after a tiny portable player.
Support for video comes in the form of the Xvid format, but only up to 15 frames per second in 160x128-pixel resolution. The resolution is low because of the tiny 35mm (1.3-inch) screen -- archaic for a player that can store 8GB of video files. But this is more a player designed with lossless audio in mind -- for video playback, you'll be better looking elsewhere. JPEG photos can be viewed, but, like video, this is of limited use -- the real emphasis here is on music.
Students rejoice: a built-in microphone provides a dictation machine function -- no need to show up for lectures anymore. There's also line-in recording to WMA format (at various bit rate qualities) plus the FM radio can be recorded live to the disk at CD quality. There's a whole heap of EQ and playback options, much more than competing players, and it'll work with Windows, Macs and Linux! If you're a podcast fan, the Podcast Ready service (check their Web site for details) is compatible and works very well.
Sound quality is excellent, once you've discarded the average bundled headphones for something better. MP3, OGG and WMA files sound excellent at decent bit rates, but sadly there's no gapless playback. Only a small gap appears between tracks on a live album.
Where this player really shines is when using lossless FLAC files. We did notice, however, that FLAC music is only supported when encoded at a compression level of six or below -- anything higher and the player freezes.
The FM radio's auto-seek, while nippy, is poor. It found 20 stations but all required fine-tuning. You'll be better off searching for channels yourself and saving them as presets. The player can also be scheduled to switch itself on to automatically record radio, which is a superb feature for radio fans and works perfectly.
The built-in microphone for voice recording is extremely sensitive and gives great results even at low bit rates. It's more than capable of recording a lecture or meeting, and with 8GB of storage, even 'Advanced Rocket Science with Quantum Mechanics' lectures will fit.
Battery life is a lot longer than most -- Cowon claims the player will keep pumping music for 60 hours. Transferring 1GB of music from a Windows office PC took five minutes, and a full charge can be completed in just under four hours.
The iAudio 7 is a feature-packed player with heaps of customisation potential and awesome sound quality. Only Creative's players beat it in terms of audio performance. Apple's video iPod is arguably better if you're a style-conscious consumer, but for £149 (or £109 for the 4GB version), it's great value. The major downside is video, no thanks to the tiny low-res screen. But if you're all about the music, you will not be disappointed.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield