Cowon audio players have long been critical favourites here at CNET.co.uk. The company's latest flash player, the £199 iAudio U3, packs in even more features, including 2GB of memory (the 1GB version costs £149), a dazzling -- albeit tiny -- colour screen and video playback capabilities.
But with the 4GB iPod nano selling for £20 less and the upcoming 6GB SanDisk e270 coming in at under £200 -- not to mention the 30GB video iPod for just £20 more -- you have to ask yourself if this pricey player is a sensible buy. While it may be the world's smallest portable video player, the tiny screen is more showy than useful for video and photo. Plus, it doesn't yet support DRM-protected music, a major shortcoming. Nevertheless, the iAudio U3 is an MP3 player at heart, and that heart performs admirably.
Barely larger than a basic cigarette lighter, the impressively tiny Cowon iAudio U3 comes in white or black. Much as we like its curved corners and simplistic controls, we find the overall design to be fairly uninspiring. The case has a rather cheap plastic feel to it, and there's none of the panache of the iPod nano or the iRiver T30. But it certainly is compact, measuring 71 by 33 by 18mm and weighing a scant 31g, and it's silky smooth in the hand.
The iAudio U3 is virtually identical to its predecessor, the U2, though slightly fatter. It has a slightly larger version of the same small four-way joystick, the same line-in and headphone jacks at one end, and the same USB port at the other end. But the buttons along the top have changed slightly -- and for the better. In addition to record and play/pause controls, there's now a menu button for quick and easy access to onscreen options. The U3 also bears a hold switch. We'd say that the new joystick is mushier than the U2's pinpoint control.
Although its controls are simple, many aspects of the iAudio U3's interface can be confusing. Specifically, once you leave the attractive, colourful main menu (which consists of six straightforward options) and delve into your media collection, it's not always obvious how to manoeuvre. When you want to go from, say, the playback screen to the selection screen, your natural instinct is to press the menu button -- but that returns you to the main menu. Instead, you have to press the stiff joystick. It took us a while to master these and other interface intricacies, but eventually we got the hang of it.
Currently, the iAudio U3 is a UMS device that shows up as a drive. Though the U3's folder-based navigation is flexible and logical for some users, others prefer a tag-based interface, which is a feature that Cowon should be introducing in one of its upcoming firmware updates, along with MTP and DRM compatibility.
Part of the problem lies with the screen. Although the 160x128-pixel, 260k-colour TFT LCD is extremely sharp and bright, it measures only 30mm (1.2 inches) diagonally. Cowon, in its pure-geek way, manages to cram plenty of song information into that tiny space, but the result is squint-inducing text, even for users with sharp eyes. As for viewing photos and watching videos, it's cool at first, but later feels like punishment. While the capability is commendable, we just can't see ourselves using this player for anything except audio functions. Of course, the iAudio U3 is an MP3 player that happens to play video, so we can bend a little.
Tiny flash players such as the iAudio U3 all but demand to be worn, yet Cowon doesn't supply a neck strap, an armband or a carrying case, though there's a hole in the U3 for a lanyard. The only accessories are earbud headphones, a stereo patch cable, a USB cable, and a keychain-wearable USB dongle for on-the-go file transfers (a nice touch).
The Cowon iAudio U3 packs more features than you'd expect into its tiny shell. It supports nearly every audio format, from MP3 to WMA to WAV to OGG and FLAC. However, the key omission here is DRM WMA -- the iAudio U3 won't play songs purchased from online services such as Napster. That's a surprising and unfortunate oversight on Cowon's part, and it's sure to destroy the U3's appeal for fans of these services. Fortunately, a forthcoming firmware update (due in February, according to Cowon) promises to add DRM support, so this limitation should disappear.
In the meantime, fans of FM radio can enjoy the U3's capabilities in that area -- it not only plays and records FM but also lets you record at scheduled times. It's a great way to stock up on your favourite shows for listening to whenever you want. Setting the timer is fairly easy, though you can't line up multiple recordings as you can with a VCR -- you're limited to one preprogrammed recording that can be singular or daily. Manual recording is easy, too: just press the record button, though you shouldn't make it a long press as the instructions state -- recording won't start if you do that. Meanwhile, the iAudio U3 has room for 24 FM presets, but it doesn't offer an autopreset option -- another surprising omission.