Back on the plus side, the X5's 160x128-pixel, 260,000-colour display looks good, if tiny at just 51mm diagonally, with vibrant colours and decent detail, although the so-so resolution results in a noticeable screen-door effect. The display manages to pack in plenty of info, including artist, album, and song names, along with dancing sound-level indicators and a progress bar. You can even use an image from your photo library as wallpaper -- a nice touch.
Accessories in the X5 box include a set of decent-sounding earbuds with a stylish dumbbell-type design, as well as a USB cable and a minijack-to-minijack cable for line-in recordings. You can also opt for a protective but slightly cheesy carrying case that takes away from the overall lustre of the X5, an in-line remote control with an LCD or the docking cradle, which has ports that mirror the included adapter's. All cost extra.
Setup on the Cowon iAudio X5 is relatively simple, but don't expect to play video files directly out of the box. Using the USB 2.0 port on the included adaptor, you connect the player to your PC or Mac. The player should appear as a lettered drive in Explorer or a removable device in Mac OS X, and you can drag music and images into their respective directories. You can also use the included Windows-only JetShell application to organise your tunes or create playlists; the X5 supports standard M3U files.
For video files, however, setup is more complicated. The X5 can play video at a mere 15 frames per second, so any video files encoded at a different frame rate must be converted using the Windows-only JetAudio utility. In our tests, we had to run all of our video files through JetAudio for them to play on the X5. Luckily, JetAudio will convert batches of video files, and it processed most of our videos at a relatively speedy 5x. That said, Mac users will have to find another way to make their videos compatible with the Cowon, and the current version of JetAudio doesn't work with QuickTime movies.
The X5 combines its video and music capabilities into an all-purpose digital AV player, with mixed results. To play videos, you just navigate to the Movie folder and select the file you'd like to watch. You can then skip to the next file or scan forward or backward (up to 64x). However, the image freezes while you're scanning, leaving you with time elapsed/remaining and a progress bar, and there's no slow-motion forward or reverse playback. And while you can add movies to a playlist, you can't bookmark your videos, which means you'll have to scan to the point where you left off if you're interrupted in the middle of a film.
Playing music on the X5 is similar to watching movies; you either navigate to the Music directory to find your tunes, or you can access a playlist. The iAudio supports MP3, OGG, ASF, the lossless FLAC format, WAV and unprotected WMA files, and you can create your own on-the-fly playlist directly on the player. Not bad but you can't browse your tunes by artist, album, or genre -- a critical omission, especially if you're dealing with, say, 10GB or more of music. Cowon promises an early-August firmware upgrade that will do away with the old-school folder-tree structure and replace it with an iPod-style music library. In addition, prospective buyers should know that the same firmware upgrade will make the X5 compatible with music purchased from WMA-based online music stores and subscription-based music from Napster To Go and others. These feature upgrades will certainly be a welcome addition.
You can tweak the sound of your tunes with the five-band equaliser (which comes with Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop and Vocal presets, as well as a user-defined mode) or with the various sound-effect settings, such as BBE, Mach3Bass, MP Enhance and 3D Surround. We like that you can bookmark your music tracks, which is helpful if you're listening to podcasts, but adding a bookmark is a cumbersome process. You have to navigate to the bookmark directory while your track is playing, then bookmark it there. You can use the included JetShell application to move music to the player or create playlists, but you can't sync your PC's music to the X5 like Apple's iTunes.
The X5's serviceable FM radio boasts 24 presets, and you can tune to stations manually or let the player seek the strongest stations. Unfortunately, the X5 won't programme the presets automatically, a feature we've seen in plenty of portable music devices. If you hear a station you like, you can record it to an MP3 file at bit rates ranging from 64Kbps to 320Kbps, although you can't browse to any other screens while you're recording an FM feed. You can also record voice memos with the built-in mic with bit rates ranging from 32Kbps to 128Kbps. Voice-activated recording is also supported, and you can even encode MP3s from another audio source with the line-in port, which comes with an autosync feature that chops your tunes into separate MP3 tracks when it detects a pause in the music.