Take one look at the Cowon iAudio X5's feature list and you might peg it as an iPod killer. On paper, the 30GB, iPod-size X5 (£290; also available at 20GB for £250) has everything that Apple's ice-white wonder does -- including music playback, a photo viewer and on-the-fly playlists -- then it piles on video playback, an FM radio, voice and line-in recording, and even the ability to read and save images directly from a digital camera without an adaptor. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?
Unfortunately, the X5 suffers from poor music browsing, some odd design choices and a half-baked photo viewer. Additionally, converting your videos so that they'll work on the player is a multistep process. Video addicts willing to process their movies for the X5 and who don't mind viewing them on a 51mm (2-inch) screen might get a kick out of the palm-size device. But music lovers with gigabytes of songs and iPod converts accustomed to seamless iTunes integration should think carefully before taking the plunge. Fortunately for X5 users, a promised firmware update in early August will make the player easier to use, compatible with music stores and services, and an overall better device -- with a CNET.co.uk rating closer to 8.0.
Measuring 61 by 104 by 18mm and weighing 180g, the black and silver Cowon iAudio X5 is about the same size as the iPod, but it's lighter, with a thin lower half that slopes inward from the 51mm LCD. Just below the screen is a tiny, five-way navigational joystick, similar to those we've seen on Cowon's flash-memory players. The play and record buttons as well as a power slider sit on the right side of the device. While the spare layout gives the X5 a clean, uncluttered look, it's a pain having the play button relegated to the right side of the player. We wish it were right next to the joystick for easier access. And for that matter, a scrollwheel or a touch-sensitive slider for navigating our 30GB of files would have been nice.
We love the X5's small size and smooth scratch-resistant exterior, but the player's compact form factor comes with a price: namely, the separate plug-in adaptor that houses the player's AC, USB and line-in and line-out inputs. The small adaptor (38 by 25 by 15mm) plugs into the bottom of the unit, and you'll need it to charge up the player, record from another device or transfer music and video from your PC, although you can use the X5's other USB port in USB Host mode (see Features). Using an adaptor probably allowed the designers at Cowon to make the main device as small as it is, but carrying the plastic plug-in around is a hassle, and losing it would be very inconvenient indeed, though you can purchase a replacement for about £5.
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.
The iAudio's picture viewer falls well short when compared to the iPod's picture-handling capabilities. Once you've dragged and dropped images into the X5's Picture directory, you can scroll through your snapshots one by one or view them in a thumbnail format (nine at a time), and you can zoom in for greater detail. However, there's no slide-show feature, and you can't play music while viewing your images -- key features that the new colour iPod (and its predecessor, the Photo) gets right. This half-baked photo option reminds us a lot of the iRiver H320's. At least you can create folders in the main Picture directory, and you can turn any photo into the player's wallpaper, making for a clever way to personalise the X5.
Want to view the photos sitting in your digital camera? The X5's USB Host mode lets you connect a camera and view or copy the snapshots to the player -- a nice feature, save for the fact that only about 30 cameras from Olympus, Sony, Nikon, FujiFilm, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Panasonic and Kenox are supported. Cowon says more cameras may be added to the list in a future firmware upgrade.
Extra features include a text-file viewer, which lets you listen to music as you read, an autoresume, in which music files resume where you left off but movie files start at the beginning, several repeat modes, including A-B repeat, and an alarm.
We were impressed by the Cowon iAudio X5's sound quality; music sounded clear and crisp on the high end with plenty of room for rumbling bass (20Hz to 20KHz) and almost no perceptible hiss, thanks to a signal-to-noise ratio of 95dB. We were able to crank the volume to the earsplitting level of 20mW per channel. The included dumbbell-style earbuds sounded fine to our ears, but we recommend swapping them out for a better pair.
We had no trouble with our test recordings. There was no obvious sound distortion when recording from the line-in port, even with a reasonably loud source, and our voice memos and FM recordings came in loud and clear.
As mentioned above, the X5's video quality is about as good as you can expect with a 160x128-pixel display. The 260,000-colour LCD rendered rich, vivid colours, but the relatively low resolution results in a slight screen-door effect, and we detected a little jerkiness in movement due to the player's ceiling of 15 frames per second. As for digital photos, since the X5 doesn't transcode larger images into a device-friendly size, you'll have to wait a few seconds for images that are 1MB and more to render on the screen. Transfer time to the player over USB 2.0 was a brisk 12.4MB per second.
Cowon promises up to 14 hours of playback from the non-user-removable rechargeable lithium-ion battery. We were able to coax 14.4 hours playing back MP3 files. This is an average figure these days, but expect to get less if you're watching movies or checking out digital photos. If you've fallen in love with the iAudio X5, we recommend at least checking out the X5L, also available in 20GB and 30GB versions, and costing slightly more. While they both add about 5mm in thickness and a little weight (182g), the battery life is rated for up to 35 hours.
Edited by James Kim
Additional editing by Nick Hide