The Cowon A2 is a sleek, attractive, and all-encompassing portable video player with video-recording capability that suffers only when compared to the similarly appointed Archos AV500 Mobile DVR. We really dig some parts of the interface, but we were annoyed by others. While the A2 can play a huge number of audio and video formats, it does not currently support Windows Media DRM 10. On the plus side, the A2, which is available in 20GB ($380) and 30GB ($420) capacities, boasts excellent audio and video playback and recording quality, as well as solid battery life. The Cowon A2 enters a luxury PVP domain currently dominated by the Archos AV500 and the Creative Zen Vision, and it fits right in. While both the Cowon (20GB and 40GB) and the Archos AV500 (30GB and 100GB) offer 4-inch-wide LCDs and PVR capability, Creative's Zen Vision does not record video or audio, and it includes only a 4:3, 3.7-inch screen. Both the Archos and the Creative players are slightly smaller and lighter than the 5.2-by-3.1-by-0.9-inch, 10.5-ounce 20GB Cowon, but the player's curved rectangular shape is easy on the hands and the eyes.
Controls are minimal and austere, with only five buttons adorning the clean A2 face: the familiar Cowon minithumbstick and the four cascading metallic buttons. The latter includes a Back key and three soft menu keys marked A, B, and C that correspond to onscreen options. The buttons flank the Cowon A2's centerpiece, its magnificent 4-inch-wide screen.
Other controls and connections are arrayed around the Cowon A2's perimeter. On the right spine is an indented power button, and on the top spine are the widely separated stereo speakers, with the mic falling in between. Headphone and power-adapter jacks flank a hatch covering dual A/V-in/out and USB jacks on the left spine. Identifying icons for these four jacks are embossed on the inside of the latch and are difficult to read. On the bottom spine is a triposition switch for LCD, hold, and A/V out.
Navigating the Cowon A2 is a mixed bag. The main menu is gorgeous and very PDA-like, with menu items such as Movie, Music, Photo, Text, and Radio, each represented by colorful icons. The background image (ours was soothing blue waves) is customizable, with tiny icons for the volume, the time, and the battery in the upper-right corner, as well as three contextual choices in the lower sliver of the screen that correspond to the A, B, and C buttons. The soft keys are convenient, but we'd often look down at the similar buttons to confirm the selection. The tiny thumbstick takes some time getting used to, especially when selecting down on an item, but it is at its worst when trying to navigate through dozens of folders and thousands of songs. It's no Apple Click Wheel. The thumbstick also serves as the volume control, so you'll need to navigate back to the playback screen to adjust the volume. Because the device is currently a UMS device (with its own advantages), you cannot browse music by album or track unless you organize your media in such a way. Cowon plans to release a firmware update that will sort music by ID3 tag.
Despite tricky navigation (thank goodness for the well-placed Back button), the Cowon A2's solid graphics add to the player's appeal. For example, the music-playback screen is built around a pulsating graphic equalizer, with all kinds of track and setting information populating the readable screen. The A2's folder-tree file browser is PC-like, with preview thumbnails for photos and video--as with the Archos--that show up in an adjunct window as you pass over them. The radio screen is the best interface we've seen for a portable, and the recording interface is nice and simple, though we'd love sound-level meters. The graphical interface is way geeky and not a breeze to use.
Unlike the Archos--which requires a separate hub that enables video recording, including a higher-quality S-Video connection--the Cowon connects directly to a minijack-to-RCA cable familiar to anyone who's hooked up a camcorder to a TV; however, you have to use the included cable. Identical A/V cables that come with camcorders won't work for reasons we have yet to discover. Still, not having to travel with an Archos-like hub gives the Cowon A2 an edge in full-featured portability.
Unfortunately, the Cowon A2 doesn't have a built-in kickstand, but the included carrying case can prop the player up for hands-free viewing. One edge that the Archos AV500 has over the A2 is its removable battery, though Cowon A2 users will be pleased by the battery results (see Performance). Accessories include decent white earbuds, a USB device cable, a USB host cable, an A/V-in/out cable, an audio line-in cable, an AC adapter, a black pleather carrying case, a hand strap, an installation CD, and a user manual. There is no remote control to be found, and there are no other accessories available from Cowon.The Cowon A2 is no stranger to features. It can play back MP3, WMA, WAV, MIDI, and OGG digital audio files natively, and you can create a playlist on the fly, though you can't save it; it also includes a top-notch FM radio/recorder. The A2 is a decent photo (JPEG, PNG, and BMP) viewer with audioless slide shows and a cool zoom feature, and it can be connected to most digital cameras for direct transfer. It can play back video files encoded in AVI, DivX/XviD, WMV, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, ASF, and the new open Matroska (.msk) standard but not motion JPEG.
But wait, there's more. The Cowon A2 can also be used as a text viewer and has a very capable USB 2.0 hard drive, and impressively, it makes an amazing audio recorder. Although all voice, line-in, and FM recordings have a maximum level of 192Kbps MP3, the quality--as well as the speed for recording and saving--is outstanding. To top it off, the A2 is an effective PVR that can record from video sources such as TV and cable at a maximum resolution of 640x480 at 1Mbps, as well as at a minimum resolution of 368x272 at 500Kbps; all files are recorded into ASF. Unlike the Archos PVPs, the A2 isn't Macrovision compliant, so you won't be able to copy directly from certain DVDs.
What stands out is the number of formats and resolutions of video files the Cowon A2 can handle--without video conversion. Since there are numerous formats, Cowon has included software to convert noncompatible files. Chances are that the A2 will play a decent percentage of video files you throw at it. The latest firmware update (v 1.61E) gives the A2 the ability to multitask--that is, it allows viewing of photos or text while listening to music, something the Archos PVPs aren't able to do yet.