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.
Still, there remain a few holes in the feature set that we hope Cowon can address soon. First, the Cowon A2 is not compatible with WMA DRM and WMV DRM files, so it's not a PlaysForSure device. Cowon plans to release a firmware upgrade in early 2006 that will make the A2 compatible with store- and subscription-based audio and video. Also, unlike with the Zen Vision, you can't sync your Microsoft PIM programs, and the A2 doesn't support TiVo To Go, either. Finally, timed recording with the PVR is badly handled. Instead of the timer/recorder function listed among the options in the Record menu, you have to go to the system settings under Setup from the main menu and set the alarm, making sure you pick the right mode--the Record Line-in Video mode, not Movie Player.
All content is listed alphabetically in the Cowon A2's varying sections, but a lot of material is buried deep in folders that require some drilling, depending on how it was transferred to the device. For instance, to find a TV show recorded by the PVR, you need to click on the Movie folder (this really should be labeled Video), which brings you to two folders: Movie, which stores files transferred from your PC, and Record, which stores PVR recordings. Click Record, and you get a video folder, inside of which, finally, is your list of recordings. PVR recordings are listed in some arcane Cowon nomenclature (Video_051216.001.asf, for example) instead of something handier, such as the time and the date of the recording, with no way to relabel them on the device.
Getting content from your PC to the Cowon A2 is equally annoying. You can use Windows Explorer or the included JetShell Pro content-management software, but both suffer from the same overarching problem: Neither discriminates between compatible and noncompatible content. We synced all our video, which included several DRM WMV files, and music, which included a substantial number of Napster subscription tracks and AAC files, on to the A2. JetShell, which offers one of the most convoluted interfaces we've come across, did not screen out these incompatible files. Subsequent attempts to play an incompatible file froze the player, usually requiring a reboot. Since JetShell Pro doesn't list the DRM condition of music files, it's impossible to weed out potentially offending tracks before syncing.
We do like the media player while it's playing music and/or video. In addition to the technostylish graphics, the player settings can be quickly accessed without having to back out into the Menu settings area. This means you can apply the Cowon A2's impressive set of EQ and BBE effects on the fly, and you can hear results in real time. The same goes for video playback, which also features a bookmark option and instant scrubbing 10 to 12 seconds forward or backward with the tap of the thumbstick, though the Archos's controls are better.Like the Archos AV500 Mobile DVR, the Cowon A2 has a dazzling 480x272-pixel, 4-inch-wide screen that makes videos look sharp and bright, even in daylight and at varying viewing angles. Downloaded DivX content, such as trailers for Batman Returns and War of the Worlds, was glossy and crisp, with sharp details sans jaggies; bright colors with only occasional video noise on solid color backgrounds; and no false contouring in scenes with gradual gradations between light and dark, such as sunsets, shadows, or spotlights. Even tiny text was amazingly easy to read. JPEGs, however, seemed a bit pixelated, and certain patterns produced moiré effects.
When recording, letterboxed or HD content expands beyond the normal 16:9 LCD area, cutting off some of the image around the edges. For instance, if you record an NFL game from an HD channel, you'll likely lose some of the score box. For movies, this minor cropping is annoying, but it is not horrible and is certainly better than not seeing the full frame. But oddly, video isn't actually recorded in this zoomed-in mode. The Cowon A2's 16:9 playback mode stretches the picture only horizontally, not vertically. Worse, when you record in either of the 640x480 modes, the picture mysteriously disappears from the A2's LCD, leading you to believe that the unit isn't recording a picture--but it is. Also, piping video content out to a larger TV is expectedly pixelated, though viewable on small TVs.
Although the Cowon A2 sounds great with the included white earphones, the built-in speakers, while crisp, are not very loud. In fact, because they point up, they disperse the sound into the air, and therefore, the volume needs to be cranked up. Back to sound quality: Digital audio sounds excellent, and the EQs (Normal, Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop, Vocal, and User) and effects (BBE, Mach3Bass, 3D surround) make a measurable difference for those who like to sculpt their sound. Voice and line-in recording are also strengths of this device, while the FM radio with its 25 autoscan presets comes in bright and clear.
Rated battery life for the Cowon A2 is 18 hours for audio and an international-flight-friendly 10 hours for video--both are more bountiful than that of the Archos, which is rated for, respectively, 15 hours and 4.5 hours, and the Creative Labs, which is rated for 13 hours and 4.5 hours. CNET Labs was able to coax 16 hours of audio playback and 9.2 hours of video playback out of the A2, both slightly less than the rating but still excellent results.