Cosmetically indistinguishable from the Cowon A2 portable video player we adored last year, the Cowon A3 is a subtle evolution of a great product. While the complaints we had about last year's model still persist (frustrating joystick navigation and lack of DRM support), the improvements Cowon has made internally to the A3 make its shortcomings forgivable. The Cowon A3 comes in either 30GB ($349) or 60GB ($399) models.
The Cowon A3 isn't the slimmest or lightest portable video player we've seen, considering that it weighs in at 0.6 pounds and measures 5.2x0.9x3.1 inches. Fortunately, it's got it where it counts--the screen. The A3's 4-inch, 800x480 LCD is sharp and gorgeous. The tradeoff, of course, is that the Cowon A3's glossy plastic screen is a magnet for both fingerprints and scratches.
Unlike competitors such as the Archos 605 WiFi or the iPod Touch the Cowon A3 does not use a touch screen interface for navigating through files and menus. Instead, Cowon employs a small joystick located in the top right corner of the A3's face, along with a series of four well-spaced buttons below it that serve multiple functions. The advantage of staying clear of touch screen navigation is that it keeps your fingers off the screen. Unfortunately, Cowon's miniature joystick navigation was so haphazard, it had us screaming for mercy. More times than we care to recall, the A3's joystick would accidentally shift up or down when we needed to push down on it to make a selection, requiring several careful attempts. Over time we became more skillful at using the joystick, but those of you with sausage fingers should stay away.
Like its predecessor, the Cowon A3 includes two stereo speakers and a mono microphone on its top edge, a power button on its right, a hold switch that doubles as a video-out switch on the bottom, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top left edge. Below the A3's headphone jack is tethered plastic door that conceals a 3.5mm composite AV output, a 3.5mm composite AV input, a proprietary jack made for connecting an included S-Video and component-video output cable, and a USB jack for transferring files from your computer or hosting devices, such as digital cameras or USB memory sticks. Finally, at the very bottom of the A3's left edge is a power adapter input, offering a charging method aside from doing so over USB from your computer.
After witnessing the overwhelming amount of features packed into Cowon's Q5W portable video player, we actually appreciate the tasteful restraint exercised on the A3--and its restrained price, too. The Cowon A3 is a real dyed-in-the-wool portable video player that doesn't make any attempts at Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, nor does it include any hint of office productivity software. Don't call the A3 a slouch, however, because it delivers unprecedented file support, an FM radio, audio and video recording, video output, voice recording, photo viewing, and a motherlode of audio enhancement features.