In the U.S., Cowon has a reputation for ambitious portable media players that perform well but cost too much. The Cowon O2 touch-screen portable video player, however, makes amends for Cowon's pricey past, thanks to this player's triple-threat of price, compatibility, and battery life.
The Cowon O2 comes in 8GB ($219), 16GB ($249), and 32GB ($299) capacities, in both black and white (the 8GB model only comes in white). The device is surprisingly easy to pocket, with a 4.7-inch-by-2.9-inch-by-0.7-inch body that's not much bigger than the original iPod. Despite its plastic housing, the O2's construction feels sturdy and its shock-resistant Flash memory allows you to casually toss it into your travel bag without inducing a panic attack.
A 4.3-inch touch-screen LCD dominates the face of the O2, surrounded by a smooth, beveled plastic frame that offers the screen some scratch protection. The only two mechanical controls on the Cowon O2 are exactly the kind we like to see on touch-screen devices: a volume rocker up on top and a power/hold switch on the right side. The left side of the O2 includes a headphone jack near the top, a DC power input near the bottom (adapter included), and a hinged door in the middle that conceals the O2's mini USB port, SDHC card slot, and a pinhole reset switch. For an extra $10, Cowon sells a cable that transforms the O2's mini USB port into a composite AV output that hooks up to your TV. The O2 doesn't offer any video-recording capabilities, however, so if you're jonesing for a portable AV recorder, you'll need to step up to the Cowon A3.
Other small hardware design details on the Cowon O2 include a quarter-inch square speaker grille on the back, a slender LED charging indicator on the top, a pinhole microphone located below the power switch on the right, and a loophole punched through the bottom right corner that can attach to the included fold-out kickstand that doubles as a stylus.
To see the real design beauty of the Cowon O2, you'll need to take a look at its user interface. It takes a quick 8 seconds to boot up the O2, at which point you'll see an attractive and spaciously arranged main menu screen that winks at the iPhone's rounded-square menu icons. Unlike Cowon's Q5W's or the Archos 5's, the O2's main menu doesn't cram too much info onto the screen; rather, it offers five features in order of importance: Videos; Music; Pictures; Documents; and a Recent Files folder that gives quick access to any recently used media regardless of content type. Large arrows above and below the five menu icons bring up the O2's settings options and lesser-used features such as a voice recorder, timer, notepad, and calculator.
Beyond the O2's main menu screen, however, Cowon's spacious, touch-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) philosophy begins to erode. The O2 lists files in a tiny type that requires some fingertip dexterity to accurately browse and select. Music fans accustomed to browsing files using commonplace ID3 tags, such as genre or album, may scream when they encounter the Cowon O2's strict file-tree organization (although some users prefer the organizational freedom it affords). For example, if you've got the O2 in your hands and want to hear some jazz, you're not going to be able to select "jazz" from a list of genres and hit play. Instead, you'll need to browse to a specific jazz artist in your collection, or spend some time creating a jazz playlist ahead of time and transfer it to the O2.
We also noticed that the experience of diving in and out of menus to locate media on the Cowon O2 isn't quite as elegant as using Apple's iPod Touch. Whether you're searching for music, videos, or photos, backing out of folders on the O2 requires a single tap on one of several ambiguous icons lining the bottom of the screen, or a double-tap on a root folder whose ".." label will make Linux users feel at home, but likely confuse others.
At a time when manufacturers are intent on cramming their portable products with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, e-mail, and streaming YouTube players, it's refreshing to see a touch-screen device that keeps things simple. The O2's handful of capabilities may seem old school, but features such as hi-def video playback, SDHC memory expansion, a 10-band graphic EQ, and raw photo support, offer discriminating users the kind of power and flexibility they won't find on a product like the iPhone.