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.
First and foremost, the Cowon A3 is a video player. Accordingly, it offers native support for a dizzying assortment of popular and boutique video file formats, including AVI, DivX, XviD, MP4, ASF, MKV, VOB, OGM, WMV 7, H.264, MPEG, DAT, and MTV. Not only can the Cowon A3 handle the majority of these files with no prior conversion necessary before transfer, but it can natively handle files encoded at an HD-worthy resolution of 1,280x720 at 30fps, which the A3 downsamples to fit its 800x480 display. Files such as H.264 and MOV won't play natively on the A3 but can be converted ahead of time using the included Cowon MediaCenter software. There's no quick fix for the fact that the A3 doesn't support DRM-protected WMV files, however, so don't expect your TiVo-to-Go or CinemaNow videos to be compatible. The A3 can also be used to output or record video at a 480p enhanced definition picture quality (720x480), using composite or S-Video connections (a component connection is also included, but only for video output). Video recording quality can be adjusted between a minimum of 320x240 at 500Kbps, up to 720x480 at 3Mbps, with several options in between.
As an audio player the Cowon A3 has plenty going for it, including support for MP3, WMA, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, OGG FLAC, Apple Lossless, AAC/AAC+, AC3, True Audio, Monkey's Audio, MusePack, WavPack, G.726, and PCM audio formats. Noticeably absent from this list is the DRM-protected WMA format required for subscription music services. For better or worse, you probably won't want to load up the Cowon A3 with a ton of music anyhow, seeing that it doesn't allow you to sort music using common ID3 tags such as album, genre, or song. Instead, Cowon's music browser uses a straightforward file-tree system that is completely up to you to organize. If you can live without the convenience of ID3 tag sorting, however, the A3 will reward you with the stellar audio quality and slew of advanced music enhancement features we've come to expect from Cowon. One of the more interesting audio features crammed into the Cowon A3 is the ability to record audio directly to either WMA (128 to192Kbps) or FLAC (lossless) files using the line-input connection. FM radio or voice recordings (using the built-in monophonic mic) are saved as 128-to-192Kbps WMA files.
Finally, the handful of extra features on the Cowon A3, such as the FM radio, the text viewer, and the photo viewer, are well done but nothing to write home about. We found the A3's FM radio provided above-average reception, and we were glad to see an ample amount of presets slots included (as many as 25).
With its crisp, colorful; 800x480 display, it's hard to complain about the Cowon A3's video performance. We did find that the A3's display darkened considerably when tilted forward but presented excellent viewing angles when tilted from side to side. The inclusion of multiple aspect ratios, and a pan-and-scan feature made it easy to adjust movies to make the most of the A3's 4-inch screen.
When it comes to audio, Cowon's obsessive audio enhancement features put the A3 on a par with other Cowon standouts, such as the iAudio 7 and the D2. The inclusion of a stereo enhancement feature for video playback is a big plus as well, and it is a feature that few of its competitors include. That said, Cowon's oversight on not including support for ID3 tag sorting or DRM-protected WMA files betrays the audience who would embrace the A3 for its otherwise remarkable format support.
The Cowon A3's battery life is rated at 10 hours for audio, and 7 hours for video, which is admirable for a PVP but not awe-inspiring. The Cowon A3's total charge time is estimated at 5.5 hours. We'll update our review soon with the battery results from our CNET labs.
In light of gadgets such as the iPod Touch that offer very limited format support, or a high-capacity PVP like the Archos 605 WiFi that offer only video recording and extended file support as expensive upgrades, it's refreshing to see a portable video player such as the Cowon A3 that simply tries to offer its customers the most features with the best quality at a good price. You can almost feel Cowon tripping over themselves to try and give you everything you could want in a PVP, which is why it stings to think that something so seemingly insignificant as clumsy joystick control or ID3 tag sorting could make us look elsewhere. When it comes to using a product every day, however, you might not notice the A3's unique support for WavPack audio or OGM video files, but you'll certainly notice that the joystick occasionally misfires, and that the only way to unearth your favorite song is to dig through countless folders.
Despite its drawbacks, the Cowon A3's prowess as a portable video player is not to be understated. If you're looking for a PVP that can handle a wide array of formats with impressive audio and video quality, the Cowon A3 is a solid choice.