The $250 iAudio 6, Cowon's first microdrive player, rivals most flash players in compactness, thanks in part to a 4GB, 0.85-inch hard drive. This feature-packed and excellent-sounding player/recorder supports all sorts of music, video, and photo files (but no album art), and it boasts a slick, high-resolution 1.3-inch OLED screen. While the iAudio 6's interface is an improvement upon that of past Cowon players, it can still be tricky to use. We also believe that Cowon, despite utilizing cutting-edge HDD technology, should have opted for more reliable flash memory, or at least produced a 6GB or 8GB version. Yet, we can't question this player's deft looks and high-octane performance.
The iAudio 6 follows in the Cowon tradition of being packed to the gills with features. It is an MP3, WMA (including subscription tracks), OGG, FLAC, and WAV audio player; an MPEG-4 (AVI) video player; a photo viewer, complete with a three-by-three grid of thumbnails and zoom/pan features; an FM tuner with 24 autoscannable presets; and a voice and line-in recorder. High-resolution graphics and data pop off the colorful, 160x180-pixel OLED screen, though the display is highly reflective outdoors.
Photos and video, as small as they are, are sharp and easy on the eyes. The new icon-based main-menu system is arranged in a slick rainbow curve, and the dedicated menu and volume buttons come in handy as you tackle the iAudio 6's array of features.
The Cowon iAudio 6 is an ideal size--not iPod Nano thin but extremely pocketable, at 2.75 by 1.25 by 0.75 inches and 2.12 ounces. It's only slightly bigger than the iAudio U3, but it has a bigger screen and more storage. Cowon employs a new touch-sensitive interface for the main controllers. The diagonal slider stripe (a.k.a. Swing Touch) makes for smooth navigating--once you get used to it. Swing Touch allows for some atypical navigation, including forwarding and reversing through tracks with a slide of the thumb, scrolling through songs on the playback screen when paused, or skipping by track or by 2, 4, and up to 30 seconds of the song at a time; you can specify from many options in the general-settings area. We also like that you can customize the functions of the Menu button (we've set ours up to activate the EQ upon a long hold) and the red Record/Back button (we have ours on "add song to dynamic playlist").
The Cowon iAudio 6's menu button is critical to navigation. It toggles through three modes: the main menu, the playback screen, and the file directory. If you're in Music, you'll default to an improved music-browsing screen--thanks to the latest 1.20 firmware upgrade, one that includes browsing by artist, song, album, playlist, favorites, new music, and so on. This is done in MTP mode; for Mac users and those who prefer the classic folder tree, you can set the iAudio 6 in UMS/file browser mode. The playback screen features lots of customizable info, as well as a graphical level meter. File types are distinguishable icons, such as MP3, WMA, or JPG, for example.
Cowon is inching closer to a fault-free interface, but it's not out of the woods yet. The touch-sensitive buttons can be wishy-washy. Sometimes we'd accidentally activate a function, and other times, we couldn't get the fast scroll (holding at the end of the slider) to engage. We highly recommend activating the hold switch while you're in a mobile state. Also, operating the diagonal slider can be awkward; we suggest you handle it with two hands--just be gentle with it! The rest of the player is so nice that it might be worth your trouble to master the controls. Another thing: It uses a small drive, but it's still susceptible to shock. Cowon may have been better off using a flash drive, which it will introduce in the 2GB version of the iAudio 6, though we predict a 4GB flash iAudio 6 would be priced higher than the competitive $250 watermark.