After a bit of a hiatus, Cowon is ready to unleash a gaggle of gadget goodness that will get geek hearts pumping. In addition to the curious P5 (a Windows CE device with 5-inch screen) and the long-awaited A3 (the follow-up to the distinguished A2 PVP), Cowon is launching the 2GB iAudio F2. This supercompact flash-based player looks more like a cell phone than the race car design of its predecessor, the iAudio F1, and like most Cowon devices, it has just about every feature a mobile media maven would care about. Copious features and solid performance aside, the iAudio F2 can be difficult to use because of its high learning curve and its size.
The iAudio F2 looks and feels like a cell phone--a very small one. It's an odd choice of design, though Samsung has its own phonelike MP3 player, the YP-T8. The nine red-backlit buttons beneath the 1.8-inch screen are situated in a phonelike grid and though there are many buttons to learn, they can be learned. It's the size of the unit (2.8 by 1.3 by 0.65 inches) and the location of the buttons that makes it difficult for anybody with average-size hands to operate. Trust me, the first time you switch modes or adjust volume is no sweat--it's the tenth time that starts cramping the hand. The buttons would actually be more ergonomic if they were situated a little higher up. Two-handed use is actually tolerable.
The buttons themselves are tactile, and though most have more than one function, I think the array is more intuitive than say, the equally feature-filled Cowon iAudio U3, maybe because all buttons except power/hold (on the right spine) are within reach of the thumb. The directional controllers substitute for a joystick with the up and down keys acting as volume controls. The play/pause and record buttons (customizable) are on the top corners, and the menu and context menu buttons are on the lower corners. When in doubt, hit the Menu key, which will take you to a cool icon-based menu area with nine options to match the keys below. The headphone and line-input jacks are on the unit's top, while the standard mini USB is on the bottom. The back of the device has a metal lanyard holder that protrudes slightly.
The player's centerpiece is its 1.3-inch display (260K colors and a resolution of 128x160 pixels). Videos are viewed in landscape mode, with wide-screen content taking up the top part of the screen. Photos can be rotated (or pivoted). While the display is too small to enjoy photos and videos in earnest, it is bright and colorful. Nevertheless, your video collection will have to be converted using the bundled JetAudio VX software.
Like most Cowon portables, the iAudio F2 supports a variety of audio files, including MP3, WMA DRM, OGG, and FLAC. It even plays subscription tracks and works really well within Rhapsody 4. The F2 has superb audio quality, and the presence of strong preset and customizable EQs and BBE effects makes sound quality a nonissue. The device is also a decent line-in, voice and FM recorder (128Kbps WMA max). The FM radio with its 24 presets works well, though there is no autoscan option. However, you can schedule the player for FM recordings.
Hitting the OK button during playback will get you to your music list. By the way, the player has both UMS (so it will work with Mac) and MTP modes, and files can be viewed both in folder-tree Explorer style or broken down by ID3 tags (browse by album, for example). Cowon users would benefit if the context menu button included more shortcuts to say, the equalizer. Instead, you can customize the menu and record button (when held down) to activate EQ, shuffle, bookmark, and other functions.
The F2 supports JPG photo playback--the bigger the file, the longer it will take to load. You get thumbnail and list views, and any photo can be used as wallpaper. In addition to zooming and pivoting photos, you can listen to music while viewing pics. Viewing video (I watched War of the Worlds) is difficult, especially in the age of high-def, but having multimedia features is just a bonus in a player this small.
Battery life for the built-in lithium-ion is rated for a solid 22 hours for audio. CNET Labs squeezed 22 hours of audio and 8.2 hours of video out of the F2. The unit is bundled with OK earbuds, a USB cable, a mini-to-mini cable, a USB gender adapter, and a software CD.
For such a technically advanced portable (with more settings options than you can shake a stick at), the F2 (as well as its Cowon flash brethren) needs more than just 2GB. An 8GB version with the right price would make this an excellent player for some. Cowon did mention that it would consider introducing 4GB and 8GB models. But ultimately what keeps this little player from a higher rating is its physically difficult interface.