Cowon's iAudio U3
Cowon audio players have long been critical favorites here at CNET, especially the iAudio U2, which received an Editors' Choice award for its extensive feature set, excellent sound quality, and stylish design. The company's latest flash player, the $220 iAudio U3, packs in even more features, including 2GB of memory (the 1GB version costs $170), a dazzling--albeit tiny--color screen, and video playback capabilities. But with the 4GB iPod Nano selling for just $30 more and the upcoming 6GB SanDisk e270 coming in at less than $300--not to mention the 30GB video iPod for just $80 more--you have to ask yourself if this pricey player is a sensible buy, though Cowon has lowered the price significantly since it launched the player. While it may be the world's smallest PVP, the tiny screen is more showy than useful for video and photo. Nevertheless, the Cowon iAudio U3 is an MP3 player at heart (though Cowon advertises the U3 as a Mini Theater), and that heart performs admirably.
Editor's note: We have adjusted the score in response to Cowon adding WMA DRM support and lowering prices.
The Cowon iAudio U3 is virtually identical to its predecessor, the Cowon iAudio U2, though a bit fatter. It has a slightly larger version of the same small four-way joystick, the same line-in and headphone jacks at one end, and the same USB port at the other end. But the buttons along the top have changed slightly--and for the better. In addition to record and play/pause controls, there's now a menu button for quick and easy access to onscreen options. The iAudio U3 also bears a hold switch. We'd say that this new joystick is a tad mushier than the iAudio U2's pinpoint control.
Although its controls are simple, many aspects of the iAudio U3's interface can be confusing. Specifically, once you leave the attractive, colorful main menu (which consists of six straightforward options) and delve into your media collection, it's not always obvious how to maneuver. When you want to go from, say, the playback screen to the selection screen, your natural instinct is to press the menu button--but that returns you to the main menu. Instead, you have to press the stiff joystick. It took us a while to master these and other interface intricacies, but eventually we got the hang of it. Currently, the iAudio U3 is a UMS device that shows up as a drive. Though the U3's folder-based navigation is flexible and logical for some users, others prefer a tag-based interface, which is a feature that Cowon should be introducing in one of its upcoming firmware updates, along with MTP and DRM compatibility.
Part of the problem lies with the screen. Although the 160x128-pixel, 260,000-color TFT LCD is extremely sharp and bright, it measures only 1.3 inches diagonally. Cowon, in its pure geek way, manages to cram a lot of song information into that tiny space, but the result is squint-inducing text, even for users with sharp eyes. As for viewing photos and watching videos, it's cool at first but later feels a bit like punishment. While the capability is commendable, we just can't see using this player for anything except audio functions.
Tiny flash players such as the iAudio U3 all but demand to be worn, yet Cowon doesn't supply a neck strap, an armband, or a carrying case, though there's a hole in the iAudio U3 for a lanyard. The only accessories are earbud headphones, a stereo patch cable, a USB cable, and a keychain-wearable USB dongle for on-the-go file transfers (a nice touch).The Cowon iAudio U3 packs more features than you'd expect into its tiny shell. It supports nearly every audio format, from MP3 to WMA to WAV to OGG and FLAC. Cowon recently updated the U3 firmware so that it is WMA DRM-friendly, meaning it can play back both purchased and subscription-based tracks. This format support, in addition to a lower price, makes the U3 much more attractive overall.
Fans of FM radio can enjoy the U3's capabilities in that area; it not only plays and records FM but also lets you record at scheduled times. That's a great way to stock up on, for example, your favorite NPR shows for anytime listening. Setting the timer is fairly easy, though you can't line up multiple recordings as you can with a VCR; you're limited to one preprogrammed recording that can be singular or daily. Manual recording is a snap: Just press the record button, though you needn't make it a long press as the instructions state; recording won't start if you do that. Meanwhile, the iAudio U3 has room for 24 FM presets, but it doesn't offer an autopreset option--another surprising omission.
The iAudio U3's recording options don't end with FM; the player also supports voice and line-in recording. You can choose from a variety of bit rates, from 32Kbps to 128Kbps. That's a bit limited on the top end, though at least the Cowon iAudio U3 encodes recordings in the generally superior WMA format instead of MP3. In our tests, we had problems with line-in recording on one unit, but a backup U3 recorded extremely well
As for video, the U3 is limited to XviD MPEG-4 for playback, but the included JetAudio conversion software supports the most popular formats: AVI, ASF, MPEG, and WMV. To its credit, the iAudio U3 managed to convert every file we threw at it, from AVI to DivX to XviD. But even if you're willing to watch video on the U3's Lilliputian screen, you probably won't like the rate: 15 frames per second. Not only do movies look small, they look jerky as well. As for photos, you're limited to JPEG files--again, hot stuff but you'll get sucked into video soon, and you'll be begging for a bigger screen.