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Cowon iAudio X5 review: Cowon iAudio X5

Cowon iAudio X5

Ben Patterson
8 min read
Cowon's exciting iAudio X5
Take one look at the Cowon iAudio X5's feature list and you might peg it as an iPod killer. On paper, the 30GB, iPod-size X5 ($350; also available at 20GB for $300) has everything that Apple's ice-white wonder does--including music playback, a photo viewer, and on-the-fly playlists--then it piles on video playback, an FM radio, voice and line-in recording, and even the ability to read and save images directly from a digital camera without an adapter. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Unfortunately, the X5 suffers from poor music browsing, some odd design choices, and a half-baked photo viewer; additionally, converting your videos so that they'll work on the player is a multistep process. Video addicts willing to process their movies for the X5 and who don't mind viewing them on a two-inch screen might get a kick out of the palm-size device. But music lovers with gigabytes of songs and iPod converts accustomed to seamless iTunes integration should think carefully before taking the plunge. The latest firmware update (2.10 beta 6) is now available as a free download, which gives the X5 compatiblity with Windows Media DRM 10 (subscription-based downloads). X5 fans looking for better battery performance should take a look at the X5L, which comes in 20GB ($330) and 30GB ($380) sizes and will double the life your battery while adding only a touch of thickness and an ounce to the weight. These X5L versions have great street prices, too--in some cases, more affordable than the regular X5. Measuring 4.1 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches and weighing 5.4 ounces, the black and silver Cowon iAudio X5 is about the same size as the 4G iPod (including the Photo version), but it's lighter, with a thin lower half that slopes inward from the 2-inch LCD. Just below the screen is a tiny, five-way navigational joystick, similar to those we've seen on Cowon's flash-memory players; the play and record buttons as well as a power slider sit on the right side of the device. While the spare layout gives the X5 a clean, uncluttered look, it's a pain having the play button relegated to the right side of the player; we wish it were right next to the joystick for easier access. And for that matter, a scrollwheel or a touch-sensitive slider for navigating our 30GB of files would have been nice.


Cowon iAudio X5

The Good

Small size; video player with 260,000-color LCD; customizable wallpaper; FM radio; line-in and voice recording; photo viewer; text-file reader; excellent sound quality; reads photos directly from digital cameras; compatible with OGG and FLAC formats, as well as subscription WMA tracks.

The Bad

Must plug in an adapter to attach AC, line-in, and USB cables (however, the built-in side USB port handles camer transfers and MTP subscription downloads); so-so control layout; can't autosync music with a PC; can't browse by artist, album, or genre; many video files need to be converted to play on X5; no slide-show mode or music while viewing photos; no autoscanning presets for FM radio.

The Bottom Line

The great-sounding Cowon iAudio X5 looks like an iPod killer on paper, but this palm-size music and video player suffers from mediocre music browsing and some key design missteps.

The 30GB iAudio X5 next to the 30GB iPod Photo: the lower half of the X5 is much thinner than the iPod.

We love the X5's small size and smooth scratch-resistant exterior, but the player's compact form factor comes with a price: namely, the separate plug-in adapter that houses the player's AC, USB, and line-in and line-out inputs. The small adapter (1.25 by 1 by 0.3 inches) plugs into the bottom of the unit, and you'll need it to charge up the player, record from another device, or transfer music and video from your PC, although you can use the X5's other USB port in USB Host mode (see the Features page). Using an adapter probably allowed the designers at Cowon to make the main device as small as it is, but carrying the plastic plug-in around is a hassle, and losing it would be very inconvenient indeed, though you can purchase an extra for $9.

This little adapter is a must if you want to transfer files, use the line-in or line-out ports, or even recharge the device.

Back on the plus side, the X5's 160x128-pixel, 260,000-color display looks good, if tiny at just 2 inches diagonally, with vibrant colors and decent detail, although the so-so resolution results in a noticeable screen-door effect. The display manages to pack in plenty of info, including artist, album, and song names, along with dancing sound-level indicators and a progress bar. You can even use an image from your photo library as wallpaper--a nice touch.

Accessories in the X5 box include a set of decent-sounding earbuds with a stylish dumbbell-type design, as well as a USB cable and a minijack-to-minijack cable for line-in recordings. You can also opt for a protective but slightly cheesy carrying case ($19) that takes away from the overall luster of the X5, an in-line remote control with an LCD ($49), or the docking cradle ($29, and highly recommended), which has ports that mirror the included adapter's.

Setup on the Cowon iAudio X5 is relatively simple, but don't expect to play video files directly out of the box. Using the USB 2.0 port on the included adapter, you connect the player to your PC or Mac; the player should appear as a lettered drive in Explorer or a removable device in Mac OS X, and you can drag music and images into their respective directories. You can also use the included Windows-only JetShell application to organize your tunes or create playlists; the X5 supports standard M3U files. For video files, however, setup is a bit more complicated. The X5 can play video at a mere 15 frames per second, so any video files encoded at a different frame rate must be converted using the Windows-only JetAudio utility. In our tests, we had to run all of our video files through JetAudio for them to play on the X5. Luckily, JetAudio will convert batches of video files, and it processed most of our videos at a relatively speedy 5X. That said, Mac users will have to find another way to make their videos compatible with the Cowon, and the current version of JetAudio doesn't work with QuickTime movies.

The X5 combines its video and music capabilities into an all-purpose digital A/V player, with mixed results. To play videos, you just navigate to the Movie folder and select the file you'd like to watch. You can then skip to the next file or scan forward or backward (up to 64X). However, the image freezes while you're scanning, leaving you with time elapsed/remaining and a progress bar, and there's no slow-motion forward or reverse playback. And while you can add movies to a playlist, you can't bookmark your videos, which means you'll have to scan to the point where you left off if you're interrupted in the middle of a film.

Playing music on the X5 is similar to watching movies; you either navigate to the Music directory to find your tunes, or you can access a playlist. The iAudio supports MP3, OGG, ASF, the lossless FLAC format, WAV, and protected WMA files, including Janus subscription-based downloads; you can also create your own on-the-fly playlist directly on the player. Not bad but you can't browse your tunes by artist, album, or genre--a critical omission, especially if you're dealing with, say, 10GB or more of music. Cowon's October 20 firmware update (2.10 beta 6) makes the X5 compatible with music purchased from WMA-based online music stores and subscription-based music from Napster To Go and others. Please note that you must use the side USB port to make subscription transfers via the MTP protocol.

You can tweak the sound of your tunes with the five-band EQ (which comes with Rock, Jazz, Classical, Pop, and Vocal presets, as well as a user-defined mode) or with the various sound-effect settings, such as BBE, Mach3Bass, MP Enhance, and 3D Surround. We like that you can bookmark your music tracks, which is helpful if you're listening to podcasts, but adding a bookmark is a cumbersome process; you must navigate to the bookmark directory while your track is playing, then bookmark it there. You can use the included JetShell application to move music to the player or create playlists, but you can't sync your PC's music to the X5 à la Apple iTunes.

The X5's serviceable FM radio boasts 24 presets, and you can tune to stations manually or let the player seek the strongest stations. Unfortunately, the X5 won't program the presets automatically, a feature we've seen in plenty of portable music devices. Hear a station you like? You can record it to an MP3 file at bit rates ranging from 64Kbps to 320Kbps, although you can't browse to any other screens while you're recording an FM feed. You can also record voice memos with the built-in mic with bit rates ranging from 32Kbps to 128Kbps. Voice-activated recording is also supported, and you can even encode MP3s from another audio source with the line-in port, which comes with an autosync feature that chops your tunes into separate MP3 tracks when it detects a pause in the music.

The iAudio's picture viewer falls well short when compared to the iPod's picture-handling capabilities. Once you've dragged and dropped images into the X5's Picture directory, you can scroll through your snapshots one by one or view them in a thumbnail format (nine at a time), and you can zoom in for greater detail. However, there's no slide-show feature, and you can't play music while viewing your images--key features that the iPod Photo gets right. This half-baked photo option reminds us a lot of the iRiver H320's. At least you can create folders in the main Picture directory, and you can turn any photo into the player's wallpaper, making for a clever way to personalize the X5.

Want to view the photos sitting in your digital camera? The X5's USB Host mode lets you connect a camera and view or copy the snapshots to the player--a nice feature, save for the fact that only about 30 cameras from Olympus, Sony, Nikon, FujiFilm, Konica Minolta, Kyocera, Panasonic, and Kenox are supported. Cowon says more cameras may be added to the list in a future firmware upgrade.

Extra features include a text-file viewer that lets you listen to music as you read; an autoresume, in which music files resume where you left off but movie files start at the beginning; several repeat modes, including A-B repeat; and an alarm.

We were impressed by the Cowon iAudio X5's sound quality; music sounded clear and crisp on the high end with plenty of room for rumbling bass (20Hz to 20KHz) and almost no perceptible hiss, thanks to a signal-to-noise ration of 95dB. We were able to crank the volume to earsplitting levels of 20mW per channel. The included dumbbell-style earbuds sounded fine to our ears, but we recommend swapping them out for a better pair.

We had no trouble with our test recordings. There was no obvious sound distortion when recording from the line-in port, even with a reasonably loud source, and our voice memos and FM recordings came in loud and clear.

As mentioned above, the X5's video quality is about as good as you can expect with a 160x128-pixel display. The 260,000-color LCD rendered rich, vivid colors, but the relatively low resolution results in a slight screen-door effect, and we detected a little jerkiness in movement due to the player's ceiling of 15 frames per second. As for digital photos, since the X5 doesn't transcode larger images into a device-friendly size, you'll have to wait a few seconds for images that are 1MB and more to render on the screen. Transfer time to the player over USB 2.0 was a brisk 12.4MB per second.

Cowon promises up to 14 hours of playback from the non-user-removable rechargeable lithium-ion battery. CNET Labs was able to coax 14.4 hours playing back MP3 files. This is an average figure these days, but expect to get less if you're watching movies or checking out digital photos. If you've fallen in love with the Cowon iAudio X5, we recommend at least checking out the X5L version, available for $330 and $380 for the 20GB and 30GB versions, respectively. While they both add thickness (about 1/5 inch) and weight (6.42 ounces), the battery life is rated for up to 35 hours. CNET Labs was able to coax 27.2 hours out of the X5L, well below the rated battery life but still impressive. Transfer times came in at a brisk 12MB per second.


Cowon iAudio X5

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 9Performance 8