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In the U.S., Cowon has a reputation for ambitious portable media players that perform well but cost too much. The Cowon O2 touch-screen portable video player, however, makes amends for Cowon's pricey past, thanks to this player's triple-threat of price, compatibility, and battery life.
The Cowon O2 comes in 8GB ($219), 16GB ($249), and 32GB ($299) capacities, in both black and white (the 8GB model only comes in white). The device is surprisingly easy to pocket, with a 4.7-inch-by-2.9-inch-by-0.7-inch body that's not much bigger than the original iPod. Despite its plastic housing, the O2's construction feels sturdy and its shock-resistant Flash memory allows you to casually toss it into your travel bag without inducing a panic attack.
A 4.3-inch touch-screen LCD dominates the face of the O2, surrounded by a smooth, beveled plastic frame that offers the screen some scratch protection. The only two mechanical controls on the Cowon O2 are exactly the kind we like to see on touch-screen devices: a volume rocker up on top and a power/hold switch on the right side. The left side of the O2 includes a headphone jack near the top, a DC power input near the bottom (adapter included), and a hinged door in the middle that conceals the O2's mini USB port, SDHC card slot, and a pinhole reset switch. For an extra $10, Cowon sells a cable that transforms the O2's mini USB port into a composite AV output that hooks up to your TV. The O2 doesn't offer any video-recording capabilities, however, so if you're jonesing for a portable AV recorder, you'll need to step up to the Cowon A3.
Other small hardware design details on the Cowon O2 include a quarter-inch square speaker grille on the back, a slender LED charging indicator on the top, a pinhole microphone located below the power switch on the right, and a loophole punched through the bottom right corner that can attach to the included fold-out kickstand that doubles as a stylus.
To see the real design beauty of the Cowon O2, you'll need to take a look at its user interface. It takes a quick 8 seconds to boot up the O2, at which point you'll see an attractive and spaciously arranged main menu screen that winks at the iPhone's rounded-square menu icons. Unlike Cowon's Q5W's or the Archos 5's, the O2's main menu doesn't cram too much info onto the screen; rather, it offers five features in order of importance: Videos; Music; Pictures; Documents; and a Recent Files folder that gives quick access to any recently used media regardless of content type. Large arrows above and below the five menu icons bring up the O2's settings options and lesser-used features such as a voice recorder, timer, notepad, and calculator.
Beyond the O2's main menu screen, however, Cowon's spacious, touch-friendly graphical user interface (GUI) philosophy begins to erode. The O2 lists files in a tiny type that requires some fingertip dexterity to accurately browse and select. Music fans accustomed to browsing files using commonplace ID3 tags, such as genre or album, may scream when they encounter the Cowon O2's strict file-tree organization (although some users prefer the organizational freedom it affords). For example, if you've got the O2 in your hands and want to hear some jazz, you're not going to be able to select "jazz" from a list of genres and hit play. Instead, you'll need to browse to a specific jazz artist in your collection, or spend some time creating a jazz playlist ahead of time and transfer it to the O2.
We also noticed that the experience of diving in and out of menus to locate media on the Cowon O2 isn't quite as elegant as using Apple's iPod Touch. Whether you're searching for music, videos, or photos, backing out of folders on the O2 requires a single tap on one of several ambiguous icons lining the bottom of the screen, or a double-tap on a root folder whose ".." label will make Linux users feel at home, but likely confuse others.
At a time when manufacturers are intent on cramming their portable products with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, e-mail, and streaming YouTube players, it's refreshing to see a touch-screen device that keeps things simple. The O2's handful of capabilities may seem old school, but features such as hi-def video playback, SDHC memory expansion, a 10-band graphic EQ, and raw photo support, offer discriminating users the kind of power and flexibility they won't find on a product like the iPhone.
First and foremost, the Cowon O2 is made for video playback. Unlike the iPod, Zune, or most video-capable MP3 players, the Cowon O2 doesn't impose many restrictions on what type or what size videos it plays. If your video library is a cornucopia of file formats and resolutions (video podcasts, DivX DVD rips, unprotected DVR files) and you want a zero-fuss way to take that content on the go without the headache of converting files, the O2 is your best choice for less than $300. Specifically, the O2 plays back AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MKV, OGM, DAT, MTV, DivX, XviD, MPEG-4, WMV 9/8/7, H.264, M-JPEG, and MPEG 1. The O2 is also agnostic when it comes to video resolution, accepting files all the way up to 1,280x720 at 30fps. It is, however, missing support for MOV, VOB, and the protected WMV format used by Amazon Video On Demand, Cinema Now, and some DVR systems.
Aside from loading, playing, pausing, and skipping around your video files, the O2 also offers advanced features such as manual bookmarking (Cowon calls it "favoriting"), multiple aspect ratios, pan and scan controls for zooming content to full screen, 3D sound enhancement, subtitle support, and the ability to select between multiple audio tracks. Using an optional $10 AV cable, you can also output video (or any of the O2's features) to composite-compatible TV set.
The O2's music features are equally impressive, although, as we mentioned before, sorting through your collection can be a pain. The exhaustive list of format support includes: MP3, WMA, WMA Lossless (not advertised, but it works), AC3, AAC, FLAC, OGG Vorbis, OGG FLAC, Apple Lossless, True Audio, Monkey Audio, MusePack, WavPack, G.726, and PCM. What you don't get is compatibility with DRM-protected WMA tracks (including subscription music) or protected AAC tracks from iTunes. In typical Cowon style, the O2 includes tons of audio enhancement features, including the same EQ presets and BBE enhancement effects found on the Cowon D2 and iAudio 7. The O2 goes one better, however, by including a customizable 10-band EQ with independent frequency bandwidth settings you can switch between narrow and wide.
Video and audio playback are the headline features on the O2, however, Cowon also throws in a voice recorder, text reader, calculator, notepad, and a photo viewer that supports JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and raw images. Because the O2 allows you to both read and copy files from the SD card slot, the player's large screen makes for a handy, portable photo album (or just a nice place to offload photos to free up space on your camera).
The Cowon O2's 480x272 screen resolution is mediocre compared with the breathtaking screens found on the Archos 5 or Cowon A3, but we prefer it to the video experience of the iPod Touch. We noticed some slight darkening on the O2's screen when tilted slightly upward, but viewing angles are otherwise great. Cowon includes display settings for brightness and independent color balance control over red, green, blue, and black. Considering the price, the Cowon O2's video performance is outstanding and the range of playback control and file compatibility is impossible to match. If there's one thing we could change, however, it would be the O2's inability to automatically resume interrupted playback. Sometimes you need to watch a video in small doses, and it's convenient to have a PVP that remembers where you left off. The O2 allows users to manually bookmark their videos, but it's not quite as convenient as the autoresume feature found on the iPod.
The O2's audio playback is fantastic, although the earbuds bundled with the player don't do it justice. All the sound enhancement and EQ features that have made Cowon products such as the D2 and iAudio 7 popular with audio enthusiasts are here on the O2, as well. We were skeptical of the O2's claim to support Apple Lossless music files, but lo and behold, our lossless version of Radiohead's OK Computer sounded beautiful, especially through full-size cans like the Ultrasone HFI-2200.
Cowon claims that the O2 will get up to 8 hours of video playback (under "optimal" conditions) before surrendering. CNET Labs verified Cowon's claims with test results reaching just a hair over 8 hours, putting the O2 far beyond the 4 hours of video life on the Archos 5, and ahead of the 6 hours of video on the iPod Touch. Audio battery life isn't as impressive, rated at 18 hours (CNET Labs results averaged 17 hours), but it's still ahead of the 12 hours of playback time on the Archos 5. Another thing to bear in mind is that all of the O2's competitors require a proprietary cable to recharge the battery, which can be a huge pain if you lose the cable while traveling. The O2 charges best when using the included AC adapter, but you can charge over its Mini-USB connection, as well.