Cowon's most ambitious product to date, the Cowon Q5W, is a super-charged, touch-screen portable video player (PVP) with an astounding list of features. The Cowon Q5W comes with a hefty price tag ($549 for 40GB, $599 for 60GB), however, and its dense, needlessly complicated feature set may overwhelm some users.
With a recessed 5-inch wide-screen display and elegant metal construction, the Cowon Q5W looks like a Cowon D2 on steroids. Considering that the Q5W comes in at nearly a pound of unwieldy metal girth--measuring 5.5 inches wide, 3.5 inches high, and 0.8 inch thick--it would also make a decent weapon should you choose to hurl it at someone. Anyone shopping for high-capacity portable video players is likely resigned to issues of size and weight anyhow, so let's dive into the heart of what makes any PVP worthwhile: the screen.
The Cowon Q5W's 5-inch touch screen (800x480 resolution) is both beautiful and responsive. Like those on most PVPs, the Q5W's display is constructed with a reflective plastic that limits visibility in direct sunlight. Despite its secondary use as a mirror, however, low-light conditions make colors dramatically pop on the screen, especially compared with the less-reflective matte finishes found on the Archos line of PVPs. Like any proper PVP, the Cowon Q5W's screen is recessed slightly from the face of the player offering some protection against wear and tear.
The top edge of the Cowon Q5W includes conveniently located buttons for controlling volume, a power switch that doubles as a hold button for disabling onscreen controls, two built-in speakers, an infrared sensor for the included remote control, and a pinhole microphone for creating voice recordings. A useful (often necessary) stylus pen for the Q5W's touch screen is conveniently housed in the top-right edge of the player. Packed into the left edge of the Q5W are jacks for a 3.5mm headphone cable, a 2.5mm headset cable (for voice recording), a power adapter input, a USB-to-PC port, a USB host port, and the oddest feature of all: a fragile, retractable antenna that we first thought was for the FM radio, but is actually used for Wi-Fi reception. The back, bottom, and right edge of the Q5W are bare, save a small proprietary port on the bottom for the player's AV cable output and optional GPS dock.
Although Cowon has proven its track record for making solid, attractive hardware time and again, the company's software interface performance is historically inconsistent. This time around, the Q5W's software interface is remarkably attractive, but there's a catch. After booting the Q5W, a slick Cowon-branded graphical menu system separates the player's media applications (music, videos, games) from other features such as the Web browser, utilities (voice recording and settings), and Windows applications like WordPad. Sounds great, right?
Unfortunately, the attractive Cowon-branded browser is really just an application that runs on top of the Windows CE 5 operating system at the root of the device. The minute you need to perform some mundane task such as setting up the Q5W's wireless connection, the comfortable Cowon interface gives way to the all-too-familiar graveyard of the Windows desktop. For a device meant to provide a fun distraction from the daily grind, the Windows desktop experience can be unsettling and confusing.
The Cowon Q5W is undoubtedly the most feature-packed PVP we've ever reviewed, thanks to its built-in wireless Internet connection, Bluetooth audio streaming capability, Internet Explorer Web browser, Flash game support, and some limited Microsoft application support. The Q5W supports an extensive list of acceptable audio and video formats (including DivX, XVID, WMV, MPEG, and audio formats such as MP3, WMA, WAV, ASF, OGG, FLAC, APE, MPC), but chokes on AAC, h.264, MKV, VOB, and MOV files.
Beyond the in-depth audio and video playback features, the Cowon Q5W includes a built-in FM radio, standalone Flash file player (presumably for games), photo viewer, text reader, and voice recorder. The Q5W also includes a suite of Microsoft applications that run natively on its Windows CE 5 operating system, including MSN Messenger, Internet Explorer, WordPad (which makes the text reader somewhat redundant), and a couple of card games. For an extra $35, you can also have Cowon bundle a suite of Microsoft Office reader applications, allowing you to read (but not alter or save) files created in Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Adobe Acrobat. Because the Cowon Q5W is based on the Windows CE 5 operating system, there is the potential to run third-party software designed for this antiquated platform--but don't get your hopes up. Why Cowon chose to embed the relatively antique Windows CE 5 into the Q5W instead of a more recent mobile OS such as Windows Mobile 6 is beyond us.
For an additional $199, Cowon can provide you with an in-car dock for the Q5W that will enable its GPS navigation feature. If you can get past the fact that adding the GPS feature puts the Q5W's price close to $800, the added GPS functionality is useful. Evaluated as a GPS device, the Cowon Q5W's best features are its large screen and attractively rendered maps. That said, those who are serious about GPS will find the Cowon Q5W's navigation interface unnecessarily complicated.
Audio fidelity has always been one of Cowon's strong suits, and the Q5W carries on this tradition. Included with the Q5W is the same exhaustive list of JetShell sound-enhancement features found in its standout D2 and iAudio 7 players. While the music may sound fantastic, sorting it on the Cowon Q5W is a mess. The menu structure on the Q5W is strictly a hierarchal listing of files and folders, with no means to sort music using common ID3 tags such as artist, album, genre, or song title. We do like the Q5W's support for album artwork, although we wish the interface showed it more prominently on the luxurious 5-inch screen.
Fortunately, Cowon really nailed the video player feature of the Q5W. Unlike music, sorting through movies using basic file-tree navigation is not a problem. Once selected, movies launched quickly and features such as bookmarking and scaling playback were a cinch. Advanced features such as multilanguage subtitle support, 3D stereo enhancement, and independently adjustable controls for brightness, contrast, and saturation, make the Cowon Q5W one of the most tweakable PVPs we've laid our hands on. An included AV cable lets you play your movies on your television, as well.
The Cowon Q5W might be a killer PVP, but its Wi-Fi capabilities need some work. Compared with the ease of the iPod Touch or Archos 605 WiFi, configuring the Q5W's Wi-Fi connection was a huge pain. Once up and running, we gave the Windows CE 5 edition of Internet Explorer a spin. After tweaking a few settings, we were able to get YouTube videos to play with no problem, although some flash video sites (like CNET) didn't fare as well.
Pairing the Q5W with a Bluetooth headset wasn't nearly as convoluted as configuring its Wi-Fi connection. The bigger question is what to do with the Bluetooth connection once you have it. If you have Bluetooth-capable speakers around the house, perhaps the most practical Bluetooth application of the Q5W is to use it as a handheld wireless jukebox--albeit an expensive one.
Few of the Q5W's most interesting features would be of any use without an onscreen keyboard. The Q5W's touch-screen keyboard can be launched at any time from the bottom menu bar and operated either with the included stylus, or enlarged for use with your fingers. While the Cowon Q5W's onscreen keyboard can't hold a candle to the intelligent multitouch keyboard used on the iPod Touch, it's comparable with the keyboard found on the Archos 605 WiFi.
Finally, there's the question of battery life. Cowon estimates that the Q5W's battery can endure 7 hours of video playback and 14 hours of audio. While Cowon's numbers seem to give the Q5W an edge over the competition, historically we've found that PVP battery-life ratings can vary drastically based on backlight settings, volume, and wireless use. We'll update this review with our official CNET labs results once testing is complete. Regardless of the final results, users should know that the Q5W can only be charged using an included power adapter (so don't lose it). Total charging time is estimated at 5.5 hours.
Only a handful of high-capacity (30GB and up) PVPs that compete with the Q5W, namely the Archos 605 WiFi, the Creative Zen Vision W, and Cowon's own A3. The Archos 605 WiFi has the most features in common with the Q5W, including Wi-Fi, an 800x480 screen resolution, and touch-screen navigation. Philosophically (and financially) they are very different products. Cowon tends to include as many features as possible right out of the box, whereas Archos offers customers a base product that users can upgrade as they see fit. There's no clear victor between the two devices, except to say that if you do not value the Q5W's built-in video output, extensive file support, Bluetooth capability, integrated Microsoft applications, and superior sound-enhancement technology, you should probably save your money by opting for a competitor.