Editors' note: In September 2010, the rating for the Cowon S9 was lowered slightly to account for its relative value compared with newer products.
The Cowon S9 is the first-touch screen MP3 player of 2009 to give Apple's iPod Touch a run for its money. Available in 8GB ($199) and 16GB ($239) capacities, the Cowon S9 is distinguished by its phenomenal audio quality and OLED touch-screen display.
Picking up the Cowon S9, the first thing you'll notice is how incredibly light it is (2.7 ounces), which is nearly half the weight of the iPod Touch. Normally this is the kind of thing we would applaud, but the S9 is so impossibly light that it feels more like a toy than $200 worth of technology. After a week of subjecting the S9 to daily wear and tear, however, we're happy to report the S9 is more resilient than we first anticipated. The 3.75 inches by 4.25 inches of clear plastic that covers the face of the S9 is inordinately scratch-resistant, and the dark-colored back and sides hide nicks and smudges much better than the shiny chrome of the iPod can.
The only glaring weak point we found with the S9's construction is the thin, plastic play button lodged into the top edge of the screen. Mistaking the button for a retractable stylus, we nearly ripped the button off just moments after taking the S9 out of the box (the button has been a bit wobbly ever since). Luckily for us, the S9's play button is duplicated by the onscreen playback controls.
On the same top edge of the player you'll find a track-skip switch (also duplicated onscreen) and a volume switch. If it were up to us, we'd lose the S9's play and skip buttons to lessen confusion, because more often than not we brushed the play button accidentally or hit track skip when we meant to turn up the volume.
The bottom edge of the S9 offers a power-hold switch, headphone jack, and a 20-pin USB jack more common to cell phones than MP3 players. Having the headphone jack smack in the middle of the S9's bottom edge makes it a bit awkward to hold in landscape view, and unless there's a good excuse, we always prefer to see mini-USB jacks on portable devices than specialized connectors.
In spite of all the little faults we could nitpick about, the Cowon S9's hardware scores big when it comes to the screen. Not only does the S9 use a lightening-fast capacitive touch interface (comparable to the iPhone's), but its 3.3-inch screen is made from OLED instead of conventional LCD. The S9's screen isn't as large as the 3.5-inch screen on the iPod Touch, but it comes very close and is noticeably more substantial than the screen on the Samsung P2. If you're picky about screen quality, the S9's 480x272 OLED display does not disappoint: the colors are vibrant, contrast is excellent, and there isn't a single viewing angle that doesn't look great.
Hardware has always been Cowon's strong suit, but its track record with user interfaces has been hit or miss. For the most part, the onscreen user interface of the S9 is one of the best we've ever seen from Cowon. The main menu is spacious, the touch screen is responsive, and we liked the extra details, such as icon animation and page transitions. Unfortunately, despite being Cowon's best effort, Apple and Samsung have set the bar incredibly high with the interfaces of their touch-screen media players, which have benefited from the parallel development of touch-screen mobile phones.
Our overriding criticism of the S9's user interface is that it tries to do too much. For example, in order to fit controls for shuffle modes, song repeat, play and pause, skip, A-B loop, EQ, and tilt-sensor lock onto the S9's music playback screen, Cowon used a control strip across the bottom of the screen that flips around to reveal a second set of controls. When pressed, some of these controls (EQ, for instance) pop up new menus that overlay across the screen, requiring a precise click to close. We can appreciate the ambitious amount of options Cowon is trying to offer the user, but at some point it just becomes messy--especially on a touch screen.
The Cowon S9 handles an impressive array of audio and video formats and throws in extras, such as Bluetooth audio, FM radio, voice recording, radio recording, BBE+ sound enhancement, a text reader, and a Flash media player that begs for games (none are included). If you're willing to shell out an additional $9, you can also buy an accessory cable that enables the S9's video-output capabilities.
From the audio side of things, the S9 offers support for MP3, WMA, FLAC, OGG, WAV, and APE and allows you to sort your collection by both ID3 attributes (artist, album, genre) or folder tree. The music-playback screen includes album art, track controls, EQ settings, file information, and options for bookmarking songs or adding them to an on-the-go playlist. Like the iPod Touch, a tilt sensor inside the S9 changes the music-playback screen to an album browser when the device is turned on its side. The S9's ability to connect in MSC and MTP modes allowed us to use it on both a Mac and PC without any problems.