Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

To get straight to the point, there were three reasons I wanted to check out Cowon’s iAudio X5 “color sound” portable meda device: first, I wanted to see how well a device the physical size of an iPod could handle video; second, I was intensely curious about its audio capabilities, which some people have recently been touting as iPod-rivalling; and third, I wondered whether the recent surge in hype for a relatively unknown Korean company was the work of genuinely enthuisastic fans, viral marketers, or both.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

Now that I’ve played with the X5 for myself, I have a better idea of the answers to those questions. Click on Read More for the story and our thoughts on this interesting evolution of the pocket digital music player.
Even in our prior incarnation as iPodlounge, we developed a pretty good reputation for calling things like we saw them – unlike Apple, for instance, we’ve never maintained that every Apple-branded product deserved a perfect five-star rating, and we’ve run a few articles imploring Apple to add various features to its iPods. Why? It’s not that we’re perfectionists or so techno-gaga that we need to have more in our music players, but we’re realists: there are some great things that iPods could do, but don’t.

Apple’s choice to go minimalistic was intentional, brilliant, and dangerous. When Apple started to sell iPods, Creative Labs was selling Nomad Jukeboxes – Discman- and Walkman-sized MP3 players, some with great audio customization features taken from Creative’s sound cards. The iPod was smaller, more expensive, and in the name of ease of use didn’t bog users down with features Apple assumed people didn’t care much about – like audio customization. Spec-for-spec, the Nomads had a lot to recommend them, but iPods were simple, pocketable, and cool. Apple blew past Creative and never looked back. But because Creative and its rivals can’t copy some of Apple’s patented iPod look and feel, they have continued to try and compete on features.

The Hardware

Cowon’s iAudio X5 is the handheld audio/video player Creative might have made if it hadn’t developed the oversized, $500 Zen Portable Media Center, which didn’t do so well after its holiday 2004 release and has now faded into obscurity. As noted in our earlier preview, the cheapest version of X5 is about the size, color and weight of a U2 iPod, can be had for a mass market-friendly $299, plays music, movies, and photos, and runs for around 14 hours before requiring a recharge. These are all good things, and Cowon sweetens the pot by offering 10 extra GB of space and 20 extra hours of internal battery life at small additional premiums.

Instead of a scrolling pad or wheel, X5 uses a five-position joystick that alternates between iPod shuffle features (volume and track selection)and menu navigation, depending on context, plus a series of three controls on its right side: a dual-purpose hold and power switch, a Record button, and a Play/Pause button. A hard reset is performed with a pinhole on the bottom right side; headphones are plugged in on the left, both choices a bit different but not objectionable. Once you’ve pressed play, using the X5 isn’t too much of a struggle, but turning it on and initially choosing tracks is a bit of a pain, thanks to those controls and this menu system.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

Yeah, that’s a stripped down DOS-style file and folder system, which you navigate with the joystick. It’s the first thing you see when you want to hunt for a song or movie – not too cool, and it will scare grandma away, but computer science majors will feel right at home.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

Cowon also includes a bunch of other items in the box. You get a set of decent (if Frankenstein-ish) black and silver earphones, X5-to-audio and -USB data cables, and a female USB to male mini USB adapter in the box. We’ll explain the relevance of that in a moment.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

Like the iPod, X5 has a proprietary connector on its bottom, but unlike the iPod requires you to connect two included pieces – a “subpack” with USB, line in, out, and power ports, plus a wall charger – if you want to keep it running. The subpack turns out to be a pretty interesting idea, acting as a single go-between peripheral between the X5 and any standard cables you might want to connect.  Cowon also includes a black rubber connector cover so that you can keep the pins safe – an omission from post-3G iPods – and PC software called JetAudio and JetShell.

Software

We’ll spare only a few words on the software. Misnamed in the same way as iTunes, JetAudio handles conversion of audio and video files (not photos) to X5-readable formats – which incidentally outstrip in number the ones supported by the iPod – while JetShell is a not-so-useful file transfer application that basically duplicates the features of the Windows desktop. Suffice to say that both programs work, but they won’t blow you away or rival iTunes in ease of use any time soon. It would be great if we could say that neither program was necessary, but JetAudio is essential if you want to use the X5 to watch movies.

Performance of Key Features: Audio

The X5’s greatest strength is its audio performance, which we’ll simply describe as nearly perfect. Aside from the device’s support for MP3, WMA, and Ogg Vorbis audio formats, the latter preferred by a noisy group of audio fans, the device allows for a great deal of sound customization without changing headphones or using separate knobs on external amplifiers and speaker systems. Buried within a “JetEffect” menu are a collection of audio settings, most notably a five-band graphic equalizer with presets and easy-to-use custom settings. You can tune the five bands independently by selecting any one and moving it up and down, increasing the bass, treble, and midrange of your music.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

There are also settings such as “BBE,” a treble enhancer turned up to 5 of 10 by default, a separate “Mach3Bass” enhancer which is turned up to its maximum 10 setting by default, giving many the false impression that the X5 “sounds better” than the iPod, an artificial 3D surround sound spacializer, a feature called “MP Enhance” to compensate for compression in digital audio files, and “pan,” the ability to rebalance the weights of your left and right audio channels. Separately, it offers “fade-in,” which isn’t the long-desired crossfade, but close enough.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

We say “false impression” for only one reason: those demanding accuracy from their audio will be thrilled with the iPod’s flat, accurate reproduction of recorded sounds, but between the default Mach3Bass and five-band equalizer, X5 wants you to know quickly that it caters very well to the many people who love and place emphasis on a unit’s bass response. It’s a smart exploitation of Apple’s choice not to radically improve the bass enhancement of its weak preset equalizers, and one that could be marketed well to X5’s advantage.

The X5 is a superstar on recording functionality. As noted in the preview, it records from its built-in (and good) FM radio tuner or line-in from any other audio device at up to 320kbps, 44.1Khz, and records voices through a built-in (right-hand) mic at up to 128kbps. These features shame the iPod’s weak 8Khz recording, intentionally crippled by Apple as a means to appease the recording industry.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

At the start of this section, we used the words “nearly perfect” for a reason: equalizers and recording functionality aren’t exactly novel to the X5 – for instance, even early high-capacity MP3 players such as iRiver’s SlimX and Creative’s original Zen Nomad offered better-than-iPod equalization. In fact, the Zen also included time scaling features we continue to love even today. The X5 does a great job of letting you tweak the sound of your audio, but it’s not comprehensive in that regard – it’s just really good.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

But – and this is the part of the review that’s as tough to write as it is to acknowledge mentally – it’s almost as if none of these really great audio features even matters at this point without the iPod’s music organization interface and controls. The iPod’s strength is that you can use one hand to find any random song from a catalog of 15,000 in a matter of seconds, start playing it, and smoothly move to other tracks. You just can’t do that with X5 unless you’re exceedingly dextrous and well-organized using the old-fashioned file system.

Movies

The single most intriguing feature of the X5 is the one that may inspire debates between fans and cautious observers – AVI movie playback. For specific applications, such as playback of televised cartoons, the X5 is adequate, not fantastic. But for watching full-length movies, television shows, and other live-action programming, the X5 falls short of consumer expectations, and has no prayer of competing with Apple’s future portable video hardware.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

In the era before Sony released the PlayStation, Sega struggled to push its first-generation Sega CD accessory to play back videos with an acceptable frame rate, color palette, and screen size. The 16-bit hardware never proved truly up to the task, and another generation or two passed before movies became popular on game consoles.

The X5 is the Sega CD of portable video players. Its screen is actually smaller than the iPod’s, and plays movies back at a resolution of 160×120 or lower, stripping off pixels on the top and bottom for widescreen viewing. Still, its video shows all of the telltale signs of compression, with flattened colors, a low (15fps) frame rate, and the occasional audio-to-video synchronization glitch. This is fine for episodes of South Park, which we tested and enjoyed on X5, but we weren’t as impressed with live-action programs. Even if some people are willing to tolerate it for cartoons or light viewing, it’s just not where it needs to be visually to win over average users.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

A second and equally significant problem is its transcoding requirement. The initial appeal of its “AVI” support is mitigated by the fact that AVI is only a wrapper for other video formats, and despite the fact that you think you might already have some compatible files, you probably don’t. So you’ll need to convert everything you own, a file at a time.

Though we’re sure that there’s some exception to this general rule, we found that the X5 was unable to natively play any file we dropped on to it without conversion. This included movies made by digital cameras and ones encoded with various tools in various “AVI” formats. Mac and Linux users don’t have a simple solution to this problem, but PC owners can turn on JetAudio and start encoding in the 256kbps xVid video, MP3 audio format required by X5. (We found JetAudio to be generally quite good at transcoding from various formats into the xVid format.) Our test 2.4Ghz machine generally ran at an acceptable 4 to 6 times the actual speed of movies and TV shows we tried to encode, such that a 1 hour, 44 minute movie took 25 minutes to encode, while a 22 minute clip took 4 minutes. Users of different PCs will see substantial variations.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

The solution to the transcoding problem? Get a device that plays back any video without transcoding, or one that supports playback of clips in the dominant format you own. This isn’t anywhere near as easy in the movie world as it was in the MP3-dominated music world, and bodes just as poorly for Apple as Cowon unless future iPods can natively play back MPEG-1, -2, and -4/DiVX format films, or quickly rip DVDs into Apple’s preferred H.264 format. As far as we’re concerned, any portable video player will be only a partial solution if it doesn’t provide some support for popular legacy formats, just as the iPod would have failed spectacularly as an AAC-only device.

As a minor gripe, the X5’s lack of an external speaker turns out to be more relevant than we had expected when watching videos. There are times when you just don’t want to wear earphones when listening to a movie, and the X5 doesn’t cater to that desire at all. The fact that its headphone jack is found on the left side almost guarantees that no top-mounting speaker accessory will solve that problem, either.

Photos

The X5 is a mixed bag as far as photos are concerned. It can transfer, store, and display JPEG-format digital photographs without any computer assistance or optional peripherals, and includes an adapter for other devices’ USB cables. (You can use this adapter with the unit’s bottom port, or connect it to the X5’s left-side USB Host port, another interesting addition.) Playback is more sophisticated on a per-photo basis than the iPod; you can zoom in and out of photographs it displays on screen – very slowly, for large pictures – and turn any photograph it can read into wallpaper for its file-selection interface. It’s not super-impressive, but it’s better than the iPod in these regards.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

But in our testing, it did have some other, equally annoying problems. It was uneven, for instance, when displaying photographs: half of the JPEGs we tested worked, half did not. Its thumbnail view – only nine images per screen – was slow, didn’t display some pictures correctly, and of course had none of the slideshow features included on all color iPods. And its pictures folder inexplicably disappears in its standard “Digital AV” listing of folders, requiring you to go to a separate menu to access the shots, even though movies and music are accessed separately.

Backstage: Cowon iAudio X5 – cheap, pocketable video, with tradeoffs

Overall, the X5’s photo tradeoffs weren’t smarter than the iPod’s; in fact, for many people, they’ll be more annoying. Apple makes you buy a Camera Connector or use iTunes to transfer your photos from a camera, but once you do, they all display properly. There’s no software or hardware that guarantees the X5 will do that, so you’ll need to find ways to resize oddly formatted or otherwise incompatible pictures yourself.

Conclusions

Cowon’s iAudio X5 is at once an evolution and a devolution of the current color iPod, adding audio and video features that specific niches of users will like, but encumbering them with hardware and interface limitations that Apple fans would never accept. Other than its sound enhancement functionality, which will particularly please bassheads, it’s not that tempting – the sort of portable media player designed for people who want more audio functionality than what’s offered in today’s iPods, but aren’t willing to wait and see video, photo, and interface features done perfectly. That makes it a potentially attractive iPod alternative for new buyers, but not a viable replacement for current iPod owners.

That conclusion brings us to the last of the three questions I posed at the start of this review – is the iAudio’s recent surge in media attention the result of viral marketing, good traditional marketing, or just noisy word of mouth from a surprising number of strongly opinionated, unpaid fans? We twice put the viral question directly to Cowon’s public relations firm, which didn’t give us a definitive “no” or “yes” either time, but we can’t rule out the possibility that people legitimately feel passionate about the X5. When a company like Cowon beats Apple to satisfying the needs of people who have repeatedly asked for more control over their sound than the iPod offers, that company deserves its cheerleaders. We’ll be returning our X5, but we won’t be surprised when we hear that other people are keeping theirs.

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