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With a big, bright screen that looks great when playing videos and a ten-band equalizer, the 30GB Cowon A3 is an impressive multimedia player. It's also an overall improvement over its predecessor, the Cowon A2. Unfortunately, the A3's bulky size and unintuitive controls are frustrating.
The headline feature of the A3 is its beautiful, 4-inch, 800-by-400-pixel, wide-aspect LCD screen. It performed as nicely as the screen on the A2 did, showing sharp colors and smooth movement, with no ghosted or blurry images, during my playback tests. Regrettably, Cowon didn't include a case (as it did with the A2), which is a shame considering the A3's scratch- and fingerprint-prone screen.
The A3 supports about as many file types as we've seen for a portable device. On the audio end, that includes MP3, WMA, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, OGG FLAC, Apple Lossless, and AAC/AAC+, but the device won't work with DRM-protected songs from online music stores such as iTunes or Napster. You may not want to put a lot of music files on the A3, anyway, because it doesn't support ID3 tag sorting. Instead, the A3 uses a file-tree system that you must manually organize on your PC through Windows Explorer or a similar file management program before syncing to the device. With its built-in microphone, the A3 also supports lossless FLAC as well as WMA audio recording.
The A3's audio quality improved significantly over that of the A2. The signal-to-noise ratio (the higher the number, the cleaner the sound) of the A2 was a lower-than-average 71dB; for the A3, it's 85dB, which is higher than that of some of our top-ranked players.
During my hands-on tests, the rich audio quality was ideal for watching movies on the A3's top-notch screen. Audio sounded fine through the included earbuds, but if you really want to enjoy the A3's rich sound, swap them out for higher-quality headphones. The ten-band equalizer allows you to control the frequencies and bandwidths of each band, making the A3's sound adaptable for the many file types it supports.
As a video player, the A3 is very flexible--it can play back files in AVI, DivX, XviD, MP4, ASF, MKV, VOB, OGM, WMV 7, H.264, MPEG, DAT, and MTV formats. You don't even need to convert many file formats; you simply copy them over to the player (which appears as a USB hard drive when connected to a PC), and they play straight away. Additionally, the A3 natively handles 1280 by 720 HD, the highest-quality video resolution. H.264, however, requires decoding through the included Cowon Media software. The device also supports the JPG, GIF, PNG, TIF, BMP, and RAW photo formats.
The A3 functions as a portable DVR, too, and you can use it to record MPEG-4 video from your TV, VCR, or camcorder. It also has HDTV input/output support; video played back smoothly when I hooked it up to my TV.
Cowon slimmed down the A3 slightly from the A2, but it's still a bit bricklike in weight and shape. At 5.2 by 3.1 by 0.9 inches, this isn't a pocket-size device. The 30GB model weighs 9.9 ounces, hefty when compared with other portable media players on the market. The second-generation iPod Touch, for example, weighs a scant 4 ounces and is only 0.33 inches thick.
You access most of the controls by way of a joystick and four buttons that reside below. One button jumps back one menu screen, but the rest of the buttons have different functions depending on the context in which you use them; each button's current function appears at the bottom of the screen. The arrangement puts often-used options within easy reach; for example, you can add a currently playing track to a playlist by pressing a button.
Joystick navigation can be frustrating, however. Scrolling through your collection using the tiny joystick and then pushing it in to make a selection isn't the most efficient process. More often than not, when I tried to push the joystick, I accidentally shifted it up or down. My fingers are relatively small, so I can't imagine the headaches that someone with larger hands would have in trying to maneuver it.
If you're looking for a single portable device to carry both your audio and video files, the Cowon A3 probably isn't your best choice. But as a portable video player, the A3 has just about everything you could want--if you can tolerate the tiny joystick and unintuitive interface.
This story, "Cowon A3 (30GB) Portable Video Player" was originally published by PCWorld.
With its gorgeous screen and superb audio quality, the Cowon A3 is a great video player, but its design could be slimmed down