Cowon iAudio S9 PMP
Step forward, first real iPod Touch beater
Review Monopolies are never a good thing and, frankly, Apple's iPod Touch  has had things its own way for rather too long.
Yes, there are better MP3 players  and better PMPs , but the former are all too small to realistically watch movies on while the latter are just too big to be easily slipped into a pocket. Direct competition, such as it was, came only from the Samsung P2  but the P2's screen and storage were both too small. Video file support being limited to WMV didn't help, either.
Cowon's iAudio S9: on yer bike, iPod Touch
Now Cowon's S9 has rolled up with the clear intention of wiping the smile right off the Touch's face.
In terms of external dimensions, the S9 couldn't be much closer to the Touch. At 106 x 56 x 12.7mm it's a shade shorter and narrower but a bit thicker around the middle – though it tapers towards the top and bottom. At only 68g, though, the S9 has the 115g Touch beaten. Yes, the S9 is clearly made of plastic, but it's still well made, and solid.
The S9 isn't devoid of exterior controls, quite the contrary. Up top there are volume, pause/play/menu and forward/back/scan rocker controls, while at the bottom there is an on/off/lock slider. But it's the touchscreen that does the donkey work.
Unfortunately, at some point between the design of the iAudio A3  and the S9, Cowon decided that proprietary USB ports are a really good idea. We beg to differ. At least it has a 3.5mm earphone socket, on the bottom.
Chatter generated by the first sightings of the S9 suggested that the UI was half-baked. Either those reports were nonsense or Cowon upped its game before the official release, because, as it stands, the S9's UI is not half bad.
To start with, the accelerometer is perfectly calibrated. Flip the S9 over to the left or right and the screen immediately and quickly re-orientates itself. Secondly, the resistive screen – you can use it with your gloves on while iPod owners get frostbite - reacts promptly and accurately to both taps and swipes. As most menu list commands require a double-tap, this is handy. The S9 seldom mistakes a tap for a swipe, or vice versa.
The circular FM radio tuning dial is a nice design feature and a good example of how well the touchscreen functions. Just circle your finger back and forth slowly or quickly to move around the dial or if that isn't quick enough, just tap the relevant part of the the frequency bar. The radio isn't RDS but it has a good auto-scan facility and you can allocate up to 24 station pre-sets.
The touchscreen UI's most obvious trait is its speed. As per the iPod Touch, there's no sense of pause or hesitancy in the execution of any commands. The graphics are a tad 'iPod knock-off' - and not as good - but no less attractive for that.
Navigating around the S9 is straightforward, the main menu consisting of ten icons that take you to all the usual places: video, music, recordings, settings and the like. Above it sits a Touch-style status bar in which you'll find volume- and battery-level readouts, and the current time. At the bottom of the screen is a short bar that contains two to five icons relevant to the content.
Once into your media, things get a little more interesting. By using a slide bar at the bottom of the screen, for instance, you can zoom in and out to make menu listings' text size – and the resultant 'tap' area - bigger or smaller. The same control also lets you zoom in and out on your JPEG photos.
Rocker controls on top
If you tap the 'flip' button on the menu bar, it reveals a second bank of controls. This is especially handy in the video player as it lets you access the controls for setting bookmarks, changing aspect ratio and taking screen grabs without having to dig about in the menu structure.
In landscape mode, the video menu bar has an icon that brings up 12 automatic bookmarks – complete with thumbnails - spaced equally throughout the video, which is very useful if you want to hop about in a long film.
Curvy like a Touch
The S9's bookmark function also works on audio files, a major benefit to anyone with a player full of MP3 audiobooks. In total, the S9 will store 256 individual bookmarks, which seems like plenty to us.
We do have a couple of complaints, if complaint is not too strong a word. First, in most menu lists text appears between square brackets. Now seeing '[Bruce Springsteen]' rather than 'Bruce Springsteen' isn't exactly a deal breaker, but it is a little scruffy.
A few of the touchscreen buttons are a little on the small side, such as the M icon you tap to get back to main menu. That being said, we never actually had a problem hitting the correct icon, so it is more a problem with them looking too small, rather than actually being too small.
Album art only makes an appearance in the Now Playing screen, which seems a bit of a lost opportunity in the post-Cover Flow world. While the S9 lacks any facility to set up on-board playlists, you can easily add tracks – up to 256 of them – to a “favourites list”, and we suspect this will serve most users just as well.
Under a cover a proprietary - fume - USB port
The S9's screen has a strong, if not outstanding, technical specification: 3.3in corner to corner, a resolution of 480 x 272 and a 16m-strong colour palate. However, the numbers are only half the story because the screen is the latest-generation active-matrix OLED, and by heck it makes a difference.
Not the beat about the bush, the colour density, crispness and definition of the S9's screen are all simply outstanding. The opening scenes of Star Wars: Episode III - encoded as a 680 x 272 AVI DivX file - have never looked as clear and colourful on anything this side of a Cowon A3 or Archos 5. The almost exaggerated sense of clarity you get from the S9's screen has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
The screen's a very bright OLED panel
The Cowon S9's screen genuinely advances the science of PMP screens - by some margin. Notwithstanding the slightly smaller size and lower resolution than the Touch, we would rate the S9's as the superior screen of the two.
Cowon claims a Korean-specification S9 will play back any video with a resolution of 1280 x 720 at 30f/s or less. We tried it with ours and could it heck as like. A 720p WMV9 trailer for Ice Age 3 was wholly un-watchable, being just a mess of pixelated blocks.
The highest resolution files our S9 managed to play were a 720 x 480 WMV file of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. This would suggest that the S9 will cope with most of the video content likely to be thrown at it without too much messing about with re-formatting.
Audio playback is also right on the money, even when using the bundled earphones, which if not exactly in the Sony league are still a step up from what Apple or Samsung give you. We have to put the Cowon right up with the best of the breed in terms of sound quality. It's not quite on a par with the Sony Walkman S , but there's nothing to chose between the S9 and the iPod Touch.
The screen's great for stills and video
Cowon's take on sound modification technology goes by the name of JetEffect 2.0 and lets you chose any one of 17 EQ pre-sets or set up four of your own. You also get eight sound modifiers licensed from California-based sound gurus BBE which perform the usual 3D expansion, stereo separation and bass-boost functions.
Something we do really applaud Cowon for is the ability to access the JetEffect settings directly from the Now Playing screen and to change settings without any interruption to the music whatsoever.
A quick romp through Cosi Fan Tutte was equally enjoyable, though as ever we were left wondering why Apple alone seem to understand the value of gapless playback.
The UI's smooth - if a little Touch-like
File support has always been a Cowon strong suit and when we first saw the S9's specs on Cowon's Korean website we were suitably impressed, the only obvious thing missing being AAC audio. What you get out of the box is MP3, Flac, Ogg, WAV and APE audio, AVI – Xvid, DivX – and WMV video along with JPEG and TXT. Not bad, but H.264 would be handy. Fingers crossed these will turn up in a firmware update. Of course, the iPod Touch is hardly bulging at the seams with supported codecs.
The S9 comes equipped with A2DP stereo Bluetooth tech, a voice recorder, a Flash player and the ability to record FM radio off air. The voice recorder encodes files in WMA format. Get hold of the relevant USB cables and the S9 will also record line-in audio and pump out content to your TV – PAL or NTSC.
Cowon's claims for the S9's battery life are nothing if not ambitious - 11 hours of video and 55 of audio – but proved remarkably accurate. We got just under ten hours on the video front and stopped worrying about the audio when we got to 45 hours. You recharge the battery using the USB cable.
Neat UI elements include the rotating FM tuner dial
The S9 can be set to act as either an MSC or MTP device and as the former it showed up without fault on both a MacBook Pro and Linux-runing Acer Aspire One.
Grumbles? Of the 15 albums we loaded onto the Cowon, one simply would not appear in the correct running order – though it was beyond us to fathom in what order the S9 was rendering it, certainly wasn't file size or alphabetical. And the PMP had an annoying habit of switching itself off when we unplugged it from a computer.
The microphone's on the back, above the - ahem - reset button
Currently, the S9 is only available in the UK in 8 and 16GB flavours but hopefully a 32GB version will be along in the not too distant as one is currently listed on Cowon's Korean website.
For those interested, our review device was running firmware version 2.02. Cowon's US site is already hosting version 2.05 but as the updates seemed rather peripheral, and as our S9 worked just fine, we didn't install the update.
A final mention in dispatches for the excellent user guide, Cowon resisting the now all too common temptation to include only a half-baked “quick start guide” and making its customers print off a PDF file of the full manual.
Should you buy an S9 instead of an iPod Touch? If you want to play AVI, Flac or Ogg files then clearly the answer's yes. If you want to browse the web and play H.264 videos then no, the Touch is what you need. Still, despite the slightly smaller screen and lower resolution, the S9 is the better video player and it pumps out audio of an equally high quality. Unless you are irrecoverably wedded to all things iPod and iTunes and want the Touch's games and Wi-Fi, the S9 is certainly worth a good long look. ®
Thanks to Advanced MP3 Players for lending us the S9.
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