Cowon D2 premium digital media player
Pretty, practical and pricey
Review Time was when Asian digital media players scored highly for the range of features they offered but rated dismally when it came to their looks. Cheap-looking silver-painted plastic, too many buttons, crude on-screen graphics - it's no wonder the iPod's clean lines and simple UI took off...
Times have changed, and the players coming out of the Far East these days are far more likely to turn heads than tummies. Take Cowon's latest baby, the D2. Here is a device that shows its manufacturer has taken the hint: it's a stunner. The player's built around a 2.5in, 320 x 240, 16m-colour display, bordered in matte black plastic. Sandwiched between the black back panel is a silver section with all the controls: power/hold key, menu button and volume keys on top - between them there's a microphone.
On the left-hand side sits the 3.5mm earphone socket and, beneath a cover, a mini USB port and the proprietary AC connector. The right-hand side extends beyond the black area to provide a slot for the plectrum-like triangular stylus. The D2's screen is touch-sensitive, but the UI's too elegant for thick Western fingers, hence the styus.
But it's more than that - plug the stylus into the slot and you've got a ready-made stand, angling the screen upwards for optimal on-desk viewing. Angle not quite right? Flip the stylus over and you have a different one: 50° or 70°, the choice is yours. The stylus fits into the slot even when its elastic lanyard is fitted - something that could easily have been overlooked.
Off the desk, the D2 fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. It's weighty enough to feel solid and well-built yet sufficiently light to be as portable as a compact music player should be.
The D2 is a Flash-fitted player - the test unit had 2GB on board - though the only real limit on its capacity is the number of SD cards you can afford. The base of the unit has just such a memory card slot, and while it's not compatible with high-capacity SDHC cards, at least you can swap in and out 2GB cards to your heart's content.
Turning the D2 on reveals not just how beautiful the screen but also a user interface that doesn't dimish it. The UI's all done up in light blue, with other colours used to indicate highlighted icons and active on screen elements, such as the track play-progress bar. From the initial menu of icons you can double-tap to select music, videos, pictures, text, the built-in FM radio, recordings you've made using the aforemention microphone, and player settings.
Selecting the Music icon starts playing all the songs in sequence, showing the current track's album, artist and title, album art if it's available, and all the track playback status information you could possibly want, including all of the D2's numerous audio enhancement options. All the data's laid out cleanly and clearly.
Tapping the screen quickly fades in on-screen track skip and play/pause buttons, along with four buttons along the bottom: Browser, Settings, Menu and Close. The latter gets rid of the overlaid buttons, while Menu takes you straight to the initial icon layout. Browser and Settings both pop up vertical stacks of options - tap on any one of them to access it. Browser, as its name suggests, can take you to a file browser, but its pop up also includes on-the-go playlist manipulation options.
If there's a flaw, it's the speed at which these items disappear, leaving you back in the play screen. I'd have liked them to remain active for longer, but then I was just browsing the controls and options - if you're using them in earnest, you won't be dithering like I was. The UI's intuitive and the resolution of the screen means even small buttons' functions are clear. The text is small enough not to be blocky, but not so tiny it's unreadable. Buttons change to reflect the action initiated when they're pressed.
Settings are generally presented as list of options you scroll through vertically. Most pop up a simple pair of up and down arrows to change a value - the level of bass boost, for example - or provide a tick box. In each case, it's clear what you have to do and the effect of changing a setting is immediate.
I mentioned the D2's audio enhancement options just now, and boy this player has the lot: bass boost, 3D sound, a stereo widener, customisable five-band EQ with numerous pre-sets, a balance setting, something called BBE which makes "clearest music", and an MP3 enhancer that claims to regenerate the frequencies the compression codec strips out.
There's enough here to keep the most hardened audio tinkerer happy fiddling to find the best sound setting. I'm more of a 'good enough for rock'n'roll' guy, so I was most happy with the bass enhancement - well apart from the very obvious click you hear when it kicks in. I tried the rest, but I can't say I noticed any significant benefit with the BBE, MP3 enhance and 3d sound settings. Maybe better ears than mine will appreciate them more. Whatever, it's surely better to have such options to personalise the sound you hear than not.
I tried the D2 with a range of musical genres and enjoyed all of them. I also enjoyed the player's fantastic battery life. Cowon claims you'll get 52 hours' audio playback - I got more than 55, though that's with all the audio enhancement stuff turned off. But if you do want bass boost, an EQ setting, MP3 enhancement etc applied, there's still plenty of overhead for a long listening duration.
With a screen like this one, of course the D2 does video, and the pre-loaded clips look fantastic. I didn't watch any of my own, as I was unable to get the player to recognise them. I tried files with .WMV, .AVI, .MOV and .MP4 extensions all without success. The bundled chips are .AVI files that encapsulated DiVX 6, but I don't have any software to do the necessary conversions and Cowon doesn't appear to bundle any. The app the player ships with appears to be a media management and file transfer tool, though the D2 is a USB Mass Storage device, so drag and drop works just as well. There's no indication in the documentation what kind of video files the D2 prefers, beyond the "Movie File" the back of the box mentions.
Cowon claims the D2 will run for ten hours in movie mode, and on the basis of the player's audio performance, I wouldn't disagree.
Beyond video playback formats, the other issue I had with the D2 centres on how it handles storage. It's no surprise the internal Flash memory and the contents of an inserted SD card form two separate directory trees, but I'd have liked the D2 to be smart enough to present the contents of both to the user as a single entity. If you do keep music on an SD card, to access it you have to navigate up to the D2's root directory, 'D2', then down through the SD card's folder structure, contained in a folder called 'D2 EXT'.
This is really the only area where the D2 feels like an Asian music player of yore. Well, that and the spartan documentation.
Which is a shame given how much the D2 costs. I've seen the player listed at £150-180. A 4GB iPod Nano costs £129 or £169 for an 8GB model. Neither plays video of course, but then the 30GB 5G iPod, which does, is only £189. Of course, the D2 packs in plenty of sound enhancement technology for the money, but I suspect most users will value storage capacity over such tweaks any day.
Cowon's D2 has the most stylish yet functional user interfaces I've seen on a mobile device and one that makes the most of the gorgeous screen it's display on. The battery life's fantastic, and so is the scope for sound enhancement the D2 includes. The only problem is the price which is as hefty as the D2 is lithe.