Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A language learner’s portable media player

Review of the Cowon O2 for the benefit of audiobook lovers, media junkies and language learners



For a while I have been looking for an MP3 audiobook player, ebook reader and portable video player.

Requirements:

a large, pocketable screen
autoresume
bookmarking
native format support (xvid, divx etc)
multiple language tracks
foreign language text support
subtitle support
clear, readable text
loudspeaker
flash memory
SDHC card
decent battery life

To cut this short, the requirements have necessarily narrowed the choice to a handful of machines.

Audiobooks - Good audiobook support is a rare feature with many players and they were necessarily immediately eliminated. Autoresume, the ability to turn the player on and off and resume listening is apparently high magic and few players do this right. Microsoft’s Zune has very short memory and does not bookmark MP3’s – only podcasts. Ipods are great at bookmarking Apple book format and audible - they don't do it for mp3 audiobooks. You need to convert to their format, edit tags etc. This can turn into a major pain.

ebooks – Obviously the machine should be able to handle foreign fonts and support a variety of formats. That’s a rare feature.

E-ink is amazing but Sony Reader and the Kindle do not support non-western letters and characters. Sony reader needs to be hacked in order to display Russian. The internal memory is puny (counted in MB) and SD expansion is limited. They’re too bulky. Ipod apparently supports foreign characters (which is great) but the screen is too small for me. Ipod touch is simply not worth it because of the other issues.

Video - Most players will support a few formats (often proprietary ones) and require that all files be prepared at a certain resolution. That’s unreasonable. In the end I’d prepare a few videos and abandon the effort. I need something where I can just drag and drop most popular formats like divx etc. and simply play. Dual language support would be great.

Music – well if it can do all of the above, lol, I doubt that it wouldn’t be able to handle music. A few online reviews stating that it has a decent sound should suffice.

Loudspeaker – this is a desirable extra. It sucks battery but sometimes you want to listen without any earphones.

I settled on the Cowon O2

It will do everything I described. It has a 4.3-inch, 16.7 million color, 480 x 272 TFT LCD touchscreen.

It supports AVI, WMV, ASF, MP4, MATROSKA(MKV), OGM, MPG/MPEG, DAT, MTV video files and MP3/2/1, WMA, ASF, AC3, FLAC, OGG, M4A, MATROSKA(MKA), TTA, APE, MPC, WV, WAV audio formats.

32 GB internal flash drive

SDHC Expansion Slot - fully functional. Memory currently expandable by an extra 32 GB.

Battery Life(Audio Playback) Up to 18 hours
Battery Life(Video Playback) Up to 8 hours
Recharge Time 4.5 hours

It offers open-source SDK for user-developed programs.

The O2 does not have instant autoresume - a bummer. It's slightly on the bulky side when compared with a regular flash mp2 player. It remembers where you left off through a recent file function - which I consider more convenient than regular manual bookmarking. I rarely remember to set manual bookmarks. The seek bar should prove useful for both audio and video files. Audio files and ebooks are both automatically "bookmarked" in the recent files folder along with video files. The player actually “remembers” where you left off in the text file! After some experimenting I was able to display Russian without any problems. I have not tried with Japanese, but I have no doubt it works as advertised. Unfortunately natively it only supports txt files. Pdfs need to be converted with Cowon software. I haven't tried it, but apparently this feature needs some work. SDK support means a third party might come up with a PDF viewer. Videos look lovely, it played everything I threw at it. Some users have complained about navigation through the touchscreen. Remember to calibrate when you first use the unit. I don't use fingers nor the square stylus (which doubles as a stand). Instead I use my laptop's stylus which has a very fine point. I have no issues navigating the icons. The loudspeaker is ok for audiobooks and shows if you're alone and don't feel like wearing earphones. It is not adequate for music.

2 comments:

Perry said...

Have you looked into PDA's? Look at the HP Ipaq 111 and 211. If you can live with the Windows headaches they will probably give you much of what you want. If you'd consider used, Dell Axims (no longer made) can offer a support community through forums.

reineke said...

Thanks,

I was looking for a dedicated media player that plays everything right out of the box, without conversions, special programs etc. A Windows device would complicate things unnecessarily while unwanted features add to the price. Cowon also manufactures a Windows CE pocket PC wireless version which I also decided against.

The two Ipaqs you mention have a puny internal memory -the SD card slot does not make up for this.

The more advanced model is apparently not powerful enough to play some video files smoothly (Amazon reviews).

The Cowon O2 is a great media player. The company has a good reputation with the audiophile crowd. The O2 can't connect to the Internet but I consider this a plus.