Jamming a Web browser, Bluetooth, a text editor, and a zillion other features into a PMP is a solid idea, but the interface must be done right. Unfortunately for the Cowon Q5W, running a dated-looking minimally functional version of Windows doesn’t cut it. The 5-inch touchscreen looks great, and the audio is excellent and offers flexible options, but the design (inside and out) is decidedly technophilic. With a few firmware updates, this could be a decent travel companion for the tech-savvy, but it’s too big and heavy to be carried with you everywhere, and the touchscreen interface doesn’t compete with offerings from the likes of Apple and Samsung.
Homely more than Comely
The Q5W isn’t sexy or sleek, but it is an intimidating-looking machine. The 5-inch LCD touchscreen is set into a black and dark navy anodized aluminum brick that measures 5.46 x 3.48 x 0.79 inches and is trimmed in pewter-colored plastic. The player’s sturdy shell and 13.4-ounce heft make it the linebacker of Cowon’s team, but it maintains a clean look since there’s nothing on front but the screen and the company logo.
Goodies galore adorn the trim, including a stylus slot, volume buttons, stereo speakers, an infrared remote sensor, a hold/power switch, and a pinhole mic. The left side has a power input, USB port, USB Host port, 3.5-mm headphone jack, 2.5-mm headset jack (a rarity), and a telescoping WiFi antenna. There’s a proprietary dock connector on the bottom for accessories like the included AV output cables or the optional GPS cradle ($199.99 USD). No AV recording dock yet exists, so if you’re looking for a portable video recorder, check out Cowon’s A3 or the Gen 05 line from Archos.
A Tale of Two GUIs
The Q5W powers up in about 20 seconds, booting first into Windows CE and then launching Cowon’s extremely thin interface layer — two icon-filled panes on either side of the screen and several inches (diagonal) of wasted space in the middle. While clearly designed for fingers, the icons should have been made much bigger, and the rest of the menus could use a lesson in finger-friendliness.
You can exit Cowon’s interface into Windows CE, but it’s ironic to see such an outdated-looking version of Windows on a device from one of the industry’s most cutting-edge manufacturers. And the OS is pretty sluggish on the 600-MHz Alchemy Au1250 processor and 128MB of RAM.
The touch screen responds to fingers, though for most functions it’s easier to use the stylus. A pop-up virtual keyboard lets you input text for things like network keys, web browsing, and search. You can enlarge it for finger use, though we couldn’t type quickly because of the screen’s lack of sensitivity.
The Q5W comes loaded with Windows CE apps like WordPad and Internet Explorer, as well as a photo viewer, video player, voice recorder, and music player. The apps are all fairly easy to use, and you can have several open at once, though the screen can get cluttered with all the file information presented, especially in the music player where you get way more info than most users need.
We love the full-featured wireless remote, which is actually more useful for most basic functions than the screen itself.
Image Courtesy of Cowon
Setting up the Q5W for wireless browsing should be a no brainer for an experienced gadget geek, but alas we had to put in a call to tech support. It turns out enabling WiFi in Windows does nothing; you have to enable WLAN in the settings menu in Cowon’s GUI, and it’s disabled each time you power off the device.
Overall browsing speed is about what we expect for a mobile device – nytimes.com and digitaltrends.com both loaded in around 10 seconds over our cable-based WiFi connection. Sites like CNN, which typically try to place a tracking cookie on your system, wouldn’t load in IE, giving us a download error instead; switching IE’s User Agent setting to “Windows XP” fixed that. When we tried to download files, we got an error saying that there wasn’t enough space on our system, even though we’d only loaded about 5GB of content on the 40GB player. (Cowon wasn’t able to help us figure this out at the time of this writing, but they’re aware of the issue.)
A setting in Windows lets you choose whether the Q5W’s built-in Internet Explorer identifies itself to web servers as a mobile or desktop browser; we chose desktop since it’s compatible with way more sites.
Lock and Load
One thing we like about the Q5W is that you can connect it to your PC in one of three modes: USB Mass Storage (for simple drag and drop), Microsoft Active Sync (a Windows Mobile protocol), or MTP (for syncing via music software like Windows Media Player). Cowon also has an app that works quite well for managing and transferring content; its video conversion utility is especially useful and reliable.
Movies and Music
Our test movies, The Bourne Ultimatum and Four Rooms, looked excellent on the built-in LCD. When we used the included AV cables (we chose the component option, though you can also do composite, S-Video, and SPDIF) with our 40-inch Samsung HDTV, the picture was very clear with well-synced audio.
The included earbuds are nothing special, but when we plugged in our Etymotic ER4P headphones, we found the sound quality very pleasing. As is typical of Cowon’s players, you can fiddle endlessly with sound enhancement settings and tweaks, but the quality is good even on the basic default settings. The headphone output has plenty of power to drive high-end in-ear headphones, though you’ll need a dedicated amp if you want to use it with high-impedance cans like the Sennheiser HD650.
In general, Cowon provides very good file format support for audio and video. High-quality audio formats like OGG, FLAC, APE, and WAV are always plusses in our book (in addition to the standard MP3 and WMA), and there’s enough legal DRM-free content out there thanks to Amazon’s music store that we’re no longer concerned much with DRM support. For video, the Q5W handles the usual suspects like AVI (DivX, XviD, and MPEG-4), WMV, ASF, and MPG, as well as OGM.
Image Courtesy of Cowon
13 hours for audio playback is simply not impressive, though we were able to squeeze more out by keeping things like screen brightness down (or off), turning off any sound enhancements, and disabling WiFi and Bluetooth. 7 hours of video playback is respectable, though your mileage will vary greatly depending on video format and resolution.
The FM radio reception is simply awful; we could hear lots of noise in the background, even with stronger stations, and fringe stations were left out entirely. There’s a graphical linear dial, but you can’t actually use it with the stylus or your finger; you can only scan or seek. Oddly, you’ve got to set the speaker to “off” in the radio’s settings menu; it doesn’t automatically switch off when you plug in headphones, as with the music and video players.
Photos look extremely sharp with good color on the built-in LCD. You get a lot of control, including panning and zooming, rotating, and slide shows, plus you can view EXIF data. Combined with the USB Host feature, these items make the Q5W a solid choice for shutterbugs who want to offload and show off their shots. Best of all: RAW support (up to 10MB per image).
The bottom line is that the Cowon Q5W is more expensive and more complicated than it ought to be. Hardware-wise, it’s big and heavy, and the touchscreen really requires the stylus to be effective. Software-wise, this thing is kind of a nightmare, but we’d be willing to forgive Cowon if they’d update the firmware with a redesigned interface minus the seemingly redundant settings menus. Still, tech-savvy photographers could potentially be satisfied with the Q5W, though we’re more impressed with the Epson P5000’s extremely high-res screen, which is still the best in the business.
The AV quality is certainly worthy of the Cowon name, but the chunky body, high price, and mediocre interface and Web experience, make us more inclined to choose the slimmer and cheaper Archos 605 WiFi.
• Broad feature set.
• Excellent audio and video quality
• Sluggish response
• Heavy and chunky.
• Poorly designed interface