I have finally made a decision as to the new portable media player and I have to admit this has been the hardest gadget buying decision I have had to make. Arguably the reason is that in this instance there simply isn’t a device that meets my exact requirements, despite the fact price isn’t really an issue in a device I will be using every single day. The eventual winner was the Cowon O2. Several readers here will likely feel I’ve made the wrong decision, so I’d like to explain the reasoning behind this. As a warning this is unsurprisingly a fairly techie post but may still be worth reading for anyone considering picking up a player in the near future since I have actually tried out every player I mention.
Having already discounted the iPod, the new O2’s rivals were Cowon’s own Q5W and A3, along with the Archos 5. Selfridges on Oxford Street is the place to go for hands on with Cowon players (the only physical store I have seen stock them) while the Archos players can be found in various locations including Currys and Tottenham Court Road stores. While the A3 undoubtedly has the finest screen by a wide margin, its controls leave much to be desired. Ultimately though, it was its large size that prove decisive — this is a portable device after all. The Q5W and Archos 5 have many advantages in terms of a higher res screen, wifi internet, and overall nicer build and finish with a metal housing rather than the O2’s sturdy but less pleasing plastic. A few minutes with the Q5W swiftly proves what a wasted opportunity it was, unforgivably sluggish (perhaps due the fact it runs on top of Windows) and with complex and unintuitive navigation system, coupled with awful battery life.
So the front runners were the Archos 5 and Cowon O2 and choosing between them was nigh impossible (indeed I switched sides repeatedly). I realised that wifi internet is still of limited use to me and that my next phone is likely to support it anyway, so it ought not to be a consideration. Both had equally responsive interfaces, the O2’s being prettier but still inexplicably failing to organise music by ID3 tags. The O2 loads faster from flash memory and touts better battery life, but this limits its storage to just 32GB (plus an SDHC expansion slot for another 16GB+) while the Archos hard drives range up to a massive 250GB (I was looking at the 120GB model). This really left video quality vs audio quality as the final decision. Cowon’s legendary audio quality is still unrivalled, and the O2 is no exception. Yet the O2’s significantly lower resolution (480×272 vs 800×480) was a lot to give up, even though it’s smaller 4.3″ screen made it harder to notice and does offer impressively vibrant colours.
The bottom line is that if my ears hadn’t grown so used to the full, meaty sound of a Cowon player over the last few years, I probably would have gone with the Archos for its sharper video and additional features. But having had a Cowon, it’s really hard to give up and music remains as important to me as video in terms of media while travelling. Shrinking from a 40″ TV to a portable screen I am unlikely ever to be happy with the necessary loss of detail so perhaps it is less significant.
For those interested in price comparison, the 60GB Archos 5 is approximately the same price as the 32 GB Cowon O2 at around £250, but expect to spend another £55 on extending codec supprt and a dock for faster charging. The smaller 16GB O2 is around £210, while larger Archos players scale up to £340. As usual Advanced MP3 Players tends to offer the best prices.
PMPs have improved in great strides over the past few years and the healthy competition means the next generation may bring my theoretical perfect device. The truth is that the O2 is very nearly there if they could only upgrade the screen and arrive in this decade with ID3 support. With excellent audiovisual quality and a wide range of supported codecs I don’t need anything else in a media player so the extra options are nice asides but ultimately mere distractions.