Hands on with the COWON S9

Last week we showed you an unboxing of COWON’s latest Portable Media Playing creation and you had to know we’d be following it up with a full-on review. We wanted to take a little while to play with the S9 and cover every square inch of its functionality before bringing you a hands on review and now that we’ve had a few days alone with this puppy, we’re ready to dish. Hit the jump to dive in.

In this review we’ll take you through most of the important parts of the UI and pepper in some commentary along the way. The UI, by the way, is COWON’s own flash-based GUI and while it certainly isn’t the fanciest game in town but it is simple, attractive, intuitive and lightning fast. The capacitive touchscreen is very responsive as is the UI, making the S9 a real pleasure to use. Pretty much every function can be discovered quickly by even those with very basic gadgeteering abilities, but it’s still enough to be respectable amongst seasoned vets. With that, what better place to start than the home screen?

The home screen is a direct portal into each of the S9’s functions and the icons thereon are are well-sized. Settings, Utilities, a file browser can all be accessed with one click along with all of the multimedia functions. Also, the S9 boots from off to the home screen in about three seconds which is fantastic compared to competitive offerings. Along the bottom of the home screen are two groups of dots which serve only to toggle between silver icons and multicolored icons. Like us, you’ll probably stick with silver.

The settings menu gives quite obviously presents all of the configuration-related items on the device. The one thing that took us a brief while to get used to was the necessity for double-tapping to make a selection. Once you get past that however, the settings menus are quite sensible and easy to tweak.

One thing we particularly like about the UI is the zooming feature present in most sections. As amazingly crisp as the AMOLED display is on the S9, size is always an issue with portables. Many areas of the UI such as documents (as seen above) include a slider across the bottom. The far left end brings the zoom all the way out and the far right end zooms all the way in. As you can see below, the slider makes it very easy to adjust the font to the exact size that suits you.

Moving along to the bread and butter, we have the S9’s multimedia functionality. First up, images. As you can imagine, photos look great on this display. The 3.3″ AMOLED screen displays its 480 x 272 pixels in vivid detail and photos jump off the screen. The included software suite makes it easy to load photos along with the rest of your media and the accelerometer allows the device to automatically adjust the image orientation as you rotate the device. The S9 supports viewing in all directions so you can rotate it left, right or even upside down and the image will adjust accordingly. You can also find the zoom slider present beneath each photo for fast and easy zooming.

From photos we move right over to the video player. Again… AMOLED! Videos are a joy to watch and and 30 fps playback makes for a smooth viewing experience. The S9 supports AVI and WMV, as well as SMI subtitles in case Kung Fu is your thing. Also of note – thanks to the beauty of OLED displays, COWON rates the S9 with 11 straight hours of video playback on a single charge. We didn’t try to watch 11 consecutive hours but judging by the battery performance we’ve seen, we don’t doubt it. Below are a couple of shots of video playback and as you can see, tilting the device will automatically rotate the picture in any direction.

Next on the list, and the function we’ve been waiting for the entire review to cover, is the music player. The S9 supports a variety of formats including MP3, WMA, OGG and WAV, as well as LDB 1.0 and 2.0 lyrics and ID3 V1 / ID3 V2.2/2.3/2.4 tags. Visually, the player is so-so. In landscape mode all you get is a row of album art along with the zoom slider beneath it. In portrait mode, the player displays the album art of the current track along with controls and a slider that can be used to shuttle. In the bottom right corner is a flip button that will swap play controls for options to bookmark the current track or add it as a favorite, toggle repeat mode or adjust EQ settings. There is also a “quick list” above the flip button that pops open a small visual representation of the current, prior and next tracks. Beyond the touchscreen controls, playback can also be controlled with a centrally located play/pause hardware button on the top of the device, flanked by rewind/fast-forward and volume up/down buttons. These buttons can be used in various other modes as well.

It should be noted at this point that the audio quality on the S9 is incredible. No, seriously. It tops Apple’s iPod line hands down – we were pretty taken aback by it in fact. We tested the S9 with Apple’s iPhone headphones, a pair of noise isolating Shure buds and a pair of AKG studio cans. Each was better than the next. Though we haven’t had a chance yet to pair it up with a set of stereo Bluetooth headphones, we would certainly expect similar performance. We played with the EQ settings a bit and while there are plenty of user-configurable options, we found the rock preset to be just right for most types of music. With the AKGs plugged in and the volume cranked up to 33 out of 40, we were in music heaven – though a while longer at that level and we might have gone deaf. Oh, and it’s rated at 55 continuous hours of music playback… Mmmm, OLED.

In terms of pricing, COWON set a good price point for the currently-available 16GB model, $239.99, but we would have liked to see the 8GB come in a bit lower than $199.99 as it will be priced when shipments begin hitting the States. $239.99 puts the 16GB a healthy $60 below the similarly-sized iPod Touch while the 8GB model only affords a $30 savings over the 8GB iPod Touch. These prices also put the S9 well above the Zune, with 8GB and 16GB models coming in at $139 and $179 respectively, though we would hardly put the user experience of the Zune on par with the S9. All in all, the major question in debating between the S9 and an iPod Touch – beyond price – would come down to to a trade off: Do you want a connected PMP with a web browser, mail and apps, or would you rather have pure media player with superior audio quality, smaller size and a ridiculously long-lasting battery? Either answer is perfectly acceptable but in the age of the smartphone, many people already have their browsing and app-related needs covered pretty well. If that’s the case for you, then you may want to give the S9 a thorough consideration the next time you’re in the market for a PMP.

COWON S9 distributor product page

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