Cowon S9 Curve Review

We all know iPods have taken over the world, but the Cowon S9 looked like the perfect alternative to the iPod touch for those of you who hate Apple, so I ordered one in.

This review has been over a month in the making. Let me explain. While the S9 comes packaged with proprietary PC-only iTunesish software, I planned to mount the S9 like a USB drive and drag and drop my music and videos. While a firmware update and the actual file transfers seemed to go fine, when I started opening folders within the S9 itself (yes, you have to deal with folders), I'd get endless lists of gibberish, often followed by a system freeze that only a hard reset would fix.

I dealt with tech support (who of course had never seen the problem), and it was finally determined that I should get a new one. I was shipped another unit and the same thing happened. I have no doubt that somewhere along the line I was doing something wrong (though it's hard to fathom given the dragging and dropping), but no one could spot it. That's disconcerting.

I was finally shipped an updated, promised-to-be-working S9, and it really did finally work. It plays XviD and WMV movies, but no generic MPEG-1, MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 content (you can forget about h.264). Also, like other players, if the file has too great a resolution, it fails—my high definition .wmv of The Dark Knight just wouldn't play, nor would a high definition XviD that I tested. Music-wise, the Curve plays MP3, WMA, and a bunch of others, but no DRM-free AAC. (Again, possibly an MPEG-4 codec issue.)

On the plus side, audio reproduction seemed good and the system is very quick with video media—I could skip around a one-hour, standard def XviD of Mad Men instantly. And I should add, clips really pop off the Curve's 3.3-inch OLED screen with smooth framerate reproduction.

Recording audio with the integrated microphone worked fine—functional but not stellar—which is to be expected: The mic is but a tiny hole in the case. You can also conveniently one-button record the radio, the quality of which is only limited by the generally decent reception. Plus, after bootlegging the radio, you can drag the created WMA files from the S9 right onto your computer's hard drive, no questions asked.
Despite many of these functions being excellent, nothing about the UI is as fluid or intuitive as you'd hope to make the experience fun or fulfilling.

For instance, you want to listen to music, so you click the "Music" icon. Easy! But your music isn't necessarily there. You actually have to follow a green, animated arrow that leads you to a submenu of subfolders. That's where you actually find your content. Once you're within these folders, you can actually skip album to album smoothly (just hitting the track forward button), as the system remembers where your content is and even sets up other virtual folders for organising by genre or year (depending on your meta data information). But why did we mess with this green arrow garbage? If you know where my music is, just skip the maze of clicks and take me to it.

The problems are beyond mere organisation. Following the well-designed home screen, the entire OS is driven by icons that are only identifiable by trial and error. It's frustrating, and I could never just hand this player to one of my parents to use.

And it's not just that I'm an Apple fanboy. I loved the Clix—remember the Clix? The Clix was great! Its interface made sense and pretty to boot. And other devices from Samsung, SanDisk and Creative have had decent showings in spite of the iPod's success. It's just that the S9's interface is alright-looking, but nowhere as quick and convenient to navigate as you'd hope.

But here's the thing—to me, the fatal flaw with the S9 wasn't that strange series of bugs I was able to duplicate on two units, nor was it the confusing directory system. It was that when I held the S9, a pretty decent-looking device, it feels cheap.
It's too light for its size, almost hollow. In the above shot you can see that the S9 is thicker than an iPhone (and way thicker than an iPod touch). And touching a plastic screen that's not lightning responsive —there's a micro delay after each button press—is simply a second rate experience to the iPhone/iTouch super-responsive glass.

At $US240 for 16GB, maybe you thought that the Cowon S9 would be a tempting device to play your Bittorrent collection of movies without conversions. But given limitations with resolutions/format, a disappointing UI and the subpar build, it's hard to know why the S9 makes a solid alternative to the iPod touch. [Cowon]

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