One of the most anticipated players of this year is the Cowon S9. We named the D2 one of the top 5 players of this year and those users have been clamoring for a successor. Even though the S9 is not a D2 successor it does go a big step beyond with what I think is one of the more important features, native xvid support- no conversion necessary. It does also offer a much more usable capacitance touch screen compared to the D2.
After seeing how poorly the O2’s initial firmware was when released I was concerned there would be some stability issues, but was relieved to find stable firmware. But after all the waiting and all the hype that has been buzzing in our forums, does it live up to the talk?
- Quick Look
- Dimensions: 57.0 x 105.8 x 12.7 mm
- Weight: 77.0 g
- Colors: Black/Titanium, Black/Chrome
- Capacities: 8G, 16GB
- MSRP: $200, $240
- Display: 3.3″ 480×272 AMOLED 16.7m colors, Touch Capacitive
- Audio: MP3, WMA, FLAC, OGG, WAV, APE
- Video: DivX, XviD, WMV
- Photo: JPEG
- Other: TXT
- Transfer Protocol: MSC/MTP User Selectable
- Audio: 5-band EQ, BBE, Pan/Balance
- Battery: 55h Audio, 11h Video
- Other: Flash, Utilities, Bluetooth, FM, Voice Recording, Line-in Recording
In the Box / Accessories
Manufacturers seem to be skimping more and more on included accessories, and that is no different with the S9 – just the bare minimum is included: the player, earbuds, USB transfer cable, and software cd. The cable is not a standard USB cable on the end that connects to the player, but it is a 20-pin connection that is being used by many of the Korean manufactures on some mobile phones and media players. It may be a standard, but it’s not a common cable, so you won’t be able to easily borrow one.
I would have really loved to see the video out cable as well as the audio in cable included. These, too, are not off the shelf cables since they also use the 20-pin connection. Each of these is available on Cowon’s Jettmall store for $10-$15 apiece, so this is a heads up on the added cost if you are looking for video out or audio in capabilities.
Related: Cowon S9 Accessories Forum
Design & Build Quality
All the teaser photos before the launch were a little bit deceiving. I was expecting something substantial, more like a Sony product. The S9 is lighter, slightly hollow, and a bit “plastic-y”. This is not to say it’s poorly made; it is still very we built with no body flexing or creaking. The button tolerances are on point and have a nice tactile feel to them.
The body is all plastic with the back being a soft, matte velvet-like plastic (This is on a lot of devices, but I never know the term to call it). The sides come in two different finishes, titanium and chrome (the titanium model is shown). After carrying it around for a few days, I haven’t seen any scratches on the screen. It is glass unlike what you find on the Samsung P2, so it will do a great job of keeping scratches off the face.
One quick note about the curve design of the player, it feels nice in your hand and the design is great to hold. However, I would have liked to see more of a boxy candy bar design since the curve design doesn’t lend well to operating it while laying on a flat surface since it rocks back and forth when trying to press it.
A 480×272 pixel, 16.7 million color AMOLED screen graces the front of the player. AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) is a newer display technology with advantages of using less power, thinner form factor (since it doesn’t require a backlight), and generally faster pixel response times. On the S9 it does look fantastic, color accuracy and brightness are very similar to LCDs. The more noticeable gain is in the pixel response time and contrast- you will see less ghosting in movies and UI transitions as well as blacker blacks.
Cowon really put some time into this one with it being more thought out than any previous Cowon player. However, you may need to take some time to wrap your head around the UI. The UI has an obvious Asian influence like all of Cowon’s products so I can’t quite call it intuitive for us Westerners. For instance, while traversing though media libraries the buttons at the top change too much and try to do too much. Top buttons will toggle between lists, take you back to the main menu, or “close” a menu. But when navigating folders, the “up a directory” and a back button are located at the bottom in order to go up a folder or hierarchical ID3 tag categories.
Sure I might be over analyzing this and no matter how much I discuss it, it will not change since the US is not a prime market. This is more of a complicated way of saying that the interface is smarter than previous Cowon UIs, but it could be much smarter to us Westerners. It’s just a fair warning that you may need to spend some time getting used to it.
The GUI is very fast and responsive. However, I do notice some hang ups every now and again. For instance when moving in and out of the video menu, pressing the button to go back to the main menu it may take a half a second.
I really like that Cowon did include hardware buttons. At the top are volume down, volume up, pause/play, reverse, forward buttons. At the bottom is the on/off/hold switch. The cool thing with the top buttons is that they also allow you to navigate your media. The track forward and reverse buttons navigate though the media folders while the volume buttons will move up and down the list.
The touch screen is a capacitive-type screen as opposed to a resistance-type screen as found on the D2 or Archos 5. Resistance touch screens are older technology where conductive material is layered in between empty spaces. This screen needs direct force in order to register where you are pressing. Capacitive-type screens on the other hand are newer and more accurate touch screens. This tech basically measures the electronic charge between th
e screen and your finger. Depending on how they are calibrated, you don’t even need physical contact between your finger and the screen. I didn’t mean to get all Mr. Wizard on you, but if you want the straight dope, capacitive screens are better than resistance.
The capacitive screen on the S9 works very well, better than the Samsung P2, Cowon D2, and even the Archos 5. It will occasionally miss a press, and to be honest, I’m not sure if this has to do with calibration, or the current resistance and moistness or dryness of your finger which could affect its electrical charge. I would guess it may be a bit of both.
The “G-Sensor” is what Cowon is calling the accelerometer. This detects and changes the orientation of the screen as you physically turn it. To be straight to the point, it is more of a hindrance than a help. The rotation is slow to detect and switch. This becomes a problem if you’re holding it at a horizontal angle or have it lying next to you on the couch for instance. If you pick it up to use it, it needs a second or two to adjust. Additionally, the G-Senor doesn’t work for all screens or applications, the home screen doesn’t work in horizontal orientation, nor does the text reader (which would be an excellent candidate to rotate).
What I would like to see here is an option to completely turn off the in the settings, then allow us to manually rotate the screen with maybe a short cut long press on the forward and reverse buttons. All is not lost, it just needs a firmware update… -.-
The S9 supports both MSC and MTP with the flip of a setting, so all of your OSes are covered. The player comes with Cowon Media Player (Jetaudio) but to be honest you probably won’t want to use this. It is a standard media player but the UI is incredibly convoluted. Windows media player, Winamp, and Media Monkey are all other and better choices that will work in both MTP and MSC modes if you are into organizing and synching with a media player. But dragging and dropping files onto the player just like a flash drive works just as well.
The S9 has the ability to show txt files. The nice big bright screen makes it pretty comfortable to read text on. There are 12 different back ground colors you can choose from if you read better on a white background as opposed to black for instance. The auto reader can be set to automatically page down at a set number of seconds with an easy toggle on and off at the bottom menu. Bookmarks are also available for keeping your place in really long documents. The zoom feature works just like it does for media lists adjusting the font size.
Flash / Utilities
The S9 has support for flash applications and games. The player shipped with an empty flash folder, but we have been finding that some D2 flash apps have been working just as well. I even got a few iriver SPINN games to work.
There is also a Utilities menu on the main page. Currently there is only one utility, a calculator. I am under the assumption that they will add more utilities over time, just as Samsung added them with firmware updates.
The radio UI is a lot of fun with a big virtual dial and a matrix screen of preprogrammed station buttons. Unfortunately, radio reception is not very good. I found there to be a lot of static in even the closest stations. This trickles into the auto program features where it almost seems to just fill the program slots with random stations. The closest station to me, no more than a mile or two away, was not correctly detected by the auto program feature, but instead selected on notch above what it was supposed to be.
The S9 will record three different sources: microphone (located on the back of the player), line-in (with purchase of optional accessory, and FM radio. These all have the option to record in 32, 64, 80, 96, 128, 256kbps WMA. Now many of you might be screaming for MP3 recording, but MP3 recording requires an additional license fee where as WMA has a single license fee for playback and recording.
I was unable to test the line-in features since the cable is not currently available, but I can’t imaging it’s too different than on other Cowon players- in other words working as advertised. There is also a sync feature that will break up the according to the silence in between if you are recording an album from CD or tape or even record.
The photo view functions just like any other with the basic thumb nail viewing and slide show. But the zoom feature makes the S9’s photo viewer stand out a bit more than the rest.
I tested one pair of Bluetooth headphones. I had no issues with pairing. The S9 only works as a wireless audio transmitter over Bluetooth there are no other features like found on the Samsung P2 such as wireless calling though your phone or file transfer. I don’t know if Cowon has any plans to add any additional Bluetooth support, but it is a possibility with future firmware updates.
Related: Cowon S9 Bluetooth Forum
Audio / Music
The UI does lend to a nice music browsing and management, despite what I think are some misplaces buttons as I discussed in the UI section. Jumping into the music section will put you right into the now playing screen. This screen features big album art (tap it once and it will show you metadata like file type and bitrate) with a touchable progress bar as well some control buttons on the bottom flip menu. There is also a “quick list” here that pops out from the right side of the screen. This simply shows you and lets you select the previous or next track by touching.
At the top of the screen is a library/playlist/bookmark toggle button which shows you the appropriate list. Browsing your media is done by either file folder browsing, or ID3 tag browsing. Both of these are in the same screen. So for instance at the “root screen” you will see: “Folders”, “Artists”, “Albums”, “Songs”, ect… So if you want to browse your collection by folder you would press “Folder” in the list. If you want to browse by ID3, the appropriate tag categories are below “Folders”. This is how Samsung as well as iriver handles their browsing.
Toggling again will put you into the favorites list. This is simply a single dynamic playlist. This list cannot be reordered but songs can be removed (on a side note you can also delete a file from the device, not just remove it from the favorites list in a similar fashion). Adding a file to your favorites is really easy and handled b the bottom flip menu. When pressing this “add” icon it will give you the choice of adding it to your favorites or bookmarking the current position. Getting to your bookmark list is the next press on the list toggle.
Cowon has always been know for great sound quality and you will find the same here- it’s very comparable to the D2. Testing it with some lossless FLAC files against a few other players I did find that it started to fall apart at higher volumes. By this I mean the highs start to get a bit fatiguing and the soundstage closes in. Other players like the Sansa Clip, Toshbia T400, and the Cowon X5 play though clear till the volume was near the top. I also found that the low end lack a bit of warmth when compared to the others, but with BBE on all Cowon players, bass is never a problem. BBE will turn even the Shure SE530′s into bass cannons. To almost all, the S9 will be more than acceptable; I only nitpick for those toting the ultra expensive phones. Take the preceding as an overly critical look; I still maintain it has great sound quality.
e the other Cowon players, the S9 sports BBE sound enhancement. For me personally this is the only sound enhancement I find to actually add something to the player and not sound synthetic or unnatural. With this the S9 has a bit of an added edge. This time around though there are some really nice BBE presets in addition to 4 slots for user presets. These presets include all the BBE settings as well as a 5 band EQ. This EQ is the same great EQ found on other Cowon players with adjustments for the curve as well as the center frequency.
The AMOLED screen lends well to video playback, especially with the faster pixel response time. The player officially supports Xvid and WMV with a recommended size of 420×272 at 30fps. However, I have been able to play up to XviD 640×320 30fps without any problems. WMV on the other hand didn’t quite push that far- a similarly sized WMV file played but was choppy. This is one of my favorite features of the S9 since no conversion is necessary since with me, if I have to convert it, it doesn’t end up on my player. On the down side, H.264 is not supported which is very common among all the new players.
Just like the music menu, you also have the ability to make a favorites playlists as well as bookmarks. BBE fans will also be happy to know that BBE is available while watching video.
Related: Cowon S9 Video Forum
The Cowon S9 is a solid player. The capacitive screen is a big improvement over the D2’s resistance type screen. On the face of the player a beautiful looking AMOLED screen graces the front and runs among the top screens on current portable devices. The sound quality is what we would expect from Cowon, excellent. The UI is fairly smart and its obvious Cowon spent some time on this, but it may not be intuitive to US buyers. My previous worries about buggy firmware are gone, while not perfect, it is the most stable Cowon release yet- though still expect typical constant updates over the next year.
For the Cowon fan it is a must buy if you can get over the fact that there is no expansion slot. But if you are on the edge or can’t quite decide and you are eying a touch screen player, wait till late Q1 of 2009. Sony and Samsung are releasing competitive touch screen players, but also by then Cowon may have added more features and utilities. I definitely do recommend the S9, but there will be some other great choices as well. Which one is “better” will come down to your personal preference.
You can pick up the S9 usually the cheapest at Amazon.
- Great Sound Quality
- Capacitive touch screen
- Great AMOLED screen
- Native Xvid Support
- BBE on video
- No H.264 support
- No expansion slot
- Not so standard 20-pin connection
- Audio in and Video out cables sold separately
- No multi-touch
Cowon S9 Video’s
Here are a few videos of the Cowon S9′s UI and various features. They are embedded here for a quick look, but are in HD on in the abi YouTube Channel. You can also subscribe to the abi YouTube channel and be the first to see the videos.