Cowon V5 HD Review

cowonv500main Cowon V5 HD Review

What do you get when you pair decent quality audio/video hardware with a head-scratchingly bad user interface, backwards usability, and disregard for anything that makes sense to the average user? Well, a Cowon PMP, of course. While this was true for the Cowon O2 I reviewed a bit over a year ago, I’ve taken it upon me to go through the same pain again, this time with the Cowon V5.

Grahm already wrote a short preview article about the V5. While I agree with his evaluation that the V5 is a nice upgrade to the O2 on the surface, the mess that is hidden beneath when one tries to use the V5 on a daily basis is even worse.

Read on for the not so surprising in-depth review of this portable media player.

  • Cowon V5 Specs
  • Display: 4.8” 800×480 24bit color LCD TFT, resistive touch screen
  • Video resolution: max. 1280×720, 30fps
  • Video containers: AVI, MP4, MKV, MPG, WMV/ASF, DAT, TS, TRP, M2TS, 3GP
  • Video codecs: DivX 3/4/5, XviD, h.264, WMV/ASF 7/8/9, MPEG1
  • Subtitles: SRT, SMI
  • Audio codecs (video player): MP1/2/3, AC3, WMA, OGG Vorbis, FLAC, WAV/PCM
  • Audio codecs (audio player): MP1/2/3, AC3, WMA, OGG Vorbis, MPC, FLAC, TTA, APE, WV, WAV/PCM
  • Audio: 30+30mW (16 Ohm)
  • OS: Windows CE 6
  • SoC/DAC: Telechips TCC9101, Wolfson WM8960
  • Battery life: Music 45h, Video 10h
  • Battery charging: 3.5 hours (5V, 2A)
  • Memory: 8, 16, or 32GB + SDHC slot

Build, Design, Accessories

The V5 can be seen as the direct successor to the older Cowon O2, but Cowon never made much sense with their naming/numbering scheme, so calling the V5 “O3” would have been too logical. The V5 is slightly bigger yet thinner than the O2. Both are about the same as far as build quality is concerned – they’re both very solidly built; they feel like sturdy high quality gear.

Cowon never seem to care for logical, natural improvements of their housing designs, they appear to rather go at it trial-and-error-style and make every new player iteration slightly different than the last one – for no apparent reason other than for the sake of being different. On the V5 the power/hold slider and the volume buttons have been moved to different places than where they could be found on the O2. This results in the V5’s buttons being less practical to use than the O2’s. While the O2’s volume buttons are on top of the player, they can be easily operated with one hand. Yet the V5’s volume buttons are now on the side, and one has to hold the player with two hands to actually manage to push them. Cowon’s motto: “always change a winning team”. The real annoyance however is that the V5, same as the O2, does not have enough tactile hardware buttons to be useful on the go, if one wants to hit the pause button quickly, for example. The only two buttons it has are for volume control, and can be mapped to act as FFWD/REW/skip when the player’s power button is set to hold/key-lock.

The V5 comes with an AC charger that works internationally; the prongs can be swapped to accommodate American or European power outlets. It outputs a rather beefy 3000mA at 5V, so it charges the player a lot faster than a regular 500mA USB port could.

It also comes with yet another unique proprietary USB cable, as is the usual modus operandi of Cowon. Barely any two of their players use the same cables. Comparing that to the standardized world of iPod or Sony Walkman connectors, Cowon’s topsy-turvy approach of seemingly randomly picking their players’ plugs and jacks is very inconvenient. Currently I have five Cowon players in my collection, and I need five different cables to connect them to my PC.

The included earbuds have multiple purposes: you could try putting them in a blender, you could try feeding them to your hamster, or you could set them on fire. Just don’t ever put them in your ears – they sound horrible. Even the stock earbuds that come with a $30 Sansa Clip sound better than Cowon’s rebadged Cresyn phones. One would expect a little more quality than that from a player as pricey as the V5. But then again, why waste money on better quality stock earbuds, when one can use some quality Shure, Ultimate Ears, Phonak, etc IEMs.

In typical Cowon manner, the V5 comes with a carrying-strap-slash-lanyard thing that should theoretically double as a stylus for touch screen control. Same as every other of Cowon’s stylus/lanyard contraption before it, it’s basically useless. It’s much too small to be useful to operate the screen, and I’m not a fan of having pointless “cellphone charms” attached to my PMP, wriggling around and getting in the way. I wonder if Cowon will ever ship a player with a normal, pencil-shaped stylus that can be stored in a stylus silo – something that can be found on all Palm PDAs, Pocket PCs, or even the Nintendo DS. But seeing as most players nowadays have capacitive touch screens that use direct finger input, the days of oldschool resistive touch screens and styli seem to be numbered anyways.

As far as USB connectivity and charging is concerned, the V5 is a vast improvement over the O2’s severely flawed implementation. While the O2 is probably the only player ever conceived that cannot connect both the internal memory and the SD card at the same time to the computer, the V5 handles this task same as every other player, as one would expect. The O2 also can’t shut off the screen while it’s connected, meaning it actually drains more power than it charges, and sooner or later will inevitably be too low on juice to stay connected. The V5’s screen can be turned off by flicking the power switch and the battery charges normally while it’s connected via USB.

On a side note, I should probably mention that the V5 is the only player so far that I’ve managed to irreversibly damage by formatting its internal memory. It’s not quite bricked, but files loaded onto the internal memory don’t show up on the player’s file browser anymore, they only show up on my PC’s Explorer. I can load files just fine on the inserted SD card, and then copy/paste them to the internal memory with the V5’s Windows CE Explorer. However, simply putting files on the V5 just doesn’t work anymore. I’ve tried everything possible to fix that – updating the firmware, downgrading the firmware, different formatting options, and so on. Nothing worked – and there’s no file system manager included in Cowon’s stripped down, basic implementation of CE 6, so there’s no possibility to fix it from within the player itself. Formatting the memory is usually a very basic, standard operation. I formatted every player I ever had, no exceptions – and nothing bad ever happened to any of them. The V5 is the first one that broke. Then again, no other of my players runs on Windows CE. Maybe it’s a unique error with my player, and everyone else isn’t as unlucky as me. I would however suggest being careful when formatting the V5’s memory.

Firmware, GUI

The firmware is extremely bad, even by Cowon standards. Mind you, I haven’t tested the infamous Q5W, but I doubt it can have that much lower usability than the V5. The following chapter is about firmware version 1.08, which is already the 8th upgrade since December 2009 – but it doesn’t feel like there was anything of importance fixed since the initial 1.00 firmware.

Windows CE 6 is the underlying operating system on which Cowon superimposed their counterintuitive user interface. Those familiar with ancient Pocket PCs and Windows-powered phones know that Windows CE 6 is an outdated mobile OS resembling Windows 95, with barely working touch screen controls and finger-(un-)friendliness duct-taped on as an afterthought. I assume Win CE is part of the problem the V5 feels rather sluggish and unresponsive at times. It’s just not specialized enough for the V5’s main tasks, audio and video playback, it burns too many cycles on irrelevant background processes and the like. Every time one starts the V5, one sees the Win CE desktop for a few seconds before Cowon’s UI starts. This looks amateurish and not well integrated at all. Not to mention the boot procedure is quite lengthy, despite the V5 not having to build a tag database for its files, as other, faster, players do. It’s borderline amazing that the V5 manages to play 720p videos – since Win CE takes almost a minute to display a folder with about 100 files in Explorer. In that aspect the Cowon O2’s embedded Linux firmware certainly appears to be more polished.

Anyway, back to the UI. After Win CE finishes booting, the unsuspecting user is slapped in the face by the visual insult that is the main screen of the V5. It’s basically the color-scheme equivalent of a Disneyland parade, paired with the cheerfulness of an episode of the TV show Pokémon. It would fit perfectly as the main screen of a Nintendo game, but for a portable video player it’s rather inappropriate in its gut-wrenching tackiness. I can’t even imagine what target demographic the designers had in mind when they created that stuff – but I probably wouldn’t want to know that anyway. Somehow I can’t imagine 12 year old Korean girls having much use for a player that sports a 5-band semi-parametric audio EQ or handles 720p Matroska containers. While the Cowon O2 looks antiquated like a ten years old Linux distro, the V5 overshoots the mark by trying to be “funny” and “cute” – yet only results in giving me stomach cramps when I look at it.

There are 27 (twenty seven) icons on the main screen. 22 of those are garbage; they have no function at all. Yet they’re animated. Only five of the icons actually do something. If you are asking yourself, “What the hell?” now, you’re about as surprised as I was when I saw it first. Once the confusion settles, one might notice the five useful icons among all the apples, drinks, dogs, hearts, chickens, t-shirts, ice cream cones, and so on. They’re ‘media’, ‘utility’, ‘office’, ‘game’, and ‘settings’. Among those categories hide the real functions of the V5. That’s right, in perfect anti-usability the features one wants to access, like video or audio, are hidden in superfluous sub-menus instead of being easily accessible on the main screen. This is getting really old really fast.

While there theoretically is a feature to put these useful icons directly on the main menu, covering the useless junk icons, this functionality is broken, and icons get reset to their default state after each reboot. This feature is working in the Korean 1.08 firmware version, but not in the international one. I hope this bug will be fixed in an upcoming firmware release, but so far it’s been over two months since the last update.

The ridiculous “all colors at once” main screen can be switched to a baby-blue/grey/white-only version, which is a bit less painful on the eyes. This however is the only thing that can be changed as far as appearances go. It’s not possible to set one’s own background image or change the font color, contrary to many other Cowon players.

When one uses the V5, one is going to see this main screen very, very often, and one is going to have to tap the superfluous on-screen buttons a lot: the V5 does not resume any media playback at all. Ever
y time the player is started, it goes to the main screen where one has to tap the ‘media’ button, then the relevant ‘audio’ or ‘video’ button, then the ‘file browser’ button to select a file. It does not go directly to the video or audio screen and resumes playback, as any reasonable player would have the option to do so. This is a gigantic and annoying usability flaw, one that should be fixed ASAP. The O2 did this right; it just continued playing after powering on. The S9, i9, D2, are also flawed like the V5, but at least for those some user-contributed Flash hacks do exist, to implement proper playback resume. I wonder if anyone at Cowon ever used one of their own players in real life…

The V5 does at least remember the place in a movie or music track, but it does this in a quite backwards way, far from being the optimal solution. It’s a kind of auto-bookmarking that can’t be turned off. The V5 writes a resume-info file for each video/audio track on the player’s internal memory or the SD card. When one quickly scans through movies – or in my case TV show episodes – to check what one has already watched, the V5 remembers its place for each file it played. After that, when one wants to watch a few episodes of a TV show in a row, none of these files will start from the beginning – they all start from the resume point, which can get quite annoying. This botched resume feature is especially frustrating since intelligent resume/auto-bookmark management was arguably the most ingenious feature of the Cowon O2. On the O2 all half-watched audio and video files were stored and displayed in one central file list, and one could choose to pick up watching in the middle if one wants to – or one could go to the standard file browser and select files normally to play from the beginning. I can’t imagine why Cowon had to reinvent the wheel with that feature instead of using the great solution they already had. It makes no sense, and it’s a huge step backwards for usability, compared to the older O2.

Same anti-improvement goes for the sleep timer feature – something I personally use almost on a daily basis, since I tend to watch movies in bed. While the O2 got a really nifty sleep timer that can be easily accessed on all screens of the UI simply by tapping the clock icon, the V5’s is buried deep in the system settings, a hassle to get at quickly. Tapping the clock in the task bar on any screen doesn’t do anything (tapping the date gives a not so useful calendar display). It also goes only up to 120 minutes, while the O2 goes to 240 minutes. Furthermore, same as most initial “international” firmwares by Cowon, this one only has a 12 hour AM/PM clock, not a 24 hour clock, which would be the standard in most countries on this planet.

Mentioning the finger-unfriendly interface at this point would probably be stating the obvious. Well, here goes, anyways: Icons are too tiny, the interface is crammed with too much stuff per screen, and most of it is not needed for basic operation. The progress bars take up far too much real estate to fit their ridiculous toilet symbol man/woman icons on screen, yet the play/pause button has to be looked for with a magnifying glass.

This awkward approach, lacking attention to detail and showing contempt for logical, sane usability, spans pretty much across all screens and menus of the player. It feels like functionality was built around the nauseating pseudo-“cute” girly looks of the player, and everything else was an afterthought, a rush-job.

Last but not least, I should mention the absolute deal breaker for me personally, the one lacking feature that makes the V5 basically useless for my needs: it’s the first Cowon player that has no pan/balance setting. Pan/balance is the reason I (and many other people) have to stick with Cowon players, or with players that are able to run Rockbox for audio. My left ear is less sensitive than my right one, and I need about 4dB higher volume in it to hear balanced. Since no other manufacturer supports this most basic of all audio features (after a volume control) anymore, there really aren’t many choices for PMPs. Archos are the only other brand that still supports pan/balance, but I’m not interested in them, due to quality issues. Seeing what a rush job the V5’s firmware is, I hope Cowon simply forgot to implement that features – and I hope they will add it again in a future firmware update.

Stuff

Same as every other Cowon player, the V5 comes loaded with various trinkets and doodads. They’re spread somewhat willy-nilly across the ‘media’, ‘utility’, ‘office’ and ‘game’ icons on the main screen.

The image viewer is a bit of an improvement over Cowon’s usual approaches. This one auto-rotates images depending on their orientation, so one doesn’t have to adjust every horizontal or vertical image manually to fit the screen. It also uses a logical sliding approach to pan/scan around images instead of the backwards virtual button tap method the O2 and D2 used. The only obvious annoyance is the baby-blue background of the image viewer, matching the rest of the interface. That’s certainly nice, but no matter what images one looks at, it most likely clashes with that color – and no, one cannot change that background color to a standard black or white. I also didn’t find a way to achieve a real full-screen display of an image – the rainbow-colored buttons to the left and right just won’t go away.

It seems a Flash player supporting basic Flash files/apps/games/animations can’t be missing on any PMP nowadays. It worked with a few files I tried, and it didn’t work with a few others. I assume the usual files up to Flash v7 and ActionScript v2 are supported, anything newer probably not. Either way, since hardly any Flash files are made with touch screen operation in mind, I question the usefulness of including Flash support in a player like the V5. It would be rather convenient if the V5 supported Flash Video (FLV) instead of SWF. For gaming on the go I strongly suggest a Nintendo DS or a Sony PSP instead.

The voice recorder records to WMA (WMA2, not the current WMA3 standard, to be specific) at 128kbps stereo – which of course is a bit silly since the microphone is mono. Same as on other Cowon players it works fairly well – enough for most environments that don’t have too much background noise.

One would expect the pompously named “documents” gadget to support Word, PDF, or Excel files, but it is actually only a very basic text viewer, without support for any formatting. It can only be used in landscape mode, text files can’t be rotated to portrait orientation.

Furthermore we have the two obligatory calculators, a unit converter (metric/imperial), a note pad, and a world clock. All those apps do pretty much what one expects them to do; nothing much else to say.

The two entries in the ‘game’ section of the V5’s main screen are actually the stock games that come with Windows CE (or any other variant of Windows): FreeCell and Solitaire. Everyone who ever got bored at work and/or used a Windows PC should probably be familiar with them.

Last, and definitely least, we have Windows CE itself, as an ‘addon’ to Cowon’s media interface. Cowon stripped this embedded system down to the bone; one can hardly use it for anything constructive. It lacks vital system applications and extensions, doesn’t work with the standard ActiveSync CE-to-PC desktop interface, and refuses to work with basically any useful third-party application. After spending hours in vain on trying to get ScummVM, TCPMP, and other interesting apps to work, I gave up. I got some small helper stuff like a task manager or a 7zip archiver working – but what’s the point in having those on the device when one can’t use them for anything useful? Considering there is also no connectivity to the outside world (Wifi, Bluetooth, ActiveSync) whatsoever, the outlook is even drearier. The microscopically tiny and impractical on-screen keyboard doesn’t help either. I want the time back that I wasted on toying around with this version of CE.

Audio

The V5’s audio player is so bad by any modern standards; one would think it’s actually meant to be a joke.

This is a real shame, since Cowon got the background hiss and crosstalk issues of their typical Telechips/Wolfson DAC/amp designs right with the V5. While all their other players (or most players by other brands, for that matter) with similar components generate a subtle-yet-annoying background noise with very sensitive phones such as the SE530, UE11, or ATH-CK10 and have somewhat narrow stereo imaging, the V5 performs noticeably better in these aspects. It still has the usual slightly rolled off bass response many MP3 players from most brands out there suffer from, but it’s not really noticeable in real-world situations. In short, the V5 sounds good.

This however doesn’t help a bit when one actually plays some music on the V5. And I’m not talking about minor issues, like the eye-sore UI with its love-stricken toilet door icons for a progress bar indicator and kindergarten-crayon icons, designed by someone who obviously thought, “more is better” when it comes to colors. I’m also not talking about the wasted screen real estate, used up by aforementioned design escapades, while useful visual cues such as album art are low priority in the mess that makes up the UI.

The real issues are the shoddy firmware quality, thoughtless ‘features’, no attention to detail and complete lack of usability.

When you want to listen to music, you have to tap the files icon on the screen’s left border, and then the file browser appears in the right half of the screen. On the positive side, this browser reacts to rudimentary up/down swipe gestures (something that took over a year until the O2 go it in a firmware upgrade). For changing out of a folder one still has to try and hit the tiny folder icon, a swipe to the left doesn’t work, as is the standard on most other players. On a side note, scrolling through the file list will make the audio playback stutter, that’s how inefficiently the WinCE firmware works. The V5 doesn’t support ID3 browsing – which in itself is a major setback for a lot of people’s needs – so folders is all you get.

Now comes the part that makes me slam my head into the nearest wall: Once a track has been tapped for playback, the folder view changes into something the firmware calls “playlist”. The only difference between this “playlist” and the regular folder view is that the “playlist” view is a more useless display of said folder’s contents. You cannot do anything with this “playlist”, it just shows the contents of the folder you’re playing, but without the possibility to navigate out of it, delete files, or do anything else you can do in folder view. So when you want to change to another folder, you have to tap the files icon again, navigate around, and tap a file for playback. You can’t just simply stay in folder mode; the “playlist” display that doesn’t do anything useful is mandatory and comes up every time. It’s just additional steps, additional hassle, with no real use whatsoever. You cannot sort files, you cannot make real playlists that get stored for later use – you can’t do anything with it. This is the most half-baked idea I’ve ever seen – even on a Cowon player.

No, wait, it actually can get half-baked-er: the V5’s music player cannot advance to the next folder. You heard me right. It can only play one folder, its sub-folders, or some tracks you added to the favorites list. The programmers forgot to add a “play all” selection to the menu. So if you’re expecting your audio player to actually continue to the next album once it’s done playing the current one – get another player, the V5 isn’t for you.

To add insult to injury, Cowon even managed to somewhat mess up their signature BBE enhancements in the V5, something that never happened before. While the V5 sports fancy 3rd generation BBE enhancements with BBE ViVA, BBE Headphone, and all the delightful tweaks that can also be found on the S9, i9, and J3, their implementation on the V5 is somewhat broken. At switching between some EQ presets, the sound gets a lot louder for a second, about twice as loud, and then goes back to normal volume. The volume differences between presets are also much more noticeable than on other Cowon players. Furthermore, switching EQ presets is very laggy, they take two or three seconds until they initialize – all other Cowon players switch instantly. This is all rather irritating and never happened on any Cowon player before – more evidence for sloppy firmware programming without any quality control. As mentioned before, this is actually already the 8th firmware update we’re talking about.

Of course the V5 does not have gapless playback, just like the O2 before it. And also just like the O2, the gaps between tracks on the V5 are unbearably long, over a second, closer to two. That’s a tiny bit better than the O2, but it sure ruins concept albums, sound tracks, orchestral pieces, DJ mixes, and everything else that needs seamless transitions between tracks. Sometimes there are even loud clicks between tracks, which is pretty much worse than any no-brand generic OEM player I’ve ever tried. Makes me wonder why all of Cowon’s non-PMP players like the S9, i9, J3 actually do have proper gapless playback, yet their video players don’t. They run on the same Telechips/Wolfson platform, they could easily share the proper working code.

The V5 also doesn’t resume playback after powering on, which is a major pain in the neck for both audio and video playback. Every time one starts the thing, one has to go through the obnoxious main menu to the audio or video playback screen and tap the play icon. It at least remembers its place in a file, but I just don’t get it how Cowon can forget to implement a real resume function in pretty much all their current players. The O2 was the laudable exception in that case – and for the D2 and S9 there’s user-contributed Flash hacks that make up for the lack of thought Cowon’s developers put in their firmwares.

Audio aficionados might already have noticed the V5 sporting an S/PDIF digital audio output. This however is only active in video mode; it can’t be used from within the audio player interface. Not that it would matter much, considering the usability flaws of the audio player. Anyways… How excellent it would be, having a Cowon player with the usability and functionality of the S9 or J3, paired with a digital output, feeding a good amplifier. One can only dream… but since we’re talking about Cowon, we will probably never see that wish become reality.

I saved the most amusing tidbit for last. While the V5’s specs don’t state that the player supports AAC/M4A audio for either video or audio tracks, it of course plays standard MP4 videos with h.264 video and AAC audio. Needless to say, I had to try if M4A audio files played as well – since the O2 played those too, as one of the very few Cowon players to support this most widespread audio format besides MP3 – while for some reason none of their audio-centric players like the S9, D2, i9, J3 support it. So I loaded some M4A files onto the V5. Trying to play them, the V5 complained with a pop up that the “files are not supported”. The amusing thing however is, it showed all the correct tag info in the playback screen, even the embedded album art – but it simply refused to play them. I then renamed the file suffixes from .m4a to .aac. Lo and behold, the files magically could be played now, while they couldn’t be played before! Yet all the tag info and album art disappeared. I think I don’t need to comment on that, you can draw your own conclusions.

Without exaggeration, this is the worst failure of an audio player I have ever had the misfortune to use. Well, at least by a reputable manufacturer. A crying shame about the great audio quality and nice sounding BBE enhancements wasted on such flawed firmware with terrible usability.

Video

Playing videos should hopefully be what the V5 is all about, and from a usability standpoint it handles this task the same as audio playback. The interface is the same face-palm-inducing kiddie stuff as found on the audio player screen. It has the same tedious, useless “playlist” behavior making file/folder browsing harder to do than necessary. We also meet our old friends again, the toilet door guy and his girl on the progress bar, and all the tiny, candy colored icons cluttering the left and right borders of the screen. Pretty much all the same flaws apply for video mode usability that I already mentioned in the audio chapter above.

Anyways, the V5 does play most videos you throw at it. This is very good, saves one from the hassle of having to transcode files. Doesn’t matter if the non-copyrighted holiday videos you download from Torrent trackers are in Matroska or MP4 containers, in standard AVI or in less useful ones like WMV/ASF – the V5 won’t complain. It even supports containers nobody ever uses – like TS, TRP, or M2TS. Inside those containers the usual audio and video codecs are supported: any variant of MPEG4-SP (XviD, DivX), MPEG4-AVC (h.264), MPEG1, and some WMV varieties.

Formats not supported by the V5 include the ever popular FLV/VP6 Flash video format (meaning, no YouTube support for you), OGM/Theora, Real, and other more obscure formats. One thing I don’t understand is that MPEG2 and VOB files extracted from DVDs aren’t supported. That is a completely arbitrary limitation, crippled on purpose for no apparent reason since the V5 plays MPEG1 and MPEG4 – why not MPEG2? The V5 (theoretically) plays even M2TS Blu-Ray streams, so I don’t see the point of omitting MPEG2/VOB support.

On the audio side, the V5 does support AAC in MP4 containers, even if Cowon doesn’t mention that officially in the spec sheet. This is rather important, since it’s the de-facto audio standard used nowadays for DVD and Blu-Ray rips. All other common audio formats are also supported for their relevant file containers, and the V5 does a good job at down-mixing surround sound to stereo. Videos with dual audio tracks are also handled well.

My main gripe with the V5’s audio support for videos is the same as the O2’s: there is no EQ and no BBE sound enhancements. The only sound “enhancement” for videos is some useless “3D stereo” mode which doesn’t do any good at all. Videos sound flat and boring on the V5 while the V5’s horrible audio player gets all the sound-tweaking goodies. The thing I really don’t understand is that the Cowon S9, i9, and even the ancient D2 all have BBE and EQ for videos. Why would Cowon’s audio players (with video support as an afterthought) have all the sound enhancements, yet their full-fledged PMPs don’t? This makes absolutely no sense. Same as with the O2, I have to stick a portable amp with bass booster to the V5 to enjoy videos with a bit less anemic sound. This is unacceptable for me – sound enhancements should definitely be implemented in the firmware.

Subtitle support is unfortunately very basic, handling only the barest minimum, SRT and SMI soft-subs. These subs are only supported as separate files, I couldn’t get the V5 to display any subs embedded in any file container. Advanced softsubs such as SSA/ASS aren’t supported at all – tough luck for anime fansubs and the like.

Resolutions are handled up to 720p – which nowadays isn’t anything special at all. It’s actually the minimum, more or less, and lots of Chinese off-brand PMPs already support full-HD at 1080p. Of course I don’t know how well these things handle such resolutions in reality, and how their battery life is, but at least the V5 keeps its promises of good 720p playback. With higher resolutions the V5’s battery life takes a nosedive as well, but it’s still good enough to watch maybe two consecutive movies in 720p MKV/h264/AAC. With non-HD resolutions the V5 reaches over 8 hours of playback time for me, with standard AVI/XviD/MP3 videos, and brightness turned half down. This is rather good for a PMP.

The V5 has a decent enough screen for video. While its predecessor, the O2, had an already severely outdated 4.3” 480×272 screen for its time, the V5’s 4.8” 800×480 screen is just fine. The O2 had 130560 pixels; the V5 has 384000, at almost the same physical size. The O2′s screen looks like a 1980ies arcade machine compared to the V5′s, which has so tiny pixels you can barely make them out.

Viewing angles are ok – nothing great, but nothing to complain about either. Viewed from both sides and below the image doesn’t wash out too much, but viewed slightly from above it solarizes immediately. It sure isn’t an AMOLED screen, but color rendition and contrast are also acceptable. Colors can be tweaked separately in the player’s settings, but those are quite big changes and not really necessary under normal circumstances.

In typical Cowon manner, they can’t have a standard USB port for their players and separate standard plugs for other tasks like video-out. They have to “invent” new proprietary or semi-proprietary ports for each new device, breaking all compatibility with any of their other players’ accessories, and often using those ports in a manner they’re not intended to be used. Well, the V5 uses some proprietary 34-pin port for everything: USB transfer, analog video-out, S/PDIF-out, and – you guessed it – HDMI-out.

But enough with the connectivity nitpicking – the HDMI output works perfectly well, as expected. I just plugged it into my computer monitor and was instantly greeted by a perfect 720p display, same as the movie would look like when played via MPC/CCCP (or any other quality software video player). The composite analog output looks a bit horizontally stretched on my old CRT TV, but the quality is definitely acceptable. Colors are a bit over-saturated and contrast is a bit too high. But that can be easily fixed via the TV’s image controls. Digital S/PDIF audio can be used in combination with the analog video output, which is a nice feature for receivers that support it. On a side note, I found the TV-out to be slightly unstable – it crashed and rebooted three times on me in two weeks, while I never had any crashes watching videos on the V5’s internal screen. That might be a coincidence, though.

Unfortunately, the V5 does not come with a remote control, and there also isn’t one sold as a separate accessory. That makes using the V5 as a source for TV-usage quite a bit of a hassle. For the high price Cowon asks for all their players in general, one would expect at least some convenience. Again, most Chinese PMPs, Archos PMPs, and others do come with remotes. That being said, the HDMI or analog-out cables are not included with the V5 and have to be bought separately. At least they’re not overpriced.

Conclusion

Ones step forward, two steps back. I’m very disappointed by the Cowon V5 as a whole. One would think Cowon would have used the last year or two to rethink their PMP plans and improve on the botched O2. Yet the V5 has just a better screen, working 720p playback, and better battery life – but most of the usability shortcomings of the O2 are still here, and a few new, aggravating flaws have been added. Oh, and the V5’s nauseatingly kitschy interface design is just too insulting to even mention.

As a video player it’s somewhat better than the O2, as an audio player it’s much worse. All the additional trinkets and Windows CE are pretty much too uninteresting and irrelevant to count as positive points, since the player does not even get its main functions right. I guess that is why the CE-based Q5W didn’t sell as well and why it’s rarely mentioned as a positive example, as far as portable players go.

If you’re simply looking for a solidly built PMP with good battery life that plays most every video you throw at it and has a HDMI output, the V5 might be worth a glance. If you’re a really patient person that is willing to handle the backwards usability of the V5’s awful firmware, that is. If you’re looking for a usable audio player by today’s standards – definitely look elsewhere.

Hardware is only getting one so far with a PMP design – the firmware is what makes or breaks it in the end. As usual, we could play the waiting game, which is the normal way with Cowon products. We could keep on dreaming that the next firmware upgrade will make it all better. However, in reality that is rarely ever the case with Cowon products. Despite their habit of rolling out dozens of firmware upgrades for their players, they seldom seem to tackle the obvious major issues, the main flaws of their products.

For the Cowon O2 for example it took about a year and a half until they fixed the botched, user-unfriendly file browser and gave it the much needed swipe gestures people were longing for. Yet in the meantime they implemented a comic viewer, AB-repeat and audio-pitch shift for video playback, and dozens of other complicated, completely useless “improvements” nobody ever wanted or needed. They also broke several useful features that were working in older firmwares, and never fixed them again. Until today the O2 still has no EQ or BBE for video playback, still has huge gaps and clicks between audio tracks, and so on. Only a few tiny things have changed, yet as a whole there was no real improvement to be seen.

I fear the V5 is destined to the same fate as the O2. The firmware just seems to be too botched from the get-go, there’s probably no easy way to clean up all the flaws. And I doubt Cowon’s developers are going to re-write it from scratch.

I would strongly suggest Cowon to make their firmware developers and UI designers “eat their own dog food” – this would be a surefire way to improve the quality and usability of the players immensely. As it looks, I very much doubt the development teams actually ever use the players they design in real-life situations. I wouldn’t either, when the players are as frustrating as the V5.

Cowon, for your next player please, please create a good PMP for once. I beg you. The great S9 showed that you still got it going on, and its successor, the J3, is just what everybody wanted as an upgrade. You can do things right when it comes to audio players. Why do you have to mess your video players up so badly? Just use your good, popular players’ firmwares as a basis and don’t reinvent the wheel with every new player. Use what you learned, what works, don’t try to impress with needless ‘creativity’. Don’t change tried and proven stuff that already worked. There’s a reason why other brands stick to their interfaces and have a common appearance that grows organically with each generation, a reason why they don’t aimlessly jump around between half-baked UI and usability ideas. Could you imagine every iPod variant handling differently, just for the sake of it? No, of course not, because it’s not making any sense.

Please Cowon, start making sense.

Pros

  • Plays most popular video codecs/containers up to 720p resolution
  • Good 800×480 screen
  • Good audio quality
  • Great battery life for a PMP
  • HDMI and analog video-out
  • Good build quality

Cons

  • Terrible firmware, very bad usability
  • Tacky, gut-wrenchingly childish interface design
  • Lack of basic features compared to other Cowon players, feels like a rush-job
  • Not enough tactile hardware buttons for comfortable use
  • Often sluggish operation, sub-par touch screen response
  • No EQ or BBE sound enhancements in video mode
  • Doesn’t resume playback, always starts on the main screen
  • Almost useless audio player
  • AAC/M4A audio support crippled on purpose
  • SD card not integrated with internal memory
  • Runs on outdated, inefficient Windows CE 6
  • Overpriced for what it is



26 Comments

lestatar on May 26, 2010 7:57 PM

Best. Review. Ever…lmao.Seriously, very sad about this V5 missing the boat on so many levels. Good luck to those who purchase this – I hope they enjoy it.This only serves to further my own belief that when companies try to throw the kitchen sink into a “magical all-in-one” device, nearly everything will suffer.

tds01 on May 26, 2010 9:04 PM

I waited quite awhile for this review, I got my monies worth!!!! Great review, and now I know, horrible V5 – I’ll pass.

Jhon on May 26, 2010 9:21 PM

Thank God for this website and its reviews. The V5 looks like a complete joke.

joe on May 26, 2010 10:52 PM

“Of course the V5 is the direct successor to the older Cowon O2″When did the O2 run WinCE? Cowon sold players before this with WinCE on it.With the screen res it should replace the A3.Otherwise, business as usual :)

Joseph Mitzen on May 27, 2010 12:05 AM

And to think this is the player that Michael of DapReview.net defended from CNet’s “trashing” of it, complaining that the reviewer wrote it off without covering its “good” points, and the site’s readers defended.http://www.dapreview.net/comment.php?comment.news.4687ABI must now become my sole go-to site for DAP/PMP info from now on. :-)

chengdude on May 27, 2010 12:53 AM

How exactly is WinCE 6 “an outdated mobile OS resembling Windows 95, with barely working touch screen controls and finger-(un-)friendliness duct-taped on as an afterthought”? Windows Mobile 6.5 runs on a core of WinCE 5; older than WinCE 6.Check out videos of the Meizu M8 mobile phone or the Viliv P3, both of which run WinCE 6…Cowon may have missed the mark with their UI, but WinCE 6 is definitely not the issue.

Newzild on May 27, 2010 2:31 AM

It’s good to read a review that nail’s a product’s faults honestly. Too many reviews these days suffer from the “flavour of the month” factor, in which the product is deemed the best thing ever, only for the problems to be slowly identified later by real-world users.

kasrhp on May 27, 2010 8:07 AM

Martin,Great review. Its a shame that Cowon doesn’t learn from their mistakes. When the O2 came out, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. But, after time, it just ended up being a PITA. Its completely pathetic as a company to not learn from past mistakes.I for one will NEVER buy a Cowon player before I see a good full review here at ABI. I learned my lesson from the O2 buying it before you guys reviewed it. Never again!!

electron on May 27, 2010 11:10 AM

one word: ouch!hopefully you will like the Cowon J3 better! (I hope so, cause I really want one :p )

bleui on May 27, 2010 10:30 PM

I was getting an interest with the V5 before this… but oh, what would I be without you ABI

Nujabez on May 28, 2010 1:27 AM

I’m with lestatar.. LMAO!great review. I have the O2 and I was maybe considering getting the V5 because it has a bigger screen and plays 720p.. BUT thanks to your review the Cowon J3 is something I might get instead.

Neutron on May 28, 2010 1:29 AM

Show us the latest firmware for your Zii Egg. I heard there are some great features in it.

Luciferhawke on May 29, 2010 2:48 AM

Ouch, Tell us how you REALLY feel.Glad i held off though. I love my O2 but know real mkv/.264 playback sux. Sadly, this wont be an upgrade. Cant wait for the ViliV HD5 review

TheWolfster on May 29, 2010 7:39 PM

Haha, this review is pretty spot on. I have a V5 and it isn’t that great in most respects. However, I only use it for watching anime and tv shows. (I stick with my S9 and J3 for music). And overall, it does an excellent job at that. Dragging/dropping a 720p MKV is a great time saver.My only gripe, as mentioned, is the lack of SSA/ASS embedded subs, and no DTS audio support (which a lot of bluray rips have). So I still have to transcode/hardsub most anime or movies.I wouldn’t recommend this player to most people. But as an early adopter (who paid way too much), I’m satisfied with its video playback support.

Shortly on June 2, 2010 9:07 PM

So, just curious. now that you have both the V5 and the O2, and you gave the glowing review of the V5, which player will you be using more of?The O2 seems more useful than this thing. I thought that the Windows CE would be useful, but ended up being useless as you say. This is confusing.Nevertheless, I still love my O2 for videos, and won’t change until something more worthy will come out. Love meaning, the video. It really is frustrating, because there is no player other than the O2 that is out there that is appealing to me. Interesting.

Martin Sägmüller on June 3, 2010 10:52 AM

Shortly, I went back to the O2 for daily use, the V5 is just too obnoxious to handle. The better screen is not worth the hassle for me, considering how awful the player handles. I keep a few movies on the V5, but all the TV shows I watch daily are on my O2.

Shortly on June 4, 2010 6:25 AM

I was hoping you would say that. Even with the ineptitude of the O2, from what you wrote, I was expecting that you would go back to the O2.I feel somewhat redeemed. I will still wait for a player that you approve of. If this one goes up in smoke, what would you recommend to replace it? A tough question, I know.Thanks a bunch for the overly excellent review. Quality was not compromised. A full detailed review.

Martin Sägmüller on June 4, 2010 2:20 PM

Thanks for your kind words. Well, I keep my hopes up that Viliv will deliver a decent PMP with the P3. 800×480 AMOLED, Android, what have you. But as we know, specs only tell half the story – we’ll see if their firmware will hold up.

Tyler on June 4, 2010 6:51 PM

On the Win CE note, doesn’t the Zune HD run off of CE 6.0? And the ZHD’s interface is quick and speedy

Todd on June 4, 2010 7:45 PM

This is a… well a review. I feel obligated to speak up for Cowon. (well a little) I don’t think this is a replacement or upgrade of the O2, instead I think it’s the replacement for the Q5W. I say this because this is how the player is being marketed. Also, the Q5W (which I own) has a LOT of the same flaws. but the user interface is much easier to use and actually makes sense. Also the Q5W has a pretty good implementation of CE-5 and WiFi so I can actually use it to play music off of my laptop when both devices are on on my network. It kind of works like a netbook. The Q5W even has a mini version of windows media player that can be used to play videos that the Cowon media player won’t play. It is also a USB host so I can add a mouse and keyboard (kind of needed to get the most out of windows media player), or a usb drive for additional storage. It has little word processor (word pad I think) that can be handy for taking notes. The Q5W also has a mobile version of internet explorer so it can be used to surf the web, I have actually done online banking on it, and even ordered a Domino’s pizza with it. It boots up MUCH faster than my windows machine so quick browsing to simple sites like gmail or google are pretty easy. The browser has flaws a plenty but when used as intended its kind of cool. The Q5W also has a digital output that works with both music and video, and it uses a common USB cable for connection to a PC. From what I read on the Cowon Korean site there is a P5 that is pretty much the Q5w with a slightly modified body. After reading this I guess I might have helped make the reviewers point the V5 isn’t a replacement for anything in the Cowon line. The Q5W has it’s issues, but because of it’s better implementation of CE and WiFi, Bluetooth (stereo!) and USB host feature. it has some virtues that sort of redeem it from it’s lousy audio player features. the V5 doesn’t seem to have any of the Q5W’s virtues but has all of it’s flaws. Kind of a mess of a player, but oddly, I still kind of want one….

Mark M. on December 3, 2010 8:31 AM

I also own the Cowon Q5W, and it’s a piece of junk. It was from the day I bought it, and now it’s been discontinued and is no longer supported.

I’m ticked that I paid $500 for that junk box. I wish I could redeem it somehow by changing operating systems. But it has a lousy MIPS processor, which nothing works with.

The COWON Q5W is a dead joke.

Bas N. on January 27, 2011 1:06 PM

Well, just bought one on discount, despite this negative review. I like the quality of image and sound a lot! Beautiful 4,8 inch screen!

Lot of things can be adjusted: Red, Green, Blue and contrast control for the screen, which other PMP has that? Those are exactly the lacking controls on almost any other portable media player… great viewing angles too.

User interface could be better I guess, but it suits my needs. It does make good use of the resolution of the screen; it shows all `shortcuts` to settings and options in the basic audio- and videoplayer screens, so you don`t get lost into sub menus. Makes it very fast and straight forward in my opinion. Yes it has a few silly icons, so what…

Don`t understand the review, it mentions that it is an almost useless audio player. Well, it plays music just fine! I have to agree in the fact that if you change some EQ presets, you will hear a short increase of volume. Doesn`t bother me to much as I`m not changing settings all the time, and I guess most people are not.

It can read exfat formatted sd cards and together with a HDMI monitor or projector you just have a very small HD player that can play large HD files and you can even enjoy it on the 4,8 screen itself. Try that with the J3!

Beau Bodega on February 13, 2011 1:47 PM

I own a Cowon F2 and D2. The F2 interface was pretty clever, once you got some practice, but with the D2 familiarity bred contempt. The D2 UI was surprisingly and unnecessarily inconvenient. It sounds like Cowon outdid themselves with the V5.

I loved the “eat your own dog food” reference. Having lived in Korea for several years, I was struck by how many products are made there whose defects would be obvious if the designers would just use them before mass producing them.

One, ironically, was dry cat food that no cat, including strays, would eat. It turns out the “antibiotic” listed on the ingredients was coconut oil, which apparently cats do not find very delicious. I contacted the company, and they insisted cats love their food.

I don’t want to appear to over-generalize about Koreans; they obviously can make products that can compete on the world marketplace, like Hyundai, if they want to. But as Korea has achieved prosperity, they have become blinded by propaganda of their own national superiority. When I first arrived, I heard, “Everyone knows Korea makes the best (fill in the blank) in the world.” Ummm, everyone except the Japanese and Germans, and you forgot to tell Americans.

What I actually saw, and which Martin Sägmüller noted, is that Koreans confuse creativity with simply doing the opposite of someone else. They often change things just for the heck of it, instead of learning from others and taking the best of what they do and making it better. Koreans are fervent conformists, but they feel it is vital for Korea to be different from every other nation, thus the change for change’s sake.

Koreans typically have contempt for Western linear, logical thinking. One proudly showed off the “fuzzy logic” label on a Samsung washing machine (yes, a recent model, not one from the 1990s). Making things simple and clear (KISS) is not an ideal in Korea; instead, the way to impress someone with your superior intelligence is to make things confusing and unintelligible. This may be an Asian trait; I’ve seen it in some Japanese software.

Korea appears to be a nation with collective ADHD. Just look at their websites, especially commerce, such as:

http://english.gmarket.co.kr/

They like bright colors and lots of fast movement and flashing images. Ordering is a circuitous nightmare that even support can’t explain, unlike the simple, linear flow on, say, Amazon.

Koreans like to cow people into conformity, making them feel small if they disagree. I wrote a review criticizing the UI and sound of the Cowon D2, and someone responded in broken English saying Cowon’s CEO was known as “Golden Ear” so obviously I didn’t know what good sound was. Except I have owned Class A amplifiers and British speakers. The sound from Cowon players is not natural; it is digital sound on steroids, as though it lacks good post DAC filters.

This forced conformity and group think (which also exists in some American companies) I presume is not universal in Korean companies, but is likely a reason for Cowon’s downward slide.

I apologize for the long post, but I wanted to help balance the plethora of glowing reviews that seem to greet every new Cowon product. I will not be buying Cowon again.

Thank you for an excellent, thorough review by Martin Sägmüller.

Martin Sägmüller on February 13, 2011 3:30 PM

Thanks for your very insightful reply, Beau. It reflects my assumptions very well, regarding what I expected to be the main issues with many of Cowon/Samsung/iriver/etc products.

Piing on January 23, 2012 9:01 AM

“How excellent it would be, having a Cowon player with the usability and functionality of the S9 or J3, paired with a digital output”

I second that. I am searching for a portable player, as pretty as the J3, to place at the top of my DAC.

Martin Sägmüller on January 23, 2012 2:06 PM

The Cowon D3 has S/PDIF out.

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