Cowon D3 Plenue Review

cowond3 00main Cowon D3 Plenue Review

Many reviews have already been written about the Cowon D3. Mine’s certainly late to the party, but for good reason: after seeing the somewhat underwhelming performance of the D3 with its initial Android 2.1 firmware, I told myself to wait until the release of the inevitable 2.3 upgrade before I give the D3 a closer look.

Now that yummy ‘Gingerbread’ has arrived on Cowon’s first foray into the smartphone-without-a-phone realms, there’s no more holding back.

  • Cowon D3 Plenue Specs
  • Capacity: 8/16/32 GB, NTFS file system, MicroSDHC slot
  • Screen: 3.7″ 480 x 800 S-AMOLED, Pentile RGBG subpixel matrix, capacitive multi-touch
  • Size, weight: 64.2 x 116.4 x 11.4 mm, 120 g
  • Tactile buttons: power/hold, volume +/-, play/pause, FFWD/skip, REW/skip
  • Soft buttons: back, menu, home
  • Battery: Li-Poly, 10h video, 21h audio, 3.5h AC charging, 7h USB charging (manufacturer claims)
  • Additional hardware features: Wi-Fi B/G, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR (A2DP, AVRCP, OPP), speaker (x 2), microphone, G-sensor, vibrating alarm, FM radio, voice recorder, S/PDIF audio output
  • OS: Android 2.3.3 ‘Gingerbread’
  • Audio formats: MP1/2/3, OGG Vorbis, AAC/M4A/MP4, WMA/ASF, FLAC, APE, WAV/PCM
  • Lyrics: LDB
  • Sound enhancements: BBE+, Jeteffect, 5-band pseudo-parametric hardware EQ
  • Video formats: AVI (DivX, Xvid), MP4/M4V (h.264), MKV, MPG (MPEG 1), DAT, TS, TP, TRP, 3GP, WMV/ASF (WMV 7/8/9)
  • Video resolution: up to 1080p (1920 x 1080)
  • Subtitles: SRT, SMI, SMIL, SUB (Text Form)
  • Audio tracks in video: MP1/2/3, AC3, AAC, OGG Vorbis, PCM, FLAC, WMA
  • Video output: HDMI, composite (NTSC/PAL), S/PDIF audio
  • Included accessories: USB cable, AC charger, earphones, software CD, printed manual
  • Sold separately: HDMI output cable, component video cable with S/PDIF output

Accessories

The D3 comes in a subtle eco-friendly cardboard box. Inside we find a USB cable, an AC adapter, a pair of earbuds, a software CD, and a printed manual.

Typical for Cowon, the USB cable is of the proprietary variety. Its 34-pin port won’t work with anything else (except Cowon’s V5 PMP, which uses the same plug), and you can’t buy the cable in regular stores. They could have used today’s de-facto standard MicroUSB, as most other Android device manufacturers do, since there’s no functionality in the D3 that justifies using a non-standard connector. For example, they could have implemented the new MicroUSB standard MHL (Mobile High-definition Link) for HDMI output, and used a 4-pin headphone jack for analog composite video. But Cowon never was one to support standards, as far as cable connections go… so you better not forget your cable when you take the D3 with you. Chances are very slim that you will find that cable in the wild.

By the way: the D3 is black, the AC adapter is black, and the earbuds are black as well. Why is the USB cable white? The cable looks like an iPod accessory, not matching the player at all. And it looks out of place on my desk, among all my other black cables. Maybe I’ll wrap some duct tape around it…

The AC adapter is a rather large wall-wart, with exchangeable prongs (US, UK, EU). It works internationally, with voltages from 100 to 240V. It’s the same adapter that already came with the O2 and V5. It delivers a whopping 3 ampere, which is six times as much as an average USB port on a computer gives. While the D3 can be charged over USB as well, using the wall-wart is a lot faster – 3.5 hours compared to 7 hours for a full charge. The D3 automatically turns on as soon as the AC adapter is plugged in – it cannot charge without being powered on. This is a bit of a design flaw in my opinion.

Cowon apparently uses improved drivers in the earbuds packed with the D3. While they look the same as all former stock earbuds that came with Cowon players, they sound quite a bit clearer and more refined. They have no bass response to speak of, but for a starter set they sound just fine. Of course one should consider upgrading to some better headphones or in-ear monitors to get the most of the D3’s sound quality – earbuds just don’t cut it.

There’s not much to say about the CD and the quickstart manual that come with the D3. The CD isn’t really needed – it contains Cowon’s Jetaudio jukebox/converter/sync app and a brief PDF manual that isn’t any more in-depth than the printed quickstart guide. A newer version of the PDF manual can be downloaded from the Cowon Global website.

Two video output cables aren’t included but can be bought separately – a digital HDMI cable and an analog composite cable with additional S/PDIF audio output.

Design, Hardware Features

Undoubtedly, the D3 is a fetching player. Cowon did a great job in keeping its design understated and classy. The housing is made of high quality plastic, which I personally prefer over metal housings – good ABS plastic dents and scratches less, and the D3 feels very nice to the touch with its rubberized back.

The front consists of fairly scratch- and impact-resistant Gorilla Glass, which protects the 480×800 Super AMOLED screen. An additional screen protector shouldn’t be needed. As expected, the screen is gorgeous to look at – it looks the same from all viewing angles, blacks are really black, contrast is really crisp, and color saturation is well tuned. It is a bit more saturated than the screens on the Cowon J3 and S9, but not as overblown as the screens on the Sony A845 or X1000. On the D3, people still have natural skin tone in videos and images; they’re not orange or red looking.

The AMOLED uses a Pentile RGBG subpixel layout instead of a standard RGB strip layout. This technology brings some advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it uses less power and performance for displaying images, thus saving a bit of battery life. It also is claimed to be brighter than regular RGB displays while using the same power draw. On the downside, one has to get used to a perceived diagonal pattern in solid color fields (especially with solid red), and that small letters and thin lines on high contrast colors (especially white letters on black background) look a bit jagged, with the left borders always being purple (red and blue subpixels) while the right borders are always green. For text the D3’s Pentile display certainly doesn’t look better than a regular RGB display when inspected closely, but as long as one holds it some 20 cm away from the face, none of these artifacts can be noticed. For videos and photos it is close to perfect looking, same as the J3/S9’s screens – just with much higher resolution.

The D3’s screen is very bright at its highest setting, making it somewhat usable in direct sunlight. You won’t be able to watch videos in those situations, but at least you should be able to queue up the next audio track, or read an email.

Of course the screen is capacitive and supports multitouch gestures. It is very responsive and precise to use. Once you’ve used it, there’s no easy way back to resistive screens anymore. For some weird reason however, the three soft buttons below the screen (back, menu, home) aren’t as responsive as the screen itself. I often have to tap the home icon a few times before it reacts. By the way, the ‘Super’ in front of the AMOLED name just means the digitizer is built directly into the screen, instead of being a separate overlay. This might reduce glare by a bit, at least in theory.

In usual Cowon manner, they put a generous amount of tactile hardware buttons on the sides of the D3: power/hold, volume +/-, play/pause, forward/skip, and rewind/skip. The D3 is probably one of the Android devices with the most buttons available – making it really useful as an audio player on the go. Or rather, the D3 would be amazing to use on the go if Cowon ironed out some of the bugs with the buttons. The issue is that the play and skip buttons aren’t active when the screen is turned off, which really doesn’t make much sense. One has to push the power/hold button to turn on the screen before the other buttons react – and even then it’s not always working properly. The volume buttons however work properly.

The buttons can be used with many different audio players. I’ve tried Rockbox, Winamp, and Poweramp. While Rockbox performs rather well with the tactile buttons, Poweramp is quite laggy, taking up to 5 seconds for a play/pause command to execute. It would be excellent if Cowon could improve the button code a bit, which would give the D3 an immense advantage for in-pocket use over most other Android devices that only have volume buttons, if any.

General consensus among Cowon users seems to be that the latches the company puts on all their players aren’t the greatest invention. Usually one latch hides both the USB port and the SD slot on Cowon players – the D3 however has two separate latches for these features, USB port at the bottom, SD slot on the left side. While these latches make the player look somewhat tidier, they do get a bit in the way of usability. I would prefer if at least the USB port would be quickly accessible without a cover.

The MicroSD slot is of the usual SDHC variety, supporting cards up to 32GB. However, Cowon players generally can be used with 64GB SDXC cards (formatted to FAT32) that adhere to SD 3.0 specs, if one really needs that much space.

On the back of the D3 is a small mono speaker. It is very quiet, only useful to wreak havoc in empty libraries (or to listen to audiobooks at night, for a more realistic example). The speakers in most other Cowon players are louder. I wonder if the volume level could be increased via a firmware update. The speaker cannot be explicitly disabled in the system settings. Whenever a headphone is disconnected, the speaker takes over.

There’s a second speaker at the top of the front plate, used for VoIP calls. It is also rather quiet, but works well enough for Skype calls in quiet surroundings.

Next to the speaker on the back is the reset hole. I’ve only had to use it once since I got the D3, but it’s always a hassle looking for a paper clip to fit into the tiny hole. I wish the D3 would rely on long button presses for a hard reset, like Cowon’s own C2, all Archos players, and many other devices do.

On the bottom of the player, besides the USB/HDMI port, headphone- and AC jack, is the microphone. It can be used for both voice recordings and VoIP calls.

As far as other features go, the D3 sports an accelerometer (aka. G-sensor) and a rumble pack, as the Nintendo nerds would call the vibration alert. There’s not much to say about these things – the accelerometer makes sure the interface gets flipped when you tilt the player, and the vibration alert can be useful for force feedback during text input, or for calendar or messaging notifications.

What the D3 doesn’t have is a camera, an ambient light sensor, or a GPS. Since I’m a photography snob I wouldn’t use the camera on a smartphone-ish device for photos anyways, but it sure would come in handy for scanning QR codes and the like – some people probably would like to indulge in some silly video chatting as well. The usefulness of a built in GPS speaks for itself – Google Maps and Google Sky Map alone would make it worth it. An ambient light sensor is just a shortcut for lazy people who can’t be bothered to adjust the screen brightness on their own… I’d love to be one of those people. None of these features are essential, and they sure would increase the already high price of the D3 – but I wouldn’t mind having one or more of them.

Specs, Hardware

Under the hood, all is not so fresh. The D3 basically runs on hardware from 2009 – that was aeons ago, counting in computer years. The CPU is a single core Telechips TCC8900, ARM11/ARMv6 with VFP, clocked at a maximum speed of 720MHz, with a measly 173MB of available RAM. The GPU is an equally old ARM Mali-200.

While I don’t expect Cowon to use the fanciest Nvidia Tegra 2 stuff or similar to build their players, it is sad to see that even a lowly entry-level player like the inexpensive Archos 32 uses a TI OMAP 3630, Cortex A8/ARMv7 at 1GHz, with 241MB RAM – and it runs circles around the D3, performance-wise.

(The video above has no audio track.)

What the D3 does very well is hardware-accelerated video decoding up to 1080p – but when it comes to rendering websites, loading games, or even booting up, it is aggravatingly slow. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be an issue that can be fixed with firmware updates. Now that it runs on Android 2.3.3 instead of the old 2.1 version, the D3 might be a tad faster than before, but it still is slower than most other devices currently on the market. If only Cowon had used the newer Cortex A8 TCC8800 in the D3, instead of the old TCC8900…

The Mali-200 – once a solid midrange OPEN GL accelerator, nowadays more tending towards the lower end – delivers fairly acceptable performance still. It is possible to play some more demanding 3D games like Pocket Legends on the D3, although the frame rate is a bit choppy. Using the Chainfire 3D proxy driver might improve things slightly. Apps that require ARM NEON support (such as the upcoming VLC player) won’t work on the Mali-200.

All this being said, I have to reiterate: for the D3’s main purpose – audio and video playback – the performance is perfectly fine. Menu speeds, list scrolling, and similar tasks feel swift enough as well.

Battery life seems adequate for an Android device. I’m getting some 5 to 7 hours out of the D3 with mixed usage (Wi-Fi on/off, Bluetooth on/off, web browsing, watching movies, etc). For music playback with the screen and Wi-Fi mostly turned off I’m getting over 10 hours out of it, maybe closer to 12-14 hours. Benchmarking and 3D gaming with maximum screen brightness and Wifi turned on gives me less than 2 hours. Sure, I would wish for slightly better battery life, but that would probably be unrealistic for any Android device.

The D3 is the hottest running portable device I ever tested. With moderate usage like ebook reading it only gets mildly warm, but with processor intensive tasks like web browsing or watching HD videos it gets rather hot already. Combining HD video playback with simultaneous AC charging runs the D3 alarmingly hot, truly uncomfortable to the touch. This certainly can’t be good for long-term battery life, not to mention the dissipated heat being wasted energy. I have no comparison to other TCC8900/Mali-200 devices, so I don’t know if this is the standard for this platform. Unfortunately the D3 doesn’t have a battery temperature sensor; all system tools constantly show 0°C.

One feature I’m sorely missing on the D3 is a ‘deep’ sleep mode, like the Archos Gen8 devices for example have – a sleep mode that stops active tasks and wake locks, putting the player in a state that saves more battery life. The D3’s sleep mode just turns the screen off, but many tasks (music playback, Wi-Fi, etc) stay active if not explicitly stopped. Using this ‘light’ sleep mode on the D3 will drain a fully charged battery in a few hours or days, depending on which tasks are active. A ‘deep’ sleep mode would be very welcome – not only to preserve battery life, but also because the D3 takes very long to perform a full boot (and also to shut down), as seen in the video above.

The Wi-Fi chip in the D3 supports 801.11 B and G, but not N. This should not be a big issue, since most N routers support G devices anyway. Reception is fairly good on the D3; it gives slightly better than average signal strength, compared to similar devices. On my 16/1.5 Mbps home network I’m getting 5 Mbps download and the full 1.5 Mbps upload with the D3 (according to Speedtest Mobile).

Bluetooth is of the usual 2.1 + EDR variety, supporting A2DP (audio streaming), AVRCP (remote control), and OPP (file transfer). Everything works perfectly well, I can transfer files between the D3 and my netbook without issues, can stream music to speakers, and so on. I’m still waiting for my first Apt-X capable player, by the way…

A very interesting and rather unique feature of the D3 is the use of NTFS as its file system. Contrary to the usual FAT32 devices, NTFS enables the D3 to store files larger than 4GB. This comes in very handy for oversized HD videos and other large files. However, the performance of a journaling file system on a portable player might be one of the reasons for the D3’s very slow startup. Not to mention the additional NAND wear leveling because of that. Microsoft’s more modern exFAT file system would be another option for handling large files, especially since it is optimized for flash memory storage and has less data structure overhead – but unfortunately the D3 doesn’t support it.

Even MicroSD cards can be formatted to NTFS; the D3 reads those without problems. Connecting the D3 to Linux computers works perfectly fine too. I used it with machines running Ubuntu and Slackware, and had no issues transferring files over to the D3’s internal memory and SD card. I can’t speak for the D3’s performance with a computer running OS X, though.

Android

On a first glance, Android looks fairly vanilla on the D3. Cowon however added their own home screen, changed many icons, used their own – quite fetching – in-house font in some interface parts, and added a few apps and widgets. Of course the biggest and best deviation from stock Android is the addition of BBE and Jeteffect sound enhancements, and a 5-band pseudo-parametric hardware EQ running directly on the Wolfson audio chip. Those sound enhancements work globally, in pretty much every audio and video app installed (as long as the app supports hardware decoding, it seems).

The home screen doesn’t have a lot of extra features or customization possibilities. Wallpaper change, folders, widgets, shortcuts, changing the number of screens – that’s about it. On the bottom of the home screen is a slider that leads to the app drawer. It also shows some basic statistics (free space of internal memory, number of running apps, time/date). Pro tip: the slider can just be tapped; one doesn’t really have to slide it. Personally, I’ve switched to Go Launcher, which suits my needs better. ADW Launcher doesn’t work well on the D3; it is too slow and laggy.

Cowon’s widgets show somewhat of an obsession with clocks – there are four different clock widgets to choose from. The most useful tool is perhaps the power widget, which toggles Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, account sync, and screen brightness. There’s also music, video, calendar, photo, Google search, and task manager widgets.

Another useful alternative to the power widget can be found in the pulldown menu of the status bar – four icons that toggle Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, clear the RAM, and activate sleep mode (which is basically the same as turning the screen off by pressing the power/hold button).

Since the D3 can’t pass Android Compatibility Definitions (no phone, no camera, etc), it isn’t allowed to ship with Android Market. This would be a huge issue and a major crippling factor, since the range of apps available on Market alternatives like Slideme, Andappstore, or 1Mobilemarket fall somewhere between underwhelming and pathetic. Others, like Appbrain, just lead you in circles and need the official Market installed for downloads. And the biggest contender for the number two app store spot, Amazon, is only available in the USA at the time.

An Android device without Market is just half the fun. Some skilled hackers had these thoughts as well – which resulted in the possibility to root the D3 and to install the official Market. Actually, there are two root hacks for the D3, the older one only working on Android 2.1, the newer one working on all current 2.3 firmwares, and being extremely easy to install as a bonus. This lifts the D3 to a whole new level, making it a much more versatile and appealing device.

Since Android runs each app in their own sandbox and is pretty locked down in other aspects as well, the advantages of gaining root are manifold. Ranging from simple tasks like automatic NTP clock sync or backing up app data, right up to dangerous procedures like deleting stock apps from the system memory – having root access is invaluable. I definitely couldn’t live without it.

The app partition on the internal storage is 800MB in size. That should be plenty enough for most needs – and if it isn’t, there’s always App2SD to move the less used apps to the SD card.

There are just a few obvious nuisances left in the way Android is implemented on the D3 – nuisances that could be easily fixed. They’re all basically superfluous nag screens, in one form or another. One is the ‘slide to unlock’ screen – the D3 is locked and unlocked with the tactile power button, there is no need for a redundant unlock screen. It’s just one more step that decreases usability. Others are the pop-ups for media scanning – those notifications should only be displayed in the status bar, not in pop-ups that have to be acknowledged by the user. Every time the D3 starts up, is unmounted from USB, or the content on the internal memory or SD card changes, you have to click away two pop-ups – one for internal memory scanning, one for SD card scanning. Needless to say, this is getting really annoying over time. Same goes for the USB connecting procedure – there’s no need for a pop-up reminding me that some apps might stop working when it’s connected – I know that by now. There should definitely be a way to opt out of these pop-up messages, and to disable/bypass the unlock screen.

While I’m at it – at three seconds, the delay when pressing the home button to bring up the recent apps list is rather long. I’d appreciate it if Cowon decreased the key press time to one or two seconds.

One feature I’m sorely missing on the D3 is a global sleep timer. Sometimes I fall asleep while watching a video, and in the morning the battery is completely dead. Sure, Android is meant for cell phones which are usually always on, but for a media player a real sleep timer that turns the device off or at least puts it in deep sleep mode – no matter which apps are running – would be very welcome. There is a sleep timer in the audio player app, but it only stops music playback after a given time, it doesn’t affect the whole system.

System stability is overall good with Android 2.3. If anything, it’s mostly 3rd party apps that may crash or reboot the D3 – which I’m happy to say didn’t happen very often to me yet.

When Cowon released the Android 2.3 firmware updater for players running the 2.1 versions, they actually gave end users a powerful tool that turns the D3 into a virtually un-brickable device. Contrary to regular firmware updates that have to be loaded on the player and executed there, the x.53 updater is actually a wrapper for Telechips’ low-level FWDN recovery tool. It can be used in a raw USB connection state even when the player appears to be completely dead and unresponsive. Many other Cowon players before the D3 could be recovered with a semi-legal, leaked version of FWDN, or with TCCtool created by Rockbox developers. The D3 however is the first Cowon with an official way to unbrick. Being able to recover it at home sure beats having to send the player in, having to wait some weeks for it to return, and having to pay for that procedure. With this x.53 updater it is also possible to switch between localized firmware versions, for example to get rid of the arbitrary volume limit in 2.xx EU firmwares.

(The video above has no audio track. Please excuse some finger tapping slowness in the video – I was looking at the monitor of the camera, not the D3′s screen, which makes proper aiming quite a bit more finicky.)

Cowon Android Apps

Cowon coded some of their own apps to go with the D3. Some are more useful than others, and there are alternatives to all of them found on the Market or other sources.

The photo viewer displays JPEG, PNG, GIF, and BMP. It supports multitouch pinch-to-zoom, image cropping (for wallpapers), and a simple slideshow.

JetVD is Cowon’s own frontend for Youtube videos. It works, but I would recommend installing the official Youtube app instead, since it integrates nicely with the web browser and is constantly updated.

As always on Cowon players, the so-called ‘Document Viewer’ is just a plain text viewer that doesn’t support any advanced formats. It does its job for quick notes, but if you’re into reading books on the D3, I would strongly suggest trying FBReader, Cool Reader, Moon+ Reader, or any other of the excellent free ebook apps available.

Regarding ebook readers, there’s something iffy going on with the D3’s screen brightness control. Most ebook apps have a feature to change brightness by sliding somewhere on the screen. This works very well on all Android devices I tested, but on the D3 it leads to a catastrophic bug where the screen turns off completely, and can’t be turned on again unless the device is rebooted. The ebook apps are stuck in that blank screen mode and can’t be recovered – their app data and settings have to be wiped, or they have to be reinstalled as a whole. I hope something can be done about that.

Cowon’s comics viewer doesn’t support standard CBR or CBZ archives, only plain images. It is possible to slide/zoom/rotate, set bookmarks, and do an automatic slideshow. Left-to-right and right-to-left reading modes are supported.

Paint lets you doodle on the screen, with various colors and brush strokes. It’s the perfect tool for the ersatz Picasso on the go.

A VoIP app has been added to the D3’s Android 2.3 firmwares as well.  It is integrated with the contact list and features a call log and favorites. I don’t have any SIP accounts, so I couldn’t test its performance. I did however test the Android Skype app on the D3, and it works fairly well, despite being a bit of bloatware.

Kakaotalk is an included 3rd party app not developed by Cowon. It’s a seemingly popular Korean mobile messaging app with media transfer support. I have no friends, so I didn’t try it.

Audio

The D3’s audio player is based on the default Android music app, with a few tweaks added. The biggest noticeable eye candy is the matrix browser, Cowon’s version of cover flow. It lets you slide album covers around in a 3D semi-circle. Another visual tweak is the possibility to set the currently playing album art as background in the music interface – zoomed, slightly tilted, and in black and white. Tapping the regular album art enables the lyrics viewer, if one has lyrics in the correct LDB format to the active track. I’d wish that could be changed to displaying file properties instead, like it is on the S9 and J3. Cowon’s usual AB-repeat and tempo change (0.5 – 2.0 x speed) functions are present on the playback screen as well.

Browsing is possible with classic file/folder view (with well working folder ribbon navigation on the top of the screen), or via a basic tag structure (songs, albums, artists, genres). In album tag browsing mode, album covers are displayed as well, other than that all is sorted in plain lists. Internal memory and SD card are merged into one in tag browsing mode.

There is no playlist support in the stock audio player at all. If you’re a playlist user, you better install a 3rd party player. A bookmarks list however is available. It stores the current listening time in tracks, which should come in handy for audiobooks and podcasts.

As is usually the case with Cowon players, audio codec support is exhaustive. The D3 plays almost any file you throw at it, lossy or lossless. Unlike most other Cowon players, this one even supports AAC/M4A playback officially.

The D3 audio player doesn’t do gapless playback. This is disappointing but expected behavior, since it’s based on the default Android player. There are a few Android audio players claiming to do gapless playback (Poweramp, Neutron MP, GoneMAD), but those aren’t truly gapless, they all have clicks or pops between tracks. The only one that does it perfectly right – at least on the D3 – is Rockbox. If you’re using Replaygain, Rockbox is one of the better player choices as well. Same goes for Last.fm scrobbling – the Cowon audio player is one of the few ones that doesn’t support any scrobbling API (Simple Last.fm, Scrobble Droid, etc). Most other players however do – so if you’re into scrobbling, just pick the one you like.

The one feature set that sets the D3 apart from other Android devices is of course the BBE/Jeteffect sound enhancement bundle and the Wolfson hardware EQ. This is something no other Android device has, and it’s arguably one of the best, most natural sounding audio tweak bundles available on portable players. I won’t go into details on the various BBE settings here (you can read my Cowon J3 review for that), I’m just going to say that I love the freedom of choice with Cowon players to adjust the sound exactly to my liking. For my taste, BBE clearly beats competing algorithms like Samsung’s DNSe, Sony’s DSEE, or SRS WOW. The 5-band pseudo-parametric Wolfson EQ sounds very clean, and it should use less battery power than an EQ implemented in software. All these sound tweaks work globally, with any audio or video app that supports hardware decoding. My life long dream of having a Rockbox player with BBE just became reality.

There’s just one small issue with the way BBE is implemented on the D3: adjusting some effects – especially user presets – might add a bit of background hiss. This is something that never happened on other Cowon players. From the old X5 to the new C2, BBE never increased the perceived noise floor. On the D3 it’s only audible in very quiet passages, it’s not really that distracting – but it’ still something that could be improved.

Another audio issue common to Android are clicks and dropouts when multitasking. Maybe running the audio player at higher priority could improve that. With Wi-Fi off and no demanding apps running besides the audio player, everything is fine, however.

Volume levels on the D3 go loud enough to power pretty much every phone below 100 Ohm impedance properly. The D3 is a bit quieter than other Cowon players, but it is still efficient enough. However, if your D3 comes with a volume-limited EU firmware preinstalled (2.xx versions), then it will be too quiet to be useful with many headphones or in-ear monitors. It is possible to install a 3.xx or 4.xx firmware over the crippled 2.xx one, so that should be no issue.

The amp section in the D3 is very well performing, as usual for Cowon players. It shows no background hiss with even the most efficient IEMs (except for the BBE issue described above, which seems to be a software issue, not hardware), it has very low output impedance and drives finicky multi-armature IEMs with crossovers properly. With very low impedance phones I measured a slight bass frequency roll-off, but that isn’t audible with any of my phones. Channel crosstalk, THD, IMD – all measures fine and is below the threshold of audibility.

One very special feature that might get some audio nutjobs’ (also known as ‘audiophiles’) salivary glands activated is that the D3’s S/PDIF digital audio output is a global system setting, working with any audio/video app, any game, and anything else that emits sound. Besides professional audio interfaces and home cinema receivers, there are quite a few portable headphone amps with S/PDIF inputs available, for the bit-perfection purists on the go. An icon shows up in the D3’s status bar when S/PDIF is activated. The analog headphone output is disabled while the digital output is in use.

To finish this chapter I want to rant about the D3’s lack of one feature that, when missing, I usually consider a deal breaker for my needs: there is no audio pan/balance control. Over 10% of this planet’s population has imbalanced hearing (many of them don’t even realize it). I’m one of them, and a player without balance control is almost useless for my needs. With the exception of the V5, all other Cowon players so far had balance controls. Cowon is one of the very few manufacturers left that usually supports this feature. Next to Archos players and Rockbox I’m not aware of any other choices, so I’m saddened to see it missing on the D3. Android itself doesn’t have a balance control either, which is pretty bad for the most widespread portable operating system. There are hundreds of audio players and fancy EQ/DSP effects on the Android Market – but only one of them has a working balance control (GoneMAD media player). Of course this only works in the player itself, not as a global setting. Seeing as Apple’s new IOS5 operating system finally implemented pan/balance as well, one can only hope that others will follow suit. For the time being, I’ve modified an inline volume control to act as a balance dial, but I’d be happy to ditch that clunky thing and use a proper global software settings instead. Please, Cowon, add pan/balance to the D3 – my ears will thank you. You would have the only Android player on the market – besides Archos Gen8 devices – that caters to the not so small wonky-eared demographic. Thanks for your attention, the rant is now over.

FM Radio

The D3’s FM radio is rather basic. It can store presets, has automatic and manual scan options, a stereo/mono switch, and a mute button. It has no RDS capabilities. Reception quality is average-to-noisy; it’s certainly not one of the strongest FM chips in the D3. That depends to a certain extent on the kind of headphones used as antenna, and of course on one’s location.

Radio can be recorded. Unlike most other Cowon players that only support WMA, the D3 uses 256k CBR MP3 as its recording format. Using MP3 is certainly a smarter choice than WMA, even if it might cost more in licensing fees.

An obvious flaw in the way the FM radio is implemented is that it’s only working when it’s the active screen. It stops playing as soon as one switches to another app or the menu screen. It does work however when the screen is off and the D3 is in lock/hold mode.

Voice recording

The interface of the voice recorder is really cute – an oldschool cassette deck with animated tape pins. It only needs three buttons to work: record, play, and stop. After a recording is finished, two new buttons appear on the cassette player, asking to discard or to keep the recording. It’s a good looking, simple, and well thought out interface, I really like that.

Recordings are made in 128k CBR MP3. Again, that’s much better than the usual WMA recordings. MP3s can be non-destructively trimmed, non-destructively MP3Gained, and so on – there are no such tools for WMA.

The D3’s microphone is quite good, considering it’s not a dedicated voice recorder. It picks up voices clearly and intelligibly, up to 5 meters distance or more, depending on the surroundings. Windy weather makes things worse, of course.

By the way, one feature found on most other Cowon players isn’t available on the D3 – line-in recording. There’s no software for it, and Cowon doesn’t sell the usual optional cable for it either.

Video

On the surface, the video interface looks like most other ones available on the Market, but Cowon managed to create an efficient and smart playback screen without many superfluous features. Well, AB repeat and speed change aren’t really essential for video playback, but Cowon always puts those things in their interfaces. The smart features are actually invisible: tapping and holding the screen cycles the video aspect ratio (4:3, 16:9, auto), and multitouch pinch zooms the video size (50-150%). This is the most comfortable pan/scan solution I’ve seen so far.

A brightness control is entirely missing in the video player – both on the playback screen and in the video settings. To change brightness one has to go to the main system settings, or use a home screen widget. Another usability feature – one I’ve grown to love on the J3 – is missing on the D3 as well: on the J3, during playback only forward and rewind are available to prevent accidental skips, but when the video is paused, the FFWD/REW buttons act as skip buttons. Unfortunately this isn’t implemented in the D3; there is actually no way to skip to the next video from the playback screen. One has to go to the file list to manually advance to the next video.

Browsing for videos is done via a standard file/folder browser (with a nice ribbon navigation bar on top) or a thumbnail list. Thumbnail view shows all videos on the device in one alphabetical list, internal memory and SD card are integrated. There’s an amusing flaw in thumbnail view – thumbs are generated from the first frame of the movies. Since most movies or TV show episodes start with a black screen, almost all thumbnails are black. That could be easily fixed by displaying thumbs from a minute into a video, or from the middle. Before I forget it, a bookmark list is also available in the file browser. It isn’t strictly necessary though, since the D3 remembers the played time for each video automatically, which is a very handy feature.

Video codec and container support is where the D3 truly shines. It plays almost anything you throw at it, right out of the box. Acronyms like MKV, DTS, AC3, or TS that send other video players crying for their mommy are handled with ease by the D3. VOB is also supported if the file extension is changed to TS. Pretty much everything up to 720p works without issues, but some 1080p material might be too much for the D3. I’ve had good success with 1080p WMV and h.264/MP4, but some MKV files didn’t play. Maybe it’s an issue with embedded ASS/SSA subtitles, or maybe the bitrate was just too high. Either way, I’m impressed that anything not too ridiculously overblown is handled so nicely on the D3. Seems the old Mali-200 GPU is still up to snuff, after all. The codec support alone made the D3 my most often used video player as of lately. I couldn’t easily go back to a player that needs most HD videos transcoded for playback.

Speaking of the GPU: of course all video playback is hardware accelerated, and there is one really aggravating bug somewhere in that system. The video contrast range is off by quite a bit; blacks are consistently grey and washed out looking, with a purple hue. This doesn’t happen with software-based player apps, only with hardware acceleration. I’ve tested some players that support both, hardware and software playback (IMPlayer+, Rockplayer Lite, Soul Movie, etc). Using them in hardware accelerated mode, the contrast was wrong on all of them, using them with software playback, blacks were truly black and all looked fine. Of course one can’t actually use software playback on the D3’s underpowered CPU – it stutters and lags even with some non-HD video playback, not to mention the increased battery drain. Hardware acceleration is a must, and I hope Cowon fixes this serious contrast bug as soon as possible. Cartoons and TV shows look mostly fine, but dark movies like Alien or Batman simply don’t look good with this issue present.

Time to get back to the positive aspects of the video player. Same as in the audio player app, the full range of BBE sound enhancements and the EQ are available for videos, making them that much more exciting and grand sounding. This is again one feature where Cowon is way ahead of the competition, making movies sound as good as they look on the AMOLED screen (except for the contrast bug). This is a huge improvement over Cowon’s older dedicated PMPs like the O2 and V5, which didn’t have any sound enhancement support for video playback. BBE also works with other video player apps, as long as they support hardware decoding – software players using their own decoders (usually FFMPEG or similar) generally don’t seem to access the sound tweaks.

The D3 supports multiple audio tracks in a movie, which is great for director’s comments, foreign language tracks, and the like. I believe this is a first for a Cowon player; no other one I tested so far supported more than one audio track.

Subtitle support is rather advanced on the D3 – similar to the J3, C2, and other recent Cowon players. Well, it’s unfortunately not so advanced as to support ASS/SSA or any embedded subs, but the way it works with the usual SRT and SMI formats is very good. The manual mentions support for ‘SUB (Text Form)’ as well, which I’ve never encountered in the wild and which obviously isn’t the standard SUB/IDX binary format. Subtitles can be resynced; font size, color, and screen position can be changed. Text encoding format can be changed as well, several ISO and Unicode standards are supported. It seems the D3 even supports multi-subs, switchable via the ‘language’ option. However, I didn’t find out how that works, since subs seem to be only displayed when they have the exact same name as the accompanying movie file.

Video screenshots can be captured. They are saved as JPEG, at theD3’s 800×480 screen size, not the original size of the movie frame.

I’m the lucky owner of both video-out cables for the Cowon V5, so I tested them with the D3 as well. Video output over HDMI works perfectly well, 1080p movies look gorgeous on my 24” monitor. The analog composite output is fine too, it downsamples HD video material so ye olde CRT TV isn’t getting overworked. The S/PDIF digital audio output works in all video apps I’ve tried as well, since it’s a global system setting.

Conclusion

I guess I kept this overly long review matter-of-fact-ish enough, or maybe just obsessive-compulsive enough. Now that we’ve reached the conclusion, please allow me to gush: the D3 is an excellent audio and video player. It has a gorgeous S-AMOLED screen, plays almost any video you throw at it, its audio quality is excellent, its BBE sound enhancements are best in class, and it has enough tactile buttons to be useful on the go. It is a much better video player than the O2 and V5 in my opinion, and it is also a better audio player than devices like the C2 or i9, as far as usability is concerned.

If Cowon fixes the few bugs and nuisances that keep me from total enjoyment, I would be an even happier camper: the video hardware decoding contrast issue, the superfluous ‘slide to unlock’ screen, the annoying ‘media scanning’ pop-ups, the slightly buggy tactile buttons, and the background noise with BBE presets. Other than that, the D3 is indeed a truly awesome media device already.

Maybe you have to be quite the geek to appreciate every niche feature the D3 offers, but all I have to say is: Rockbox + BBE + S-AMOLED + tactile buttons + S/PDIF-out. This is pretty much unbeatable at the moment, as far as hardcore features go (at least the ones I’m personally interested in). In contrast, the default audio player app is nothing special, it doesn’t really do much more than any other one available. But if one is willing to try out some 3rd party apps, the D3 can certainly be tailored to one’s personal needs.

As an Android device the D3 isn’t all that overwhelming, simply due to its outdated ARMv6/ARM11 CPU that’s quite a bit slower than most other devices currently available. Unfortunately, nothing can change that. For casual usage the web browser, games, and everything else that demands high performance, the D3 still works – even if one has to show a bit of patience. Personally, I’m mostly using Android for ebook reading, which of course is a simple task that gives no issues (except for the nasty brightness control bug I described above). I’d appreciate it if the hardware was snappier, but I’ve grown used to it. I still hope that the very long booting time could at least be improved by a bit.

The possibility to root the D3 and install the official Android Market on it is an important factor, and a bit of a saving grace. Without these hacks it would be somewhat of a superfluous operating system, and the D3 maybe would be better served with a specialized embedded media OS than a full-fledged internet-cellphone-whathaveyou-connectivity one. So, a very special thanks to the hackers who made the D3 so much more open and better to use.

Next to the J3 and X5, which are my all-time favorite Cowon devices, the D3 certainly grew on me. For me, it is a keeper – your mileage may vary, one man’s baloney sammich is another man’s poison, and all that. If you’re mainly interested in audio and video playback, it is definitely a very good choice – if you’re more into Android performance and benchmarks, you might be better off with a different device.

Pros

  • Excellent S-AMOLED screen (Pentile RGBG matrix might take some time getting used to, though)
  • Excellent audio quality
  • Supports almost all video codecs/containers, up to 1080p
  • Supports all the most relevant audio formats
  • System-wide BBE sound enhancements and hardware EQ, work with most audio/video apps
  • System-wide S/PDIF audio output, works with all audio/video apps
  • Enough tactile buttons to be useful on the go (although a bit buggy, still)
  • NTFS file system, supports files over 4GB
  • MicroSDHC expansion slot, integrated with internal memory in tag browsing mode (can be formatted to NTFS as well)
  • HDMI and composite video outputs (cables sold separately)
  • Can be rooted (with R/W access to the system partition), official Android Market can be installed
  • Virtually un-brickable, due to the release of the x.53 firmware low-level FWDN updater

Cons

  • Outdated, underpowered ARMv6/ARM11 CPU, slow for processor intensive tasks
  • Very slow boot-up
  • Lacks ‘deep’ sleep mode and global sleep timer
  • Superfluous ‘slide to unlock’ screen, annoying ‘media scanning’ and ‘USB connected’ pop-ups
  • Video playback contrast is wrong (blacks are grey when using hardware decoding)
  • Issue with 3rd party apps that can change screen brightness (screen turns off completely and D3 needs to be rebooted)
  • BBE user presets sometimes generate background hiss
  • Runs very hot with processor intensive tasks
  • Proprietary USB port/cable
  • No audio pan/balance control
  • Expensive

Purchase

As usual, Amazon (US/UK/DE/FR) should have some of the lower prices around.




30 Comments

sideways on October 1, 2011 3:52 PM

Thanks for the write up dfkt. Much appreciated!

I find this device a bit underwhelming to be honest. Those specs do not spell flagship android device 2011. I mean what is it you are paying 250 euros for? A few tweaks to the stock music player and a few hardware buttons? That sure isn’t 250 euros worth of internal components.

At the risk of sounding heartless cowon really should just partner with a top hardware company, lay off the bulk of their hardware designers and show beats audio who the king of audio software is.

My cheap-o zte blade smartphone matches the d3 in hardware aspects and exceeds it in some. The blade even has gps and a camera (neither is great but they are there) and android market was preinstalled. Current retail price 176_ish euros and I paid a lot less a year ago.

aa on October 1, 2011 5:42 PM

Nice review, one question, can the music player with all the bbe enhancements be ported to e.g. an other android smartphone?

Fling on October 2, 2011 2:31 AM

Archos 32 vs D3′s loading time of this website.

Archos: Finished.
D3: wait for it
D3: wait for it
D3: wait for it
D3: wait for it
D3: wait for it
D3: wait for it
Archos: I’m going to sleep
D3: Done

Soul_Est on October 2, 2011 3:17 AM

Great review dfkt!

One question though. Why didn’t Cowon go with UDF instead of NTFS or exFAT? It’s compatible with most currently available OSs especially, Mac OS X, Linux, BSD and UNIX.

I’m truly getting tired of all these companies catering to Microsoft only when there is a suitable or superior alternative to their technologies.

Abraham Kovler on October 2, 2011 5:11 AM

There is one audio feature I was waiting with bated breath for in the review, which mentioned that it supports just about every audio codec, but it did not make clear whether it supports various high definition specs. Well…does it?
Otherwise thanks very much.

Martin Sägmüller on October 2, 2011 8:13 AM

aa: The BBE sound tweaks are a global setting, not tied to the music player app. If you’re a skilled enough hacker, you might be able to extract them from the ROM. ;)

Soul_Est: You’re right, UDF would be more universal. No idea why they chose NTFS in the first place, due to all the overhead – but, as I wrote, it does work fine with Linux machines as it is.

Abraham: it supports 16/48, not 24/96.

hcry4 on October 6, 2011 2:59 PM

This review convinced me to get one. After getting it updated, it’s a very nice device. Far from perfect. But as you stated, it’s a keeper.

Soren Siim on October 7, 2011 12:52 PM

Could we PLEASE get some more details on the SPDIF output option? Yeah I’m one of those nutjobs…

Does it require an adapter, is it coax or optical?

Martin Sägmüller on October 7, 2011 2:35 PM

It’s coax from the proprietary USB port, implemented in the composite video-out cable that’s sold separately. For portable audio use, buy the cable, cut off the video and analog audio lines, and shorten the coax line to your desired length.

Kljunas on October 12, 2011 11:20 AM

I think it is not a proprietary cable but just the standard Korean USB cable. I’ve heard that some Samsung devices had the same. But I’m not quite sure.

Martin Sägmüller on October 12, 2011 12:10 PM

No, the D3 cable is proprietary. It isn’t the same as the Korean Telecom cable Cowon uses in the J3, S9, or C2.

Harka on October 15, 2011 6:00 PM

Thanx for the write-up. Very informative. Got the D3 a month ago myself. Concur with your observations, though I had no idea about others. :-)

One feature I’d like to have (pardon my ignorance if it does exist):
I’d like to export the video to my monitor via HDMI, but use the sound directly from the D3 via headphones. Is there a way to do that?

Martin Sägmüller on October 15, 2011 6:09 PM

I’m not sure, but I don’t think the analog audio output can stay active when HDMI is enabled.

Harka on October 15, 2011 6:33 PM

Actually it does kind of work. Play a video, export via HDMI, then on D3 screen go to (video) settings and use the Chose Audio Track option. You will hear the sound in the headphones now, while the video is playing on the external monitor. Except, you can’t get rid of the huge “Track #” menu! Argh!
Making this available somehow (video out to external monitor, sound from D3) would add a whole new dimension to this device, IMHO…

GoneMAD on October 17, 2011 2:58 AM

“There are a few Android audio players claiming to do gapless playback (Poweramp, Neutron MP, GoneMAD), but those aren’t truly gapless, they all have clicks or pops between tracks”

GoneMAD Music Player is truly gapless. Gapless playback must be enabled in the preferences and the mp3 or aac file needs to contain gapless metadata. Poweramp works the same way (plus has a way to remove silence at the beginning and end of tracks with no gapless metadata)

Martin Sägmüller on October 17, 2011 9:39 AM

GoneMAD, thanks for your reply. Gapless was the first thing I turned on in GMMP. Your compatibility checker verifies gapless playback on the D3 as well. I just updated to your latest beta and re-checked. Unfortunately, it still clicks between tracks. There are no gaps, but it isn’t a 100% smooth transition between properly encoded LAME -v0 tracks with 576 samples encoder delay (tracks where Rockbox, the Cowon S9/J3, FB2K, and Winamp are perfectly gapless).
I also checked on the Archos 32, and it’s the same behavior – only Rockbox is truly gapless – Poweramp, GMMP, and Neutron aren’t.
On another note: thank you very much for creating the only Android audio player with working audio balance controls.

ahmet on October 17, 2011 8:41 PM

its interesting to see recep ivedik2 on your COWON. the movie is funny for some but with subtitle its almost meanless i think . btw i dont like this movie.

aha ok…anyway, cowon…
cowon should be confident. i cant find a reason to buy a cowon because i have already and old D2. why cowon dont use multitouch? and cowon should enter the pad marketplace with a good sq.

Martin Sägmüller on October 17, 2011 9:04 PM

The D3 does have multi-touch.

GoneMAD on October 17, 2011 10:45 PM

Martin: would you be able to send me 2 consecutive tracks where you are hearing the click? You can send to my email: gonemadsoftware@gmail.com I listen to a lot of trance / drum and bass mixes where gapless is essential and there is always a smooth transition. Once in awhile I come across some files that don’t transition smoothly but I just have attributed that to improper encoding.

As for the balance controls.. when I went to implement that I was amazed how no other player has it. It was fairly trivial to code.

GoneMAD on October 18, 2011 5:40 AM

hey good news.. i took a look at the rockbox source code for reading in the gapless data and noticed a bug in the code I was using.. so check out gmmp 0.29.2 and let me know if there is still an issue with gapless

JustMe on October 31, 2011 1:28 AM

A question: if you shutdown rockbox will it stop working (I mean the EQ) or it keeps working in the background along with BBE? And do you notice a noticeable improvement on SQ when you activate BBE along with the rockbox EQ, or BBE doesn’t make much difference? I’m asking this because I’m soooo happy with my Clip+ rockboxed. Will I notice a difference in SQ? Thanks dfkt.

JustMe on October 31, 2011 1:53 AM

Oh, just one more question: Won’t I have rockbox + BBE with, for eg, the J3? All I’m looking for is rockbox + BBE (I want to test that), no need of Android, etc.

Sal on November 16, 2011 6:30 PM

would the d3 or s9 be better for senn’s ie8′s?

or which other high SQ mp3 player be a good combo for the s8′s (disregarding the price)

Nick on November 22, 2011 11:32 AM

Rockbox is only listed as supporting the D2 not the D3? or am i not looking in the right place?

Stable Ports
Cowon: iAudio X5, X5V, X5L, M5, M5L, M3 and M3L

Unstable ports
Cowon: D2

Martin Sägmüller on November 22, 2011 12:13 PM

D3 falls under RaaA (Rockbox as an Application), also known as Android port. It’s not specific to the D3.

originalgusbus on December 29, 2011 3:34 PM

Great review man! This looks to be a great player with some interesting features. Love the fact that it’s got physical keys for play/pause, seeing as it’s an android player that could come in handy. I have been waiting for a player like this for a while now, and after all the poor reviews I read from others it’s nice to see a enlightened one that has down to the wire specs and featuers. One question though, as far as the screen goes, would you say that the J3 has a better quality then the D3? The comparison in your photos that you made suggest that it is.

Wayne Kerr on January 6, 2012 3:30 AM

For Gapless try Jukefox

Atari on January 18, 2012 9:52 PM

I have to give a suggestion: If they want things to look tidy, but do not want to hinder usability, they should put two tiny, rubber flaps over the entrance to the USB port; one at the top, and one at the bottom. As you push the USB connector in, the flaps will be pushed back and away, allowing you to connect the device. Then, when you detach the USB port, the flaps will naturally fall back over the port, thus keeping dust and other foreign things without.

Simple. Elegant. Why have they not done this before?

Joe on June 22, 2012 6:57 AM

I’ve had my Cowon for 6 months and have yet to hear any music from it. Been told the wrong type of media was loaded on (m4a) so goes into Media Scanning until I have to reboot. Lot’s of dealings with Cowon themselves and still no nearer. Surely it’s possible to get the effing thing working, otherwise back to the devil that is apple. (I am not technical, obviously)

masomeh pakdaman on September 11, 2013 2:56 AM

hi, I need the help for change Android2.3.3 to Android 3 . I’m Iranian.I need Farsi language in my cowom D3.
thanks for helping me.
bye.

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