Let’s make one thing perfectly clear from the get-go: This is not about the Apple iPod.
Well okay, so that’s a boldfaced lie. And while admitting this is perhaps neither the best way to enter into a trusting relationship with you, nor a good way to start a review, it is at least technicallytrue—this is not a review of the iPod. This is a review of Cowon’s iAudio X5, a 20GB media player with a ton of extra goodies—extra goodies that you won’t find in the iPod. Ostensibly, the X5 is its own individual: With its black case and super-thin design, its joypad input and built-in voice mic, its FM tuner and ability to play back colour video, it looks and acts nothing like the iPod. In fact, in almost every way the X5 outshines it – and for less money.
But let’s not be coy. We’re past the point where we can talk about portable media devices without comparing them to Apple’s silver-backed Adonis. It is so ubiquitous that within a few years, the word “iPod” will join the ranks of “Kleenex,” “Band-Aid,” and “Walkman”—we will have completely forgotten what the actual names of these things were before the brand name came along (and it doesn’t help that portable media player is as ugly a choice of words as facial tissue). Such is the iPod’s dominance that, since it hit the market, every other media player has been labelled either a contender or a loser.
The iAudio X5 is definitely a contender. In fact, it is the contender. Past hopefuls have been too ugly, too awkward or too expensive. The X5 scores on all counts: Its simple, sophisticated black andmatte design contrasts with Apple’s bubble-plastic white; the joypad is adequate, if not quite equivalent, compared to the iPod’s brilliant click wheel; and the 20GB models cost less.
Great, you say. But Apple is cool. And Cowon? Well … one visit to their website and it quickly becomes apparent that their marketing materials were painfully translated from the Korean. It’s a good thing that features speak louder than words.
Its biggest draw, or its sexiest anyway, is the video playback capability. This is what will make your iPod-owning friends’ jaws drop. “Hey, lookit me,” you shall say to those friends, “I’m catching up on the latest episode of Lost, played back in 260,000 brilliant colours.” (And you will follow with: “By the way, I am now dating Julie Delpy’s hotter twin,” because cutting-edge-digital-device-owners are just that obnoxiously cool.) Sure, the resolution is only 160 x 128, the screen is too small for watching blockbuster movies, and you need to run your video through a conversion program to shrink it down to size (thankfully, the software is pretty speedy). But it does Jon Stewart just fine, and the iPod’s got nothing that even compares.
Other things that the X5 includes that the iPod doesn’t (not without expensive third-party add-ons, anyway): a built-in voice mic; an FM-tuner so you can listen to—and record—your favourite radio station; the ability to play a variety of music formats, including MP3, WMA, WAV, OGG and lossless FLAC; the ability to act as a USB host (which means you can transfer pictures and files to it directly from your digital camera or computer); compatibility with Windows, Mac and Linux OS; and line-in recording, meaning you can record directly from another source—a turntable, say, or a professional-quality mic.
There are a few drawbacks to Cowon’s player that keep it from being a slam dunk. The first is disguised as a blessing: While the iPod forces you to “sync” all your music in iTunes in order to transfer files, the X5 acts as just another drive, so you just drag and drop your mp3s into any folder you like. That’s convenient, but it means you’ve got to organize your own music. The player doesn’t sort by artist or album so it’s up to you to save your music in an appropriate folder hierarchy, which is a pain in the ass for us “creative” (read “disorganized”) types. The X5’s file system is case-sensitive as well, so your “Sufjan Stevens” folder will show up beforeyour “dears” folder. Easily fixed by renaming your files, of course, but annoying nonetheless.
Even at a “high” setting, the microphone is a bit timid. To recharge your battery or connect to your computer, you need to attach the device to an add-on component: It’s small enough that it’s barely inconvenient, but still—why not increase the size of the unit by a centimetre and save us the possibility of losing an integral part?
Finally, although it’s slick and sophisticated and sexy as hell, it’s not an iPod. There is no “Pretty in Pink” or “U2” model. Kate Spade doesn’t design cases for it. The iPod is for people who want their computers to be lifestyle accessories—the X5 is designed for people who think gadgets should be really, really powerful. Sure, being able to play an as-yet obscure music format like FLAC, which doesn’t sacrifice a single bit of sound data for size (unlike mp3s), will excite audiophiles, but George Clinton doesn’t care: he just wants music to be free. And ain’t nobody gonna argue with George Clinton.
In the end, the iAudio X5 is pure bang-for-buck. Let’s not mince words: it’s a much better value than the iPod. Despite a few minor annoyances, it does cooler things and it does them well. But you gotta ask yourself: Do you want to feel the P-Funk? Or do you want to feel it and watch it on your colour screen? It’s your choice.