Cowon has upped the ante for portable media players with what they have dubbed the Extreme PMP - the Cowon A3. While there is close to no visible cosmetic changes in comparison to the previous A2 model, we've discovered a slew of noteworthy internal improvements such as heavily beefed up processing power, much improved media playback support, and a proper document viewer to name just a few. It even supports an external DMB/DVB-T receiver as an optional accessory, though it may only be available in select regions only.
For us, the magic began the moment we switched on the media player. The user interface that greeted us had a very intuitive icon system that we found very easy to navigate with, but the most impressive aspect was its brilliant 4-inch screen, now sporting an 800 x 480 resolution (up from 480 x 272 on the A2). Cowon has also improved the pixel pitch from 0.183 on the A2 to a minute 0.108 on the A3, which delivered some amazingly crisp images and great colors. We found the A3 clearly visible even under bright sunlight, a testament to its display quality.
The Cowon A3 runs on a Texas Instruments' DaVinci dual core processor, making it powerful enough to natively playback 1280x720 HD video files at 30fps. Indeed, the A3 now supports playback of a wide gamut of video CODECs without the need for transcoding, including H.264. It also supports playback from Matroska (MKV), OGM, MP4 and VOB files containers. Even subtitle files are supported such as SMI, SRT and SUB. Its audio features are no less impressive with lossless CODEC support and direct playback of FLAC, Apple Lossless, Monkey Audio and True Audio files, formats and containers.
Besides playback, the Cowon A3 supports direct HDTV output via component out as well as audio and video recording capabilities. What caught our attention in this area was the option to record audio directly in the FLAC format.
Despite its strong media format support however, one shortcoming that Cowon still hasn't addressed since the A2 is support for DRM protected Windows Media files, or the lack of. While we're not exactly worrying ourselves silly over Cowon's choice to drop DRM support, it does lock the A3 out of the competition for users that heavily rely on DRM-based subscription media services to get their files. In terms of design, we continue to have reservations on the short joystick interface brought over from the A2, which is still clunky and unnatural.
Our last gripe regarding the A3 is its incredibly long battery charge cycle, which we estimate at over five hours, and doesn't do justice to its 7-hour video playback time. If taken on a road trip, you'll be spending almost the same amount of time charging the device as you are using it. On the other hand, the player managed to last almost a full day when used purely for audio playback and minimal text viewing.
The Cowon A3 placed a smile on our faces with its extensive range of supported media formats and spectacular screen quality and resolution. For a player with so much going for it though, it still come in on the chunky side weight-wise. If only it had WiFi and/or Bluetooth support, the Cowon A3 would have been nigh unstoppable. Retailing from S$775 (~US$548), the Cowon A3 is available in 30GB and 60GB flavors.