As a reviewer, I sometimes get the feeling that I'm giving a product too much of a hard time. After all, I see very few products that are truly awful, these days. However, not all products are made equal - some are better than the rest - and as with a field of high-class athletes running the 100 metres, there must still be a winner.
In the world of hard disk-based media players, the field is almost as small as a 100 metres final. With most of the market focussing on flash-based music and video players, Apple, Creative, and specialist manufacturers such as Archos are among the few contenders that take part in this race. Cowon is another, but does its latest all-singing, all-dancing A3 have what it takes to storm through and win the gold medal?
Plain looks mean it gets out of the blocks slowly. The black and white silver body doesn't look like it's had much design attention lavished on its finish and it doesn't have the aluminium chassis of the Archos 605 WiFi and Apple iPods. It's chunky and heavy, too, at 22mm thick and 280g.
The A3 is, in fact, identical to the A2 - a player that's been around for some time now - and it's painfully obvious it's an ageing design. The control system is the same as on its predecessor, with a rather fiddly five-way clickable joystick and four narrow context sensitive soft buttons beneath, and it has the same nasty plastic flap covering the various AV and USB sockets on the side. This is not a product for fashionistas, design freaks or fans of interface innovation.
But the A3 has clearly been putting some work down at the technological training camp, because its improved features soon have it pulling alongside the competition. The most obvious is the high-resolution 800 x 480 4in screen, which allows you to watch high definition videos (up to 1,280 x 720) without having to down-convert them to a lower resolution. It's a good screen too - sharp, crisp and clear with good black levels, though its glossy finish means reflections occasionally get in the way. Apple's video iPod screen can't compete with this at 320 x 240 and neither can Creative's Zen Vision W at 480 x 272. It's at least as good as the 800 x 480 screen on the Archos 605 WiFi - even better in terms of its sheer depth of colour.