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Cowon iAudio 7 (4GB)
It's said that the perfect interface design is one that's obvious and easy to use. You shouldn't need a manual or a degree in rocket science to make it work. Take a kettle – it's simple. Fill it with water, switch it on and when it boils it turns itself off. Same goes for a toaster, unless you own one of those peculiar Dualit thingies...
In the world of MP3 players, the closest you'll get to this kind of usability is the iPod click wheel. Once you've understood that moving your thumb around the circular thing in the middle changes the volume and scrolls up and down lists, the rest is as easy as – well – using an iPod. As a result it's a much-imitated system.
The latest attempt to ape this simplicity comes aboard Korean firm Cowon's latest flash memory-based digital audio player, the iAudio 7. The front panel of this chunky little player, which comes in 4GB and 8GB capacities, with a 16GB version to come, is split into two. The left half is devoted to the 1.3in colour screen; the right half is given over to a rather odd collection of indentations.
As soon as you turn the iAudio on and the indentations light up like a control panel on the Starship Enterprise, it becomes apparent what they're for – they're touch sensitive controls. Cowon calls them, collectively, its Swing Touch system: there's one long diagonal groove used to scroll up and down lists of tracks; either side of it are two circular indentations – the bottom right one is used to select, pause and play; the top left one performs a number of different functions, depending on which mode you're in.
As a control system it's a mixed bag. The scroller works brilliantly in conjunction with the high-resolution 160 x 128 TFT screen, allowing you to whiz up and down long lists of tracks, albums, artists with gay abandon. However, the touch-sensitive 'buttons' flanking it aren't as good and it takes a fair bit of practice to figure out how to get them to respond to your touch every time. Normal buttons combined with the touch-sensitive slider would have worked much better here.
It's not helped by the fact that what you do with them isn't always obvious either – the context sensitive button, for instance, is used to go up a folder level, but not when you're in the Now Playing screen. You have to hit the menu button on the top edge of the device to get into browse mode, and then use the red touch-sensitive button to go up a level. Not very intuitive.