Admittedly, getting from track to track or movie to movie could be easier. The O2 uses a fairly basic icon-based touchscreen interface most of the time, and while it isn’t particularly exciting or ingenious, it works. However, unlike just about every other new player on the market – including Cowon’s own S9 – the O2 doesn’t allow you to browse audio tracks by ID tag, only by file and folder. Navigating the lists requires mastering a range of not particularly intuitive icons, some of which you might get right away, some of which require a little more trial and error.
To make matters worse, it is the sort of player where you’ll want to fiddle with the sound options, and doing so requires you to work out what settings like BBE, M3B, MPE and MDS actually mean and then work out what adjusting each of them does. While it’s great to be able to flick between EQ presets or alter the bass at the tap of a button on the main playback screen, you can’t help thinking that Cowon could have made things a little bit easier. Frankly, the O2’s GUI can look a bit too much like a Linux distro, and that’s rarely a good thing.
Luckily, the O2’s performance makes up for such small failings. Once you throw away the ghastly bundled earbuds and have fiddled with those cryptic settings, music playback is excellent, with the O2 using a number of technologies from BBE Sound to enhance bass response, compensate for missing high-end detail and create an illusion of 3D sound. With the right settings in place the output is meaty, well-balanced and crisp, handling the stripped back hard rock of AC/DC’s Back in Black with the same confidence as the more complex, multi-layered textures of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. Poppier material isn’t a problem either; Paranoid, from Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreak sounds as warm and vibrant on the O2 as it did on its marginally superior sibling, the S9. In fact, the only thing you need to watch out for is that if you team up bass-heavy tracks with bass-heavy EQ settings and processing options, you can pump up the levels so high that even good, bass-friendly headphones begin to distort.
Video playback is another real strength, partly because the larger size of screen makes viewing that bit more immersive, and partly because the bright, clear screen gives you a chance to appreciate what you’re looking at. Colours could be a little more vibrant, but give the O2 some decent, standard definition files to run with and you could happily watch a whole movie. In fact, with its bundled kickstand and built-in mono speaker, it’s perfect for sticking on the beside table if you’re away on business or pleasure.
Admittedly, there are some features the O2 lacks that rivals possess. Unlike the iPod touch or Archos 5 it has no Wi-Fi, and so no Web browsing or email capabilities. It also has no built-in FM radio, and extra features are limited to picture and text document viewers and a folder full of user-programmed applications, which at the moment extend only to notepad and calendar applets. It’s also slightly disappointing that the TV output cable isn’t included in the box. Finally, it’s high time Cowon adopted gapless playback of MP3 files – it might not affect yours truly, but I’m reliably informed that dance music fans consider it a must.
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