Apple’s iPod Touch has been the king of the PMP market, eversince it launched and there are no two ways about that. We’ve had media players come and go, but none have been able to challenge the simplicity and ease of use of the iPod Touch and the whole credit goes to the Operating System. The reason why everyone has failed so far is because their interface was not a match for iOS and being proprietary, the lack of apps was also a problem. If anyone can put up a good fight against iOS, it has to be Android. Cowon’s latest Z2 portable media player (PMP) seems like the perfect alternative to Apple’s iPod Touch, at least on paper. Let’s see if can manage to take down the reigning king of PMPs. 

 

On video: Cowon Z2 (16GB)

Design and Build
The design of the Z2 is a bit of a love or hate kind of situation. The chunky, unibody design may not appeal to everyone, but we didn’t have a problem with it, infact it was a refreshing change from the chrome finished body of the iPod. The Z2 is incredibly light and apart from the glossy front, the rest of the body is wrapped in a rubberized material, which gives you good grip and is fingerprint free. Cowon call this a “Floating Design”, which we feel is way more comfortable to hold than an iPod Touch.

Simple looks

Simple looks

There’s a single button on the top for sleep/wake function, while the right side plays host to the volume rocker, as well as media shortcut buttons for Play/Pause, Rewind and FastForward. This means you need not wake the Z2 up to start playing a song, which is clever. Down at the bottom, we have the 3.5mm headphone jack and a flap that hides the micro USB charging port, microSD card slot and HDMI-out port. All in all, very good connectivity options. The only thing missing from this, when compared to the iPod Touch is the front and rear camera. The flap can also be adjusted into a stand, which could come handy when watching videos. There’s a microphone on the side a speaker grill there the earpiece would go. It’s designed in such a way, so you can use it as phone to make VoIP calls.

HDMI and microSD card slot for good measure

HDMI and microSD card slot for good measure

Cowon bundles the Z2 with a charger, earphones and some instruction manuals.

Interface
This is where it all comes together. The Cowon Z2 runs on Android 2.3.5, along with their custom interface called Plenue. The customization is done very well and everything, right from the boot animation to the icons to the customs widgets, it looks and feels modern and fresh. There are plenty of widgets to choose from, as well, in order to customize the look of the Z2.There are five home screens in all, but you can’t add or remove any of them. The notification bar also comes with handy toggle switches for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Clear RAM and Sleep. Like most Android devices, you get capacitive buttons at the bottom for Options, Home and Back. Unfortunately, they aren’t backlit, but once you know which button is where, it shouldn’t be much of a problem. While the interface is quick, I wouldn’t call is slick, as the menu animations aren’t as smooth as we would have liked. It’s still better than most PMP’s in the market, though.

A very good looking skin

A very good looking skin

Coming to the technical bit, the Cowon Z2 is powered by a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 CPU, along with a dedicated VPU (video processing unit) NEON for playing back Full HD videos and finally, a Mali 200 GPU for graphics and rendering the interface. Along with 512 MB of RAM, this is a very potent mix of hardware, which makes the Z2 eat 1080p videos for breakfast.

Easy to navigate and use

Easy to navigate and use

The 3.7-inch (800 x 480) screen is also of the AMOLED type, which gives it nice saturated colours and good viewing angles with deep blacks. Although the Z2 doesn't officially support the Google Play store, you can install the APK and then gain access to all the apps in the store.

Media Performance
The whole appeal of a PMP is superior audio and video quality and the Z2 passes this in spades. Cowon has heavily modified the stock media player giving it a very simple and streamlined look. The main selling point, however, is the new audio enhancement technology, called JetEffect 5, which gives the Z2 an edge. For those who are really anal about how their music should sound, the Z2 gives you some crazy levels for customizations, including a total of 48 different customization modes left at your disposal. JetEffect 5 involves a combination of various proprietary audio technologies from Cowon like BBE+, Stereo Enhance, EQ and Reverb. You can read the detailed explanation of these enhancements, here and here

Just wish we could get missing album art through the player

Just wish we could get missing album art through the player

Other enhancements that can be enabled or disabled, include Mach3Bass, 3DSurround, MP Enhance and Stereo Enhance. We recommend ‘BBE Headphone 3’ as a good preset to start with. It worked well for most genres of music. Needless to say, the audio quality is nothing short of amazing with well defined mid-range and thumping bass. The stock headphones may not look like much, but they’ll surprise you with kind of audio they manage to deliver. We have no qualms about the player, other than the fact that you download missing album art directly through the player. Audio formats natively supported by the player, include MP3, WMA, OGG Vorbis, FLAC and PCM. The player can’t parse ‘cue’ files, however, but thankfully you can install PowerAmp and fix that. The player features called ‘Matrix Browser’, which is sort of a coverflow cum Safari (new tab view) look to it. Tapping an album reveals the song list.

The built-in radio interface

The built-in radio interface

Just like the audio player, the video player gives you access to ‘Folder View’ as well. The dedicated ARM NEON chip can easily handle 1080p video in multiple formats, like AVI, WMV, MP4, MKV, MPG, DAT, TS, TP, TRP and 3GP. Codecs supported, include DivX, Xvid, H.264, WMV 9/8/7 and MPEG 1. The stock player easily handles 1080p video without breaking a sweat. The video player supports subtitles, different aspect sizes, change the speed of playback and most importantly, access to all the same audio presets you get in the audio player. In fact, it’s also available for FM Radio. The video quality is really good, thanks to the AMOLED screen and the high resolution. There’s also very little to no colour shift when viewing it at an angle with the kickstand.

Misc. pre-bundled apps

Misc. pre-bundled apps

Misc. Features
Cowon has also customized a few other apps that come pre-installed, like the gallery, notepad, voice recorder, calendar, calculator and Twitter. JetVD lets you search and play YouTube videos, while Documents lets you open up word files. Of course, this being Android, you can install almost any other app from the Play store. We tried Angry Birds: Space, which works very smoothly with no lag, whatsoever.

The media shaortcut buttons

The media shaortcut buttons

Battery Life
The Z2 is fitted with a non-removable Li-Ion battery, which managed to deliver about 7hrs and 40min of video playback, so more or less fits what Cowon claims. We used a SD video in loop, using the stock media player. Audio playback clocks out at about 21hrs, which again is very good.

Verdict
The Cowon Z2 is available in three storage flavours, the 8GB is priced at  Rs.18,500, 16GB at  Rs.20,500 and and 32GB at Rs.23,500. Compared to its direct competitor, Apple’s iPod Touch, it comes off as a bit expensive. Having said that, this is by far one of the best PMPs we’ve come across in a long time. The Z2 delivers great audio and video performance, good connectivity options (Wi-Fi ‘n’, Bluetooth, HDMI), ease of use (drag and drop simplicity of Android), good selection of apps, expandable memory. If you want a solid alternative to the iPod Touch and don’t care about the camera, then we highly recommend the Cowon Z2. 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,