First Look: Cowon D2 and Archos 704 WiFi
Two new portable media players--the Cowon D2 and the Archos 704 WiFi--enable you to take your music, photos, and videos wherever you go. Both have touch screens to simplify navigating your media, but that's where the similarities end. Given their dramatically different physical designs, the two players will appeal to different types of users.
The $190 pocket-size Cowon D2 is much smaller and cheaper than the $550 Archos 704 WiFi. Measuring 3.1 by 0.7 by 2.2 inches, the D2 is about two-thirds the size of an old iPod (before they got skinny). It weighs 3.2 ounces, sits in your hand comfortably, and slips easily into a shirt pocket. It's a typical 2GB audio player with an SD Card slot that can display photos and play videos, except that it has a 2.5-inch touch screen. Though the display was attractive, I can't imagine watching video on such a small screen for more than a few minutes.
Dominating the Archos 704 WiFi, which is more than five times as big as the Cowon D2, is a 7-inch 800-by-480-resolution touch screen. The 704 WiFi's large size and wide-screen dimensions make watching videos a treat: It's like toting a portable TV set. Because it weighs 1 pound, 6 ounces, you'll likely want to slip it into a backpack, briefcase, or purse. In fact, the 80GB 704 WiFi is big enough that Archos included a remote control, though I found it of limited use while watching video on the player itself. Still, you'll need the remote to operate the device if you hook it up to a television to record shows (you'll also need the optional $100 DVR Station).
The tiny Cowon D2 lacks the seamless photo playback of the Archos model, which simplifies moving through photos by letting you drag the stylus across the touch screen to summon the next picture. On the D2, you have to touch one of two icons to move forward or back through your collection. (On both models it's just as easy to use your fingertip as the included small--and easy to misplace--stylus.) Even worse, the Cowon took 2 to 3 seconds to render my photos; each time, the pixelated blocks looked like a stalled game of Breakout until the full details showed up. The workaround is to view photos in slide-show mode at all times; this seems to allow the device to render the photos behind the scenes. According to a spokesperson, the D2 was performing a progressive scan of my high-resolution photos so it could display them. Oddly, the included JetShell 4.5 software didn't automatically downsample my photos for more efficient viewing and storage on the player, but the company says an upcoming version will include this option.
Both players play video files. The Cowon D2 plays MPEG-4 and WMV files, as well as DivX 3.11; the Archos 704 WiFi plays those as well as DivX4 and DivX5. Archos also offers two plug-ins: One enables playback of H.264 video files and AAC audio files; the other, VOB and MPEG-2 video and AC3 audio playback. Each plug-in costs $20 via Archos's Web site.
The Archos has a few interesting extras. My favorite ac--cessory is the Helmet Camcorder, which costs $150 and comes with a headband. To protect the 704 WiFi while you're on location, consider the reinforced nylon travel case (due out soon, pricing to be announced). Less exotic is the player's included kickstand, useful for propping up the device on an airplane tray table. And finally, the device offers wireless Internet access via 802.11g and the built-in Opera browser. Internet access worked well, though using the touch-screen keyboard to enter full URLs was cumbersome.
Cowon Impresses Sonically
In tests where we measure the quality of audio from the headphone jack, the Cowon D2 produced a loud signal with little distortion or noise.
The Archos's sound contained more distortion, and the player generated more noise. At default settings, the Archos 704 WiFi sounded flat and hollow. But tinkering with the equalizer to boost the bass and treble response yielded much better music quality--on a better set of headphones, that is.
Neither player carries an impressive set of earbuds, and you should ditch the bundled ones for a better set. The Cowon pair is so poorly constructed that the face of the left bud popped off after a few trips in my bag. The Archos earbuds weren't much better, and the nub on the rubberized edge made them uncomfortable to wear. For people who don't feel like wearing headphones, the 707WiFi comes with two built-in (albeit thin-sounding) speakers.
Unlike the Archos 704 WiFi, the Cowon D2 comes with an FM radio tuner, which delivered a clear signal in my informal tests.
Unfortunately, navigating music on the Cowon D2's interface was more confusing than on the Archos's. For example, choosing 'Music' from the main calls up the last song you played. To select a different song or locate a playlist, you have to tap the screen to bring up a row of icons and select the 'browser' icon to reach the dynamic playlist or a bookmarked song (which need not begin at the start of the song). The touch screen works well, though the screen's response occasionally lagged as I scrolled through the song list. In contrast, the Archos's touch screen responded swiftly, and the 'Music' icon in its main menu brought up the music library.
You use the D2's JetAudio software to convert video and audio files, and the JetShell app to transfer files to the player (or import songs from a CD). Unfortunately, you can't set up playlists beyond adding songs to the one dynamic playlist.
In this way, Cowon's device fails to live up to the "portable multimedia player" label engraved on its case. The D2 is an expensive flash audio player that flirts with multimedia, but ultimately will appeal only to people enchanted by the novelty of using a touch screen. The large Archos's calling itself a "mobile DVR" is much more legitimate. This multimedia device is well suited to video lovers with big pockets--and a willingness to shell out another $100 for the DVR Station, to hook up to and record from their TV.
Basic unit's small touch screen would be more worthwhile if the player had an efficient menu system--and its software allowed users to create playlists.
Current prices (if available)
Archos 704 WiFi
Huge screen makes watching videos a treat, and touch-screen navigation is smooth, but the player is pricey, and hooking it up to a TV requires a $100 dock.
Current prices (if available)