iAudio X5 Media Player

The Short Form
iaudio.com / 888-453-8283 / $299 / 2.375 x 4.125 x 0.75 in / 6 oz
•Good sound quality. •Plays video clips.
•Menus hard to navigate. •Flimsy, poorly designed adapter. •Low-rez LCD screen. •Video out of sync with audio for long clips.
Key Features
•20-GB hard disk •Plays MP3, WMA, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and WAV audio and MPEG-4 video •Color LCD with 160 x 128 pixels •FM tuner and recorder •Voice recorder
Taking on the iPod is a serious game. Not only does any challenging player have to do all of Apple's tricks, but it has to come up with something extra to have any hope of scoring a hit. The iAudio X5, made by Cowon, looks like a contender since it offers video playback, an FM tuner, and a voice recorder, all of which the iPod lacks. We just might have a ball game here.

SETUP AND USE Strike 1: the X5's navigation menus. The X5 makes the mistake, common in players made by Asian brands, of having two ways to navigate: via menus or folders (à la Windows). I guess the idea is to give you options, but it just makes the whole process a chore. It doesn't help that some of the buttons have counterintuitive functions, like the REC button, which can cancel a command - really confusing if you're in one of the recording modes. In the end, the interface is unwieldy and made me long for the iPod's simple menu system.

At least playing music is easy enough. After loading up some workout tunes, I took the X5 to the gym, where it showed its strength. The music came through loud and clear with decibels to spare even when there was a lot of ambient noise, and the player's equalizer and bass enhancer added some needed oomph. Even the earbuds sounded pretty good when I compared them with a pair of high-end Bang & Olufsen buds. Having the shuffle/repeat commands buried in the setup menu is a bit of a drag, though.

Strike 2: the X5's removable adapter, which must be used for recharging, line-in recording, and connecting to a PC or Mac (since it has the USB port). The adapter, which connects to a special port on the bottom of the player, seems to be an attempt to emulate the iPod's proprietary docking connection but instead makes the player seem cheap and inconvenient. It's flimsy enough that it could break off without much effort and small enough to be easily misplaced, which would render the X5 unrechargeable and with no way to load or offload files.

A close look reveals a second USB port on the side of the X5. But it isn't for file transfers - it's for connecting another USB device so you can view its content on the X5, like photos from a digital camera. Although I don't know why you'd want to, since there's a good chance your camera's LCD will be superior to the X5's. For starters, the screen is tiny - a mere 1.75 inches. It's also fairly low-rez at 160 x 128 pixels, with a "screen-door effect" - thin back lines between the pixels - visible in every mode.

Before you can watch video on the player, you have to convert it to a resolution that matches the X5's screen and scale back the frame rate to 15 frames per second. Although that's way below DVD quality, the files are a lot smaller (a 1-hour video takes up just 85 megabytes). Cowon supplies its JetAudio software to do the converting.

Unfortunately, it doesn't do it very well. After crunching a 45-minute-long broadcast-quality episode of the new Battlestar Galactica for about 10 minutes and copying it over to the player, I noticed that the audio and video were out of sync. The further into the episode I got, the greater the delay, which stretched to a seriously distracting couple of seconds toward the end. The delay was evident when watching the same files on my PC, so the problem was obviously in the conversion, not the player itself.

BOTTOM LINE The X5's swing at the iPod ends up being a strikeout. For music playback, it gets the job done but is hindered by a cumbersome interface. For video, it doesn't come close to competing with any decent dedicated portable video player - or even some of the slicker cellphones out there. And then there's that adapter. In the end, I found the X5 most useful as a portable 20-gig drive for moving big data files around. At $299 list - the same price as the iPod - that's just sad.