Monday, December 22, 2008

Cowon S9 Review.

Intro: Cowon is famous for it's media players. Latest in the line is this beautiful S9 Curve. The first thing I look for when I get a new player is the latest firmware. Cowon is on the ball. Version 2.05 came out before mine arrived, and I ordered mine from the first day they were available in the U.S.. Version 2.06 came out 12/24. I've always thought Cowon's players were bulky and not very practical or portable. The S9 changes the rules. Clearly Cowon has noticed that beautiful, innovative looks can help sell players.
Included: The S9 comes with a USB cable and earbuds with pads. The USB cable is proprietary, although my S9 also works with the cable that came with my iriver SPINN. Replacements for the included charging/data cable shouldn't be hard to find. The User Manual shows optional TV output and line input cables that should be available in the near future. You get a set of token iAudio earbuds. I recommend investing in a better set of headphones to fully appreciate the S9's audio output. You get a small CD which includes the JetEffect media player/sync application. There is also an array of paperwork including the User Manual, Cowon's Warranty Policy, Russian and Korean registration cards, and an offer from eMusic for 35 free songs + 1 free Audiobook. Controls: The top edge reveals a volume +/- rocker, Play/Pause button, and FWD/REV rocker. A power/hold slider is on the bottom edge beside the 3.5mm headphone and data cable jacks. There is a microphone and reset hole on the back. The top mounted controls make sense if the S9 is in your pocket, but are a little hard to reach when holding the S9 naturally.
Dimensions: 2.2(W) x 4.17(H) x 0.5(T) inch. Slightly thicker than the Samsung P2. In fact it is thicker than the P2, Touch, and SPINN. It uses the same AMOLED screen as the SPINN. The P2 ends up with the smallest screen among those shown.
Music: Yes, it plays music. In fact Music appears to be one of the best applications on the S9. Cowon did some work here, and it should leave you pleased.
+ File formats supported include MP3, WMA, FLAC, OGG, WAV, and APE.
+ The Music app features a hortizontal Cover-Art mode accessible by tipping the S9 on it's side.
+ You can Zoom-in on art or lists. Great if you need reading glasses!
+ You can sorts songs by several categories, although getting to that category list is several iconic taps from the main menu.
+ There is a nice Quick Menu which can slide out from the side to display the previous, current, and next song in the cue.
+ A tap on the cover art will reveal information about the current file.
+ There are 26 equalizer presets to choose from.
+ There are four user-definable equalizer settings.
+ You can add any song to a Favorites list.
+ You can tag A and B spots in a song to repeat between.
+ You can sync media to the S9 using Windows Media player 11.
- There is no full-screen cover art option.
- There is no on-screen volume control.
- The horizontal Cover-Flow display shows every song rather than just individual albums. If your album has 20 songs you'll have to pan through 20 copies of that same cover art on the screen.
- Access to song and category lists takes backward, cumbersome steps from the Now Playing screen.
Pictures: Yes, it displays photos. Unfortunately they forgot to include a full-screen photo display option (without icons)!
+ JPGs at any resolution will work so long as they are not progressively formatted.
+ You can easily zoom in on a photo, and once zoomed-in can pan around with finger strokes on the screen.
+ You can swipe left or right to move to the next photo.
+ There is a variable speed slide show option with two transition options.
+ Photos can be rotated by simply rotating the screen or using left and right rotate icons on the screen.
+ You can turn OFF the G-sensor to prevent photo auto-rotation.
- There is no option to use a photo as wallpaper on the S9.
- There is no way to clear icons off the screen so you can see a photo unobstructed! The Pictures app still needs work. With such a great screen the S9 should allow unobstructed photo viewing. B-
Video: Yes, it play videos. Oh my!
+ AVI and WMV are supported. Maybe more. 480x272, 30 fps (recommended).
+ You can bookmark a time position in a video to return to later.
+ When vertical, the video player displays size, frame rate, kbps, kHz, and any equalizers that may be associated with the current video.
+ When horizontal you can turn OFF the G-sensor to keep the video from switching to portrait view. Useful when handing the S9 to someone else.
+ You can have the S9 make thumbnail images of successive scenes in the video. You can then jump directly to any scene by selecting it's thumbnail.
+ Video will display full screen when the S9 is horizontal, and videos smaller than screen resolution can be stretched to fit the screen.
+ You can save screen shots from video which can then be found in the Video Capture folder under Recordings. One example:
It is clear Cowon spent a good deal of time developing the S9's video player. It makes good use of the G-sensor, great screen, and audio capabilities of the player. Subtitles can be turned on or off (from the Settings Menu). While it would be nice to have screen brightness control from the video player, I don't count it's absence as a negative. Video playback on the S9 gets an A.
Documents: Yes, you can display text on it.
+ You easily can zoom in or out on text.
+ You can change the background and font color.
+ You can manually scroll or page through a document.
+ You can have the S9 automatically scroll through text, with timing you can set.
- No alternative fonts to choose from (yet).
- No horizontal viewing of text.
- No full screen (no icons) viewing of text.
The document viewer would be far better if it could actually display PDFs or Word DOCument files. Alas, I haven't found one player yet that could. I'll rate the S9's document viewer a B-. Better than average, but just barely.
FM Radio: Yes, you can listen to FM radio on the S9.
+ It has a 24 position preset station array which once set makes it very easy to get quickly to the station you want.
- The autosearch function is a bit too sensitive though, as it will find stations above and below the actual frequency in addition to the one you want.
+ You can remove frequencies from the array, and easily add your current manually tuned station to any spot.
+ The S9 also will leave the radio playing after exiting the Radio app. You can listen to radio while viewing photos or text or simply browsing around.
+ You can record from FM to a WMA file.
+ You can choose from 32kb/s to 256kb/s quality level for recording (in the Settings menu).
- FM does not broadcast over bluetooth, which is a shame. It does on my Philips SA5245BT player.
- There is no Stop, OFF or Mute of the radio, and the only apparent way to turn it off is by shutting the S9 off or entering the Music or Video App.
- no RDS support.
You'll need to have headphones plugged into the S9 as they will serve as antenna for the radio. You can select from Korea, Japan, USA, and Europe/China for your country. The player uses an original and clever graphic analog wheel as one way to tune the radio. With the inaccurate auto-tuner and NO MUTE option I give FM radio a B.
Recording: There are three sources you can record from on the S9. The FM radio, internal microphone, and from an external source via the options line-in cable. You can set each source independently for the quality you want to record at up to 256kbps. The onboard mic is fairly sensitive. Mounted on the back of the S9, it does a good job picking up voice from the front. It will take further testing to determine it's range and usefulness. I may update this section later. FM recording is good, so long as you've got a good signal. I don't find this very useful as it's hard to anticipate exactly when a DJ will start a song, and many DJs like to talk over the beginning of songs. Line-in is where some interesting potential lays. You could record songs directly from a portable CD player, skipping the PC altogether. Recording is in WMA format. Recording on the S9 is simple and straightforward. You can pause and resume. There is also an untested Auto-sync option, which would conceivably allow the S9 to seperate a long record session into seperate tracks, using silence to trigger each new file. Recording gets an A. Line-in put it over the top.
Bluetooth: The S9 supports bluetooth headsets and remote control from those headest. I've tested my S9 with Sony BT50's, JBL Reference Series 610 Bluetooth Headphones , Insignia NS-BTHDPs, and a cheap headset that simply identifies itself as BT Stereo. Only one connection at a time is allowed, compared with the Samsung P2's two simultaneous headsets. Connection was easy (assuming you know how to put your headset in pairing mode). The S9 keeps track of devices it has previously paired with, making subsequent connections much simpler. Equalizer settings DO work over Bluetooth, a nice surprise. One thing that doesn't seem to work is connecting to Bluetooth speakers. My SPINN also suffers from the same problem. The Samsung P2 sets the standard for Bluetooth implementation. The S9's Bluetooth is comparitively limited but functional. B.
Flash. Yes, flash games formatted for the 480 x 272 touchscreen will play on the S9. The S9 didn't come with any, so nothing to report here.
G-sensor. The S9 will detect rotation of the the screen when playing music, videos, or photos. In the Music player, the horizontal position gets you something akin to coverflow on the iPod Touch. Album covers are displayed and you can pan left and right through them to find the next album you want to play from. It works tilting the S9 either right or left from vertical. Videos can be viewed vertically in a small window, or full screen when the S9 is horizontal. Photos are the same. Unfortunately Text does not rotate nor does the G-sensor detect rotation in the Radio player, File Browser, or Recorder app. Perhaps in a future update we'll see some more clever use of the G-sensor. Other devices with similar technology use the G-sensor to detect a shake for changing song tracks. I also see some potential in games for the S9.
User Interface: The S9 has external button controls as well as a touchscreen to interact with. Cowon obviously learned a lesson from the first iPod Touch. The biggest complaint against that Touch was no external controls. You'll find Volume +/-. Play/Pause, and FWD/BACK controls on the top edge of the Cowon. A great idea as that's where they will be easiest to access when the S9 is in your pocket. Samsung did the same thing with their new YP-P3 touchscreen. The only thing wrong with top controls in your pocket is that the headphone jacks are on the bottom edge of the S9 and P2. The S9 and Samsung P2 both have Bluetooth though, so it's possible to use wireless headphones. You could always cut a small hole in the bottom of your pocket, though. ;-)
The S9's touchscreen is fairly sensitive. I've had to tap it more than once on occasion to make it work, but that is something I've experienced with every touchscreen player I've tested. The S9's touchscreen is better than most. Once turned on you'll see an array of icons to choose from. Things get a little more confusing from here on. You get two set of icons to choose from, with one being more colorful than the other. You can choose Music, Videos, Pictures, Documents, Flash, Browser, Radio, Recorder, Utilities, or Settings. Music is what most people will use most, and here is where the S9 is most confusing. One tap on the Music icon takes you immediately into the Now Playing screen. You've got to find and tap on a small menu icon to get to where your music is listed. It'll take another tap on another icon to get a level up to the categories list. You can sort music by Folder, Artist, Album, Song, Genre, Year, New Music, Playlists, or Recordings. To me this seems a little backward and requires more steps than usual to find a particular song. Video and Radio is the same way, taking you to the player before letting you pick a file or station to play. In contrast the Picture and Document apps list files first before displaying them. The S9 UI has many inconsistancies like this. Icons are not always obvious as to what they do. You'll jump from the top of the screen to the bottom more than should be necessary. Options for many of the media players are within the player, but many more can be found in the Settings menu. A final complaint I have is that there is NO on-screen volume control. The top edge is not the most ergonomic place to reach when naturally holding the S9 in your hand. UI: A-
Aesthetics: I'll have to admit the S9 only caught my eye because of the original curved body images cowon teased us with several months ago. Although the actual device isn't professionally lit when you see it in person, the design still holds up. You don't notice the curves much from the front, but the S9 feels very comfortable in-hand. Thebody curves from top to bottom, and also from side to side. It will rock in both directions on a flat surface. I've never tried to control a touchscreen device while it lays on a table, but if you do, the S9's curve may challenge you.
Conclusion: As is, the S9 is a good device. $239 for the 16gb Titanium Black version compares well with the iPod Touch 16gb at $299, Samsung P2 16g at $250, and other 16gb players with fewer features. Audio format support and sound quality is excellent. Video playback will entertain you well for hours should you ever find yourself stuck in an airport or on a long bus ride. Photo display needs a tweak. Cowon has already updated the S9 once. I fully expect them to solve the problems I've noted and make it an amazing player over time. With it's potential looming, I recommend the S9. It will only get better.


  1. good review... waiting 4 p4!!

  2. It's the only choice we have... to wait. At my age I'm used to it, but I know it's tempting to buy something now instead. The P3 will likely have a more refined UI than the S9 but only be at the same level for media play. If we're lucky the P4 and perhaps Sony's rumored touchscreen player will be true iPod Touch competitors. Wifi and a direct connect to a music store. A ready source of apps. Browsers and email... We can hope.

  3. Thanks for the review! I should save it as a .txt file to re-read on my new S9. :-)

  4. You're welcome, Perri. Feel free to copy the review if you want. Just tell anyone who asks that you found it at ;)


  5. If you change the system font to "user" the document font will change as well. :-) The font has to be a TRUE TYPE font (.ttf) file though.

    It would be nice to change the font color as well. The D2 has this option. But it lacks the ability to set a user.ttf font. :-/

  6. There's that persistent ipod Touch envy. Why not just go get one?

  7. I've got one. Not envious at all. Without Bluetooth or FM radio the Touch is just another PDA with games. As such this blog is a record of my search for a player that's better. Thanks for your comment.


  8. I heard that the s9 is very sluggish with the g-sensor, and i saw a video review of it, about the cover-flow like (Cover-Art mode) and it is extremely sluggish-almost useless.
    Idk, i'm try to chose between this one, the SPINN and the P2, though the P2's interfaces got boring for me very quickly at just from looking at it at Best Buy. Too bad the audio quality on the SPINN isn't as good as the S9, am i right?

  9. Lucas,

    Cover flow is indeed the weakest feature of the S9, but there has been some amazing work done by user/programmers that made every other complaint I might have had go away. The SPINN has a far more boring UI, and audio sounds best to me on the S9. The P2 is far more interesting than it comes right out-of-the-box. There are hundreds of great UCIs to choose from to customize the home screen. You can even create your own. Yet I would wait a few weeks for the Samsung P3. The S9 currently has the best screen and photo/video support. The latest firmware for the P3 proves that Samsung is willing to compete hard. You should check the S9 forum and You can check out all the other players I mentioned as well.

  10. Nice review there! Have read it a while ago actually, back in January I believe. The reviews have been so overwhelming that I soon enough jumped the wagon and purchased a 16GB S9, selling my 16GB P2 on the way.. Lucky me, I saved one 4GB P2 and have just tested both P2 and S9 SQ by listening to same audio-passages (A->B - great feature btw). This is not easy to say... P2 has much richer and punchier sound quality than S9. The dynamics, crispiness and the space is unbeaten when it comes to P2. I am listening to S9 and there's something missing there, compared to the same tune via P2 just minutes ago.. I have read some great reviews and posts you have written and I do encourage you to do the same.. If I could only get THE SOUND QUALITY of P2 on my S9... Can you?

  11. Thanks, Mirza, With no EQ or custom audio settings on either player, and using my Sennheiser HD595 headphones, my ears prefer the S9 over the P2. It's a minor distinction, as the P2 is still an excellent audio player. It has features the S9 doesn't touch including amazing bluetooth versatility, a beautiful text app, and more. The S9 is getting some great custom UI updates from users on the S9 forum, and will play video files my P2 crashes on. AMOLED is a better (far prettier) screen technology for photos and video. You were smart to keep a P2, but your S9 will keep getting better.