Sunday, May 24, 2009

Showdown! Cowon S9 vs Samsung P3 vs iriver SPINN!

All three of these Korean-made players are available now in the U.S.. Each has been around long enough to benefit from a few firmware updates. All are pocketable touchscreen players with 480 x 272 resolution. All support FLASH games and apps. All have Bluetooth. These are easily the showstoppers from each company this year, and the competition between them is good news for consumers. Here we'll take a look at the Samsung P3, Cowon S9, and iriver SPINN.

I'll compare them for aesthetic design, hardware details, format support, usability, price, and overall satisfaction as personal media players. I've had all three for some time now, and done exhaustive testing of each. Scores will be explained in each category and will be from 1 to ?, with the higher number being the better score. You'll have your own priorities for the player you own, so don't let the final tally dissuade you from your favorite.

Aesthetic Design. I'm a furniture and product designer, and greatly appreciate the looks of a player. Players that go beyond being visual "knock-offs" and seek new aesthetic territory get my vote. These players all caught my eye before getting further attention from me. My guess is that they've caught your attention too. I've rated them as I see them. Click on each to see their manufacturer support pages and the relative "press" given to the aesthetic design of each.

Cowon S9 · 5 Points.
Simply beautiful from every point of view.
iriver SPINN · 4.5 Points.
Original Spindle control breaks away from the pack.
Samsung P3 · 3.5 Points.
Minor improvement over the P2. No iPod clone.

Hardware Details. These days a player has to be more than just a touchscreen. The P3 and SPINN both have haptic (vibration) feedback when you touch them. The S9 and SPINN are AMOLED (beautiful!) screens compared to the P3's backlit LCD. All have Bluetooth but the P3 has far greater profile support than the other two. They all have external volume buttons. The SPINN and S9 offer external Pause/Play and track Fwd/Back. The P3 has a speaker. The SPINN and the S9 have 3.3" screens to the P3's 3-incher, but the S9's screen supports a greater color range than the SPINN. Each device gets a point for any feature all three don't have.

Samsung P3 · 5 Points: Haptic + BT Phone pairing + BT File transfer + BT game play + Speaker.
iriver SPINN · 4 Points: Haptic + Spindle controls + AMOLED + 3.3" screen.
Cowon S9 · 7 Points: G-Sensor + Track/Play/Pause controls + AMOLED + 3.3" screen + more colors + LineIn + TVout.

Format Support. This is simply another counting comparison. If you're coming from an iPod then AAC and MP4 media playback will be worth more to you than OGG or FLAC or WMV. Yet each codec has value to somebody. As such each audio and video and photo codec supported gets one point. Click on each to go to their specifications page.

iriver SPINN · 13 Points: MP3, WMA, OGG, FLAC, ASF, APE for music.
MP4, WMV, XVID for video. JPG, GIF, BMP, PNG for photos.
Cowon S9 · 10 Points: MP3, WMA, FLAC, OGG, WAV, APE for music. AVI, WMV, ASF for video. JPG for photos.
Samsung P3 · 13 Points: MP3, WMA, OGG, WAV, AAC, FLAC for Music. JPG, BMP, PNG for photos. SWF, WMV, H.264, MPEG for videos.

Usability. How easy is it to turn on the player, find the song you want to play, and start listening to it? The P3 will resume on the page it was on when you last turned it off. It's also got a touch interface that really takes advantage of the hardware's potential. With the S9 one tap on the Music icon goes directly into the media player, yet makes you "back up" to pick a song to play. The SPINN lets you look for and select a song without touching the screen, yet doesn't let you control it completely with touches on the screen. For this comparison 5 songs are chosen among all the common songs each player contains. The average number of taps/click/spins/strokes it takes to begin playing each song will be part of that player's score, with low score winning. The songs were all from different albums, and spread across the alphabet. From Boof by Tony Remy to Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield.

Cowon S9 · 2 Points: 5.4 average.
Samsung P3 · 1 Point: 6.2 average
iriver SPINN · 0 Points: 7.2 average

The other part will be a boot-up value. Using my stopwatch each device will be timed from when the power switch is pressed/slid to when an icon can be tapped on. The quickest device gets 2 points. Second place gets 1, and last place gets 0 additional points.

Samsung P3 · 0 Points:
From OFF = 11.90 seconds. From SLEEP = 2.70 seconds. (14.60)
iriver SPINN · 1 Point:
From OFF = 7.71 seconds. From SLEEP = 1.18 seconds. (8.89)
Cowon S9 · 2 Points:
From OFF = 6.09 seconds. From SLEEP = 1.52 seconds. (7.61)

Price. The price has fallen on both the S9 and SPINN since they first came out. The P3 is the latest to arrive, yet it's MSRP is competitive with the other's current prices. The SPINN doesn't come in a 16gb version, so these prices are all for the 8gb versions of each device. The P3 is a bargain here, with 16gb models still under $200. There is more cost involved with the AMOLED screens that the S9 and SPINN use, but their prices have crept down since the P3 was released, and may come down more. Lowest price gets the highest score.

Samsung YP-P3 8gb · 2 Points: $149.99
Cowon S9 8gb · 0 Points: $169.99
iriver SPINN 8gb · 1 Point: $159.00* normally still $199.

Overall satisfaction. This part is purely subjective. I hate the SPINN's user interface. I love the efficiency of the P3's UI. The one I most want to hold in my hand is the Cowon S9. All three sound great once you get to your music and start listening. The S9's amazing battery life reduces that annoying need to charge these players periodically. Cowon has a U.S. based retail arm ( that make is easy to find cables and other accessories. The P3's extended bluetooth capabilities exceed those of the other two, but in practive I don't use them much. That little speaker the P3 has makes it easy to check sounds when your headphones are out of reach. Widgets are generally eye-candy and have little to do with media play on the P3 or S9, yet some provide easy access to system settings. No widgets on the SPINN. What pushes the S9 over the edge is it's support for video-output and line-in recording. Watching videos on that 3.3" AMOLED screen is satisfying, but watching them on a 40" HDTV is easier on the eyes. Neither the P3 or SPINN allow this. For these reasons I score them:

Cowon S9 · 4 Points.
Samsung P3 · 3 Points.
iriver SPINN · 0 Points.

Totals. Simple addition. The Cowon S9 wins!
S9 = 30 Points. P3 = 27.5 Points. SPINN = 23.5 Points.

Your personal satisfaction may vary, but online forum activity seems to follow these results. The busiest forum (of these three devices) is the Cowon S9 forum at Their Samsung P3 forum is most recent to the game, yet is building in activity as more people get them. It's hard to find anyone checking their SPINN forum these days. The one I pick up most often is the S9, yet I'll take the P3 with me to show off it's capablities to friends. I think 99% would be happy with either, and the SPINN will satisfy anyone who hasn't seen an S9 or P3. ;·)


What do YOU think? Leave a Comment.
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  1. Nice comparison but still don’t know what to buy. Brick-&-mortar stores aren’t selling the S9 in Spain so I can’t look over it before going for it online. I’m ruling out the possibility of going for the less appealing SPINN, so here’s my general & personal impression about the S9/P3:

    AESTHETICS/BUILD: The P3 surpasses the S9 due to size & metal finish. Since I haven’t owned a P2, P3s design is still new to me. My intention is taking the player in my jeans pocket most of time. I don’t want to buy a case because it’d make it bulkier & I want to feel its touch in my hands. After carrying a Creative Zen in a silicone skin for a year I’m tired of the "electronic-device-turned-into-an-ugly-toy" feeling despite of the good job the skin did protecting it. I always make sure of carrying players and other stuff in separate pockets so at most I’d buy an anti-fingerprint film. Additionally, I think P3s extra weight will remind me of the fact that the player is in "that" pocket, which will prevent me from putting other items in there. Since you own both players I’d be grateful if you could give me your impression about it.
    The S9s curve clearly catches my attention but it’d catch it even more if it had P3s thinness. I think the Chrome is nicer than the Titanium, specially on its sides, but it seems a truly fingerprint magnet. On the other hand I think P3s frame, containing the screen, wastes space in P3s front. It would have been nicer if they had got rid of it and made the player even smaller or if they embedded a larger screen into it.

  2. PART 2:

    HW: I specially care about screen specs. It seems that S9s 3.3" OLED screen is truly impressive. What annoys me from Samsung is that they’re already manufacturing & selling OLED screens but they’re not using them in their own players yet. It’s still not clear for me how responsive the 2 screens are. I’ve read they are not as good as the one of the Ipod Touch, but some say they’re still nice while others say they’re laggy & inaccurate. I don't know if you noticed any remarkable improvements after upgrading firmwares. Could you shed some light on this?
    I’d mainly use the player for listening to music but starting from 3" sized screens I think you can already watch videos up to 30 min long. From what I’ve read, P3s LCD screen is also very good, so in terms of quality I don't think I’d regret not watching videos on the S9 but 0.3" could make the difference, also in terms of usability for operating a touch UI. What do you think?

    FORMATS: For audio I stick to MP3 so both players are good enough. In terms of video, the P3 accepts AVI & MP4 and has been updated so as reproduce up to 800x600. I’m not sure what the S9 is capable of. It doesn’t make sense using a PMP for video if you have to spend time in conversions. I’m sure that both will do a good job with my AVI episodes of CSI but I also watch MP4 & H264 short films and music videos suitable for PMPs due to its length. I guess I’d need to convert those before playing them on the S9. Summing up, the player with the best screen seems to have worse video format compatibility. What a pity!

    OTHER THOUGHTS: The P3 comes with useless widgets -coffee & gingerbread man? if at least I could dipp gingerbread into coffee! So far Samsung has not provided any other widgets and Cowon has already implemented widget support. The P3s subway map app is outdated and cannot be updated I think. The mini-touch area below P3s screen makes little sense to me. Since the utility of a touch UI is using the screen for many purposes depending on the app you are in, why making a touch UI just for displaying the music play controls? With this approach they’re wasting space for what could have been a bigger screen. What's more, after you slide your finger on this area the real music controls end up being displayed covering part of the contents you had on screen. If they wanted to have a dedicated area for music controls, they could have distinguished between 3 parts -PREV, PLAY/PAUSE, NEXT- so you just needed to press the proper one, or put real buttons instead.


  3. Thanks for your comments.

    The Zune that will show up in September will have the same 3.3" OLED screen as the SPINN and S9. No clue about what formats it will support, except for WMA, MP3, WMV, MP4, and anything else the current Zunes support. You can pre-order the Sony Walkman X1000 models now if not finding them locally. They both have more fluid screen response than my 2nd gen Touch. Between the S9 and the P3 the P3 annoys me more. Slower to boot up. Smaller screen. No way to turn off the P3's screen other than waiting for time-out. The P3 and SPINN can control volume over Bluetooth though, and of course the P3's bluetooth has far more capability. I like the S9 better in my pocket. I have the titanium model, and with it's screen toward me it's less noticable but still memorable in my pocket. The P3 and S9 weigh within a gram of each other.

    The P3's touch bar lets you call up play/pause and track control from any screen but the music play screen. I prefer the track and play buttons atop the S9. Honestly either would be fine for anyone who hasn't tried the other. If Video format is most important then maybe you should consider the river P7. It plays anything video I've put on it, and does a decent job with music files as well.

  4. Thank you for your quick response!

    The Zune HD is really the sexier device. As you say in your preview, it has the best of each world and from the videos I've seen it shows a really good touch screen. However, I guess that to a certain extent you will be subjected to "Microsoft's rules" as it happens with Apple -using specific software, limited format support, shared songs expiring after X plays... and unfortunately it will be sold for above the average price -who can do it if no Microsoft considering the quality of the Zune HD.

    The X1000's casing graphite effect is not so appealing to me and I don't think WiFi matches with a 3" screen -in my opinion, Sony aimed its product to the YouTube generation. Additionally, I wonder if you have seen its coverflow function: apart from a very fluid response, I don't find its animation any intuitive at all.

    It's not that video is the most important for me, but I think I should take advantage of it considering that current screens are good enough to do so. Otherwise I could simply continue using the wonderful Sansa Clip. The P7 is not to be carried in your pocket. The size limit for me would be nearby S9s dimensions.

    Summing up, from your comments I understand that you really notice S9s extra size in your pocket, but you also notice its screen's additional 0.3" when using it. If I could buy in Spain the 8GB P3 for the price you mentioned, I would definitely go for it, but since I found out ebay retailers selling the the 16GB S9 for less than the the 16GB P3 -can't understand why-, I think I'll go for this one. I am worried about customs fees though because they are shipping from the US...

  5. The S9 is at most 1/8" wider and 1.8" taller than the P3, and in my pocket they both have a similar presence. Yet the S9 is more comfortable there due to it's curved shape. I'm sure you'll be happy with the S9.


  6. Thanks a lot for the interesting post. Cowon S9 is my favorite. The Cowon S9 has a very attractive design. The device looks stunning with all the metallic finishing. It is very light in weight. The 3.3inch AMOLED screen is one of the best feature. People will be satisfied with the audio/video performance. Overall its a nice gadget to buy. For more details refer Cowon S9

  7. i have only one serious dilemma.... of what ive heard, the s9 isn't too sturdy... should i be worried about it getting broken easily... i have the bad habit of dropping things...

  8. I get no sense of fragility from my S9. The curved shape actually makes it stiffer than most rectangular boxed players are. If you're a dropper you have the same chance of dropping the S9 as you would with any media player. Even more likely with the very slippery iPod Touch.