A little backstory
Last week, my 256 MB Sandisk player died. I really liked that player. It was ugly, and it didn’t support free formats, but it was functional and small.
So I did quite a bit of online research on a replacement player. There were a few things I was looking for in a new player:
- Relatively cheap (nothing over US$200)
- FM radio
- Not terrible looking
- Long battery life
- Linux compatibility
- Support for open formats
My search brought me eventually to the Cowon iAudio 7, which fit all of those criteria. It was quite a bit pricier than my cheap Sandisk had been, but it was still under $200; it had an FM radio, and most reviews said the reception was pretty good; it didn’t look too bad in the pictures; its battery life is supposedly 60 hours; the Cowon website prominently includes Linux compatibility in the description (Linux kernel v2.2 or higher (data transfer only); and it supports both Ogg and FLAC.
Well, it arrived yesterday, and immediately my wife remarked that it was “cute” and I agreed with her. Despite most online reviews complaining about the iAudio 7 being too thick, I was surprised at how small it is. Yes, it isn’t as slim as the iPod Nano, but it isn’t a giant monster either. It’s more like a box than a flap, that’s all—a very small box, though. I was a little disappointed to see that the packaging did not list Linux under the system requirements’ operating systems (only Windows and Mac), considering Cowon makes no bones about mentioning Linux support on its website.
The Quick Guide that comes with it is quick indeed! It basically tells you nothing. It has pictures of the included parts (headphones, USB cord, player) and labels all the buttons (menu, play/stop, hold switch, etc.), and that’s about it. There is no manual explaining how to use the iAudio 7, and I couldn’t find one at the Cowon website either. Most of the reviews online (CNET, anythingbutipod, Amazon, NewEgg) gave me the impression that the controls were not intuitive but also not too hard to pick up. As a matter of fact, the controls make almost no sense. When you’re in the menus, Play/Pause goes forward (that makes sense) and Record goes back (that makes no sense). I accidentally enter Record mode while I was browsing the menus and started recording, but I didn’t know how to stop. I paused, of course, but there was no way for me to stop—I just pressed a bunch of buttons in the hopes of something working. One of the buttons got me back to playing music, but I had no assurance that I wasn’t simultaneously recording something at the same time. If someone can point me to a PDF manual (or even a website) explaining the iAudio 7 controls, I would be much appreciative.
Loading songs on to the iAudio 7 is easy. You plug it in, and it’s drag-and-drop. It has a bunch of top-level folders (I deleted the movie folder, as I’m pretty sure I won’t be watching movies on the one-inch screen) for text files, pictures, and music. I dragged about 4 GB of music into the MUSIC folder, and the transfer was fairly quick (USB 2.0, I assume). To test out the Ogg support, I redownloaded Mel’s Hey Girl album from Jamendo as Ogg instead of MP3. That worked out well. I’m slowly moving myself over to Ogg from MP3. It’s a nice free feeling.
I haven’t had a chance yet to test whether or not it lasts 60 hours, but I listened to it for about two hours and the battery meter hasn’t budged. I’ll update this review later with my iAudio 7 battery life experience. There is an annoying little bit with charging—you don’t know when it’s done unless you unplug the player. I’m assuming that once it runs out I can leave it in for about three or fours and it’ll charge. We’ll see. The only other minor bone I have to pick with the charging is the little flap that you open to get the USB cord in—it’s a little hard to open and doesn’t open very gracefully. If you have long fingernails (I don’t), it shouldn’t be a problem, though.
In terms of actual use (apart from the controls not making any sense), the playback is good. I’m no audiophile, but it sounds good to me, clearer than my Sandisk did using the same headphones. By the way, the headphones that come with the iAudio 7 are fine for normal people like me (not those who claim they can hear the difference between CD quality and 192 bitrate MP3). I prefer my own headphones, though, just for physical comfort.
The navigation is a bit annoying. When you try to press the Next button, if you don’t press it exactly the right way, the iAudio 7 decides you want to fast-forward instead of skip to the next song. It also took about three seconds to skip from one song to the next. That’s a long time to switch between songs. Granted, I had almost 4 GB of music together in one folder, but the player is a 4 GB player and should be designed to accommodate that kind of capacity. I upgraded the firmware in the player, and the three-second pause went away, but… A) the firmware upgrade was available as of September, so why didn’t they include it in the player I bought? Maybe it’s been sitting on the warehouse for almost three months. Who knows? B) There is absolutely no warning on the Cowon America website that the firmware upgrade will erase any music and preferences you have. The instructions just tell you to unzip the archive and copy it to the iAudio 7 and then restart the player.
One last note about the FM Radio: it sounds good (my Sandisk player had problems getting good reception for a couple of radio stations I listen to), but you don’t have the option to set your own presets, as far as I can tell. You can have the iAudio 7 scan the stations for the ones with the strongest signals, and then you’re stuck with those unless you manually tune without presets.
The Cowon iAudio 7 is a solid choice for those looking for a cute player that is definitely Linux compatible (no need for MTP plugins) and supports Ogg and FLAC music formats. The sound is good. The FM signal is strong. I definitely recommend a firmware upgrade the minute you open the thing (before you put any music on it), and if anyone knows how to make the controls make sense, please let me know! It has its kinks to be worked out, but maybe those will be taken care of in future firmware upgrades.