Previously referred to as the V5 HD, the newly christened V5 is a handheld music and video player with the ability to also show photo slideshows, play Solitaire and Freecell, sift through documents and even shed its skin and do things that every other Windows CE 6.0-based handheld can do. There's no WiFi or 3G here, so the only browser you'll find is a file browser. Similar to the S9 and A3 units that we've reviewed in the past, the V5 is simply stunning from every angle -- and it ships in some pretty swank packaging to boot. Cowon is a master of design, and in our estimation, doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves here in the States. At 5.04- x 3.23- x 0.62-inches around, it's certainly not a bulky device, and the 6.95 ounces are light enough to carry around in a front pocket and forget it was ever there. Our test model was a white 16GB edition, though a black version will also be available alongside 8GB and 32GB variants.
The 4.8-inch touchpanel is striking to look at; the high resolution makes watching 720p videos an absolute pleasure, and the custom overlay that Cowon has designed really suits our fancy. As far as resistive screens go, this one is about as responsive as they come, though we're definitely grateful for the included keyfob that allows you to hit those minuscule "X" icons and the like when digit presses just won't register. The volume rocker on the side is positioned well, as is the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top-left. We were also appreciative of the integrated speaker, and while it's definitely on the quiet side, it's soothing to hear input confirmation beeps coming from the unit's rear. Our main gripe with connectivity is the dearth of WiFi and the choice to utilize a single proprietary output port to give users access to HDMI and USB 2.0. Portable devices such as this are often tossed in during last minute trips, and having to remember two cables (including one to transfer media on and off of it) is asking a bit much. Would it have killed Cowon to include a mini-USB socket underneath the volume rocker? That's doubtful.
In our opinion, the user interface is a marked improvement over the A3 that we tested in early 2008. Icons responded immediately to presses, and the music / video portals -- which are apt to be used most heavily -- are both well defined and easy on the eyes. Cowon managed to fit quite a few soft buttons onto the music panel, but amazingly, it doesn't feel cluttered. It's a breeze to scroll up and down your playlists, and it's easy to jump in and out of the EQ settings or to add a track to your Favorites list. In fact, we love just how many things you can do with a single press in the Music menu, but one of the most rudimentary things requires two clicks: getting out of one album and back to your list of albums. If a track is playing, you have to hit the Files icon and then the Folder Back icon; we would've loved to see a shortcut here for jumping back two steps with only one push, but again, this is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things.
Audio and video playback quality
Here's what you really came here for, and if you were crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, you can go ahead and let out that sigh of relief. The V5 is a top-notch media player. Videos load instantly and play back smoothly (even larger 720p clips), and music tracks do likewise. Fast-forward and rewind functions are also incredibly snappy, and the display really shines when you throw a higher bitrate movie clip in here. As for audio quality? It's as good as it gets. We'd argue that the quality here is right on par with Sony's (also excellent) OLED Walkman, and if you care about intricacies in your jams, you won't be let down by the V5. We tried it out with a variety of Klipsch and Sleek Audio headphones, and we definitely heard subtle guitar rings, cymbal taps and background vocals that we didn't hear on our iPhone. Granted, we're talking about minutiae at this point -- the vast majority of listeners wouldn't even care, and you probably wouldn't be able to notice these extras while riding a noisy train -- but for those who carry their audiophile badge with pride, the V5 is a unit worthy of serious consideration.
Ah, but here's the rub. Cowon's 16GB V5 is listed at $299.99, while the 32GB version demands an extra $60. It's impossible (and frankly, irresponsible) to view a media player's value without comparing it to Microsoft's Zune HD and Apple's iPod touch, and the V5 loses serious points in this vital area. The 16GB Zune HD can be had for under $180, while the 32GB iPod touch can be had for the same price as a 16GB V5. Oh sure, the V5 has a much nicer display (and a killer battery), but the lack of WiFi, a web browser and an app store will be more than enough to push the Average Joe or Jane away. All things considered, we can't heartily recommend the V5 unless a larger, higher resolution panel is more important to you than inbuilt WiFi and the ability to surf the web; the pristine audio quality is definitely a boon, but for most, we're guessing the cons will outweigh the pros. 'Course, if Cowon comes along and hacks $100 to $150 from the MSRPs, we'll happily revisit this conversation.