Why I felt I needed a new music player

Over the last couple of years, I’ve accumulated a sizeable collection of digital music – mostly in mp3 format, but also ogg and flac. I play music through the domestic WiFi network, which includes three network music players from Logitech. The first of these was a Squeezebox 3 (now known as Squeezebox Classic, and now no longer available), which is a fairly basic unit that connects to the amplifier via phono leads, and to the fileserver with the music via the wireless network. The music server is a QNAP NAS box, which runs Linux and uses Squeezebox Server to serve music to the Squeezebox. More recently, I’ve added two Squeezebox Radios to the house.

The music library isn’t directly compatible with either iPod that I have (a 2Gb iPod Nano 1G and a 32Gb iPod Touch 2G) except by importing it into iTunes. Now, I rather dislike iTunes and its apparent desire to take over my music collection. I have used the excellent Bliss to embed artwork in all the files, largely prompted by using Squeezepad on my iPad to manage my Squeezebox music players.  As an aside, Bliss really was useful in adding artwork to my music files, and I hope to use it to modify tags later on.

As my collection exceeds the capacity of the iPod Touch, I’ve been looking around for a replacement digital music player, ideally with a capacity large enough to cope with my current music collection and a future increase in the collection size, an ability to play ogg and flac format files in addition to mp3, and usable without recourse to iTunes.

I dislike iTunes for a number of reasons, including its absence from any Linux desktop, for its apparent desire to take over and rule my music collection; I also find it annoying to use iTunes in parallel with my usual music streaming system. On the other hand, I find iTunes pretty much fine for managing the apps on my iPod Touch and iPad.

The Cowon x7

After some searching, I hit upon the idea of buying the Cowon x7, a 160Gb HD-based music player. There’s a modest but active user forum.  There are several pros and several cons that I recognised before I’d even placed the order.

Cowon x7

Pros:

– Plays mp3, flac and ogg files
– Plays video
– Is user tinkerable (of which more later)
– battery life reputed to be in excess of 100 hours when playing music
– said to offer superior sound quality to the iPod

Cons:
– said to be large
– said to be ugly
– said to have difficult to use UI
– rather low resolution screen, not as responsive at the iPod/iPad/iPhone capacitative screen.

Do the Pros outweigh the Cons? (The first few days of use)

Day 1. In the box: the Cowon x7; earbud style headphones; a wrist strap; a mains power charger; a proprietary USB cable; a CD (which I’ve not looked at in detail. Optional accessories include other interface cables. After all the comments I’d read online, I’d expected the device to be built like a brick (here’s a forum article with an illustration comparing the sizes of the x7, an iPhone and an iPod Classic). In fact, I don’t find the X7 to be particularly big – it’s certainly still pocket-sized. It’s actually about the size of one of my old PocketPC devices. The Cowon is available in a white or a black case, and I chose black because I figured white would rapidly look a bit grubby.  The case isn’t gorgeous in the way that Apple’s iPod cases are but, that’s not a major problem for me – a solid and robust case is what I’m after. The first thing I did was to unpack the device and switch it on. The x7 goes through some setup phases in which you set Language and Region. I hit a snag with the first of these: I tapped the ‘English’ option on the touchscreen. Unfortunately, either the screen wasn’t appropriately calibrated or my big fingers weren’t sufficiently accurate and as a result, I ended up with a device operating in Czech.

No problem I thought: easy enough to deal with this through settings.  Well, of course one can, as long as one can read the language! You go to Settings | Display. At the top of the screen is a slider control, above which are the words Language and English. Obviously in my case, it said something non-obvious and ‘Czech’. I fairly rapidly figured out how to reset language. I’d say that the use of a slider control instead of a dropdown list is a bit of an odd GUI choice, but hey, I got there in the end.

More seriously, in the initial setup, I selected ‘Europe’ as my region, with the consequences that my listening volume is limited to a level of 40 (presumably a percentage scale). I’ve been unable to figure out how to change that setting, even after some browsing.

One of the delights of this device is that you can just plug it in to a computer and copy the music files over using whatever file manager your OS employs. I tried this with my MacBook Pro and with my Ubuntu desktop PC, and things went swimmingly well. After uploading the files (mostly mp3s, but there are a smattering of ogg and flac formats in there) and ejecting the drives, the device spends a little while updating its database. Then you’re ready to go.

Day 2. I decided the default UI left a little to be desired, so I began playing with some UCIs that I’d found via a forum. Sense offers a neat way of handling the music player interface that copes appropriately with album cover art – many comments on the x7 forum observe that the default UI doesn’t deal with the album art effectively, and tends to display part of the image only. I can’t comment there. I also installed Lynx, which effectively replaces the main UI of the device, and which is highly configurable. Both these UCIs are lovely, and make a big difference to the usability of the device.

I would advise that before installing UCIs such as this, a new user should investigate the menu structure of the device to identify where adjustments can be made. In particular, the individual UCI components offer configuability above the standard out of the box configurability. So far, so good!

Day 3. A trip to London: listening for real in a bustling railway train environment. So, the first thing I discovered was that the x7 would just loop a track and not advance to the next track of the album. After some poking about I found out how to change that to allow playing the whole album. I suspect that there is depth to the configurability I’ve yet to find! I also found that navigating the music was a little challenging until I got a feel for the responsiveness of the screen. It’s not a lively as an iPod Touch, for example, but is certainly responsive enough. With about 80Gb of music on board so far, it’s a bit of a forage to find artists. The search function works very swiftly.

Despite the limited volume available to me, I had no problems hearing the music in the quite noisy train. I listened to a variety of music, and yes the playback quality is very good – after comparing with the iPod Touch, I think I prefer the sound of the Cowon. There’s a greater range of equalizer settings than the iPod has, and actually, you can tweak the seetings to your own preference and save the EQ profile. I tend not to fiddle around with these too much. But I guess a personal music player is really for use out and about, where even with decent headphones the device is competing with a variety of extraneous noises.

Day 4.  I decided the music browsing function needed a bit of an overhaul and installed the Leaf replacement.  This made things a bit easier.  You do have to read the documentation for these add-ons quite carefully, as the usage seems to often depend on screen touch gestures rather than prodding a particular on-screen button.

Conclusion so far: It’s a very nice personal media player, and I think offers a large storage capacity and a tweakable UI. In a way, I sort of regard it like my Linux computers – a device that seems clunky at first (mostly because it’s different from the kit I’ve used before), but also configurable in a way that Apple don’t want to let you do things. And while the touchscreen interface isn’t as lively as the iPod Touch, and there’s no accelerometer to auto change the screen orientation etc, I’m not so sure that’s a major limitation.

Features still to be explored:

Video playback. All I’ve looked at so far have been the demo files that came on the device, but it did seem as though the limited screen resolution some reviewers complain about wasn’t really an issue. Video playback isn’t so important to me (I have movies on my iPad), so I don’t know when I’ll get around to that.

Radio. The x7 has a radio, which uses the headphone cable as the aerial. I have still to investigate this. I think this might be pretty useful while out and about (indoors I listen to radio from internet streams).

Audio recorder. I can see the potential for this being useful, but again something I’ve yet to try.

Other apps. The x7 has a variety of little apps, including a notepad, calculator, calendar etc. I can’t see me using most of these, given the tiny keyboard, but you never know!

Perhaps in a longer term review, I’ll have tried some of the other features!

So, returning to the pros and cons:
Pros:
– Plays mp3, flac and ogg files – this is nice where one has a mixed library of file formats. Perhaps less important to those who’ve only really used iTunes and for who mp3 and the Apple variant arethe only formats they may have.
– Plays video – not really investigated, though with my ageing eyesight I suspect the iPad makes for more comfortable viewing. Still, with 160Gb storage available, there is capacity for quite a lot of video.
– Is user tinkerable – this is a major selling point for me. But this enthusiasm perhaps reflects my liking for Linux. I suspect that most PMP users would just want to have the (really quite awesome) out of the box user experience afforded by iPods.
– battery life reputed to be in excess of 100 hours when playing music. I’ve not tested this to the limits, but a few hours playing hasn’t used up a discernable amount of power. Some reviews I’ve seen indicate 75 hours is a bit mre likely in ‘real’ use.
– said to offer superior sound quality to the iPod. Well, this is a personal choice thing. I think (on a limited sample) that is is, perhaps, superior to my iPod Touch, but I wouldn’t say the ‘sonic experience’ is life changing, particularly when the device in use outdoors.
Cons:
– said to be large. I don’t think it’s particularly large, and in any case there are compromises needed to accommodate a large capacity battery and hard drive.
– said to be ugly. It’s definitely ‘utilitarian’ and no beauty compared to Apple’s dazzling range of players.
– said to have difficult to use UI. It’s difficult to be sure whether the UI is actually difficult or just different to what one’s prior experience has been. At least one can tweak the system to one’s taste.
– rather low resolution screen, not as responsive at the iPod/iPad/iPhone capacitative screen. For some this will be the deal breaker. The iOS devices really need a highly responsive screen largely because a lot of the apps demand it. I do find the iOS screens easier to use but I suspect the x7 just takes getting used to.

Overall, probably a 4/5 rating so far.