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Old 04-18-2005, 11:19 PM   #1
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Review: Cowon iAUDIO M3 20 gig DAP

Nearly since I first got my Tungsten E, perhaps a year now, I have been using it as my poor man's iPod. But with just 256 meg SD cards, constantly loading music or audio books is a real pain. And though PocketTunes is a good program, it's certainly got its weak spots.

I suffer from these problems no longer. I recently purchased the 20 gig version of Cowon's awkwardly named iAUDIO M3, henceforth referred to as the M3. I did a lot of research and I felt that the M3 addressed my needs better than the others out there. I did not want to be limited to iTunes, like the iPod is. I also wanted a good remote, as I don't like taking my expensive toy in and out of my pocket. And I wanted some of the extras: voice recorder, line in recording, and the ability to play as many different formats as I could. I satisfied all these needs.

Click here to see the rest of the review.
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Old 04-18-2005, 11:19 PM   #2
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The M3 is unusual for digital audio players (DAPs) in that the main unit has no screen at all. All the screen info is only available on the remote. The main unit has limited controls, and if you have a playlist going (or are simply playing out of a folder) you can make it work. But there's no selecting songs without the remote. In exchange, the main unit is very small. See the next pic for a size comparison with my T|E (you can see I'm testing Fitaly!). In additional to its small size, the M3 is nearly silent. In a quiet room you can just hear the hard drive spin up, but if there's noise of any kind you can't hear it at all. I don't have much experience with other DAPs, but I think that the M3 is quieter than most.


Let me pause a moment and give a little technical info. The M3 has 20 gigs of storage. It connects via USB 2.0 and is very fast. It can play mp3, ogg, flac, wma, and wav (I think) files. It can read m3u playlists that you make in other programs. You cannot, however, make new m3u playlists with the remote, though you can add music into a "dynamic playlist" with the remote, but you cannot save this list when you are done. It has an FM tuner, built in microphone, and line in recording capacity. (Recorded files are encoded directly to mp3.) You can even record FM radio, though I have yet to figure out why you would want to do this. The firmware is continually updated. The latest includes a bookmarking capability, which is perfect for audio books. Actually the flac format was also a recent firmware addition and was not originally supported. Battery life is very good. It is reported to last 14 hours on a charge. I haven't timed it, but I have had no problems, and only charge every few days. Luckily it uses the same power connector as the T|E! The M3 does not organize music by ID3 tags as some players do. Instead it uses physical folders. Some find this a deal breaker, but this worked well for me. My music archive is organized by genre in my own folders, and many have faulty ID3 tags.

Cowon also offers a 40 gig version of the M3 and a 20 gig version, the M3L, with extended battery life : 35 hours!! Both of these are a bit thicker than the normal M3 and both are a bit harder to find.

The M3 came with a cradle and a portable adapter for power, line in, line out, and USB. There is only one proprietary connector at the bottom of the unit for data and power. This is a drawback to some, as you must carry the portable adapter around with you if you want to connect to other computers. I don't mind this so much, as I have a bag I carry all the time anyway. The cradle is simple but attractive (sorry no pic yet). The adapter is small and black.


Both the unit and the remote feel great to hold. The shell of the main unit is made of anodized aluminum and feels tough. It fits easily in a pocket and is hardly noticeable. The remote has a tough clip on the back and I mostly wear it on the inside of my pocket. The headphones connect through the remote. The M3 came with some decent looking ear buds, but I have not luck with those, and got rid of them immediately. I use some foldable Sony in-ear headphones with a head band (MDR-A35) that are only $10-15 and they sound great.
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Old 04-18-2005, 11:37 PM   #3
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The Remote


So since there is no display on the main unit, the remote is where all the action is. It's *very* small, smaller even than I expected, and it takes some getting used to. It has only a few buttons and two jog wheels that double as buttons. Navigation takes a little practice but is not difficult. However, it ain't a clean beautiful iPod click wheel. All in all the remote is a bit of a trade off. Keeping everything small has certainly forced compromises. I admit to being a bit concerned when I first opened the box, that I would not adapt well to the interface, but after a couple of weeks I have to say that there is no problem.

The screen is small but packs a lot of information. Text that spills off the screen is automatically scrolled past and the speed of this scroll is adjustable. The screen can read out the ID3 tag information if it is present, or it can be set to simply show the filename. If you are interested in particulars about the screen or GUI, head over to the photo gallery at DAPreview. They also have galleries of the M3 itself and the remote, both with a ridiculous number of photos of much better quality than mine.
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Old 04-18-2005, 11:48 PM   #4
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Usage and Sound Quality

I wear the M3 through most of every work day. I keep the remote clipped to my pants pocket, on the outside when I'm at my desk, and on the inside when I'm working in the warehouse. (I've still scratched it a bit.) I run the headphone cord under my shirt usually, as all the wires do cause problems sometimes, and can grab doorknobs or other projections as you pass by. I can use it for 2-3 long days before I start to get low on the battery.

Adding files is a snap. When you plug in the M3 to the USB, it shows up as an external hard drive. You just drag files and folders into the drive and they are ready to play. I have not yet come across any file that it could not play, and though some on the forums talk about crashes and resets, I have experienced none. The M3 can also be used as a external drive, and you can store any file you like it. The player comes with an interface program for converting to mp3 and adding music to the player, but I found it useless and have not used it. My only complaint is that when the player is connected to the USB port, you cannot play through the headphones. You also lose your place in your current track, so if you want to start back where you were after connecting to a computer, you'd better bookmark!

Sound quality is fantastic. I'm no audiophile and anything higher than FM quality sounds good to me, but the sound from the M3 is consistently clear and strong. It has quite a lot of equalizer options and settings and to be honest I've hardly looked at them.

Many players have problems transitioning from track to track and you can get quite a gap (up to a second) between songs. The M3 has an almost imperceptable gap, though it is definitely there. When you play a continuous album, like a live recording, you can hear a small space between tracks, but it can't be more than a 10th of a second. It's not seamless but it's close.

Start up takes a moderately long time, perhaps 10 seconds. When you pause for a while the M3 automatically shuts down, so then you have to reboot when you want to listen again. However, the M3 can be set to autoplay when it starts up, so you can stick the remote back in your pocket once you've powered up.

I have also been surprised to find that I use the player without the remote more than I thought I would. I listen to a lot of audio books, and once they are going all you need is pause and play. I listen while I'm cleaning up at night and don't bother with the remote, just for simplicity. The buttons on the player feel good and respond well. Though they don't have any special texture, it is easy to tell which is which without looking.
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Old 04-18-2005, 11:58 PM   #5
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Wrap up and Pros/Cons

I am very happy with my M3. It's not the perfect DAP for me, but I don't think that one exists at the moment. It is a little unusual and is not for everyone. Not everyone wants a remote, and certainly many people don't want the remote to be their only control over the unit, especially such a small remote with small controls. However, the overall quality of the unit is very high. I think that the price is about mid-range for what it is. I bought mine from NewEgg for $260.

I use the damn thing every day through most of the day. My only real problem is with the cables, which can become unruly fairly easily. Overall I love this player and give it a 9 of 10 stars.

Pros:
  • Very small and light
  • Good remote
  • Frequent firmware updates
  • Clear, strong sound
  • Long battery life
  • Plays many formats (mp3, ogg, flac, wma, wav)
  • Also voice recorder, line in recording, FM tuner
Cons:
  • No screen on main unit
  • Remote is small and interface is not intuitive
  • Does not organize by ID3 tag
  • Cables can become tangled
I hope that this review has been informative. Sorry for the crappy pics.

Cowon will shortly release a successor to the M3, the M5, which has a color screen on the main unit, so those who are interested in pics on your DAP may look there. It should have a remote too, but I have not seen any pictures of that yet.
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Old 04-19-2005, 03:56 AM   #6
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ignatz, thanks for this LONG review! One question: Considering that an iPod 20GB is available for less than $300 USD these days, so getting closer to the price of your unit, would you still buy the Cowon or consider the iPod instead?
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Old 04-19-2005, 07:13 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Morpheus
ignatz, thanks for this LONG review! One question: Considering that an iPod 20GB is available for less than $300 USD these days, so getting closer to the price of your unit, would you still buy the Cowon or consider the iPod instead?
No, I really wouldn't. I certainly admire the design of the iPod. It's beautiful, it sits well in the hand, and the controls are very good. However, the limitations are too severe. You have to access it through iTunes, it has no microphone or recording capacity. And the formats it plays are limited. My music is in ogg, wma, and mp3. I don't want to have to convert it again to drop it into my device.

Also, I really like having a remote and it was that desire that drove most of my search. When I used my T|E for playing, I found it really annoying to have to pull it out of my pocket to pause every time someone came to talk to me. I did a lot of research into building a remote that would work with the T|E, but came up dry. The remote is a bit of a trade off, as I said. If you just listen when you're working out, or just to music that you don't mind having interrupted, then perhaps a remote doesn't make sense for you. But if you listen to books and podcasts and want to catch every word, a remote makes it easier to pause and start again.

So no, I like my choice! Glad you liked the review. Sorry it's a bit rambling...
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Old 04-19-2005, 12:49 PM   #8
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Actually the remote makes perfect sense to me. It is small and handy, making it perfect if you don't want to carry the full thing in your hands while you are running, etc.

On the other hand, I know myself... with gadgets that are made of several pieces I am mostly likely to forget one intrinsic piece. My luck. So chances are, with the Cowon, if I was on a trip I would find myself with the remote control in my hand but with the main unit still at home.
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Old 10-20-2005, 10:13 PM   #9
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UPDATE: 6 months later

Six months have passed and I still use my M3 daily. It has earned its hallowed place in my tech hall of fame right next to my T|E. I listen to a *lot* of audio books, and the bookmark feature on the M3 has been great for that. I can track my spot in several books at once and come back to them at my discretion. The iPod didn't have any bookmarking capacity until one of the most recent upgrades.

The battery life on this thing is great. I use it for a couple of hours a day at least and only have to charge once or twice a week. Often I leave it plugged into a USB port at work, and it seems to trickle charge through there, because lately I haven't had to charge it at all.

I have had some problems with the cables. When carrying the unit and headphones, the cable to the remote inevitably gets illicitly tangled with the headphone cables. I think that a little cable turtle might help here. Also when carrying the unit in my pocket and the remote clipped on, sometimes I have caught the cable on passing protrusions and pulled the cords out. No fun!

I have recently reached a zen place with carrying my M3 around. I found a pocket in my Timbuk2 Metro bag (a small messenger bag with great pockets for tech) that fits the M3 perfectly. In the car I plug into the remote and my tape deck and play through the stereo. In the office I put my bag in a bottom drawer and run a usb cable to the M3 and play the music on my computer. It never has to leave my bag!

So yes, this device is largely responsible for the decline in my use of my T|E. I don't use iSilo or read ebooks nearly as much as I once did. I'm constantly sucked into lecture series from The Teaching Company, and my music consumption has grown to enormous levels. But it has brought me great joy. The Nano is the first other DAP that I have found myself eyeing with lust, though for me 4-5 gigs is just too small. Also the M3 is just so open. It acts like a plain old harddrive and you can treat it as one if you desire. It plays lots of formats and doesn't tie you down to interface software. Yah, the interface is not the best, but I have learned to deal with that. This device has been well enjoyed so far, and hopefully it has a long life ahead of it.
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