Review: Cowon D3 Plenue Android PMP

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The Cowon D3 Plenue is a PMP first and an Android device second, a distant second. It's important that you remember that in the right order and adjust your expectations accordingly. If you don't, then you'll end up where I am: waist-deep in a pool of disappointment.

I knew going in that the 2.1 (Eclair)-running D3 didn't have the Android Market or any of the other Google apps, so that's not what pushed me overboard. Having those things would obviously be preferable, but manually downloading and installing apks isn't hard to do. No, the absolute dealbreaker for me—and I suspect for anyone approaching the absurdly named Plenue (that's apparently pleasure/plenty/plenum combined with avenue/continue/new, by the way) from the Android angle—is performance.

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I don't usually start reviews with a spoiler followed by benchmarks, but I'm all out of sorts from that CPU and those benchmark results.

So much attention was focused on the D3's 3.7-inch AMOLED WVGA touchscreen, extensive codec support, 1080p video playback, Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, 32GB built-in storage plus microSD card slot, and sleek design when it was first unveiled that the processor was completely overlooked.

And that's pretty important on a device running Android 2.1 with a web browser and the ability to run all kinds of apps. It plays a big role in the system being/feeling slow and a bit stuttery, especially compared to what we've all come to expect from Android in 2011. Phrases like "silky smooth" or "buttery smooth" won't be used to describe the Cowon D3 unless the word "not" is in front of them.

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What slows things down even more is the constant media scanning that occurs whenever new data is added to the D3. Even downloading apps from the browser, which is one of the only ways to get them on the device since it lacks any kind of marketplace, starts the scanning since the files are saved to your microSD card. From the user guide:

During media scanning the device response can slow down, and depending on the types & capacities of the data it can maximally take dozens of minutes.

The accelerometer could also use a boost in performance, as switching between orientations is slow and definitely not seamless. There's actually a split-second where the screen looks like it's going to get stuck between landscape/portrait modes.

Also adding to the lengthy list of shortcomings is the AMOLED touchscreen. While it's certainly beautiful and bright, with wide viewing angles, it's also inconsistently responsive depending on the angle of your finger. When you're holding the D3 in one hand and using the other to tap the screen, everything is fine. But if you put the device on a flat surface, sometimes the screen won't respond unless your finger is perpendicular to it.

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It doesn't happen all the time, as I said, but it seems to affect the strip at the bottom of the screen most regularly. This is a shame because I actually really like this little strip. It's a nice change from the typical dock used in most Android home launchers; tapping the left side of it on the home screen toggles between displaying the amount of free space you have on the internal memory, number of currently running apps, and the date/time.

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It would be nice if long pressing this information took you to the relevant app or setting, but what it does instead is show you a preview of all your home screens (below).

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It's similar to the Leap feature in HTC Sense in that it displays all the widgets and icons on each screen and lets you tap a screen to go to it. Going to the selected screen is slow, though, because it doesn't just jump to it; it moves to the screen at the same rate as it would if you manually swiped through the screens to get there.

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Although it's ruined by sluggish performance, Cowon's UI/skin (it's officially called COWON Home 2D) is really quite nice. If Android wasn't part of the equation and the interface was its own self-contained system, rather than just a custom launcher, it would probably be unequivocally praised.

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I'm feeling really torn about the D3 running Android. I run two other sites dedicated to Android devices, so I'm clearly a big fan of the OS and all of its possibilities. If a dev community forms around the D3, then custom ROMs will certainly be able to take the unit to a new level. I haven't been able to root mine yet (firmware 3.25 has been resistant to Universal Androot, z4root, and SuperOneClick so far), but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

Unfortunately, even the smoothest, fastest, most optimized custom ROM can't change the D3's CPU. And that's what I find really annoying. If a manufacturer is going to release a full-featured PMP with Android on it, at least do it right. I don't even really care that it's only got Eclair on it. Just give it a modern, competitive processor to keep up with the rest of the specs (e.g., HDMI out, 1080p, AMOLED).

It deserves it.

The hardware is fantastic. The first thing I thought about when I took the D3 out of its box was how much I wanted it to be a phone. I don't know why, really, as I use most phones as WiFi-only MIDs anyway, but it's what immediately came to mind.

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The device fits nicely in the hand, build quality is outstanding, and the design is sleek and sexy. The materials (mostly plastic) are reminiscent of the Cowon S9. It has dedicated media control and volume buttons on the right, power/hold button and microSD card slot on the left, and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, covered USB/HDMI adapter port, DC-in, and mic on the bottom.

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The plain cardboard packaging doesn't do the D3's hardware justice, especially when the word "prestige" has been used in some of the player's branding. Also lacking any prestige are the box's contents: AC adapter, USB cable, headphones, mini software CD, and quick start guide.

One aspect of the device that does live up to its name (and my expectations) is sound quality. Cowon has always excelled in this area, and the D3 is just another notch on the company's bed post. There are 4 user-customizable 5-band equalizers with BBE+ and SE sound enhancements and a whopping 35 presets, which means that just about anyone's ears can be made very, very happy. I use a pair of Ultimate Ears 10 Pros and to me, the D3 Plenue is easily one of the best-sounding DAPs/PMPs around.

Cowon is also known for its extensive codec support, and again the D3 does not depart from that tradition. It plays nicely with MP3, WMA, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and Monkey's Audio on the audio front and DivX, XviD, H.264, WMV, and MPEG1 on the video side of things.

Given that dedicated DAPs have all but been replaced by smartphones, I suppose the D3 is simply the next step in a natural evolution for Cowon. Even its size is a testament to that.

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As you can see above, it's bigger than a PMP and smaller than an Android phone. There are many exceptions to this "size rule," of course, but my current stable of gadgets made a generalization like that pretty obvious.

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That sweeping statement gets thrown out the window when the D3 meets the iPhone 4, but let's not bring iOS into a discussion about Android, especially this close to the end.

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The Archos 43 Internet Tablet, which makes the D3 look small again, is probably its closest Android PMP competitor. And although the D3 trumps it in some areas, I do think the 43 will be the better all-around choice for most consumers. But I'll save that comparison for another day.

If you're looking for the bottom line on the D3 (and if you've read the 1250+ words leading up to this point, then I'm sure you are), you actually already saw it in the first line of this review. With some modification of my opening line, my closing line is this: The Cowon D3 Plenue is a first-rate PMP and a second-rate Android device.

The 32GB Cowon D3 Plenue Android PMP is available now for $369.99 at Amazonir?t=pocketables 20&l=as2&o=1&a=B004JKNEJ6 - for some reason we don't have an alt tag here.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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