With a big, bright screen that looks great when playing videos and a 10-band equaliser, the 30GB Cowon A3 is an impressive multimedia player.

The Cowon A3 is also an overall improvement over its predecessor, the Cowon A2. Unfortunately, the A3's bulky size and unintuitive controls are frustrating.

The headline feature of the Cowon A3 is its beautiful, 4in, 800-by-400-pixel, wide-aspect LCD screen. It performed as nicely as the screen on the A2 did, showing sharp colours and smooth movement, with no ghosted or blurry images, during our playback tests.

Regrettably, Cowon didn't include a case (as it did with the A2), which is a shame considering the Cowon A3's scratch- and fingerprint-prone screen.

The Cowon A3 supports about as many file types as we've seen for a portable device. On the audio end, that includes MP3, WMA, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, OGG FLAC, Apple Lossless, and AAC/AAC+, but the Cowon A3 won't work with DRM-protected songs from online music stores such as iTunes or Napster.

You may not want to put a lot of music files on the Cowon A3, anyway, because it doesn't support ID3 tag sorting. Instead, the A3 uses a file-tree system that you must manually organise on your PC through Windows Explorer or a similar file management program before synching to the device.

With its built-in microphone, the Cowon A3 also supports lossless FLAC as well as WMA audio recording.

The Cowon A3's audio quality improved significantly over that of the A2. The signal-to-noise ratio (the higher the number, the cleaner the sound) of the A2 was a lower-than-average 71dB; for the Cowon A3, it's 85dB, which is higher than that of some of our top-ranked players.

During our hands-on tests, the rich audio quality was ideal for watching movies on the Cowon A3's top-notch screen. Audio sounded fine through the included earbuds, but if you really want to enjoy the Cowon A3's rich sound, swap them out for higher-quality headphones. The 10-band equaliser allows you to control the frequencies and bandwidths of each band, making the A3's sound adaptable for the many file types it supports.

As a video player, the A3 is very flexible - it can play back files in AVI, DivX, XviD, MP4, ASF, MKV, VOB, OGM, WMV 7, H.264, MPEG, DAT, and MTV formats. You don't even need to convert many file formats; you simply copy them over to the Cowon A3 (which appears as a USB hard drive when connected to a PC), and they play straight away.

Additionally, the Cowon A3 natively handles 1280 by 720 HD, the highest-quality video resolution. H.264, however, requires decoding through the included Cowon Media software. The Cowon A3 also supports the JPG, GIF, PNG, TIF, BMP, and RAW photo formats.

NEXT PAGE: the Cowon A3 as a PVR