For a device that measures 1.75 inches square and 0.5 inch thick, including a 1.5-inch display doesn't leave much room for anything else. Some of the Spark's controls are located on the sides, such as the volume button, options button, and power/hold switch, but mostly you control the player by squeezing it. Taking a page from iRiver's Clix series of MP3 players, Philips designed the Spark with squeezable edges, allowing four directions of control. Pinching the top or bottom edges of the Spark allows you to scroll through lists of music or FM radio frequencies, while squeezing left or right allows you to skip through songs or rotate through each of the eight main menu icons (Music, Photos, Radio, Recording, Folder, Personalize, Settings and Now Playing). In general, the Spark is easy to navigate, and offers attractive, intuitive menus and responsive controls.
Love it or hate it, the Spark is designed to be worn. Unlike the iPod Shuffle or Sansa Clip, the Spark's design does not have a built-in clip; however, an included neck strap can be threaded through a loophole on the corner of the player. Of course, you can always go necklace-free and store the Spark in your pocket, but be sure to engage the button-hold switch to prevent the pressure-sensitive screen from skipping tracks accidentally.
The Spark isn't ambitious when it comes to features, but it covers most of the bases. The music player built into the Spark supports MP3 and WMA formats (including DRM-protected subscriptions and purchases). The music menu is organized by Artist, Album, Genre, and Playlist, and includes the capability to delete songs directly from the device or add them to on-the-go playlists.
The Spark's music playback screen is the best we've seen on a device in this price range. Song information is relatively large and legible, album artwork acts as a full-screen background image, and song duration and position information are clearly shown on the bottom third of the screen. By clicking the options button on the top edge of the Spark, you'll see a submenu for setting up song shuffle and repeat modes, adjusting EQ, adding or removing the song from playlists, or deleting the song entirely.
The photo viewer on the Spark is cut and dry, letting you browse your JPEG photos manually or see them in an automatic slide show. By making a few tweaks in the Personalize menu, you can specify any photo in your collection to appear when the Spark starts up or shuts down, which is a nice little touch we haven't seen before.
FM radio reception on the Spark is about average, with 20 memory-preset slots and an auto-program feature that works quickly. The Spark's voice-recording feature is equally mediocre. Recordings are made as low bit-rate WAV files and are very sensitive to handling noise.
Philips doesn't chart any new territory when it comes to the Spark's audio quality, but the included earbuds, integrated FullSound audio-enhancement DSP, and handful of EQ presets add up to a formidable combination when compared with the iPod Shuffle. Paired with a higher grade of headphone, the FullSound audio enhancement is overwhelming on the low end, but it can be switched off in exchange for the more subtle-sounding 5-band EQ. Battery life kicks the Shuffle to the curb, as well, with a rated lifespan of 27 hours compared with the Shuffle's measly 12 hours. In fact, CNET Labs test results found the Spark is capable of an average 32 hours of continuous audio playback, which is outstanding for a device this small.