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Just as actors fear to speak the word 'Macbeth' outside of Shakespeare's play itself, worrying that it will bring bad fortune on their production, so MP3 player manufacturers should fear to speak the words 'iPod killer'.
But Samsung has unleashed the familiar battle cry with the YP-Z5 all the same. The company is billing this player as an iPod nano killer, and it has taken things a step further than before. Not only does the YP-Z5 pay homage to the familiar nano chassis shape, but the company also recruited software designer Paul Mercer, who worked on the original iPod software, to design the YP-Z5's menu interface. We exclusively interviewed Mercer at CES earlier in the year.
Design books could be written on the problems that manufacturers face when coming up with a viable alternative to the iPod. At the core of the problem are two things that the iPod does well: the on-screen menu interface, and the Click Wheel. The iPod makes it easy to navigate through tracks (using the Click Wheel) and it's easy to find the song you want (using the simple menu structure). These are two important design principles, and we're often left scratching our heads when we find them overlooked.
So, has Samsung finally nailed it with the YP-Z5? And could this be Apple's most aggressive competitor in the five years since the launch of the first iPod?
The Samsung YP-Z5 is available in 2GB (£139) and 4GB (£179) versions, and both use the same 42 by 90 by 11mm chassis. It's noticeably thicker than the 7mm iPod nano, and this may be down to a larger battery (see Performance). Despite the extra thickness, you can still slot the YP-Z5 into the 'iPod pocket' (formerly the 'cigarette-lighter pocket') on your jeans. The YP-Z5 distinguishes itself from the nano with a more modular look -- the two halves of the player are joined by a metal collar that wraps around the circumference of the unit.
Screw holes are clearly visible on both sides of the YP-Z5. These are very tiny crosshead screws that can be removed if the rechargeable battery needs replacing at some point. Much criticism was levelled at Apple for not making the iPod battery user-serviceable. Judging from the construction of the YP-Z5, the replacement process on this player should be easier. Having said that, the majority of consumers will not want to undertake such a repair on either player themselves.
There's a dedicated volume control on the YP-Z5, a long, thin rocker on the right-hand side of the player. Headphones plug into the top of the player, and there's a hold button to keep you from jogging through tracks accidentally while on the move. The LCD on the YP-Z5 is much larger than the one on the nano, making the process of viewing photographs a much less strained experience.
The control interface on the YP-Z5 matches the layout of the iPod. Play, skip and menu buttons are exactly where an iPod user would expect to find them. However, instead of a Click Wheel interface, the YP-Z5 uses a directional control pad that relies on varying degrees of touch to scroll through menu items. A light touch makes the YP-Z5 scroll through menu items, and a firm touch selects them.
This isn't always easy to deal with. Everyone we handed the YP-Z5 to had a problem getting to grips with the control system. The problem is that there's no real-world parallel to the variable-touch interface. Although you will get used to the process, you always feel slightly tentative when scrolling though options, and it requires some dexterity to get it right. There's also no way to vary the speed with which you scroll through menu items. For instance, you can't rapidly get to the 'H' section of your albums, then slow down and pick a specific album. Often you'll find yourself skipping past the track you wanted to select, then scrolling back.
The YP-Z5 gets some design features right (the screen size and dedicated volume control) and others wrong (the occasionally fiddly control interface and logo-splattered chassis). The revamped interface demonstrates Samsung has made great progress from earlier efforts such as the, but the way you scroll through tracks remains problematic.
The Samsung YP-Z5 will play MP3, WMA and secure WMA DRM audio files, so you can use subscription services like Napster To Go. There's also a JPEG photo viewer that can zoom in and out of photos -- you can select one of these as the wallpaper for your player. If you're feeling sentimental, you can play music while watching a slideshow of your pictures.
Given that Paul Mercer's team designed the menu systems on the YP-Z5, it's no surprise that it's both functional and visually impressive. The menus use a flamboyant zoom effect. Each time you select an option, it appears to fly towards you before evaporating somewhere in the foreground of the virtual world inside the player.
It's a metaphor that makes sense. You get the impression you're peeling away layers of menu hierarchy. It's not a vast functional improvement over the iPod's simple hierarchical menus, but it's fresh and easily understood. It also gives the YP-Z5's interface a strong identity that distances it from Apple's legacy.
When you want to transfer music, the YP-Z5 pulls a trick the nano can't match. Unlike an iPod, the YP-Z5 will mount on almost any file system as a generic USB drive. This means that whether you plug it into a Mac, a Windows or a Linux PC, the YP-Z5 will transfer MP3s using a simple drag and drop interface. There is no proprietary software to use -- it just works.
It can't be overstated how valuable this seemingly obvious approach is. Take Sony's players, for example, which refuse to mount on anything except a Windows PC running Sony's proprietary software. Or Creative's players, most of which refuse to mount on an OS X or Linux machine. It might seem obvious to consumers that using the tried and tested method of just dragging files onto a drive is the best way to transfer audio, but not, it would seem, to the major MP3 player manufacturers. Even Apple forces its users to run iTunes if they have an iPod.
With the YP-Z5, Samsung has sidestepped all the pitfalls of proprietary transfer software, and produced an MP3 player that doesn't put you in a software straitjacket. The perfect accompaniment to this easy transfer method would have been a standard USB connector on the player, but unfortunately the YP-Z5 uses a proprietary cable. It's a bizarre decision, given the otherwise flawless accessibility of the player. Also missing are an FM tuner and a microphone, both of which, it should be noted, are missing from every iPod.
While the YP-Z5 may fall tantalisingly short of improving on the iPod, it never works against you when you're trying to put music on it. Whether this is enough to compensate for the absence of something as easy as the Click Wheel is up for debate -- certainly this is the closest anyone's come to threatening the iPod to date.
We plugged the Samsung YP-Z5 into a pair of flat-response monitor speakers and a studio reference amp to compare audio quality between it and the iPod nano. Listening to This Isn't It by Giant Drag, the YP-Z5 sounded tight and punchy -- snare hits snapped like a prize-fighter cracking his knuckles, and the low-end was controlled and unmuddy. Our recording was a 256Kbps MP3 encoded by iTunes from the original CD.
Auditioning the same track on the iPod nano, there was little, if any, audible difference between the digital-to-analogue conversion (DAC) stage of both players. In fact, using a mixing desk to set up a cross-fader between the YP-Z5 and the nano, so that we could rapidly fade between them, the difference in clarity and tone was negligible.
Listening to Portions for Foxes by Rilo Kiley, the YP-Z5 gave this dynamic track almost the same drive and energy as the CD version. The complete frequency range was well-represented.
The YP-Z5 didn't over-emphasise the low-end and there was excellent separation between instruments. Listening to the same track on the nano, the difference was extremely subtle. The iPod nano has a very good reputation for sound quality among audiophiles -- this is largely attributed to the high-quality DAC stage and the inherent low noise of solid-state flash storage. Our tests demonstrated that the YP-Z5 can also compete at this level.
Listening on headphones, the YP-Z5 delivered a volume that went well beyond what our ears could bear. You won't want for volume on this player. The bundled black ear-buds are well made and deliver a fidelity of sound that will be good enough for all but the most discerning listeners. Insulation on the ear-buds could be better, but the fact they're not white makes a refreshing change.
If you're tired of MP3 players that force you to use proprietary software, the YP-Z5 is one of the best options out there. For those who are unsure, we'd recommend trying the YP-Z5's interface before you buy -- the shadow of the Click Wheel looms large.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide