The Philips GoGear SA4000 series player feels good to hold. The curved construction shows that someone at Philips put some serious thought into designing a player that would be comfortable to grip while jogging. While the body is entirely plastic, its rounded design makes it feel solid compared to thinner and more delicate players such as the iPod Nano. We dropped the GoGear on the ground a few times to test its resilience, and it handled abuse just fine.
Controls are tactile, rounded, and easy to remember. We'd prefer a different color on the record button to visually distinguish it from the others, but its placement closer to the back of the player is far enough out of the way to not be engaged accidentally. The buttons are raised from the body but have a low enough profile that they won't snag on clothes or irritate your hand when holding the player for extended periods. Controls for play, pause, and scan are largest and live on the front of the player. The Volume, Menu/Hold, and Record buttons line the side of the player, exactly where right-handed people would naturally rest their thumbs--sorry, lefties. This placement felt natural, except that when held this way (vertically), the volume buttons are the reverse of what you would expect--the bottom button will raise the volume and the top button will lower it.
The back of the device has a loophole for a lanyard and a removable battery cover concealing the single AAA battery inside. The battery cover comes off a little too easily and could really use a screw or lock feature to hold it in place, but we appreciate the easy-to-find battery type. There's something to be said for the instant gratification of popping in a fresh battery when you run out of juice. On the downside, you're also contributing to a landfill full of spent batteries. Using a rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride AAA battery would be a good compromise, but you'll have to shell out for this yourself.
At the top of the player, you'll find a headphone jack and a built-in microphone. The USB 2.0 port is on the bottom of the device, covered by a remarkably sturdy rubber gasket that naturally stays in place and is securely tethered to the body.
The GoGear's single design flaw is its very small, 1.25x0.25-inch screen. During playback, the GoGear displays text in two tiny rows against a colorful but dimly backlit screen. As a result, you'll suffer some eye strain to read the text, but few players in this price range do much better. We also wish Philips had blessed lefties with the ability to reorient the text.
Speaking of missing features, the GoGear SA4000 series has a few. Philips may have left out a few extras--such as the ability to sort tracks by genre or define recording quality modes--to streamline the user experience. But there's no excuse for leaving out an FM tuner, a key feature that nearly every competitor in its price range--save for the stubborn iPod Nano--includes. For a budget player geared toward a workout-centric audience, the absence of an FM tuner is a deal-breaker. The GoGear's close competitor in price and size, the Creative Zen Nano Plus, not only includes FM and station presets, but also lets you record FM.
The GoGear does deliver built-in voice recording that encodes 32Kbps mono WAV files to a dedicated directory that's accessible right from the GoGear's start-up screen. Unfortunately, there's no line-in recording function which, again, the Creative Zen Nano Plus includes. Thankfully, the GoGear does include fast USB 2.0 transfer speeds along with support for Windows Media Player Plays for Sure and WMA DRM10 subscription content. There's also playlist support, shuffle and repeat modes, and four equalizer presets: rock, jazz, pop, and classical--none particularly compelling.
The GoGear SA4000 series' included earbuds sound predictably thin. Using our test Etymotic ER6i isolating earphones, however, we could hear plenty of musical detail, especially in the middle to high range (vocals, strings, and percussion really stood out in the mix). We started looking through the EQ presets post haste to add some low end to the somewhat flat sound but were disappointed to find all the EQ presets noticeably quiet. All seemed to drop the playback volume by a few decibals, pulling the music's energy back rather than forward. We tried playback using a cushy, closed-ear headphone, which added some of the low end I was looking for and increased stereo spatialization. While removing the headphones from the minijack, we noticed that the GoGear produces a sharp, crackling pop in the headphones while plugging or unplugging. I experimented with a few different headphone types and a few different brands of players, and while temporary connection noise is fairly common, I felt the GoGear's was pronounced enough to mention.
We found the GoGear's voice recording easy to use, and it produced fair results despite allowing no control over recording gain and no choice of recording-quality formats. Our test recording did sound a little muffled when played back, however.
Battery life is rated at an unimpressive 10 hours. Thankfully, CNET Labs tests beat the rating, but 12.6 hours is still not that great.