Samsung's Muse MP3 player borrows a simple design formula and ruins it.
In the five years that I have been reviewing MP3 players for CNET, I have seen a lot of strange ones. I have seen MP3 player shoes, MP3 player sunglasses, MP3 player keychains, MP3 players for toddlers, and even Apple's confounding buttonless iPod Shuffle design.
But the Galaxy Muse might be the worst MP3 player design I've seen yet. The navigation interface is difficult to see, impossible to feel, and infuriating even when it's working properly.
Like the Apple iPod Shuffle, the Galaxy Muse is roughly the size of a wristwatch. On its face you'll find a few markings that indicate the touch-sensitive controls for volume, Track Skip, and Play/Pause. On the review unit we received, these markings were made with dark-gray ink on dark-blue plastic, making them impossible to see in low light. And because the Muse is as smooth as a glass pebble, there's no way to physically differentiate the controls either.
But to really take this ill-conceived design over the top, Samsung set the controls to automatically go to sleep when not in use. Considering that it's impossible not to touch the volume-up button when pinching the clip open, putting the controls to sleep may have seemed like an ingenious way to prevent people from accidentally blasting their eardrums. And while it may prevent lawsuits over hearing loss, it also makes the navigation seemingly unresponsive, as you need to touch the controls once to wake them up, and then again to carry out their intended function. Repeated use only makes this unintuitive system more infuriating.
The rest of the device is relatively unremarkable. You get a headphone jack at the top (headphones included) a plastic clip on the back, a power switch on the right edge, and switches for hold and shuffle on the left.
For better or worse, the headphone jack also doubles as a charging and data transfer port. This makes for a slightly tidier design compared with adding a Micro-USB port, but it comes at the expense of requiring two small, not-easily-replaceable adapters for standard USB and Micro-USB.
The inclusion of both adapters makes it possible to sync music files from either a computer (via USB) or compatible Samsung smartphone (via Micro-USB). Not surprisingly, Samsung's flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2, are compatible with the Muse once a free app has been installed.
The Muse is a basic 4GB MP3 player cut from the same cloth as the similarly minimalist Apple iPod Shuffle. There's no screen, and no method for dialing up a specific song or album. You simply turn it on and pray that the song you hear is something you like. If it isn't, you can skip between songs using the capacitive touch controls on the front. There's also a switch on the side that can change the playback mode to either shuffle all the songs randomly or play them sequentially.
Audio formats supported by the Muse include MP3, WMA, FLAC, and OGG. Noticeably absent is any support for AAC, the music format of choice for Apple and its iTunes store.
The most intriguing feature of the Muse is that it's capable of syncing music either from your computer or directly from a compatible Android device. A headphone jack adapter that converts to standard USB is used for traditional computer syncing (via mass storage mode). As anyone who's owned an iPod Shuffle will tell you, these odd little cables are easy to lose and relatively difficult to replace compared with a standard Mini- or Micro-USB cable.
To perform the magic trick of transferring music directly from an Android smartphone, Samsung includes a separate adapter that goes from headphone jack to Micro-USB. In our case, we connected the Muse to a Galaxy Note 2 smartphone using the supplied cable and a quickly downloaded free app called Muse Sync.
The Muse Sync app very simply provides a list of media available on your phone that can be synced with the Muse. Check the box next to the song, album, or artist, and that content will be transferred to the Muse automatically once connected. A button near the bottom of the app toggles a view of all the media currently stored on the Muse, which can be deleted as you see fit.
Finally, I feel compelled to mention that Samsung includes a "Sound Alive" audio enhancement switch on the side of the player. Because it's built into the power switch, most users will probably activate it unwittingly in the process of turning the Muse on. Considering that the audio effect seems to salvage the otherwise awful earbuds included with the Muse, any accidental activation should be considered a happy accident.
It's been a while since I've been so completely dumbfounded by a product. In all the time that I've covered MP3 players for CNET, I don't think I've seen an MP3 player design as ill-conceived as the Samsung Muse.
The crux of the problem is the user interface. Somehow, Samsung found a way to take a simple, time-tested navigation formula and complicate it to the point of absurdity.
The first problem with the interface is that it is completely undetectable by touch, and practically invisible to the eye. The icons are inscribed with dark ink on a already dark, completely smooth surface. The end result is that there is simply no easy way to quickly adjust volume or control playback on the Muse without closely inspecting the device, ideally under daylight conditions.
To complicate things further, the Muse's touch-based controls often require two taps to operate any function. As I mentioned, Samsung puts the controls to sleep after about 5 seconds of inactivity, ostensibly to prevent any accidental taps. As a result, you must first wake the controls with a long press, and then tap again to perform the desired function. And because no other MP3 player you've ever used behaves this way, it will take you a while to adjust to this two-tap method. Hand the Muse over to the uninitiated, and they'll likely hand it back to you in frustration claiming that it doesn't seem to work.
Long story short, the Samsung Muse is unnecessarily complicated, and there's not much else going for it that might balance out its frustration factor. The battery life is rated at 6 hours, the clip is made from plastic, and the $60 price is absurd when you compare it with products like the SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip that can be had for $20 less.
I can appreciate that the Samsung Galaxy Muse philosophically embraces a post-PC future in which more people are downloading music directly to their phones than to their computers. I'll even buy the idea that some of those people find their Samsung smartphones a bit too cumbersome to take with them on a morning jog and would prefer an ultraportable MP3 player that can directly siphon music from their phone to take on the go. Unfortunately, the Samsung Galaxy Muse seems wholly unfit for that task.
Perhaps if the interface hadn't been made practically undetectable to sight and touch, or if Samsung had figured out a way to wirelessly transfer songs via Bluetooth or its own AllShare services, then maybe the Muse would be worthy of a recommendation. But as it stands now, the Muse is perhaps the worst-designed MP3 player I've reviewed, and Samsung's decision to market it as a smartphone accessory seems more desperate than visionary.