Potential usurpers of the iPod throne are a dime a dozen these days, but precious few offer sufficient performance or prestige to sway buyers. The Samsung Napster YH-920GS comes tantalizingly close, offering killer features, an excellent interface, and a compellingly low price. (Although it lists for $350, street prices run closer to $250.) It also improves on its predecessor, the YP-910GS, in many ways, not the least of which is a greatly improved design. However, while the YH-920GS matches or exceeds the iPod's features at nearly every turn, Apple needn't start looking over its shoulder just yet. Samsung's player has neither the sexy looks nor the stellar sound it needs to capture the crown, and its battery life is painfully short. Meanwhile, Napster's music manager hobbles the player's otherwise speedy interface. But if you're willing to overlook these quibbles, this could be the iPod alternative you've been seeking.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more. About an inch longer than the latest iPod (4.2 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches) and rounded at either end, the Samsung Napster YH-920GS won't win any friends on looks alone. We don't mind the silver casing and white accents, but the long body and dull face just don't impress. The only design standouts are the LCD's vibrant blue backlight and the matching blue LED that flashes with every press of a button. Fortunately, the 5.4-ounce player makes up for its uninspiring appearance with simple controls and a logically designed interface, two areas where it competes handily with the iPod.
Below the YH-920GS's spacious screen, a large, four-way control pad manages virtually every aspect of the player's operation, from navigating menus to scrolling through song libraries to adjusting volume. With just four options present in the main menu--Now Playing, Library, FM Radio, and Settings--even novices should have no trouble learning the ropes. The only command that's not immediately intuitive is an extralong press of the Select button to access the playlist-building menu.
Along the right side of the player, you'll find a pair of shuttle keys flanking a larger play/pause/power button. There's also a switch that instantly shifts the device to voice-recording mode, which is handy for making quick notations without having to wade through menus. It's also much less likely to be activated accidentally than a button, another smart design decision. Along the top of the player lie the headphone and line-in jacks, the microphone, and a Hold switch.
The player connects to your PC by way of a dock that charges the battery and includes a line-out jack for plugging in external speakers, a thoughtful feature. Thankfully, you can leave the dock behind while traveling, but you'll have to bring the single cable that splits between USB and AC connections. A more streamlined travel-charging solution would have been nice.
Samsung supplies not only the charging cradle but also a leather belt-clip case and a wired remote; the latter features a belt clip of its own and the usual shuttle/volume controls. You also get a set of padded earbuds that, while more comfortable in the ear canal than most, do grow a bit painful after awhile.In designing the YH-920GS, Samsung added just about every feature in the book--and took out one that we liked. The player supports a gargantuan list of formats: MP3, WAV, WMA, DRM WMA, Ogg Vorbis, and Audible.com files; the last is a huge plus for fans of spoken-word content and a rarity among portable players. It also records voice notes and line-in sources and plays and records FM radio (the nice FM tuner comes equipped with autoscan and 40 user presets). But what happened to the FM transmitter that was built into the YP-910GS? For some reason, that sometimes very useful feature was killed in this model.
The YH-920GS also has surprisingly few playback options. Don't look for choices beyond repeat one, repeat all, and shuffle. Equalizer options are limited to five presets, all of which seemed to have minimal effect on the tunes we played. Needless to say, a user-adjustable equalizer would be welcome. We'd also like to see a 40GB model or even a 60GB version of the player; the YH-920GS is available with only a 20GB drive.
It's a relatively simple matter to create a playlist on the device itself: just hold down the Select button on any album, artist, or track. However, you can't save a custom-built playlist, nor can you remove individual tracks or albums. We also encountered two annoying bugs: When you attempt to add an artist's worth of tracks, only a random few actually show up in the list. And when you add an album at a time, songs are added alphabetically rather than in their native order.
As a recorder, the YH-920GS records directly to the MP3 format. However, the maximum bit rate of 160Kbps will likely disappoint audiophiles, as will the lack of support for uncompressed recording. To work with an external source, you simply plug in the included cable, throw the Record switch, and start playing from your source. You can monitor the recordings via the earbuds, which makes it admirably quick and easy to, for instance, copy cassettes from an old Walkman. One point of confusion, however: you have to navigate to the Playlists menu to listen to line-in recordings; there's no entry for them in the main library, as there is with voice recordings.
Because Napster holds half the branding on the YH-920GS, some discussion of the software and service is in order. Napster 3.0 debuted shortly before the time of this writing; we found we could no longer run version 2.5 (which came with the player) without upgrading. We also had to download and install new device drivers.
The big news in Napster 3.0 is Napster To Go, a subscription-based service ($14.95 per month) that gives you access to most of the company's million-song-plus library. You can download or stream all the songs you want, but you get to play them only as long as you're a subscriber, and you must buy them to burn them to CDs. Even with those limitations, Napster To Go represents a compelling alternative to the likes of iTunes and its 99-cents-per-track brethren because users may untether tracks from the PC to a Janus-compatible apparatus (Creative's Zen Micro and iRiver's H320 are two such devices). Unfortunately, despite the aforementioned installation of new drivers, the YH-920GS doesn't currently support Napster To Go, though we have to assume that oversight will be remedied soon.
As a music manager, Napster 3.0 offers an attractive and generally intuitive interface, with features that mostly rival those of iTunes and Musicmatch (notably absent is any kind of autoDJ option). However, playlist building remains a bit awkward, and the software falls short in providing information on the currently playing artist or album.Impressive features and a low price do not a great player make. The Samsung Napster YH-920GS comes up short in a few key areas, not the least of which are sound quality and battery life. Although Samsung promises more than 10 hours of play time, the YH-920GS petered out after just 9 hours in our tests. The latest iPod lasts about 12 hours between charges. (Of course, the Creative Zen Touch buries them both with its incredible 27-hour battery.)
You can drag and drop data files to the YH-920GS, but you must use Napster or Windows Media Player to transfer songs; otherwise, they won't appear in the player's library. The irony here is that the USB 2.0 interface delivers blazing drag-and-drop performance (14.15MB per second in our tests), but it tanks when Napster gets involved. File transfers via Napster were considerably--and inexplicably--slower; it took nearly two hours to copy our 7GB song library.
Given the YH-920GS's 90dB signal-to-noise ratio, we expected better sound quality. We tried a variety of headphones and earbuds with the YH-920GS, including our beloved Shure E3c, and came away with the same feeling every time: The player just doesn't sound very good. Music seemed hollow and slightly ragged, with none of the fullness, depth, or detail we've experienced with other players. To confirm this assessment, we also tried Samsung's earbuds in several other players, and the same test tunes all sounded noticeably better. Bottom line: most listeners will find the YH-920GS passable, but if you insist on absolutely pristine audio, you may want to shop elsewhere.