What can MP3 player manufacturers do to make their products stand out from the messianic iPod range? With its S3 player, Samsung is using the "distract with disco lights" approach, offering neon illuminated touch-sensitive surfaces in an effort to lure you away from those tasty, tasty Apples.
The S3 is available in 2, 4 and 8GB capacities. It has about the same footprint as the iPod Nano, and feels comfy in the hand thanks to its rounded edges. As with the Samsung T10, navigation is via a bunch of illuminated buttons beneath the display, which spring to life when touched. The four directional buttons are tiny blue dots, while a larger blue circle in the middle serves as a play/pause and selection key. Menu and back buttons sit above the nav keys, their tiny, cute icons illuminated in white. On the right side of the player is a power/hold switch, and that about does it as far as buttons are concerned. The bottom of the S3 houses a proprietary port for USB connection as well as a headphone socket.
Samsung's been a little stingy with the screen. It's 1.8 inches (4.57 centimetres) and 176x220 pixels, which falls significantly short of the iPod Nano's 2 inches (5.08 centimetres) and 320x240 pixels. (The numbers may not seem too far apart, but a few extra dots make a big difference at this size.) There's no fancy accelerometer, but you can view photos and videos in landscape mode.
The features list of the S3 doesn't contain a whole lot to email home about — we're talking about an FM radio with recorder, world clock, and some games to tide you over during long train rides. But delve deeper and you'll find some little extras to sweeten the experience. Folder navigation and the ability to delete songs from the player without having to connect a USB cable are two inclusions we're chuffed to see. The animated menus are funky, there are three menu fonts to choose from, and you can set any photo as your wallpaper using the My Skin option in the settings.
Where Samsung has gone for gold is in the music playback options. Pressing the menu button while a song plays brings up a long list of goodies, including EQ presets, user-definable EQ, and a "Street Mode" function, which claims to make your songs sound better amid a cacophony of urban traffic. You can also change the look of the Now Playing screen from its default audio levels display to one of two psychedelic visualisations.
File compatibility isn't too shabby, with support for MP3, WMA and Ogg formats on the audio side, and MPEG-4 for video. Videos are automatically converted to Samsung's own SVI format when they are transferred using the bundled Samsung Media Studio software.
The touchy disco buttons might look cool, but they'll slow you down. We've said it many, many times before, but it remains as relevant as ever: touch sensitive keys are sexy, but sexiness is no substitute for usability. As with countless other touch-activated devices, the buttons on this baby are erratic and prone to accidental presses. We would have been happier with run-of-the-mill mechanical buttons.
You can't whiz smoothly through lists of songs like you can with an iPod, because you need to keep lifting your finger for your touches to register. If you hold the down key, lists will scroll faster — but the indicator only stops on every tenth song or so. It's an imprecise navigation method, and we found ourselves thinking wistfully of Apple's scrollwheel.
While we're on the subject of sluggishness, the interface is a little slow on the uptake. We encountered a few delayed responses when choosing menu items, and photos took a while to load in both grid and slideshow format.
As for sound quality, the S3 offers decent, bass-enriched audio. This is especially apparent when you ditch the supplied ear buds and plug in a pair of pricey ear cans — as with almost every other flash-based MP3 player, the packaged headphones are cheaply made and don't do justice to the device's potential. Changing the EQ settings makes a huge difference, which is great if your musical interests are confined to one genre, but perhaps not so stellar for those with more eclectic tastes. Leaving the EQ on flat suited us fine.