Like other recent microdrive-based players from Creative, Rio, and Dell, Samsung's $250 YEPP YH-820MC is aimed squarely at the type of buyers who have been snapping up Apple iPod Minis since their debut last year. All of these models boast gigabytes of storage, pocket-friendly form factors, ultralight carrying weights, and rugged construction that make them good choices for joggers, business travelers, commuters, or anyone else who wants to bring along enormous amounts of content in a tiny package. Priced midway between the 4GB and 6GB iPod Mini models, the 5GB YH-820MC has an intuitive interface that pales only in comparison with that of the Apple offerings. It also has features that the Apple players lack, such as the ability to record voice memos, encode MP3 files on the fly, and display color photos on a tiny LCD. Subpar battery life is just about the only thing that holds the YH-820MC back. And if you want FM radio, you'll have to look elsewhere. The 3.6-ounce Samsung YEPP YH-820MC is a tad shorter than the iPod Mini (2 by 3.5 by 0.5 inches vs. 2 by 3.6 by 0.5 inches), but the difference isn't significant enough to prevent a snug fit with clamping armbands, belt clips, and other accessories designed for the Mini's chassis. It may be bulky compared to a lower-capacity keychain-size flash player, but it's a bit smaller and lighter than most other 5GB or 6GB hard drive models.
Samsung's front-panel layout is clean and intuitive, consisting of a 1.5-inch 65,000-color LCD; buttons for forward, reverse, and play/pause; and a large four-way menu/select/up/down key that makes it easy to navigate the YH-820MC's menu system and to adjust volume levels. An easy-to-reach record button on the side does double duty as an A/B-repeat control. The top of the player provides a microphone, line-in and headphone jacks, and a hold switch. A USB/power connector is at the opposite end. All controls are ergonomically positioned to fall beneath your fingers, and during our hands-on evaluation, we rarely fumbled to find a button.
Samsung's icon and graphic-intensive menu system is elegant and contains only four top-level entries: Now Playing, Library (for choosing audio files and playlists), Photo, and Settings. The Now Playing screen is busy in a nostalgic, four-bit, Commodore 64 way with scrolling track info, as well as colorful and oversize fonts. If you've ever used another personal music player, you'll have no trouble learning to operate this one, regardless of whether you crack open the manual, though it's odd that the battery-remaining indicator shows up on only the Now Playing screen. In addition to software, earbuds, a belt clip, and an audio cable, the YH-820MC includes a dual-purpose charger/USB cable that lets you simultaneously connect the player to an AC outlet and your PC. Don't lose track of this cable; it's proprietary and critical for recharging and transferring tracks to the YH-820MC.The Samsung YEPP YH-820MC lacks some of the functionality that makes iPods so easy to use--such as Apple's touch-sensitive Click Wheel controller--but it compensates with a long list of other useful features. If you've been disappointed by the low-fi voice-recording quality offered by many players, you'll be pleased with the YH-820MC's ability to capture dictation at 32Kbps or 44Kbps sampling rates. It can also record the output of a CD player, a radio, a PC, or another analog audio source through its line-in jack. Recordings are always stored in MP3 format, and you can choose bit rates from 96Kbps through 160Kbps.
Other notable features include a five-preset equalizer, SRS TruBass low-frequency enhancement, and SRS Wow spatialization, which broadens the soundstage of your audio, giving the impression that it's being produced by a physically larger source. You can also create an on-the-fly playlist and view JPEG images individually or in slide shows while you're listening to music. These are certainly features that the iRiver H10 (now available in 1GB, 5GB, 6GB, and 20GB capacities) can match. In fact, the iRiver does everything the YH-820MC does and also comes with an FM tuner and a removable battery, while line-in MP3 encoding with the H10 is possible with an optional dock.
Less unique features include several power-conservation functions; the ability to organize and find tracks by album, artist, genre, or playlist; fade-in/fade-out controls; support for MP3, WMA, protected WMA, and OGG playback; and a system-recovery function that restores the player to its initial state in case of a catastrophic software failure. The player also adds support for Microsoft's Windows Media Player 10.0 DRM (previously code-named Janus). Surprisingly, the YH-820MC doesn't have an FM tuner, which would seal the deal for many prospective buyers looking for a full-featured player.
Samsung's generous software bundle includes a copy of the latest Napster client, which can be used with or without opening a Napster account to rip, organize, import, and download music files to your player. There's also a copy of Samsung's Multimedia Studio, which can be used to edit photographs, play videos, and create downloadable slide shows. Both applications are easy to learn and use, although Multimedia Studio is no substitute for a full-blown image editor such as Adobe Photoshop.The Samsung YEPP YH-820MC's voice-recording quality was excellent, and although its MP3 line-in transcriptions were hardly audiophile quality, they were good enough to satisfy most earbud listeners. Photos looked sharp on the player's 65,000-color display, which provided good color saturation and acceptable blacks. But despite its abundance of apparent detail, the 1.5-inch, 128x96-pixel LCD was in general too small to be useful for anything more demanding than reviewing snapshots.
With default EQ settings and Samsung's bundled earbuds, our test unit didn't have an enormous amount of high-end or inner detail. But it produced a fair amount of bass--far more than the original iPod Mini and about the same as Apple's second-generation Mini models. Fiddling with the YH-820MC's TruBass and SRS settings improved the sound considerably, and when we listened through a pair of high-quality Etymotic ER-6 canalphones, the resulting sound was in a class with that of any other handheld player we've tested. The upper bass was tight and punchy, midrange registers were clean and relatively uncolored, and the high end was brilliant without ever becoming harsh or strident. We also obtained volume levels higher than anything we'd be comfortable pumping into our naked eardrums for long.
Samsung specs the YH-820MC's nominal battery life at about 8 hours, but we squeezed a little more than 9.5 hours out of our test unit while playing continuously at about half volume. This figure, less than half that provided by the iPod Mini and the Rio Carbon, is the YH-820MC's Achilles' heel. Another performance disappointment was the YH-820MC's mediocre USB 2.0 transfer rate. Using bundled software, our evaluation unit took 6 minutes to download 119MB of MP3 files (25 files in all), yielding a transfer rate of about 330K per second, much less than that of competitors such as Dell's Pocket DJ, which moved 2.7MB per second in a similar test. Also, we occasionally hit some speed bumps where the processor would stall for a second or two while browsing or navigating. Although this is normal with most hard drive-based players, it happened more often than usual.