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In terms of sheer number of MP3 player designs, Samsung has launched an impressive onslaught so far this year. It seems like the passing of each month is marked by the arrival of a new MP3 player. There are almost more Samsung players on the market than there are varieties of rice cake in the yearly Kyongju cake festival. In the battle of South Korea vs. California, all guns are blazing.
The 2GB YP-U1, reviewed here, is a USB key-style player. Its most obvious competition is the iPod Shuffle (which has a maximum memory of 1GB), but where the iPod has no screen, the U1 has a small LCD, which provides enough track information to give you a basic idea of what you're listening to.
At first glance the U1 offers an attractive proposition: 2GB of storage and an LCD screen in a nearly Shuffle-sized chassis. But can Samsung's new fighter match the Shuffle's acclaimed audio quality and battery life?
A bit bigger than a packet of chewing gum, the YP-U1 will tuck neatly into the small pocket on your jeans widely believed to be the traditional pouch for cigarette lighters. The folding USB connector on the end of the player means it's easy to use the U1 as a data memory stick when the mood takes you.
Unlike the Shuffle's easily lost USB connector cap, the U1's fold-away design uses a little sliding door to keep the plug held in place, tucked away during transit. Our only criticism of this approach is the flimsy build-quality of the sliding panel. It works, but the whole mechanism feels loose to the touch.
While nowhere near as minimalist as the iPod Shuffle, the U1 does use a greyscale LCD with a white backlight rather than a colour design. Buttons on the player are kept to a sensible minimum. You're unlikely to be confused by the layout. There's a four-way directional control with a large menu button in the centre. When you're playing music, the up and down buttons control the volume and the left and right keys will skip or scan through tracks. A brief press on the centre switch brings up a list of available tracks, and a long press summons menu options. Other controls include the obligatory Play/Pause combo button and a Record and Hold control.
You can attach a lanyard to the top of the player through a metal collar that runs across the chassis like a really tiny bridge. Unfortunately the 3.5mm audio-jack socket is positioned right next to this lanyard collar, which makes it difficult to insert some headphone jacks. In fact our studio reference headphones would not plug into the U1 at all, forcing us to use an esoteric adaptor to listen to the audio during our tests.
As with the Shuffle, the U1's battery is built into the unit. The small display is not ideal if your eyesight is poor and if you're used to the way iTunes lays out artist, album and track information, you'll be frustrated by the U1's inflexible navigation approach.
Samsung is a big fan of built-in FM radios judging from its previous players, but the U1 goes without. You can assemble playlists, but as with most small USB players, you're limited to one at a time. You can select songs for a playlist by pressing the Menu button while you're in the main track listing.
For transferring music to the player, Samsung has bundled Media Studio. Though this is a huge improvement on earlier revisions of the software you can sidestep the issue entirely by treating the U1 as a generic drag and drop player. This is one of Samsung's great strengths, and means that the player is compatible with every conceivable platform, whether Mac, Linux or PC.
Samsung has included a nine-band equalizer on this petite player. The most we usually see is five bands, and we aren't sure why a home user would need to tweak their audio with such precision. Usually this kind of feature is either an attention grabber for specification junkies or hints at a problem with the audio output stage of the player.
If an MP3 player is delivering sound output as it should, then you won't normally need to adjust the EQ -- that was the job of the engineer in the studio where the music was recorded. Still, if you do need to counteract the shortcomings of a badly ripped MP3 or a pair of cheap headphones, this feature could improve things.
In our tests, sound quality on the U1 compared well with players like the Jens of Sweden MP-500, but fell short of the iPod Shuffle. We ran both players through flat-response studio monitors to compare the sound and found the U1 lacked coherency on tracks like Nirvana's Lithium. Auditioning more dynamic songs, the differences became clearer. Ed Harcourt's Born in the '70s lost mid-range definition on the U1, and the low-end drifted into a fugue. Some of the tone could be rescued by fiddling with the nine-band EQ, but we felt more like scientists than casual listeners doing this.
The YP-U1 is acceptable for voice recording, but the range you'll get with it falls just short of a metre before things get too muffled to hear. Battery life on the U1 was around 13 hours, falling significantly short of the Shuffle's 30.
If the iPod Shuffle just can't contain your music collection, the U1 is a viable alternative. However, more discriminating listeners should definitely opt for the Shuffle's superior DAC (digital to analogue conversion) stage.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield