Samsung killed off U2! That's the Samsung YP-U2 MP3 player by the way, not the band. Although, we'd forever be in Samsung's debt if they exiled those past-their-prime rockers off main street.
If anything, the U3 proves that the memory-key-cum-MP3-player category is alive and kicking. Its matte polycarbonate body comes clothed in five pastel colours (white, blue, pink, green and black), weighs a scant 23 grams and looks great in a very industrial design way, with a lot of neat touches thrown in. For one, there's no more worrying about easily-lost USB connector covers. That's because, along the U3's bottom edge, there's a slider which pushes out the USB connector. Unlike the flip-out USB connector seen on the YP-U1, this one easily holds the MP3 player's weight. Continuing the theme set on the U1 and U2, there's a translucent panel surrounding the 3.5mm headphone jack, which flashes blue both when buttons are pressed and at regular intervals. After the novelty wore off, though, we promptly turned it off.
On the front there's a four-line bright blue OLED display. Though we found its brightness a little bit disconcerting in dark environs, it worked well on sunny Sydney streets. The screen is flanked to the right by a set of touch sensitive buttons (plus, minus, forward, reverse and return). Touch sensitive buttons are innately cool but they do necessitate the constant use of the hold switch, because it's ever so easy to inadvertently switch tracks or up the volume while fumbling for the U3 in your pocket or bag.
In the main, navigating through the menus is intuitive, although there are some inconsistencies. The plus and minus keys scroll through lists or menus, while the forward and backward keys select and go back, respectively. However the play/pause/power button -- located on the top edge of the U3 alongside the custom function button -- can also be used to select menu items, thereby making it impossible to pause tracks unless you're in the Now Playing screen.
The U3 comes in a neat, minimalist package very much reminiscent of the iPod nano's, albeit with a brighter and more outdoorsy theme. Along the same lines, the U3 ships with a set of very white and very Apple-esque earbuds, which like the ones included with iPods should be discarded in favour of something better.
Unlike Apple's MP3 creations, you don't have to shell out extra for FM radio and voice recording. The U3's radio is one of the best we've used in an MP3 player, playing back many stations within our office with only minimal interference. Pity then that you can't record from radio.
Speaking of recording, the voice recorder leaves a little bit to be desired. Plonk it on the desk in order to record a meeting, lecture or class and you'll be sorely disappointed. Recorded voices are muffled and you'll need to turn the volume up to maximum in order to discern anything. In spite of the microphone's unfortunate position on the underside of the U3, it seems to makes little difference which way the U3 is facing. It functions better as a voice note taker, however, as you can hold the microphone right next to your mouth. Although the whole recording procedure is hampered by a number of pointless confirmation screens.
Although it ships with an 8cm DVD containing manuals and media management software, there's really no need to install any of it. That's because the U3 works like a normal USB key and can be loaded up with your music by the time-honoured drag-and-drop method. Music formats supported are MP3, WMA, OGG Vorbis and ASF.
Given that we consider the Zen Stone Plus to be the class standard for audio quality, it's a shame we didn't have it around in the office for some back-to-back testing. Not to mention they're identically priced and specified with the same storage capacity and multi-line OLED displays.
If you listen closely you'll notice that instruments lacks a certain resonance that marks out the best MP3 players -- guitars doesn't sound like they've been freshly plucked, nor do you get the impression that you're standing next to the pianist's Steinway in a concert hall. Things also turn a little bit muddy as you turn the volume up towards 11, and high volume listening is both boomy and tiring. Despite this, though, the sound generated by the U3 is amazing for a AU$119.95 device. And unlike a certain fruit based company, Samsung have deservedly earned themselves a reputation for good sound quality.
We have no reason to doubt Samsung's 15-hour battery life claims, as we mercilessly flogged the U3 over several work days without a recharge. All-in-all the U3's combination of good looks, ease-of-use (in the main) and good quality sound, makes a pretty compelling case for anyone in the market for a USB key MP3 player.