Samsung YP-Z5 MP3 player
Can it size up to Apple's iPod Nano?
First UK Review There's no doubt Samsung has its eye on the hugely popular iPod Nano, and the YP-Z5 is its boldest attempt to woo consumers away from the Apple product. The Z5 is roughly the same size as a Nano; has a similar storage capacity and feature list; has a cool, visually stylish user interface; and even comes an a comparably sized box. Yes, you can buy it black, too...
Face-on you'd say the Z5 and the Nano are the same size. In fact, the Nano's narrower, but only by a couple of millimetres. They share the same height, but the Z5 looks and - crucially - feels a lot thicker. It's not quite twice as thick as a Nano, but it's not far off. It's also heavier: 58g to 42.5g.
There's a benefit to the greater thickness and weight - the Z5 feels more robust, and Samsung claims its player offers a much longer battery life: 35 hours to the Nano's 14 - and it's not so chunky as to feel uncomfortable.
The Z5 I tested - the YP-Z5QB variant, kindly supplied by Advanced MP3 Players - is kitted out in a silky black plastic that doesn't so much prevent the scratches so visible on a well-thumbed Nano but make them harder to spot. Fingerprints are no less obvious. Around the sides is a thick shiny metal band that extends out beyond on the plastic to give the device a busier look than the iPod's simpler, less cluttered lines do. The right-hand side has a volume rocker switch; the headphone socket is on the top, next to the Hold slider and a "neck strong hole"; on the base, there's a recessed reset button and a docking connector, though no cradle is supplied in the box. Taking its cue from Apple, Samsung limits the bundled accessories to black earphones and a USB-to-dock cable, sufficient to charge the unit's battery.
Like the Nano, the Z5 presents you with a colour screen and a control array. The display is a 1.82in, 128 x 160 job. It looks like the kind of thing you'd see on a mobile phone, but it's no less welcome for that. The screen is not only larger than the Nano's 1.5in, landscape-orientated display but also brighter too. The greater space allows for larger, easier to read text, and bigger photo and album art. That said, there's nothing the larger display does that the smaller one can't or doesn't. It's a shame Samsung didn't equip the Z5 with some other apps to make use of it, such as the PDA-style tools found on the Nano.
The larger screen also creates a problem: it pushes the Z5's square control cluster to the bottom of the player's face. The Nano's clickwheel is positioned halfway between the screen and the bottom edge of the device, so the wheel sits right below the natural upward-angled position of the thumb. The Z5's control forces your thumb downward. It's not uncomfortable, but I can imagine it becoming so after prolonged use, just as some mobile-phone keypads do.
But that's nothing to the controller itself. Samsung has attempted to come up with something that apes the iPod's clickwheel. Since it's gone for a square layout, it can't use the simple circular motion of the iPod. It hasn't even opted for the up-and-down motion of Creative's vertical touchpad. Instead it works by tapping.
Apple's iPod Nano and Samsung's Z5: clickwheel vs clicksquare
I found it slow, and not always accurate. After a while, I realised that the arrows printed on the pad are merely for guidance, not to represent buttons. What you should do is tap anywhere in the upper half to go up the menu, and vice versa. But I assume the clearly marked central area was the equivalent of the 'select' button - as it is on the Nano. Not so - for that you have to press the pad firmly. Just tap the central zone and your input could be interpreted as an up-arrow or down-arrow press, depending on how close to the centre you are.
It's all quite frustrating until you get the hang of it, and even then it still pales beside a true scroll control. There is a scroll mode: tap and hold, and the cursor rises or falls automatically, but it's not obvious. How many sales are Samsung going to lose as consumers desperately tap away on demo models trying to get the Z5 to play?
Samsung says it works better with a fingertip tap rather than a full-finger press. That's true, but it's not much consolation for folk with big thumbs. Pressing the touchpad or the Back button generates a neat UI transition in which you move into and out of the screen through each semi-transparent menu layer. It's cute, but it doesn't get you to the next screen any faster than Apple's UI does.
A final press of the Back button slides the main menu off the bottom of the screen, leaving a simple status readout of the date, battery-charge level and the name of the song currently being played. Pressing Back - counterintuitively - brings the menu back. Pressing select causes even the status display to vanish until you press the Back button.
Hiding the menu presents the screen's wallpaper graphic in all its glory. Fine, but since you can't change it, what's the benefit? It's a doubly-odd omission when the pre-loaded pics come in a folder called Wallpaper...
Still, photos look good on the screen, and repeated pressings of the centre of the touchpad zoom in, up to 4x. Touching the touchpad and dragging your thumb around moves the image, but again I found the results erratic and slow. The Z5's screen size makes picture viewing a more enjoyable experience than it is on the Nano, but who're either company kidding? Apart from a handful of shots of kids/partners/pr0n, what's the point of having photo albums on screens this small, especially when there's no TV-out port?
Fortunately, the Z5 provides a great music playback experience. The sound's beefy, with a solid bass, though I found the treble a little weak for my taste. Adjustments can be made using the eight EQ pre-sets or the three DNSe settings, which are supposed to render a more '3D' sound for a club feel. If you want your music to sound like you're listening from the bogs, fine, but I don't.
The Z5 operates with Windows Media Player 10 and its DRM system, so it's ready to play songs bought from Plays for Sure music services like Napster, HMV and Virgin Digital. It'll play MP3 tracks too, and while the box suggests the player's a Windows-only gadget, it mounted on a Mac as a USB Mass Storage device, and I could drag and drop tracks into its Music folder without difficulty. The player scans the folder whenever you browse for music, and listed all the songs I copied over.
The 2GB version I tested has no voice record facility or FM radio, though these are part of the Z5 specs in some countries.
I performed Reg Hardware's customary battery life test: copy across a heap of 128Kbps MP3 songs, set the player to continuous playback, and press the play button. At the time of writing, the Z5's been running for almost 22 hours and the battery indicator's at around 75 per cent. On that basis, I've no doubt it'll run for the remaining 13 hours of the 35-hour duration Samsung claims - and probably more.
Samsung's YP-Z5 is a decent MP3 player that's let down by the need the company feels to match Apple's formula as closely as possible. The Z5 has a good-looking screen and a stylish UI. It plays music well. The battery life is very impressive. The Z5's design is inoffensive but its attempt to offer a worthy alternative to the iPod's clickwheel was a deal-breaker for me: it's slow, fiddly, and too often counter-intuitive and confusing.
The Samsung YP-Z5 was kindly supplied by Advanced MP3 Players.