The iPod may be dead, baby, dead, but that hasn't stopped Samsung from trying to enter the PMP market. The company's latest iterations of its Player line, the Galaxy Player 3.6 and 4.2, has landed and, not to put anything indelicately, but we're left to wonder why Samsung chose to enter this market, or what the company hopes to accomplish. After using the device for a few days, we're sure it's not going to shake up the media player market.
Before we take a look at this device, though, it seems like it would be appropriate to answer the question "Why?" The most direct corollary to this device is the iPod Touch. Apple introduced the iPod Touch as a way to hedge its marketshare with the iPhone. Apple's smart enough to know that with one device, on one carrier (at the time this device was introduced), it would be difficult to gain critical mass on its own with a wide range of competitors chomping at the bit for smartphone dominance. It also didn't hurt that Apple has the iTunes business to make it a PMP powerhouse.
Samsung, on the other hand, is in a very different position. The Korean company has a wide variety of devices, not just one model. No real noteworthy history in leading the media distribution business to speak of, and most importantly, Samsung has not been a major player in the MP3 player world. Arguably, no one really has but Apple. So what is the Galaxy Player? Is it a poor man's Galaxy S? Is it a high-end MP3 player? Is it a hedge to get as many people addicted to Samsung devices as possible? These are the questions I felt Samsung had to answer with this device. Sadly, it didn't deliver satisfactory answers.
The Galaxy Player is a surprisingly sturdy device. With its 3.6" screen, it's smaller than most of the phones we're used to playing with in the Android world these days, but it feels very solid. It looks slick out of the box. Until you turn it on. The display, a 480x320 TFT display, is quite possibly the worst display I've seen on a device since my old G1. The shock is made particularly strong since this is a Samsung device. Not that we expect a Super AMOLED+ display on a $150 PMP, but when every other Samsung device you turn on has a gorgeous display, it's downright disheartening to see something so dismal-looking.
The processor is a 1GHz Cortex A8. It'll play music just fine, but don't expect this thing to power through advanced games or 1080p video on its own. More on that in a bit. Besides that, the device features a micro-USB port for charging and data transfer, and a 3.5mm headphone jack located on the bottom of the device. This is a particular annoyance of mine, but your mileage may vary.
Here's the rest of the spec sheet:
Oh dear. Where do we begin? For starters, this device is running both an older version of Android (Gingerbread) and an older version of TouchWiz. Coupled with the crappy screen and you have a version of Android that looks awful. Honestly, the screen wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that we know it's never going to look better. The Galaxy Player is conspicuously absent from Samsung's device upgrade page.
Then there's the issue of software to actually play things. This is a Player after all, right? While Google has gotten much, much better at being a content distributor over the past year or so, Samsung elected to put its own apps front-and-center. Samsung's music and video apps come pinned to the dock on the home screen and let's not mince words: they're awful.
These three images are, quite literally, the entirety of the Videos app.
Opening Samsung's Videos app brought me to a list of one video. No other navigation or instructional elements were present. Press the menu key and you get options to remove items from or sort the list, but absolutely no instructions on how to add new videos or even any settings to mess with. The music app isn't much better. The UI is actually reminiscent of Google's own music app...four versions ago.
Samsung's music app is similarly bland, if more functional
This wouldn't be that frustrating if it weren't for the fact that Google's own apps are left out. They're available from the Play Store, but they don't come standard on the device. Why in the world a device that is being pitched as a "Player" is replacing Google's most powerful media apps with its own apps that barely function is beyond me. It's almost malicious towards itself.
Over on Apple's side of the world, the iPod Touch makes a certain amount of sense as an "iPhone without the phone." Apple was already really good at personal, portable media. Android has, historically, lacked this strength, but has been making up ground recently. It's not there yet, but it's getting closer. Samsung, however, is actively ignoring this progress and shipping a product with god awful alternatives and hiding the best that Android, as a platform, has to offer. Those options are there, so it's not a reason not to buy the device, but we have to wonder where Samsung's priorities lie. This is made even worse by the fact that Samsung didn't even bother to include its own media apps. The Media Hub that's present on the Galaxy Tab 2 is absent from the Player. Not that I ever found Samsung's hubs to be particularly useful, but it would at least fit with the branding.
One other sticking point, which seems to be a function of an older version of TouchWiz, but bears repeating, is that it is impossible to sort apps in the app drawer at all. All your apps are kind of just dropped in there, iOS-style. While you can manually rearrange them, that's a pain. It's absurd that this feature isn't part of the launcher, as it's been present in Android since day one.
To say this device doesn't hold up well in the gaming area is not entirely true. The device comes bundled with Angry Birds (not Angry Birds Space, which is surprising given Samsung's co-promotion with Rovio), and that game plays fairly well. There's a few others that run pretty smoothly, but it's definitely possible to hit a ceiling. Running Fred, a personal favorite, ran particularly sluggish. As long as mobile games stick to being the simple, basic physics and puzzle games that are the most popular right now, you'll be good, but as more and more advanced games come out, count on being left behind with this device.
This is a particularly big let down since, typically, music players are meant to last longer than your phone might. Phones usually get upgraded on a cycle the length of your contract (typically 2 years in the US, sometimes more or less elsewhere in the world). A solid music player, though, could last for a while. This one, however, doesn't feel like it will be able to play modern games even by next year. Except whatever Angry Birds
game level pack Rovio puts out.
The audio quality of this device is average at best. Which, compared to the rest of the device, is actually pretty good. Audiophiles can feel free to take a pass on this one. It's nothing special. In fact, my Epic 4G Touch had nearly identical sound quality. In fact, the E4GT seemed to edge out the Galaxy Player just a tad in hitting the lower frequencies, but only by a hair. All-in-all, if you're not expecting to get professional quality audio out of this device, you won't be disappointed. As with all the other areas, though, don't think that just because this is a dedicated media player that Samsung put the extra effort into making it sound amazing.
Please don't use the 2MP camera that's included with this thing. If you have a young child, and you want to give them a device that "does apps" so you don't have to get them a phone, fine. They can use this as their "cameraphone". But please, if you are a mature adult, with a job, and you pay your bills and have responsibilities, don't use this camera.
In anything but broad daylight, the colors look washed out and the photos get incredibly noisy. Again, making the "Samung phone without the phone" comparison, few Samsung phones would be caught dead with a camera this low quality. Take a look at the difference between the two photos below. The first, taken with the Galaxy Player 3.6, and the second, the Epic 4G Touch. The difference is clear.
The battery life on this device is one of the few high points, thankfully. On a full charge, I took this device on a short road trip. I downloaded several Spotify playlists for local playback and pulled up directions to the place in North Georgia where I was heading, out in the middle of nowhere. For a cumulative 6 hours or so of driving, with GPS and music running the entire way, and the display on more than usual, the battery life never dropped below 50%.
If you're not blasting through your battery on the open road, though, this device can make it into multi-day territory. It hearkens back to the days of dumbphones when, if you didn't put your phone on the charger at night, you might not regret it the following morning. If this is your primary device throughout the day, you might still need a charge each night, but you will rarely need to reach for a charger before you head to bed.
Missing The Point
As I stated earlier in this review, Samsung needs to justify the existence of this device. In a world where smartphones are dirt cheap—even if plans for them aren't—you need a reason to create a dedicated media player. It's possible to get a used (or even new) Android phone from Craigslist for relatively cheap and simply use it without service. Also, now that Google is selling unlocked Galaxy Nexii on the Play Store, even brand new, high-end Android phones can compete with the upper-end of iPod Touches (both the unlocked GSM Nexus and the most expensive iPod Touch are $400), so it's extremely difficult to argue that Android even needs this type of device in its ecosystem.
There is one way to justify the existence of a WiFi-only media player running Android, though: to make it a great media player. Android may not be perfect at putting media in the consumers' hands, but it's safe to say that Android, as a platform, is much better at it than it used to be. A device that put these features at the forefront, instead of hiding them away, could give a much better impression. Samsung could also build new services that improve on Google's offerings.
Unfortunately, Samsung did none of this. Samsung didn't stop at the "phone without a phone" concept. It also removed the high-quality screen, the decent camera, unbundled Google's media apps, and included its own apps which are just terrible, while leaving out its other, better apps. The entire effort seems to be a last-minute, "meh" effort to enter a market that no one asked Samsung to enter.
To write this device off would be unfair. With an impressive battery life and access to the whole of the Play Store, any device is going to be capable. You can't put WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, a killer battery, and access to a major mobile app store in a device and not expect to be able to do a thousand great things with it. The trouble is, though, justifying it in the face of all the other options.
Once you start comparing the Galaxy Player to other devices—any other devices—it becomes difficult to justify. The $150 price point does make it attractive, but for $50 you could get an iPod Touch with a better quality display, better camera, and access to iTunes (whether that's a boon or a bane is up to you). Even if you want to stick to Android, I was able to find multiple lightly used Galaxy S phones for sale on Craigslist for less than the price of this device. Those would also come with a better screen and better camera. Functionally, they're identical if you never use a cell network with it.
In the end, it's not the worst investment you could make, but that is largely because it runs Android. The Galaxy Player itself is unremarkable and pales in comparison to similar devices. If you want it to listen to music, use some apps, and play some games, and you want something that's cheap, not an Apple product, and sold from a retailer, the Galaxy Player will do the job. It just feels like it could've been so much more.