Samsung P3 Media Player Review: Here Comes a Nano Beater

Samsung's new flagship P3 PMP isn't an iPod touch killer—despite the touchscreens, the comparison doesn't hold up. In a shoving match against the iPod nano, however, the P3 trumps it in just about every respect.

The P3 is a followup to Samsung's successful P2, and while it makes quite a few changes, this is an evolution, rather than a revolution. The P3 boasts a few new tricks from Samsung's galaxy of phones, like haptic feedback, a teeny-but-clear speaker, "desktop" widgets and an improved GUI, but this is assuredly not a competitor to the iPod touch. The P3 is not a platform: There's no way to expand the player's catalog of programs or widgets, and, most importantly, it doesn't have Wi-Fi. Despite its big ol' touchscreen and appearance of a fully customizable experience, the P3 is a closed environment, like the nano.

It is, however, one of the best standard flash players on the market—possibly the best. Available in 8/16/32GB sizes (priced at $US150/$US200/$US300, respectively), the P3 comes with a bevy of great extras, a sleek body, and a (mostly) intuitive and pretty GUI. Most importantly, its touchscreen and broad video codec support makes it the best compact video player for the money, and something anyone not suckling at the iTunes teat should get a good look at.

The Physical
The P3 retains the same form factor as its predecessor, which means a gorgeous 3-inch WQVGA touchscreen covering most of its front, a few physical buttons—volume and power/hold, moved to the top for easy in-pocket use—and a very thin metal body. No, it's not quite as thin as an iPod nano, but there's only a tenth of an inch difference. Underneath the screen is a marginally useful touch strip, a bit like the upcoming Palm Pre's. On the bottom is the headphone jack, a mic and Samsung's proprietary USB port.

The P3 feels really great in the hand; it's slightly heavier than the P2 and feels very solid. It's also quite the looker, with a brushed aluminium back, matte front, and chrome accents. To give you an idea of the size, it fits perfectly in that little change pocket of a pair of jeans.

The P3's user interface is, for the most part, similar to the P2's—a very intuitive, simple, touch-based design. The main screen has three pages, like an iPhone or T-Mobile G1, that can be turned by a swipe in either direction. The centre page has the icons you'll be using most often (Music, Videos, Pictures, FM Radio, etc), and the ones on the left and right house the widgets. Some of the widgets are pretty handy, like a calculator, a calendar and a lightbulb that adjusts screen brightness when tapped.

There's also a goofy but sort of handy "quick tray" with speaker toggle, Bluetooth and other actions that pulls down from the top when you tap, almost like the system tray on the Android G1.

Some of the widgets are poorly executed, like the 24 subway maps from around the world—the NYC one is awful, devoid of an actual geographic map, making you zoom to view specific stops. Do not rely on this to get you around Hong Kong, or you'll be sorry. Some of the widgets are overtly purposeless, like a gingerbread man that crumbles when tapped. That's all he does. Crumbles.

The touch interaction features haptic feedback, that's supposed to rumble when an item is pressed, thus confirming the selection. Unfortunately, it's more a gimmick than anything else: It's fairly weak (more of a buzz than a rumble), inconsistent, and in the end it doesn't seem to aid the overall accuracy of the touchscreen.

Menus are very easy to navigate and are very intuitive, but scrolling through lists of artist names, albums or what have you isn't quite as simple as it should be. Lists can be dragged up or down with a finger, but the system isn't as smart as it is on an iPhone—you can't turn the "drag" into a flick at the last minute. So when you do drag, you only view about 15 items before you have to pick up your finger and drag again.

The P3 does support the flick motion, but you have to do it deliberately. Besides, it's more of a delayed reaction and doesn't feel very organic—one flick will move the list exactly one full page, every time, regardless of how enthusiastically you've flicked. There's also a scroll bar on the side that's nice for jumping from the As to the Ms, but it's not particularly accurate. All in all, it's a little slower to navigate long artist or track lists than I'd like.

There are other gestures as well—tap, double-tap, circle. Some of them will grow into usefulness as people carry and use the P3 for a while, though out of the gate, they're a little specific to feel intuitive.

Playback Quality
Samsung's PMPs are some of the best-sounding players out there, and the P3 continues the trend: Bass is full but not overpowering, treble is clear, and mids are focused. Basically, the P3 sounds great, and is powerful enough to drive big Sony MDR headphones while sounding halfway decent in my 16-year-old car's crappy stereo, too. It supports MP3, WMA, OGG, AAC and even FLAC for you lossless-loving audiophiles.

Video quality is absolutely beautiful—this is the best flash-memory video player I've ever seen. With a firmware update (already available), the P3 will play DivX and Xvid files up to 800x600 resolution, which means yes, pirates, this will play your torrented episodes of 30 Rock perfectly without any conversion necessary. In addition to DivX/Xvid AVI files, the P3 supports MPEG-4, WMV and H.264 (though not clear on how high a resolution is supported), which makes it one of the most well-rounded video players on the market. As I mentioned above, the screen is stunning, with nearly flawless viewing angle range.

Nuts and Bolts
The P3 also has an FM radio, though at least out in the suburbs, reception was barely listenable.

Bluetooth works perfectly—it paired with my BlackBerry quickly and easily, and since it has a mic and speaker, it can be used as a speakerphone.

Battery life is rated at 30 hours for audio and 5 for video.

Its default setting is for MTP, which means that, out of the box, it may only work on Windows machines. Fret not, because you can also switch it to UMS to run on Macs and Linux machines. In Windows it will show up as a drive for easy drag-and-drop, and is happily compatible with media software like WinAmp and MediaMonkey. On the Mac, it's going to be as drag-and-droppable as any USB disk.

We've come to a crossroads in the world of PMPs. High-end devices with Wi-Fi, like the iPod touch, Archos 5/7 and Sony's upcoming X1000, are the future. The Samsung P3 is not one of these players.

The iPod nano is the elephant in the room here; The P3 is priced to go head-to-head with the nano at the 8/16GB range, although the P3 offers a $US300 32GB version as well. I think the P3 holds its own against the nano, besting it in quite a few categories. The hardware looks and feels great, the GUI is prettier and more customizable, the touch interface can be useful, and most importantly frees up real estate for what matters most: a bigger, better screen.

As my catalog of nitpicks above will tell you, the P3 may not have the simplicity of an iProduct. Nevertheless, if you use Windows, or use a Mac but not iTunes, if you download a lot of video, and if you don't have a hard drive full of DRM'd music—if that describes you, then you would be a fool to buy an iPod nano instead of Samsung's P3. [Samsung MP3 Players]

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