Technology

BusinessWeek


Who wants a boom box so small that it fits into your shirt pocket? Samsung is hoping a lot of people, by the looks of the new $249 YP-K5 4GB digital music player I've been reviewing (there are also 1GB and 2GB versions).

Taking yet another stab at breaking Apple's grip on the market, the K5 is long on gimmickry, although it's executed in style. I tested it for a series of reviews of iPod alternatives (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/20/06, "SanDisk Borrows a Tune from Apple's Songbook").

COOL LOOKS. Slightly more than twice as thick as the new aluminum iPod nano, Samsung's K5 sports tiny built-in speakers that are revealed by sliding up the back part of the device. At the outset, you'll probably find yourself working the slide-and-tilt speaker setup frequently, but eventually you'll wonder, as I did, whether built-in speakers on such a small gadget are particularly useful.

The answer is yes if you prefer not to use the bass-enhanced, sound-isolating headphones in a stationary setting like your office, or if you really like to share your music collections with friends, acquaintances, or strangers on a train. Whatever the response, the twin speakers deliver awesome sound.

The K5 also doesn't lack for looking cool. The silver speakers are paired with an all-black magnesium casing and glossy black 1.71-inch OLED touch screen. Much of the display lights up a pleasing blue and white, with a nice on-screen equalizer or clock face that you can turn on and off. The dedicated on-off-hold button sits on the top of the unit (which becomes the left side when the speaker is revealed). Another boon: The K5 promises 30 hours of playing time with the headphones and six hours in speaker mode.

INSTRUCTIONS NEEDED. Samsung, like other consumer electronics makers, has been working to duplicate the Apple (AAPL) experience. Its effort begins the minute you start unpacking your purchase. The matte black box has "For You" embossed in silver on one side, with the company's name on the other. A rundown of the unit's features on the side of the box promises the ability to listen to music and FM radio, watch photos, and set alarms.

Music sounds natural and clear, with five different settings: normal, vocal, bass boost, 3D sounds, and concert hall. One major quibble is the limited number of formats you can use to download music to the player. You can use MP3, Microsoft (MSFT)-backed WMA, and the open-source OGG, but not the AAC format used by Apple's default iTunes encoding software. That means there's no Mac support and no AAC support for those who favor that format.

Menu navigation is not as intuitive as with other players. The device by default starts where you left off, so you typically have to use the back button to get to each feature set—say, the FM radio. Then you have to use the four keys and touch button in the center to navigate within that function. Rarely am I forced to turn to instructions on operating a device, but in this case I did.

NITPICKS. Another potential problem: Samsung, like a growing number of consumer electronics makers, uses a proprietary USB 2.0 connector. Lose it, and you'll likely have to wait weeks until retailers begin stocking them, and then pay through the nose when they do.

Like many players, Samsung includes a JPEG photo viewer, but it's not one you're likely to use often. Sample photos on the player looked dark and poorly detailed.

One nifty technology is the wake-to-music function, which lets you wake up to tracks from your library and includes a snooze function. You're even given the ability to set four different alarms, say, for getting up early Monday to Friday and sleeping in on weekends.

With the K5, Samsung tries to deliver a premium music experience with only a modestly expensive device. It succeeds for the most part but could use a better user interface to offer a product that's really fit for the masses.


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