Chicago (IL) - If there was ever a chance to convince my wife that her Ipod Nano is an over priced, boring music player, then this is it. I got an opportunity to play with Samsung's latest flash audio player that integrates slide-out speakers and there is no doubt that Samsung has created a device with the necessary genes to cause more than just headaches in Cupertino.
Ok Apple, you have had a nice run over the past five years with your Ipod and you've built around the original Ipod an empire that is the envy of the IT, music and video industry. But other players are catching up and for the first time, there are real alternatives that tackle the Ipod at its core strengths - design and usability - while providing a simlar access to music content.
Sandisk recently came up with a refreshed Sansa series that goes after the Ipod Nano, but it was especially the Samsung K5 that caught my interest thanks to a unique feature: The player has built in speakers that allow the device to act as a mini stereo. That alone is reason enough to have a closer look.
Look & feel
The K5 is much smaller than the initially published images suggest. The footprint of the device is slightly longer and thinner than a business card - or a first generation Ipod Nano. The fact that the slide-out speaker unit is located behind the main player unit, makes K5 somewhat clunky - it is about three times as thick as the Nano.
The main body is encased in black, matte magnesium, which make it much more scratch resistant than the Nano. The front of the K5 gives an illusion of a fancy, single LCD and appears much like the LCD gauge cluster in higher-end cars. However, there's only one 1.7" LCD that displays navigation menus, an equalizer animation or a screensaver clock. The other half of the front houses illuminated and touch-sensitive control buttons behind a polycarbonate surface.
Just like the Ipod, the K5 feels expensive despite its plastic shell. The design is unique enough to separate it from the competition. The slide-out mechanism of the speaker is practical, but the plastic anchors connecting the main unit with the speaker are certainly not built for eternity .
The packaging of the K5 deserves a brief note: Other than most other manufacturers of MP3 players, Samsung has spent some time and took a few ideas from Apple how to wrap the K5 and greet its buyer. If you've bought an Ipod before, you'll experience a small Déjà vu.
No question, the touchscreen needs some time to get used to. The number of controls is limited to navigation directions, a menu and an options button, which translates into an easy to understand a very intuitive way to access and play content. Compared to the Ipod, the touchscreen isn't quite as efficient as a scroll wheel, but ends up to be a real treat to play with once you are used to it. As with every touchscreen, the real disadvantage is that fingerprints will be visible after a short time of use and disturb the overall stylish look of the K5.
Samsung includes a uniquely designed pair of earphones that are certainly not created after a one-size-fits-all-model. While providing excellent audio quality, I believe that many K5 buyers will replace the earphones with a more common and comfortable design.
At least in some cases, K5 owners won't need earphones as the player comes with two integrated 5/8" speakers that can transform the device into a pocket stereo. Here's the key question: How do those speakers sound?
Well, it depends on your view. They certainly surprised me with a sound quality that is much better than what you would expect from such a device and what you can get from the integrated speakers in most mainstream notebooks today. However, there is no denying that the quality is limited by the form factor of the device and you won't get anything that is good enough to host a party. Despite an excellent equalizer that allows users to emphasize voice, bass, 3D or hall effects, you'll notice a slight metallic sound.
Overall, the speakers are good enough to entertain you on your desk or in a hotel room (the K5 also includes an alarm clock and an FM tuner), but obviously can't match a boom box.
Clearly, the design of the K5 is one of its greatest advantages. Packaged in a form factor that comes close to the Ipod Nano, the device has its own unique design that not only differentiates it from the original but feels expensive enough to allow users to brag about it. Microsoft, take note, this is how a portable audio player should look like.
The compact speakers are a true unique selling point for the K5 and I wouldn't be surprised if there more MP3 players using the same feature were to be announced in the not too distant future. If you ever missed speakers in your MP3 player, then this is as good as it gets, at least for now. Yes, the speakers add volume and weight, but consider this: The K5 is lighter and smaller than Apple's first hard drive-based Ipod and offers almost the same storage capacity.
What needs work
There isn't much I can complain about. Yes, the earphones did not work for me, the display is virtually impossible to keep clean, the speaker may leave some room for improvement and the price - 2 GB for $210 and 4 GB for $260 - is on the very high end of the segment and is a bit of gamble.
The K5 is one of the strongest entries in the flash player segment so far and should not be taken lightly by Apple. But I am not sure, if Samsung really wants to go all the way: It hasn't been a secret that one of the key factors behind the Ipod's success is its name and brand. It appears that Samsung's creativity fell apart when it came down to naming the device. I doubt wife will bite when I ask her to trade the Ipod Nano for a "K5".
But if you don't care about name and minimal size and weight aren't the only criteria in your buying decision, then the K5 is certainly worth a look.