With Apple dominating nearly 70 percent of the MP3 player market, there would seem to be little incentive for competitors to jump into the fray. But Samsung isn't likely to shrink from a challenge from Apple or anyone else, leaving no stone unturned as it tries to chip away at Cupertino's market share.
That's where the latest Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 comes in. Essentially a Galaxy-class Android smartphone without the cellular radios (and monthly data plan that comes with it), the Korean consumer electronics manufacturer may need to rethink its pricing strategy in the wake of Google's own low-cost tablet.
The Google Nexus 7 tablet may not be directly poised as competition for Samsung's media player, but considering the $199 tablet features a larger screen, comparable storage, a far better, faster processor and the latest version of Google's mobile OS (Android 4.1 Jelly Bean), potential Galaxy Player buyers may begin to wonder exactly what they're getting for the same cash.
Let's dive in and discover if the Galaxy Player 4.2 offers any compelling options other than relative pocketability.
Samsung isn't exactly a slouch when it comes to hardware, and the Galaxy Player 4.2 is no exception. It's just the right size for all but the most diminutive hands, although the slick plastic back requires a firmer grip than we'd like.
At 2.6 inches wide, 4.89 inches tall and 0.35 inches thick, this isn't exactly a direct rival for the smaller, thinner iPod touch. Apple's media player is also significantly lighter at 3.56 ounces compared to the Galaxy Player at 4.0 ounces.
The front of the Galaxy Player 4.2 is almost all display, with thin speaker grills above and below. These provide stereo sound, and though it may be a bit tinny, the separation does make a difference while listening to music or watching a movie in landscape mode.
An elongated hardware home button sits at bottom center, with capacitive Menu and Back buttons to the left and right. A power/lock button and volume rocker sit on the right edge, with a 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB port at bottom.
The top and left sides are free of buttons, but placing a fingernail into the small notch at top left edge pops off the flimsy plastic back Samsung is often notorious for. (Good luck getting that cover snapped back on, too.) Once inside, users can add micro-SD storage or swap out the battery.
A speedy 1GHz processor keeps things moving quite nicely, while built-in GPS and gyroscope make the most of your favorite apps. Samsung retails the Galaxy Player 4.2 for $199.99 with 8GB of built-in storage, making it an attractive alternative to the entry-level iPod touch.
Display and interface
Weight and girth aren't the only areas where Apple has Samsung beat: With an LCD WVGA screen at 800 x 480 pixels, the Galaxy Player is no match for the iPod touch and its 960 x 640 Retina Display. However, Samsung gets the nod when it comes to display size, with 4.2 inches of screen real estate compared to 3.5 inches of its rival.
That's not to say that the Galaxy Player 4.2 has a bad display. Pixel density enthusiasts may scoff at the lack of detail when viewed up close, but for the majority of users, the screen is plenty bright, colorful and pixel rich.
In keeping with the current trend of Android devices without physical keyboards, the Galaxy Player is entirely a multi-touch affair. Unfortunately, users are stuck with Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread here, enhanced by Samsung's TouchWiz UI.
Given that this particular Galaxy Player model only just came to the U.S. within the last few months, it's a bit of a head scratcher as to why Samsung didn't go with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. With the carriers out of the way, there's just no excuse for this.
Criticisms aside, Samsung makes the most of what they do have, and the Galaxy Player 4.2 is as faithful and complete an Android device as Gingerbread allows, complete with a TouchWiz soft keyboard that rivals the one Google baked into Android 4.0.
Internet and connectivity
The Galaxy Player 4.2 may be merely a Galaxy S II gutted of its cellular radios, but users won't have to go far to get connected. The media player features Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n wireless, and we had no problems getting connected even via the Mobile Hotspot feature on our iPhone 4S and new iPad.
A pair of decent earbuds are included, but we found them lacking in bass and midrange. Thankfully the Galaxy Player 4.2 also features Bluetooth 3.0, so the media player is willing and able to wirelessly connect to most any accessory you can imagine, including wireless headsets.
That also includes DLNA compliant devices, which can use the preinstalled AllShare app to beam videos, photos and music without wires. The app picked up the signal from other media devices in our office and allowed us to play content to a DLNA-connected HDTV.
Unfortunately, as is usually the case with these apps, the results were less than stellar. Those expecting a fluid experience like Apple's AirPlay are likely to be disappointed, but for occasional use it works just fine.
Camera and chat
The Galaxy Player 4.2 includes a pair of cameras, although Samsung remains mum on specs for the front-facing lens, which is intended for video chat.
Despite an initial warning that the Galaxy Player wasn't certified for the Skype app, we were able to sign into our account and initiate a video call without problem. The quality of the front-facing camera may not be the greatest, but it's sufficient for catching up with loved ones.
Around the back, a 2MP rear-facing camera is ready for taking quick snapshots on the go when a point-and-shoot isn't available. While color reproduction was decent, images lacked contrast and appeared a bit soft overall, even at the highest 1600 x 1200 resolution.
Video recordings do no better, exhibiting a fair amount of pixelization and noise; unfortunately, only 640 x 480 or 320 x 240 recording is allowed here. Strangely, contrast was better for videos, and maybe a bit too much overall.
One feature we liked was the ability to pause a video being recorded and start it again with a second tap on the record button. Otherwise, the camera software is up to Samsung's usual standards, loaded with plenty of features such as panorama mode that make it a shame that the cameras themselves are so weak.
Battery life and storage
Long battery life is where the Galaxy Player 4.2 truly shines. Without an always-on cellular radio continually siphoning juice from its removable 1,500 mAh Li-ion battery, Samsung can promise a maximum audio playback time of 60 hours on a single charge, trumping the iPod touch by a whopping 20 hours.
Samsung also boasts eight-hour battery life for video playback (versus Apple's seven hours), but we wound up closer to five hours and 18 minutes from a continual play test streaming over Wi-Fi. Looping Transformers: Dark of the Moon from Google's Play Movies & TV, we were able to play the 154-minute feature just over twice before the battery conked out.
Samsung includes 8GB of flash storage, but users can add up to an additional 32GB by supplying their own micro-SD card. With Google Play now so focused on streaming media content over a wireless internet connection, this should be plenty for all but the most hardcore users.
We had no problem using DoubleTwist on the Mac to sync up a few iTunes playlists over USB. DRM'ed tracks and iTunes video purchases obviously don't work here, but Samsung features broader format support for AVI, FLV, MKV and MP4 on the video side, plus MP3, WMA, Ogg, FLAC and AAC for audio.
Apps and Play
Although the Galaxy Player 4.2 isn't tied to a cellular carrier like a smartphone, Samsung couldn't stop itself from preinstalling a variety of apps. Thankfully, most of it is fairly worthwhile.
Two Electronic Arts titles have been preloaded for mobile gamers: Need for Speed Hot Pursuit for racing fans and FIFA 2012 for soccer lovers. However, "preloaded" isn't the correct description in this case, since you'll have to download 590MB of data for the former and 1.5GB to play the latter, making a mini-SD card nearly a requirement for gamers.
One of the coolest preinstalled apps included here is Kies Air, a utility for wirelessly connecting to the Galaxy Player from any web browser on the same network. Connecting our Mac to the device was a snap, and instantly we had full access to photos, videos, music, contacts, calendars and bookmarks without even looking at a USB cable.
In addition to the usual assortment of Google apps, users can install the likes of Netflix from Google Play, while enjoying other bundled titles ranging from ChatON to NFL Mobile, QuickOffice and Samsung Smart View, for controlling the company's HDTVs and Blu-ray players.
Sadly, while Hulu Plus installed just fine, the app threw up an error whenever we tried to open it or play a video. We were also unable to install Google's Chrome browser, which is not compatible with versions of Android prior to 4.0.
Google Nexus 7 tablet competition aside, the decision to buy a Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 comes down to one's allegiance to ecosystems: Apple's iPod touch is firmly locked into iTunes, while Google Play allows Android users to have mostly the same type of experience with a little less spit and polish.
The hardware is pretty good and the stereo speakers in particular are a nice touch. Although it's not quite as svelte as an iPod touch, the larger screen makes the extra heft easier to accept.
Although we're usually not fans of preinstalled software, Samsung's Kies Air really gave us something to get excited about here. In fact, our biggest lament was that we couldn't install the app on our Samsung Galaxy Nexus as well.
For its core functionality as a media player, the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 gets the job done. The included earbuds don't accurately reproduce low frequencies, while our third-party earbuds seemed too midrange and lacking in higher end frequencies compared to our iPhone 4S.
We also could find no compelling reason why Samsung couldn't have shipped the Galaxy Player 4.2 with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and even more disheartening, the media player doesn't seem to be on Samsung's radar for an upgrade anytime soon.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 and the concept of a cellular (and contract) free Android device is admirable, it's doomed to be a niche product aimed at entertaining kids whose parents are already fans of Google's mobile ecosystem.
Samsung could soon find its niche even smaller thanks to Google's Nexus 7 tablet, which offers better hardware and a larger display at the same price. While Apple's iPod sales have slowly receded since the dawn of the iPad, Samsung has no such wildly successful tablet to fall back on.
For those squarely in the niche, the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 is a capable media player, offering a decent mix of style and expandability at a competitive price – particularly for users not tied into the iTunes ecosystem.