Guess what, mechanical buttons? Samsung's just not that into you, at least when it comes to the design of its MP3 players. The tactile T10, S3 and Q1 all feature touch-sensitive surfaces, and now the U4 continues the trend. The latest player has 4GB capacity, costs around a hundred bucks, and comes in a range of gorgeous, glossy colours.
The U4 is about the size of a lighter, but the edges have been rounded off to create a more streamlined look. Every surface is glossy, so it feels very smooth in the hand. The front of the player houses a 128x64-pixel OLED on the left and the all-important five-way touch pad in the centre. To the right, a line of three red LEDs hides stealthily beneath the surface, lighting up when your finger makes contact with any of the touch keys.
There is just one mechanical button on the U4, but Samsung seems to have overcompensated by making it perform as many functions as possible. The very thin key, located on the top of the player, is labelled with a confusing array of symbols including dashes, dots, play/pause icons, a power symbol and the word "User". It's all a bit baffling at first glance, but a browse through the manual confirms that the button is divided in two — the left side does double duty as a record key and user-defined button, while the right section is the power and play/pause button. Simple, right? To be fair, all of this makes a little more sense when you factor in the contextual on-screen menus.
On the bottom of the U4 is a tiny switch labelled "USB". Give it a push and a USB plug will flick out of the end, switchblade style. The plug is not your typical size though — it lacks the usual metal shielding and is half the thickness, leaving the contacts exposed. This means that when you plug the U4 into your computer, the connection feels a little precarious. Accidentally knock the player and you risk pulling it out of the socket or damaging the connector. The USB plug also has a sneaky habit of popping out when it's in a bag. It's best to put it in a small pocket to prevent the contacts getting scuffed.
The U4 is a small player with a small features list. Inside its glossy confines you'll find an FM radio with recorder, a voice recorder and a file browser for sorting through your music and podcasts. The settings menu offers a heap of tweaking options, including an adjustable EQ, a laundry list of DNSe presets and multiple playback speeds. You can also create playlists and delete files on the go — good news for those who have been frustrated by having to connect other players to a PC in order to expunge songs.
Included in the package is Samsung's Media Studio software, which allows you to sort out playlists and transfer files. If you're not keen on installing another music management app, you can use Windows Media Player or just drag and drop files straight to the player on a Mac or PC.
Touch-activated surfaces have caused trouble with Samsung players in the past, and it's a mixed bag with the U4. On the bright side, you get a little beep and a flash of the LEDs to let you know your button presses have been registered. On the other hand, some of the sections are really small, and it can be frustrating having to press them precisely. Sometimes the screen doesn't respond, and you need to very decisively lift your finger away and place it back again. In terms of usability, mechanical buttons are still far superior.
Sound quality is on par with the latest crop of iPods — not stellar in terms of clarity, but the bass is decent and rarely suffers from distortion. Swapping out the standard ear buds for a pair of Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 reference buds resulted in more vibrant audio, but the supplied headphones will make the grade for most listeners.
If you're used to gazing upon the colourful screens of video-enabled MP3 players, it may be a little jarring to face the U4's grey OLED. But even though the screen is tiny, it is sharp and easy to read. If your file names are long, though, you may get impatient when using the file browser. In other words, if you own the entire back catalogue produced by The Presidents Of The United States Of America, you'll need to wait for each song name to scroll across the screen before you can tell which one you're looking at.
The U4 is an attractive player with a bit of flair, but once more we find ourselves grumbling over its occasionally unresponsive touch buttons. If you've got your eye on this glossy gadget, have a play with it first to make sure you can tolerate its tactile nature.