Just as actors fear to speak the word 'Macbeth' outside of Shakespeare's play itself, worrying that it will bring bad fortune on their production, so MP3 player manufacturers should fear to speak the words 'iPod killer'.
But Samsung has unleashed the familiar battle cry with the YP-Z5 all the same. The company is billing this player as an iPod nano killer, and it has taken things a step further than before. Not only does the YP-Z5 pay homage to the familiar nano chassis shape, but the company also recruited software designer Paul Mercer, who worked on the original iPod software, to design the YP-Z5's menu interface. We exclusively interviewed Mercer at CES earlier in the year.
Design books could be written on the problems that manufacturers face when coming up with a viable alternative to the iPod. At the core of the problem are two things that the iPod does well: the on-screen menu interface, and the Click Wheel. The iPod makes it easy to navigate through tracks (using the Click Wheel) and it's easy to find the song you want (using the simple menu structure). These are two important design principles, and we're often left scratching our heads when we find them overlooked.
So, has Samsung finally nailed it with the YP-Z5? And could this be Apple's most aggressive competitor in the five years since the launch of the first iPod?
The Samsung YP-Z5 is available in 2GB (£139) and 4GB (£179) versions, and both use the same 42 by 90 by 11mm chassis. It's noticeably thicker than the 7mm iPod nano, and this may be down to a larger battery (see Performance). Despite the extra thickness, you can still slot the YP-Z5 into the 'iPod pocket' (formerly the 'cigarette-lighter pocket') on your jeans. The YP-Z5 distinguishes itself from the nano with a more modular look -- the two halves of the player are joined by a metal collar that wraps around the circumference of the unit.
Screw holes are clearly visible on both sides of the YP-Z5. These are very tiny crosshead screws that can be removed if the rechargeable battery needs replacing at some point. Much criticism was levelled at Apple for not making the iPod battery user-serviceable. Judging from the construction of the YP-Z5, the replacement process on this player should be easier. Having said that, the majority of consumers will not want to undertake such a repair on either player themselves.
There's a dedicated volume control on the YP-Z5, a long, thin rocker on the right-hand side of the player. Headphones plug into the top of the player, and there's a hold button to keep you from jogging through tracks accidentally while on the move. The LCD on the YP-Z5 is much larger than the one on the nano, making the process of viewing photographs a much less strained experience.
The control interface on the YP-Z5 matches the layout of the iPod. Play, skip and menu buttons are exactly where an iPod user would expect to find them. However, instead of a Click Wheel interface, the YP-Z5 uses a directional control pad that relies on varying degrees of touch to scroll through menu items. A light touch makes the YP-Z5 scroll through menu items, and a firm touch selects them.
This isn't always easy to deal with. Everyone we handed the YP-Z5 to had a problem getting to grips with the control system. The problem is that there's no real-world parallel to the variable-touch interface. Although you will get used to the process, you always feel slightly tentative when scrolling though options, and it requires some dexterity to get it right. There's also no way to vary the speed with which you scroll through menu items. For instance, you can't rapidly get to the 'H' section of your albums, then slow down and pick a specific album. Often you'll find yourself skipping past the track you wanted to select, then scrolling back.
The YP-Z5 gets some design features right (the screen size and dedicated volume control) and others wrong (the occasionally fiddly control interface and logo-splattered chassis). The revamped interface demonstrates Samsung has made great progress from earlier efforts such as the YP-T8, but the way you scroll through tracks remains problematic.