The Samsung U3 has been on the market for a while now, but like other small players like that it’s not as easily outdated as bigger players that fight for the newest features. With the exception of adding OLED screens, players like the U3 have more or less been stagnating feature wise for the last 3 years. This means the U3 is still a very good candidate. It’s pretty well equipped with an FM radio, touch buttons, recording, and integrated USB connector. Read on to see how well it does in real life
- Quick Look
- Size: 80.0 x 25.4 x 11.0 mm
- Capacities: 2GB
- Screen: 128×64 pixel Blue 1″ OLED Display
- Audio: MP3, WMA
- Battery: 15 hours audio (rated)
The U3 comes very well packaged in a clear plastic box kind of like the ones iPods come in. Accessory-wise you have the basics with a little bit of extras on top; earbuds, software CD, cable twiner, and a plastic clip that goes on the back of the player. There is no USB cable simply because the USB connector is integrated.
The U3 is very minimalistic and the only thing that breaks the smooth surface is the recessed screen. The front buttons are touch based so there are no buttons sticking up which helps the smooth feeling of the device. Overall the player looks very much like a pack of gum, even more so than any other “stick gum player”. The headphone jack is located on top by a plastic LED ring. On top are the play and shortcut buttons and on the bottom is the hold button and the USB connector release.
The USB connector is a flat type that’s more commonly used on flash sticks and is only a couple of millimeters thick compared to the normal USB connectors that have a metal frame around the actual connector. The USB connector pops out by sliding the button on the bottom and is normally hidden within the player. The solution works great and it’s a relief not having to have a USB cable on hand all the time, but the flat design of the plug compared to the weight of the player makes for a bit of a flaky connection and you can expect it to move around a bit when plugged in. Nevertheless the thin design of the U3 wouldn’t have allowed for a normal USB connector and the flat connector works as long as you don’t move it around too much.
The touch buttons is a design choice I’m not 100% on board with. Sure, they work great and they have a certain coolness factor to them, but they get annoying very quickly. With some players you don’t need a hold button because the buttons are well placed and don’t press so easily they go off all the time, while with other players (especially touch screen ones) hold is a necessity for pocket use. With the U3 the hold button is a necessity even if you don’t have it in your pocket. During the test period I accidentally changed tracks and adjusted the volume more times than I can count simply because they are so sensitive. There are also no grooves or indentations to indicate where the different buttons are, so you’re pretty much bound to having visual contact with the player to operate it. That means using it while in a pocket or while attached to an armband is close to impossible unless you know exactly where the controls are. This may be a dealbreaker for many as stick players like the U3 is often used for working out, and frankly it doesn’t work very well for that.
The player also has a blue LED light that can be set to always be off, always be on, blink randomly or blink when you press a button. Cool maybe, but kinda useless and it would be more interesting to have it react to music. I suggest turning it off once you get tired of it to save battery.
The player comes with a CD containing Samsung Media Studio, but since it’s a MTP player you really don’t need it. Plug the player into any PC with Windows XP SP2 or Vista and it will show up as a portable music device. Transferring media is done by dragging files onto the player or using a MTP compatible media program like Windows Media Player. Some prefer syncing music with such programs but personally I prefer just dropping files onto the device.
Using Vista (or possible just have a fully upgraded version of Windows Media Player) you can also make playlists without using any additional programs; just select the files you want on the playlist, right click and select playlist. You can then further edit the files directly, and the player will recognize them wherever they are on the player so no need to move them to the playlist folder.
Although MTP goes a long way towards drag and drop, it’s still not as flexible as UMS and Linux/Mac users should think twice before getting the U3. The player will do MTP and MTP only and there is no OS auto-select to get it into UMS mode. There is a way to get it to UMS, but it’s somewhat of a hassle and is not as easy as on older players in the U series where you only had to downgrade the firmware directly. Why Samsung decided to make it so difficult to get UMS firmware on the U3 is beyond me and with the integrated USB connector the U3 would benefit from UMS more than many other players as it could easily have doubled as a flashdrive.
All features are accessed fr
om a main menu consisting of 5 icons; Music, FM radio, Voice Record, Settings and Now Playing. The Now Playing option is something I was disappointed about as I prefer a dedicated button to switch back to “now playing”, like on the Sansa Clip. Having to navigate the menu each time I want to exit it is to me very annoying, but for others it might not be a big deal.
What is a big deal however is the way the player handles settings. To adjust settings like play mode and EQ, you have to exit the music menu, enter the settings menu and do it from there. In other words there is no direct access to settings from each feature. There is a programmable shortcut button, but for some reason this can only be mapped to Repeat A-B, DNSe, Play Speed or Play Mode and not the settings menu itself. The logical use of this button in my opinion would be mapping it to bring up the settings menu directly, and not just scroll through a specific setting and still having to go through the main menu to get to the rest.
With the exception of these annoyances the interface is decent, and everything is logically placed in the settings menu once you get to it. The player starts up quickly and the interface reacts fast enough
Browsing and playback
As I’ve already stated I’m rather disappointed with the placement of the music playback settings. What was also rather peculiar to me was that you cannot use two play modes at once, specifically shuffle and repeat. The reason for this became obvious when I tested the shuffle feature as it shuffles each time you skip to the next or previous track and so it’s aways on repeat when using shuffle, so to speak.
The playback screen didn’t impress me much. Both the Sansa Express, Sansa Clip, Cowon U2 and several other small stick players are able to use the small available space more efficiently. Instead of using two lines for text, the player shows artist and title in one line with [title] and [artist] tags in front. Basically it’s rather messy and doesn’t look good at least when there is enough space to display both on their own lines. Other than that the playback screen shows the basic; playback mode, EQ, song number/total number of songs and battery indicator.
Music browsing is done with ID3 tags only – no folder tree mode is available. You have the very basic Artists, Albums, Songs, Genres and Playlists. Browsing is quick enough but scrolling through large amount of files would be easier if it was a tad bit faster. All in all the browsing is just fine for this type of player.
After listening to the U3 for a while the sound quality can best be described as “meh”. It doesn’t make me want to smash it with a hammer but on the other hand it’s not what I would expect from Samsung. The sound signature is rather hollow and you get the felling of listening through something. Vocals sound dampened and it just isn’t anything spectacular. As always most users should disregard this part of the review unless they really care about sound quality as it certainly does the job for most people, but not if you want the little extra.
The equalizer on the player is in theory very nice with both presets and a 9 band custom EQ. On top of that you have DNSe sound enhancements, 3D effects and bass enhancement. On paper it all sounds very good, but in real life I find the sound to be way too processed and just doesn’t cut it. This is something that many other small players have a hard time doing right, and so far the only miniplayer I’ve had that has provided a decent enough EQ/sound enhancement set for me to use is the Cowon U2. Again others might find the sound enhancements to be more than adequate.
The U3 also come with both a sleep timer and adjustable playback speed. For some reason they advertise the playback speed control on the box beside voice recording and radio – sure it can be useful for audiobooks and such but I still find it a bit curious to advertise this over for example DNSe.
The radio used to be RDS, meaning the station name etc would show up in the display. For some reason that’s light years beyond me Samsung dropped this feature in a firmware update some time back and what’s left is a normal radio. The radio itself isn’t half bad though and I got a pretty decent and stable reception. You switch between presets and manual searching with the play button, but to auto search for presets and set sensitivity and region you need to go through the menu and to settings as with music playback modes. The radio is a great addition that works well, but removing RDS support was simply stupid.
The voice recording feature is rather annoying to operate. To record you have to enter the menu, choose record, select “yes” on a message asking if you want to continue and then you are recording. The alternate method is simply holding the shortcut button in any play mode (music, radio) which will start voice recording directly. You can pause recordings and when you’re finishes you’re asked if you want to check the recorded track. Selecting yes will start playing the file, selecting “no” will throw you back to whatever mode you were in before starting recording, even if you accessed the voice record mode from the menu and not the shortcut button. To add to the confusion Samsung decided to place the voice record settings under “system” in settings and not on the main settings menu like radio and music settings. Minor annoyances indeed, but still irritating if you use this feature a lot.
the quality of the recordings is luckily very good and you can record in 128kbps mp3. Normally all you get from players like this is low quality voice recorders that might has well not been included so it’s nice to see another player beside the Cowon U2 that is actually useful in this area.
Battery life is rated at 15 hours, but that is far from the truth. With LEDs disabled and playing at half volume with no screen use whatsoever it blanked out after only 11 hours. That’s quite a difference to the rated battery life especially because normal use will include using the screen etc.
All in all the U3 is a nice player with some flaws, but still a viable option if you’re in the market for a miniplayer. Price wise it’s about the same as the alternatives (although the MSRP is higher) so it all comes down to what features are more important for you. It does radio and voice recording well and the integrated USB plug is a nice treat. The touch buttons ruins some of the usability which might be the biggest deal breaker for this player since it makes it very hard to accurately controlling if you don’t have a fixed view of what you’re doing.
- Integrated USB connector
- Good radio
- Good voice recording quality
- Lots of sound enhancements
- Sleek design
- Annoying settings and voice recording menus
- Sound quality could be better
- MTP only, no UMS
- Touch buttons are annoying
- Battery life well below rated