Remember PDAs? Before smartphones became ubiquitous, personal digital assistants such as the Palm Pilot, Handspring Visor, and Dell Axim were all the rage (with geek and/or well-organized people, anyway). But a funny thing happened when smartphones really started to take off — companies stopped making PDAs.
While that’s probably because they weren’t selling very well in the age of iPhones and Android devices, it’s still kind of a shame because not everyone that wants a pocketable computer wants to make phone calls on it. While a good PDA might have cost $300 or more, once you made the one-time payment you didn’t have to pay for a voice or data plan to continue using it to manage your contacts, calendar, email, or even web browsing or gaming.
Nobody really talks about PDAs anymore… but that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared entirely. Instead, they seem to have transformed into portable media players or handheld gaming devices… or something. I haven’t seen a good name for this category, but the king of the hill is certainly the Apple iPod touch.
Apple has sold millions of iPod touch models to folks that want to run iOS apps but don’t want to pay $100 per month for voice and data. Apple’s handheld device hasn’t faced much serious competition in this unnamed market segment for the past few years, but that’s starting to change.
This year a number of companies have released iPod touch-like devices running Google Android instead of iOS. Most of them are pretty easy to dismiss due to sluggish hardware, poor screens, or lousy software. And then there’s the Samsung Galaxy Player.
Samsung is one of the top sellers of Android smartphones, and the company knows a little something about building a high quality Android product. While the Samsung Galaxy Player line of handhelds may not have all the bells and whistles you’ll find on the newest Samsung phones they do offer a pretty great Android experience for anyone that doesn’t need their portable device to be a phone.
In other words, the Samsung Galaxy Player devices may be the first products to give the iPod touch a run for its money.
Samsung loaned me a Galaxy Player 5.0 to review and I’ve been playing with it for the past few weeks. There’s a lot to like about this portable Android device, although I suspect the smaller Galaxy Player 4.0 might be a better fit for some people.
Both Galaxy Player models have 8GB of flash storage, front-facing VGA cameras, and rear-facing 3.2MP cameras. They both feature FM radio and GPS, 802.11n WiFi, and Bluetooth 3.0. And they both have 1 GHz ARM Hummingbird Cortex-A single core processors.
While that chip is starting to look quaint in late 2011, it was one of the best smartphone processors available just last year — and that means the Galaxy Player doesn’t feel particularly slow when running most Android apps. Both devices also come with Google Android 2.3 Gingerbread, Samsung’s TouchWiz software interface, and full support for the Google Android Market.
But there are a few differences between the two devices. Not only is the Galaxy Player 4.0 smaller, but it also has a lower capacity battery.
The Samsung Galaxy Player 4.0 is available from Amazon for $229.99, while the Galaxy Player 5.0 runs $269.99. That makes these little guys a bit more expensive than an entry level iPod touch, but the Galaxy Player devices have features you won’t find on an iPod touch including cameras with flash, offline GPS capabilities, and microSD card slots.
The Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 looks a lot like a Samsung Galaxy S smartphone. In fact, a friend who has a Samsung phone saw the Galaxy Player in my house recently and wondered if I’d bought a new phone to match hers.
On the front of the device you’ll see a large glossy screen and a small black bezel. At the top the Samsung logo is featured prominently, with a speaker just above the logo and a small front-facing camera to the right of the speaker.
At the bottom there are three capacitive touchscreen buttons for menu, home, and back functions.
When you touch the screen the buttons at the bottom glow very brightly. Most of the time that’s a good thing, as it makes the buttons easier to find when you’re looking for them. But when reading an eBook in bed, you can dim the screen but not the glowing buttons. That means every time you turn a page you have to prepare yourself for a semi-blinding flash of light.
The buttons never stop glowing at all when streaming video from Netflix. I watched a few hours of the second Lord of the Rings movies while testing the battery, and the button lights never dimmed once, even though I wasn’t holding or even touching the Galaxy Player.
On the other hand, when the buttons aren’t glowing they’re actually pretty hard to see, especially if you’re in a dimly lit room.
The touchscreen can handle multi-finger input for touch-based gestures including pinch-to-zoom, and feels very responsive.
Around the display there’s a decorative chrome border separating the screen from the rest of the Galaxy Player’s shiny white plastic case.
On the bottom edge of the device there’s a microUSB port for charging the Galaxy Player or for connecting to a computer to transfer files. There’s also a headphone jack and a tiny microphone at the bottom.
You’ll find the power and volume buttons on the right side of the Galaxy Player. Because they’re placed on the same side of the device and rather close together, I often found myself hitting the volume buttons when trying to turn the display on or off. But that’s a minor annoyance at worst.
There’s a microSD card slot at the top of the Galaxy Player. It’s covered by a small plastic door.
If you flip the Galaxy Player on its back you’ll find stereo speakers and a 3.2MP auto-focus camera with a flash.
The back of the device is curved to fit snugly in the palm of your hand.
The Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 has a 5 inch, 800 x 480 pixel display. Colors start to wash out a bit if you view the screen from a sharp angle, but it looks pretty good when you hold the device right in front of your face.
Samsung’s 4 inch model has the same 800 x 480 pixel resolution. It would be nice if the company used the extra space for a higher resolution screen, because when you take the same number of pixels and blow them up onto a larger device text, pictures, and other graphics don’t look as sharp. But the larger-than-normal screen size still comes in handy if you’re trying to watch a video or look at a picture with a friend or find 4 inch and smaller screens too small to look at.
Aside from screen size, there’s one other key feature that sets the Galaxy Player 4.0 and 5.0 apart. The Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 has a 2500mAh battery while smaller model has a 1200mAh battery.
Samsung says the 5 inch device should get up to 8 hours of run time while watching videos, while the Galaxy Player 4.0 should top out at about 5 hours.
Neither unit has a user-replaceable battery, so if you really need the extra battery life you might want to consider the 5 inch model or invest in an external battery pack. But if you can live with the smaller battery or the larger display, the Galaxy Player 4.0 might be the better option.
Not only will images and text look sharper on the screen, but a 4 inch tablet is easier to hold in one hand. It’s also easier to reach your thumb from one end of the display to the other while you’re holding a device with a smaller screen. I wanted to use the Galaxy Player 5.0 the way I use my Android smartphone, by holding it in one hand and using the thumb of that hand to tap and swipe on the display, but from time to time I found that I simply couldn’t reach the item I wanted to tap because the screen was too large.
The Galaxy Player 5.0 weighs 6.4 ounces, which is about 2 ounces more than the smaller model, but while it’s a bit large for one-handed use, it doesn’t feel particularly heavy.
The mobile device measures about 5.6″ x 3.1″ x 0.5″.
Samsung’s portable media player ships comes with Google Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread and features the same Samsung TouchWiz customizations found on the company’s smartphones.
That includes a custom home screen, application launcher, a few special widgets, and a quick settings panel. Samsung also includes the Swype Keyboard app, which lets you enter text either by tapping away at the keys or by sliding one finger from key to key to form words without lifting your finger from the screen.
TouchWiz is something of an acquired taste — especially if you’re used to a more standard Google Android experience. But the Galaxy Player offers all the basic home screen features you’d expect from an Android device.
You get up to 7 virtual home screens to customize with shortcuts to your favorite apps or widgets which show the time, weather, or other functions. There’s a persistent dock at the bottom of the screen with shortcuts for music, videos, internet, and applications.
When you tap the Applications icon it will bring up a complete list of installed applications. You can edit this screen to rearrange your apps — or to switch out shortcuts in the dock. If you never use the music or video players you can replace those apps with a calendar, map, or camera shortcut, for instance.
One of my favorite TouchWiz features is the toolbar that Samsung adds to the Android notification bar. You can swipe down from the top of the screen to bring up a list of notifications.
This is where you can easily see if you have new email messages, if a music app is currently playing a song, or if another app is trying to get your attention.
While that’s all you get with many Android devices, Samsung adds shortcuts for WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, sound, and auto rotation to the top of the notification window. You can tap any of these icons to enable or disable those features.
To access more advanced settings, just go to the home screen and tap the Menu button and choose the Settings option. From here you can pull up wireless, sound, display, application, location, and other settings.
One thing that bugs me about most Android handheld devices is that you need to dig into these menus to get to the screen brightness settings. But if you add the Power Control widget to your home screen you can tap a brightness icon to toggle between three different brightness levels.
You still need to go to the advanced display settings if you want to access a slider that gives you more control over your screen brightness, but the widget will do if you’re in a hurry.
The Galaxy Player comes with an app store called Samsung Apps which offers a few dozen apps for download including games, entertainment apps, and media apps. But there’s absolutely no reason to use Samsung Apps, because unlike most of the iPod touch alternatives we’ve seen so far, the Samsung Galaxy Player ships with access to Google’s Android Market.
That means you can access hundreds of thousands of free and paid apps. Some software may not be available because the phone doesn’t have the hardware to support it, but the Android Market offers a wider selection of apps than you’ll find from any third party Android marketplace.
The Android Market also offers books, music, and movies.
Google Android is an open source operating system, but some of the core Android apps including the Market, Gmail app, and Google Maps are not open source. Device makers need to license these apps from Google, and Google has insisted that devices meet certain hardware requirements in order to qualify for the Google apps.
For the most part, that’s meant that few non-phone devices which run Android 2.3 or below have included Market access, since those versions of the operating system were designed for phones rather than tablets or portable media players.
That’s why portable devices such as the Archos 43, Skytex Primer Pocket and Latte Communicatiosn ICE Smart ship without the Android Market — although there are sometimes ways to install a hacked version of the Market on unsupported devices.
Samsung works closely with Google on the company’s smartphone and tablet lines, so it’s no surprise that Samsung would be one of the first companies to produce a non-phone devices that runs Google Android 2.3 but which still includes the Market.
It’s likely that we’ll see more devices with Android Market access in the future, since Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is designed to run on phones, tablets, and other devices.
For now, though, the Galaxy Player 4.0 and 5.0 stand apart from most portable Android devices by shipping with full support for Google’s apps.
In addition to the Andorid Market, the Galaxy Player 5.0 comes with the official Gmail app, Google Maps (with navigation), Google Voice Search, and YouTube.
Instead of the official Google Calendar and Contact apps though, Samsung offers its own versions which synchronize with your Google account. The calendar app has a darker background than Google’s version, and the Contacts app has tabs for Groups and Activities.
Samsung also offers its own camera app which offers a number of features that you won’t find in the standard Android 2.3 camera utility including the ability to shoot panoramic photos, an action photo setting, and a variety of other advanced photo options.
The audio and video apps support a wide range of media formats including MKV, WMV, OGG Vorbis, and FLAC files.
The Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 may not have a dual core processor or bleeding edge graphics, but every app I downloaded from the Android Market ran smoothly. Video games look great, Netflix video plays without stuttering, and web pages load quickly.
Basically, the Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 performs like a top-of-the-line smartphone from a year or two ago. Since few apps on the market require more processing power than the Galaxy Player offers, there’s not much it can’t do.
Sure, web pages will load faster on a device with a more powerful chip, but the Galaxy Player never felt slow in my tests.
I ran a few benchmarks to see how it fares in general performance tests. Not surprisingly, the Galaxy Player performed a lot like the Velocity Micro Cruz tablets I reviewed recently. They also feature Samsung 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processors. In some tests, (but not all), the Galaxy Player also achieved similar scores to my two year old Google Nexus One smartphone which has a 1 GHz Qualcom Snapdragon processor.
CF Bench looks at the overall performance of a tablet. In this test, the Galaxy Player fell between the Google Nexus One and the Velocity Micro Cruz T408. But higher-end devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 score more than twice as high in the same test. That’s not surprising, since Samsung’s 10 inch tablet costs about twice as much as the Galaxy Player.
But I was a bit surprised to find that the Amazon Kindle Fire also scored more than twice as high as the Galaxy Player 5.0, despite the fact that Amazon’s $199 tablet is actually cheaper than a Galaxy Player.
I also ran the Quadrant benchmark test which looks at CPU, memory, and graphics performance. This time there wasn’t nearly as much difference between the Galaxy Player and the Kindle Fire.
Still, for surfing the web on the couch or over the breakfast table, the Galaxy Player feels just about as good as my Nexus One… but without the monthly data plan.
The Galaxy Player 5.0 has stereo speakers built into the back of the device. They’re among the loudest speakers I’ve found on a device this size, and they provide decent, but not spectacular sound.
I spent a few hours listening to music on the tablet, and I didn’t feel like sticking my fingers in my ears. But you’ll probably have better results if you use a good pair of headphones. The speakers are definitely good enough to let you watch YouTube, or even Netflix videos without plugging in headphones though.
Samsung says the Galaxy Player 5.0 battery should last for about 8 hours if you’re playing video, and in my tests that seems about right. Battery life varies depending on what you’re doing with an Android device. Listening to music with the screen off uses virtually no power at all, while streaming video over the internet or playing games can run down the battery more quickly.
One day I set the screen brightness to about 50 percent, streamed two hours of video over Netflix, listened to internet radio for another four hours with the screen on, and surfed the web for a while. After about 7 hours, the Galaxy Player 5.0 battery meter was only down to about 25 percent.
The Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 is like a decent smartphone for anyone that doesn’t want to be saddled with a data plan. Or to put it another way, it’s like an iPod touch for anyone that’s not interested in buying an Apple product. It’s the PDA evolved.
While there have been other Android devices that have attempted to fill this niche, the Galaxy Player 4.0 and 5.0 are the first devices to do it well.
The Galaxy Player 5.0 isn’t a perfect device. The screen viewing angles could be better, the display could be sharper, and at times I feel like a 5 inch tablet is too big for one-handed use.
If you don’t need the extra battery life provided by the 2500mAh battery, I’d say you should just save $40 and pick up the 4 inch model if you’re interested in a Galaxy Player. But battery life is important in a mobile device — especially one without a user replaceable battery.
The biggest challenge the Galaxy Player line of devices faces isn’t from Apple or smartphones though. It’s from new low-cost tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet.
Amazon’s tablet costs $70 less than the Galaxy Player 5.0 and has a higher resolution display and a much faster processors. It doesn’t fit into a pocket quite as nicely, so if you’re looking for a phone-sized device the Kindle Fire probably isn’t the best option. Amazon’s tablet also doesn’t have a camera, microphone, or SD card slot.
But it’s kind of hard to justify the Galaxy Player 5.0′s $270 price tag when you can get a Kindle Fire or an iPod touch for $199. Hopefully the price will come down soon, because if it weren’t for the price tag, I’d have no qualms recommending this mini-tablet for anyone looking for a small Android device for watching movies, surfing the web, or playing games without requiring a monthly data plan.