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Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0

Android has long needed a non-phone “iPod Touch” equivalent as a way of introducing consumers to the platform, after all, the Touch has served for many as a low-cost gateway drug to everything that iOS has to offer.  Offering a reasonably priced media player with app support provides a much needed bridge for those not ready to sign a 2-year contract for a smartphone plan, or the cost commitment of purchasing a $400-$500+ tablet.

Thus far, the early Android media players have lacked both the quality and form factor that have made the iPod Touch a hit.  Units from Archos have perhaps come closest, but the smaller, non-tablet models are still bulky and clearly inferior in comparison.  What’s been needed is a device from one of the main Android phone manufacturers that can deliver the “Android phone without the phone” experience that the iPod Touch serves as for the iPhone.

Samsung has answered this call with their Samsung Galaxy Player line, available in a smartphone-like 4” screen model as well as a “jumbo”, almost tablet-esque 5” screen model.  This review will focus on the 5” model, the Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0.

The Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 and a 4th Gen iPod TouchFirst, a quick rundown on specifications.  The Galaxy Player 5.0’s 5” screen is a WVGA TFT LCD screen displaying at 800 x 480 resolution.  The screen is gorgeous—at 333 lux it’s brighter than even the Samsung Galaxy S II’s AMOLED screen at 286 lux, and does a commendable job at color definition and contrast in comparison despite the S II’s superior screen tech.  The device is lightweight and reasonably comfortable for one-hand use.

The Galaxy Player 5.0 includes only 8gb of onboard flash memory, which is fortunately upgradable by up to another 32gb via its’ micro sd slot.  The system charges via a standard microUSB port at the bottom of the player.   Battery life is outstanding when compared to a typical smartphone due to the lack of 3G/4G connectivity.  Samsung says you can get 8 hours of straight video playback or 60 hours of audio playback per charge, which I found to be surprisingly long.

It features both front facing and rear (main) cameras, the front facing weighing in at VGA resolution (mainly used for video chat) and the rear (main) camera weighing in at 3.2 megapixels (2048 x 1536), which may seem paltry in comparison to today’s leading edge smartphones, but blows away the iPod Touch camera’s 960 x 720 resolution.  Also present is an LED flash.  For video, the Galaxy Player 5.0 will record up to 720p quality.

In my testing, I found the cameras to be a welcome upgrade from what I’m used to with my 4th Gen iPod Touch, but I wouldn’t use this as a main camera by any stretch.  I found that for both photos and video it performed well in low light as well as with flash in photos, although I did notice a bit of light bleed around the edges of dark photos around the corners—something that I have found to be quite common with phone cameras.  Colors were vivid and well defined, and pictures were sharp considering the resolution.  The camera also includes a panoramic shot mode, which is a lot of fun and works well with the positioning guide software.

Another welcome feature is the inclusion of GPS, making this device a great alternative to purchasing a new GPS unit when paired with one of the offline navigation apps (Google’s own navigation app requires a connection to provide directions).  The device also includes Bluetooth connectivity for headsets and headphones, though there are limitations for certain Bluetooth peripherals, which I will get into later in the review.

As with most Android devices, your mileage may vary as far as app support goes depending on what you want to do with the device.  For music, you have the benefit of pretty much every audio service I could think of, with plenty of Shoutcast client apps to choose from, live radio apps such as iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio, and cloud service support from all of the major players such as Subsonic, Google Music, Pandora, and Spotify.  The sound quality from the headset jack is crisp and clean, and way louder than you’d ever need.  The built-in speakers do a fine job as well.

For video, some key services were missing on the device that are currently present on the iPod Touch, most notably Hulu Plus.  The Xfinity does not include on demand video like the iOS equivalent, and the CNN app similarly lacks the live video feature.  Also, there is no ABC player app, though that is a problem for all Android devices.  What is available is Netflix which utilizes the fantastic latest version of the interface and looks great.  Also present is the HBOGo app, Subsonic (for video), and Amazon Instant Video along with the Android Marketplace’s own On Demand video services.  Video performance is an area where this device shines, and despite the limited app selection (which may be improved over time), for a handheld device you simply cannot compare the experience of watching a movie on this 5” screen with that of the 3.5” screen of the iPod Touch, even when factoring the high-dpi retina screen of the latter.  The device also includes native support for Xvid/DivX with its’ included video player if you prefer to drop and drag your content directly to your device’s storage.

Sounds great so far, huh?  Well, unfortunately there are some issues that prevent the Galaxy Player 5.0 from being a complete homerun.  Depending on your needs, these may be minor disappointments or outright deal breakers.

The first one was a big deal for me as a gamer.  Although the Galaxy Player 5.0’s 1ghz ARM Hummingbird Processor performs admirably with all the major game emulators (including N64oid), the device is hampered by Samsung’s otherwise nifty Touchwiz interface’s lack of support for most Bluetooth controller solutions that are popular with the Android emulation scene such as the Wii Remote and PS3 gamepads.  To be fair, this is a problem with all Samsung devices running Android’s Gingerbread version OS or below.  The Galaxy Player 5.0 runs Android 2.3.5 out of the box.  This limitation is due to Samsung’s decision to disable this type of support due to conflicts with their Touchwiz software.  After a bit of research, I found that there are only two Bluetooth gamepad solutions that can currently get around this problem, the overly expensive (and ugly) iControlPad, and the always out of stock Phonejoy.  Personally, I’m unwilling to spring for either one.  The issue is a software problem, however, therefore when (and if) Samsung provides an Android 4.0 ice cream sandwich update for the device the problem should be resolved as it has been for Samsung devices running Android 3.0 honeycomb and the latest Galaxy Nexus phone from Samsung which is running ice cream sandwich.

The other option is to wait for a custom rom to drop on this relatively new device, but the prospects for this happening aren’t great since the device doesn’t seem to have much of a following among the usual custom rom circles.  This may or may not be an option for many consumers either way.

As far as standard app-based gaming goes, the device performed flawlessly with the games I tested including Asphalt 5, NOVA 2, Puzzle Quest 2, and Fruit Ninja, with none of the stuttering you might expect from low end Android devices in this price range.  Coming from my Tegra2-based tablet, I did miss some of the great Tegra enhanced games, most notably Zen Pinball which would look amazing on the Galaxy Player 5.0’s screen.  I hope they update the app for non-Tegra compatibility sometime soon.

That brings me to the other glaring flaw:  the version of Android gingerbread that’s included on the device inexplicably does not support OTA firmware updates, requiring an iTunes-esque middleware from Samsung called “Kies” to check for and deploy firmware updates.  This is as silly as it is inconvenient, and likely only exists as a nod to the outdated Apple paradigm of “syncing” your device by tethering it to a computer with a cable.  This could also be “fixed” with an update, but I doubt it’s very high on Samsung’s list of issues.

I give the Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 high marks for its gorgeous 5” screen, along with the convenience of the included GPS functionality and capable camera quality for both photos and video.  As a gamer however, I can’t recommend this device if you plan to use it as your main Android gaming device due to the lack of standard Bluetooth controller support.  That could change with an Android 4.0 ice cream sandwich update, but such an update has not been confirmed by Samsung.

But if you’re looking to dip your feet into the Android platform waters to see what it’s all about without signing a 2-year smartphone contract or committing to a full-sized Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 is a solid, inexpensive solution to get you started.  In fulfilling its purpose as a media player alternative to Apple’s iPod Touch, it performs exceptionally, providing a better camera, a larger screen, and the convenience of drop-and-drag file support using inexpensive micro sd card memory.

If you’re considering this device and don’t already own an Android tablet, I recommend you also look at Acer’s honeycomb-based Iconia A100 7” Android tablet.  The 7” form factor takes it well into tablet size range, which may be too big for your needs as a media player (you won’t want to use it while jogging, for example), but a recent price drop places it at the same $259.00 price point most retailers like Best Buy are pricing the Samsuing Galaxy Player 5.0 (although I got mine on sale for $239.00) .  The Acer Iconia A100’s honeycomb OS clears the way for Bluetooth gamepad connectivity, adds Tegra 2 support, and Acer has promised the device will definitely be updated to Android 4.0 ICS sometime in 2012.  So if the larger form factor conforms to your needs, the Acer Iconia A100 7” tablet is a nice alternative in the same price range.

I’ll give the Samsung Galaxy Player 5.0 three out of five Tikis, though an update to ice cream sandwich and the addition of Hulu Plus support would increase that score to four out of five Tikis.  Bottom line:  if game emulators aren’t a big part of the plan for your Android experience, this device is a great alternative to the iPod Touch if you’re looking to avoid or defect from the iOS ecosystem.

Any questions?  Feel free to hit me up on Google Plus or at the MonroeWorld forums.

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