Walt Mossberg

Samsung Aims to Get in Touch With Media Players

Here’s a shocker: Not everyone wants to buy a smartphone.

Parents, for example, often balk at paying high monthly cellular-data bills for their teens and tweens and would rather they stick with simpler phones, if they have phones at all. And even some adults prefer simpler, less costly phones.

For a lot of these users, a popular solution has been what’s called a connected media player: Essentially a smartphone without cellular voice and data access, and without the monthly cellular bill. And the king of that category has been Apple’s iPod touch, which starts at $199. A Wi-Fi-only device, the touch looks like a thinner iPhone, with the same high-resolution 3.5-inch screen. It runs most of the same apps, handles email and Web surfing, and is a very capable hand-held game machine, music and video player, and photo viewer.

Now Samsung, Apple’s biggest rival in the smartphone arena, is going after the touch with a new connected media player sporting a similar-sized screen, the Galaxy Player 3.6. But Samsung is charging about $50 less — $150. And in about 10 days, it’ll launch a second model, the larger Galaxy Player 4.2, for $200. Both devices run on a year-old version of Google’s Android operating system.

Samsung dipped its toe into this market last year with earlier Galaxy Players, but they were mostly ignored by consumers, partly because of bulky designs and high prices. Now, the Korean giant is doubling down with more compact and affordable models.

I’ve been testing the Player 3.6 for the past few days and comparing it with the latest iPod touch. The Samsung has some advantages, such as a camera that takes better still pictures, an FM radio and expandable memory. But overall, it feels like a cruder device than the touch. Its much lower screen resolution made text, video and images look grainy compared with those on the touch, and its bulkier plastic case felt flimsy compared with the glass and stainless-steel case on the touch, which uses Apple’s latest OS.

Still, for some people, especially parents buying for their kids, the Galaxy Player 3.6 may be good enough, especially since it costs 25 percent less. Its price advantage is even a bit better, because it comes with a charger, something the touch doesn’t include. And its included earbuds are the in-ear type, with a microphone and play-pause button, which the included touch earbuds lack.

PTECHjpAmong the features of the Samsung Galaxy Player 3.6: FM radio and earbuds with a microphone and play-pause button.

Even though the Galaxy Player isn’t a cellphone, it can make voice and video calls, and send text messages over the Internet when you’re in Wi-Fi range. Just like the touch.

Samsung insists the $200, 4.2-inch model will be a closer competitor to the touch. I didn’t get a chance to put this model through its paces. But I did get to play with one for about an hour. Its screen resolution is much higher than its sibling’s, though still well below that of the touch. It also has front-mounted stereo speakers that sounded great — better than the Apple’s speaker. And some users will prefer its larger screen.

Even the entry-level Samsung model might be considered an alternative to Apple’s, especially by prospective buyers who are price-conscious or prefer Android, or who want some Samsung features the touch lacks. The Galaxy Player 3.6 is about 34 percent thicker, 8 percent heavier than the touch, and is also longer and wider, but it is still comfortable in the hand and the pocket.

I tried music, videos, photos, games, email, Web surfing and third-party apps like Netflix and “Angry Birds” on the new Player. All worked fine, as did a movie I rented from Google’s online store, recently renamed Google Play from Android Market. To get media from a computer onto the Player, Samsung recommends plugging it in via a cable and dragging the files manually into specified folders on the device. This worked for me, but was tedious.

Samsung offers a Windows and Mac program called Kies that automates the transfer process. But in my tests, only the Windows version was able to work with the Player I was using.

The 2-megapixel rear camera on the Player 3.6 was better at still photos than the one on the touch, but worse at videos. Still, neither comes close to matching the superb cameras in smartphones like the latest iPhone or the Android-based HTC One.

The Player 3.6 has an unusual feature: It can be paired with a cellphone — even an iPhone — via Bluetooth, and can be used to answer (not place) calls. In my tests, this worked, but I can’t imagine using it very often.

Like the base $199 iPod touch, the $150 entry-model Player comes with 8 gigabytes of internal memory. But, unlike the Apple, you can expand its memory with an extra-cost memory card, up to 32GB. Apple offers higher-priced touch models with 32GB and 64GB of sealed-in memory.

I didn’t do a formal battery test, but Samsung claims the Player 3.6 gets 30 hours when playing audio and six hours when playing video. Apple claims 40 hours for audio and seven hours for video on the touch. In my use, the Samsung’s battery held up nicely, and the battery is removable.

Overall, the new Galaxy Player 3.6 is worth a look if you’re in the market for a device with many of the features, but not the monthly costs, of a smartphone, especially if you’re on a budget and can live with the poor screen resolution.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

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