If you're in the market for a touchscreen portable media player but can't decide whether to wait for the upcoming Sony X1000 Walkman or choose from what's already available, then read on for an objective and subjective comparison of the top three contenders you can get today: the second-generation Apple iPod touch, Cowon S9, and Samsung P3.
The point of this article is not to start a war between fanboys or declare that one player is unequivocally better than the others. We're all different, so nothing will ever be perfect for everyone. But one might be perfect for you.
Let's take a look at the facts first.
Note: The Samsung P3 will be officially released in the US in May 2009 for $149 (8GB), $199 (16GB), and $299 (32GB). At the time of this writing, however, it is only available through an importer.
|Apple iPod touch 2G
| Samsung P3
|8GB ($229 MSRP)
16GB ($299 MSRP)
32GB ($399 MSRP)
| 8GB ($199 MSRP)
16GB ($239 MSRP)
32GB ($299 MSRP)
| 8GB ($149 MSRP)
16GB ($199 MSRP)
32GB ($299 MSRP
||4.3" x 2.4" x 0.3"||4.2" x 2.2" x 0.5"||4.0" x 2.1" x 0.4"|
||4.05 ounces||2.7 ounces||3.4 ounces|
|| 3.5" (480 x 320)
| 3.3" (480 x 272)
| 3.0" (480 x 272)
| Bluetooth 2.0+EDR
| Proprietary port
| AAC, AAC-DRM, MP3,
MP3 VBR, WAV, AIFF
Audible, Apple Lossless
| MP3/2/1, FLAC,
OGG, WAV, APE,
| MP3, FLAC, OGG,
up to 640 x 480
| XviD/DivX (AVI)
480 x 272 recommended
higher res supported
| XviD/DivX (AVI)
up to 800 x 600
| Third-party applications
iTunes Music Store
BT mobile phone
|| Audio: 36 hours
Video: 6 hours
| Audio: 55 hours
Video: 11 hours
|Audio: 30 hours
Video: 5 hours
For some people, a comparison chart like this is enough to make a decision. Want the thinnest player? Get the iPod touch. Looking for the longest battery life? Pick up the Cowon S9. Want to use the device to make/receive phone calls? Buy the Samsung P3.
For others, specs aren't enough to determine how to spend hundreds of dollars. They need subjective opinions about specific features, side-by-side photos, and other details that can't be gleaned from a sterile list of facts.
The iPod touch 2G, Cowon S9, and Samsung P3 are all attractive players.
Show them to someone who doesn't follow DAP/PMP news (like my husband) and you might get a comment like "They all look the same." They're not identical, obviously, but they are variations of a very similar design.
Not taking into consideration anything but how the players look, if I saw all three on display under glass and didn't know they were made of different materials or branded by different companies, I would think the S9 looks the best. In contrast to the iPod touch's overly rounded corners and wide top "band" above the screen (where the sensor is) and the P3's too rectangular shape and touch strip beneath the display, I think the S9 has the most balanced and stylish design.
My Pick: Cowon S9
Though the S9 places first in terms of how it looks, it places last in how it's made.
All three devices are built well, but the S9's lightweight plastic body pales in comparison to the metal bodies of the iPod touch and P3. It's the lightest of the three and actually feels a bit toy-like and cheap. It lacks the "heft" often associated with premium products and just doesn't feel substantial enough.
On the other hand, the smooth matte plastic is less prone to scratches and doesn't show fingerprints, which are both ugly realities of the iPod touch (the perils of a shiny chrome back!). The P3's brushed metal backplate, on the other hand, is more scratch-resistant and better at masking finger oils and smudges than the touch.
My Pick: Samsung P3
When most people buy and unbox a new gadget, they want to start playing with it right away. Sure, some (like me) may charge it fully before turning it on, but most want to take the player out of the box, turn it on (it's usually partially charged already), and start using it. Everyone needs to connect the device to a computer to transfer media, of course, but most players can be enjoyed before that because of their extra features and preloaded content.
The Cowon S9 and Samsung P3 can be explored right out of the box. Users can watch and listen to the sample content, fiddle with settings, and familiarize themselves with the interface. There's a bit more to do on a factory-fresh P3 because the interface is more customizable (UCIs, which both players support, require a computer), there are preloaded games, and it has a built-in speaker (handy if you don't have immediate access to headphones or want to show off your new device to a friend).
The iPod touch 2G, on the other hand, can't be turned on without connecting to a computer, starting up iTunes, choosing whether to register the device, accepting or declining the MobileMe trial offer, viewing the license agreement, and setting up sync options first. Considering all of the extras the touch 2G has to offer (web browser, App Store, PIM functions, etc.), it's aggravating to have to go through all of these steps just to see the home screen. I can understand needing to run through the setup before loading the player with content, but just to get a look at the interface and try out some of the native apps? Ridiculous.
My Pick: Samsung P3
The iPod touch 2G, Cowon S9, and Samsung P3 are all equipped with capacitive touchscreens made of glass. The touch has the largest display and is the only one of the three with multi-touch. The other two support a few gestures, but their screens aren't quite as fluid or responsive. They're incredibly good, that's for sure, but if they had to be ranked, the iPod touch would be on top.
Where the touch's screen comes in at the bottom, however, is screen quality: brightness, colors, viewing angles, and so on.
Have a look at the following images to see what I mean (left to right in all photos: iPod touch 2G, Cowon S9, Samsung P3).
Maximum screen brightness:
Minimum screen brightness:
Mid screen brightness:
Viewing angles at mid-brightness:
The reason the Cowon S9's display (which looks better in person than in photos, by the way) is the most vibrant and has the best viewing angles is simple: it has a 16M-color AMOLED screen. The advantages of an AMOLED, which iriver has been using on some of their players for several years (e.g., clix 2), over a traditional LCD are unlimited viewing angles, higher contrast ratio, energy efficiency, and quick response.
My Pick: iPod touch 2G (response), Cowon S9 (quality)
Colorful finger-friendly icons arranged in a grid make up the user interface on all three players.
The main screens are equally self-explanatory: tap an icon to access the item and in many cases a list of options. Menu organization is straightforward on all three devices as well, though the S9 is probably the most complicated because of a few cryptic-looking icons that aren't immediately recognizable.
The iPod touch 2G has the easiest "pick up and use" interface: it's very simp le and there's no variation. Everything is uniform: pages, rows, icons. The S9 and P3, on the other hand, support widgets, which vary widely in size and shape. Widgets are kept on their own page on the S9 but are allowed to roam freely across five pages with other icons on the P3.
The touch has the most responsive screen and an interface that anyone can use without guidance, but it doesn't have the most responsive UI. Screen taps are registered immediately, yes, but launching applications and accessing various parts of the system isn't instant. You don't really feel the lag because of the visualizations, but it's definitely there. The Samsung P3's flash-based interface is the same way. It doesn't really feel like you're waiting, but you are; you're just distracted/entertained by the animation.
The Cowon S9 has the most responsive UI. It's flash-based too but there are less "flourishes" between tapping an item and getting where you want to go. For example, it takes 0.8 seconds for the S9 to display a screen after pressing the Music icon. The same action takes 1 second on the touch and P3. Two-tenths of a second isn't a significant amount of time, but the S9's UI is still 20% more responsive in this case.
My Pick: iPod touch 2G (ease of use), Cowon S9 (response), Samsung P3 (style/design)
All three media players have customizable interfaces, though the extent of the customizations vary.
With a stock iPod touch (i.e., not a jailbroken one), users can rearrange the icons across multiple pages and install/uninstall third-party applications.
With a Cowon S9 and Samsung P3, users can create new interfaces from scratch. Both companies provide UCI guides on their websites (Cowon guide, Samsung guide) and encourage people to share their creations with others. Without UCI, the P3's interface is more customizable because widgets and icons can reside together and be spread out across multiple pages; all that can be done on the S9 without UCI is to change the font/wallpaper, toggle between colorful and mostly black-and-white icons, and rearrange widgets on their own page.
My Pick: Samsung P3
Audiophiles regard Cowon as one of the most well respected brands for a reason.
Both with and without sound enhancements (and according to my ears and Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro), the Cowon S9 delivers the best sound quality. The touch and P3 don't sound bad, but compared to the S9, they're definitely lacking. The P3 needs to make use of its DNSe 3.0 audio enhancement technology to put it above the touch, which has muddy lows and lacks clarity without the EQ enabled.
How you hear the players depends on your headphones, music quality (bitrate, format, etc.), and personal preferences.
My Pick: Cowon S9
The S9 and P3 are no match for the iPod touch 2G when it comes to extras. The touch is in a league of its own with the Safari web browser, extensive third-party applications, App Store, iTunes Store, and general ability to function as a do-it-all MID. The S9 and P3 do have a few features the iPod touch doesn't like Flash, an FM radio, and Bluetooth (yes, the touch will get this with the 3.0 software update, but it isn't available yet–and the P3 will still support more profiles anyway), but the touch still has more to offer.
My Pick: iPod touch 2G
I won't tally up "the score" or assign points to the values in the specs chart because it doesn't matter. As you saw from the "My Pick" choices at the end of each section, there's no clear-cut winner. The iPod touch 2G, Cowon S9, and Samsung P3 each have their strengths and weaknesses, which I hope I've shown above. Only you can decide which player is right for you.