Probably the biggest change from the previous model is the adoption of a colour screen. Don't get too excited; you won't be watching video on it, and it's no better than the display on an average, budget mobile phone, but it's still pretty good for a player this small and this cheap. Large text and a chunky font mean that you still have to put up with a lot of scrolling text when you're navigating through albums or playlists, but the screen does have other practical uses.
First, it can now display album art during playback - not vitally important, but a nice touch. Second, it allows the Spark to double as a tiny JPEG photo viewer. Thanks to the small size and low resolution you won't want to share a whole album of holiday snaps this way, but the colours are reasonable and you can set the images to rotate in a basic, no-transitions slideshow. Finally, you can also use the player's Personalize feature to set images for the wallpaper and the startup/shutdown sequences.
Addressing another complaint of our SA2840 review, the Spark comes with a protective silicon pouch and detachable clip, allowing you to hook the player on your clothes or belt if you're doing something active. And if you like hiking or long-distance running, you'll have no issues with the battery life. The Spark is rated for 27 hours, and the test sample left running overnight certainly came within 30 minutes of that at medium volume levels.
Otherwise, Philips has played smart and not overloaded the Spark with additional features. There's a basic but decent voice-recorder, though like a lot of small, budget players it's prone to accentuating handling noise, and there is a model available with an FM radio receiver. At heart, however, this is a music player, through and through.
The stripped-back approach also applies to software. We get no media player or file transfer applets to ignore, just a simple firmware updater, leaving you to drag and drop tracks or sync with Windows Media Player just like most sensible souls already do. My only minor grumble about this 'less is more' approach is that it extends even to file format support as well. While players like the Sansa Clip and Samsung YP-U4 are embracing OGG and even FLAC, the GoGear Spark just does your vanilla MP3, WAV and WMA.
Okay; let's talk sound quality. The GoGear Spark comes bundled with a pair of fairly basic earbuds, and while these aren't as bad as, say, the standard iPod 'phones, they do produce the sort of sound that's big on high-end clarity, but not so big on warm tones, low-end detail or bass. In fact, listen to any decent rock or dance/electronica track, and you'll soon note how thin and clattery the drums sound, and how weak and limited the bass is.