Monday, August 25 2008, 12:52
PocketPC Phone - Samsung SGH-i780: First impressions
Computer geeks like technology “toys”. They do not like it only because some of these toys are very technology advanced but mainly because it makes them more productive and makes their jobs easier, the latter being the biggest reason why companies tend to be inclined to provide their “corporate geeks” with this kind of items. As you can guess by now, I’m talking a bit about me and my brand new phone the Samsung SGH-i780.
The Samsung SGH-i780, a Windows Mobile 6 PocketPC Phone
While I said geeks like toys, I never have been fond of mobile phones until I got my BlackBerry 7730, which I have been a very happy user so far: the ease-of-use and ergonomics of these devices is certainly impressive and especially was at that time. 4 years ago, getting e-mails on a phone was also a bit like magic and I was greatly impressed when I had the opportunity to try the device for a month for free. I have been using it for roughly 4 years and I’ve quickly gotten to know it like my pocket… and got some habits, which I consider good, and are hard to lose when migrating to another phone.
The safest choice to get a new phone would have been to get a newer model of the BlackBerry but they newest models didn’t seem very much more advanced than the one I had been using. Also, as a Windows-guy, it was making much more sense to get a handheld running Windows Mobile than the BlackBerry OS, which provides much less applications choices due to it being a less widespread platform. Besides, the opportunity to easily be developing custom software using the .Net Compact Framework to tweak my phone using Visual Studio, a development environment I am much more familiar with than BlackBerry’s java was a plus in my book.
But the biggest reason was definitely to get Skype working on my phone. Over the last few months, we have been deploying Skype in my company (more about Skype in the corporate environment in a series of upcoming posts) and text-mode Skype has quickly become my primary communication system with my colleagues and friends (Fred, my other friends, and relatives tend to use Skype much more than other instant-messaging protocols). As I was finding myself using e-mail less and less, the BlackBerry’s ability to receive and send e-mails was hardly a huge benefit over normal phones anymore, but being able to run Skype on my phone would be a great added benefit over the current situation. As this software couldn’t run on BlackBerries, it was a further reason to leave this range of products.
However, and as I was saying earlier, I got many habits with the BlackBerry, which I didn’t want to lose because of the efficiency of some features of the BlackBerry. In short, I wanted an integrated keyboard (on-screen-display keyboard simply is too inaccurate), an easy way to navigate (I absolutely loved the BlackBerry’s scroll wheel which enables the user to navigate anywhere by simply slightly moving a single finger) and being able to synchronize with Outlook and Exchange without needing to install third-party software on my servers.
Regarding ergonomics, the i780 sports a 320x320 pixels screen which is a rather small resolution but it is hard to keep the BlackBerry format and getting a big screen all at once. The keyboard is slightly smaller than the BlackBerry’s and I feel that the letters would have benefited from getting more space between them, which I don’t think would have made the device much (if any) bulkier. I have rather small fingers and I tend to hit two keys at once more than I did on the BlackBerry. I’m confident it is a matter of habits here and that I’ll grow accustomed to the new keyboard as time passes. There also is the stylus, very common in PDAs: I never found these very easy to use as it forces you to use your both hands to do simple stuff like clicking somewhere on the screen. Of course, it provides much better accuracy than touching the screen itself. I also believe that stylus tend to attract, if you use it on the subway for example, the attention of potential robbers as they can believe you have a PDA and not a normal phone (which is true after all). In this day and age with the criminality on the rise and crazy stories happening everyday, it makes sense to avoid exhibiting and showing off your technology goods. Criminality notwithstanding, you sometimes find yourself in situations where you must send a message quickly and discreetly, which a stylus is unable to help with. As such, the easiest and most discreet way to navigate with the i780 certainly is the “mouse-pad” integrated at the top of the keyboard: it just feels like a laptop mouse-pad and you simply move your finger on it to move a arrow-shaped cursor and press on the mouse-pad to click: feels just like a PC which is great to the PC user I am.
That said, none of these navigation features (stylus, fingers, and mouse-pad) is as fast, discreet and easy as the BlackBerry’s scroll-wheel, but if we consider the complexity of the user-interface of Windows Mobile over the one from the BlackBerry’s, which certainly provides way too many options and areas of interaction to just be used with a scroll-wheel, the mouse-pad is probably the best choice that Samsung could come up with.
The battery life so far is disappointing, but that’s the weak point of the Windows Mobile enabled devices in general as they tend to have very bright and colorful screens and to embed a lot of technology (the WiFi, 3G+, GPS, Bluetooth chips and camera need power after all). I tend to charge it up whenever I have the opportunity to so I couldn’t yet judge how long the battery could last without charging it for a whole day, but considering how quickly the battery jauge reduces, I’m afraid it might be difficult to use it for a whole day without charging it, unless you avoid using it and log off from Skype for instance, but it makes little sense to disable the features you bought the device for in the first place. I don’t own a Bluetooth headset yet (my BlackBerry wasn’t equiped for this technology) but when I will do, it will drain power even quicker. Fortunately, the product comes with a second battery which can be charged independently in its own “charging box”, but while the battery themselves are tiny, switching them isn’t very easy as the backside panel doesn’t open and close itself very easily (you have to push it backwards with your fingers to make it slide out of the phone). If the designers considered their phones needed to switch battery every once in a while, they should definitely have made this much easier than it currently is. To work around the poor battery life, bigger batteries of the brand “Mugen” may be purchased, which according to the specs may hold three times as much power as the original ones, but of course they are rather expensive and also are bulkier than the original ones, so much that they are shipped with a new back-panel to accommodate their increased height. Obviously, this makes the phone more expensive to own, and bigger and heavier to carry around and poses compatibility problems with third-party accessories which are designed for the original casing.
Accessories are my biggest qualms regarding this phone. The accessories shipped by default with the phone are barely existent, with just a couple of charger cables, along with the box to charge the second battery and a wire-headset for hands-free communication and music listening. Absolutely no cradle or more importantly protection case in either leather or plastic. The lack of this case is disturbing since it is clear that such precious devices are going to be protected by their users. I also was used to always wear my BlackBerry on my belt with the plastic case that could very easily attach to the belt. Getting the phone out of it was very easy by just sliding the phone out of it using the palm of the hand, which was both easier and discreet and this quality item was shipped with the BlackBerry. I had to buy a belt-clippable leather case for it which costs around 40 € with shipping and which I find less convenient to use than the BlackBerry’s one and it seems I bought the best one available.
Even more disturbing is the fact that Samsung didn’t think about docking stations at all. My BlackBerry was again shipped with a nice USB-powered docking station by default, but Samsung didn’t ship one nor do they make them. The reason is simple: the i780 simply wasn’t designed with docking-station in mind. The reason is that the plug-hole for the charger is located at the top, on the right side of the phone: it is where you plug the charging plug. In either PC or phones which can dock into a real docking station, the docking plug-hole is located at the bottom on the device to simply push it on the cradle and easily remove it without having to plug any ugly and cumbersome wires.
This very bad design choice from Samsung probably comes from the fact that they use the same plug-hole for both the power-cable and the external headset, which can be plugged here alternatively. Obviously, having the headset plugged at the bottom wouldn’t be very convenient when using the headset, but my views are that these plugs shouldn’t have been related to begin with and that even so, a power plug-hole could have been located at the bottom of the device. It is also to be noted that many mobile review sites heavily criticized this phone for its choice to use proprietary power plugs rather than the much more standard and wide-spread mini-USB ones.
Nevertheless, third-party-built docking stations do exist, but you have to plug an ugly wire to your phone everytime. I bought a couple of them anyway but having to plug the wire completely defeats the point of having a docking station in the first place. I also managed to make my office free of almost any apparent wire so I am not particularly pleased by this unwelcome addition to my desk. This choice from Samsung is particularly disturbing especially considering that this phone’s target is corporate users like high-ranking executives and IT professionals, both of which are very demanding in this kind of little details. It is to me the worst issue of this phone, which Samsung built and released to the market without any apparent desire to support it with quality accessories.
To be honest, I only own this phone for less than a week, and I obviously like it more than I dislike it, but compared to my full embracement of the BlackBerry after only a few minutes of use a few years ago, I expected a much better experience, especially in the areas of battery-life and accessories which are quite clearly the weakest technological point of this phone and which has to be somewhat compensated by expensive third-party-built products, many of which can barely be found in Europe (eBay is your friend). However, the processor is fast and has a decent amount of memory which helps it to do a great job in being able to chat on Skype from my mobile device anywhere.
PS: For more detailled review, you can head to MobileReview, which has a very comprehensive review of this phone, and watch here a video of the i780 as it gets unpackaged from the box. The unofficial i780 blog is also a great source of news and information for i780 owners.