Samsung BlackJack Review

by Reads (140,830)

Whether it’s the Motorola Q, the T-Mobile Dash, or now the Samsung BlackJack, it seems that every carrier nowadays has to have at least one ultra-slim Windows Mobile Smartphone. Cingular’s choice is the style-conscious BlackJack, also known as the SGH-i607.

Design & Construction

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Although the former Cingular has begun transitioning back to the AT&T name, most of its devices will continue to be branded as Cingular for the near future. The BlackJack is no exception, bearing the Cingular logo on the case as well as in its software.

One of the first things you notice about the BlackJack itself is that style is definitely its watchword. The entire casing is designed with an apparent "clean lines" ethic, with little to nothing protruding from the compact form of the device itself.

Left side, with headphone/USB
jack and volume rocker.
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Anything that would detract from the aerodynamics — for instance, the USB/audio jack, and the memory card slot — is hidden under a cover of one sort or another.

For the two aforementioned features, these are small rubber caps along the sides of the device, which you pry out with a fingernail. These are attached to the casing, so you don’t need to worry about losing them, though they might break off with long term use. Of course, these covers also serve to keep dust and debris from getting inside the connectors when the device is being carried in a pocket.

The only thing which detracts from the BlackJack’s overall aesthetic is the bump on the top rear of the casing, where we find the 1.3 megapixel camera and the reflective patch which serves as a self-portrait mirror.

Right-hand profile showing jog dial, back button, and MicroSD slot.

Another concealed feature is found in the battery compartment. While the BlackJack at first glance has no external antenna connector, a close examination of the battery compartment reveals a small black plastic sticker which, when lifted up, reveals the absent antenna jack. Big plus in still providing an antenna jack in such a style-conscious unit — a slight downside in that if you want to use it, you have to slide down the battery cover. Of course, with most devices you have to pry off a rubber cap, so I suppose it’s six of one, a half dozen of the other.

Battery cover removed to display antenna connector and SIM slot.

The SIM card is in a niche just above the battery. You can remove and replace it without removing the battery, but it’s somewhat pointless as you still have to reboot the phone before it recognizes the new SIM.

Bad news: the BlackJack uses a proprietary jack for a combination of USB and audio, so you can neither use standard cables, nor can you use your own headphones. Worse news: It’s also the same jack as is used for power, and you do not get any kind of splitter cable in the box. So you can’t listen to music and charge (or sync) at the same time using the standard equipment. My advice: plan for heavy reliance on Bluetooth for both headphones and synching.

Obviously one of the BlackJack’s biggest selling points is its keyboard. Despite the relatively small keys, it’s surprisingly comfortable to press. Each key has a good solid response, not too soft, not too hard.

The software implementation is even nicer. Rather than having to fool around with function keys to get at numbers and punctuation while typing, you need only press down the key and hold it. Net result, much faster input, less seeking, and a more comfortable user experience.

My only real tweak about the design is the way that the buttons are layed out around the directional pad. As they are pressed up against each other it can take a little while for you to get used to them, and until you do you’ll likely find yourself accidently mashing one of them when you’re going for the d-pad. Someone with small thumbs would likely find it easier.

Left to right: Cingular 8525 (HTC Hermes), Samsung BlackJack,
Qtek 8500 (HTC StrTrk).
Top to bottom: Qtek 8500, Samsung BlackJack,
Cingular 8525.
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Performance and Usability

The BlackJack sports a slightly faster processor than most other WM Smartphones on the market. While only a 10% improvement in total clock speed, you can feel a little bit of extra power at those critical times. It is, however, not nearly enough to run higher-bandwidth videos or most VoIP applications.

If you’re accustomed to other Windows Mobile Smartphones, you’ll get a bit of a surprise when you start using the BlackJack. The application launcher has been retooled to provide for the jog wheel on the side. Press down the dial and hold it, and up pops a quick-launch menu. By default there are only a few minor entries here, but you can customize it heavily. It has the option to place in the menu a shortcut to any program, folder, or file on the device, as well as any web site address.

It’s hard to overstate how flexible this is, making it extremely handy if you’re the sort of person who likes to customize your device and its shortcuts. You can literally have anything on your device or the Internet available within a couple clicks of the wheel. Of course if you prefer, you can also assign applications to speed-dial selections.

The Java runtime environment included on the BlackJack is, frankly, not good. Besides being less user-friendly than the Intent Midlet Manager used on HTC-built devices, the BlackJack doesn’t permit even per-session security approval for applications. In other words, if you want to run something like Opera Mini which connects to the Internet, you need to manually approve the connection each and every time it downloads something.

Besides Java, the only major software deficiencies to be found on the BlackJack are those that are endemic to the Windows Mobile Smartphone operating system. Despite how obvious it would seem to be, there’s still no easy way to put the device to sleep. The power button only allows you to turn it all the way off, phone and everything, which isn’t very useful.

The second problem is the lack of an office suite. While the BlackJack comes pre-loaded with Picsel Viewer to at least let users read Word and other Microsoft Office documents, this is a somewhat poor substitute to a real office suite out of the box. To fully remedy this on Windows Mobile 5 Smartphone, you need third-party software.

Communication

The cellular radio in the BlackJack supports almost every GSM-based standard in current use: quad-band GSM, GPRS, and EDGE, as well as dual-band UMTS and HSDPA, the latter two being on the 850 MHz and 1900 MHz bands.

The only thing that it doesn’t support is the 2100 MHz UMTS networks used in Europe and elsewhere. If you’re going international, you’ll be restricted to EDGE as your fastest form of Internet connection.

There’s also one future tech it won’t work with: the 1700/2100 MHz HSDPA network that’s going to be deployed by T-Mobile this year. So don’t bother getting an unlocked BlackJack onto the T-Mo network, as it won’t give you any benefit over this carrier’s Dash smartphone.

The HSDPA support is what’s commonly referred to as HSDPA 1.8. In other words, it supports a maximum connection speed of 1.8 megabits per second, or about 225 KBytes/second. Actual performance speed, however, is more likely to reside around 700 Kbits to 1 megabit, or 85 to 125 KBytes, even assuming good coverage and conditions.

Unfortunately, Cingular’s HSDPA network is still fairly small in footprint compared to Verizon or Sprint’s 3G networks. Even if you live or work in an area that has HSDPA, chances are that you’re still going to be under the older EDGE network at least some portion of the time. For instance, they have coverage in over 65 of the top 100 cities in the US, but they’re not neccessarily in order. Houston has excellent 3G coverage, while Los Angeles barely has any. Cincinnati is covered, but Buffalo, with a similar population living in a smaller area, is not. (Although notably, both cities are referred to as the "Queen City." This brought to you by Adama’s House of Useless Knowledge.)

The coverage situation will change and improve as Cingular continues to build out its network, but for the time being users will have to put up with some compromises, which include poor 3G coverage in some areas.

Besides cellular, the only other communications path on the BlackJack is Bluetooth. The BlackJack supports Bluetooth 2.0, which greatly improves speed — roughtly triple that of the older Bluetooth 1.2 spec. Of course, you must have another Bluetooth 2.0 device on the other end of the connection to get the full speed.

It supports the usual range of profiles, including Bluetooth headphones and the Audio/Video Remote Control Profile, used for most of those headphone buttons.

To try out the new and improved Bluetooth speed, I decided to try beaming a large file from the BlackJack to the similarly equipped Cingular 8525. The roughly 1 MB file transferred from the BlackJack to the 8525 in 44 seconds, giving a rough data rate — at least between two mobile devices — of 22 KBytes per second. A nearly identical file, beamed from my Bluetooth 1.2 Axim to the 8525, took 141 seconds, yielding about 7 KBytes per second.

Of course, neither of these is close to the theoretical or practical maximums for Bluetooth speed, but they do represent a sampling of the boost that Bluetooth 2.0 can provide.

Value-Added Features

A big part of the sales pitch for the BlackJack isn’t just the device itself, but the web of services that Cingular is offering along with it.

One of these is a service called MusicID. The BlackJack’s end of this is a small application that records a sample of music over the internal microphone — say, from a TV or radio — and relays it to a central server which uses audio recognition to match a title and artist to the song. The lower quality the audio, the longer a sample it needs in order to do analysis.

I was a bit skeptical at first, thinking it unlikely to be comprehensive. As it turns out, however, it’s surprised me. It properly IDed not only recently released songs, but also fairly obscure ones from several years ago. I can’t imagine it contains all the songs ever made, but Cingular’s press releases boast about a database of three million songs for the service, so it has breadth. There are bound to be some gaps, but it’s still a nifty feature.

The biggest catch is that to function properly the program needs a certain length of the song in question. So if you happen to only hear the end you may not get a large enough sample for a positive ID.

Of course, in true carrier fashion, this feature isn’t free — while it comes with a few days of free trial, it’s a paid service thereafter, at either $7 per month for unlimited use, or $1 per song IDed.

Also in the music venue is support for the "Cingular Music" service, which amounts to a mix-and-match of offers from various online music stores such as eMusic and Yahoo, as well as a streaming mobile client for XM radio service.

A bit more flashy is the Cingular Video service. This is roughly equivalent to the SprintTV and VCAST services offered by Sprint and Verizon respectively.

You’re offered a smattering of video channels ranging from the abysmal (the TV Guide Channel) to the fairly good (CNN). Unlike Sprint and Verizon’s offerings, however, Cingular Video is available for free as part of the "Media Max" data plan that is offered for the BlackJack. You don’t need to pay an additional monthly fee, unless you want one of their "premium services," such as HBO Mobile for an additional $5 per month.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is the actual channel, though; it’s more like a smattering of clips from HBO’s original productions. For that matter, you don’t even technically need the Media Max package to get Cingular Video, if you don’t mind paying their exhorbitant per-use data rates, which according to the promotional literature would be around $10 per minute. Yikes.

Unfortunately, the Cingular Video service isn’t what you’d call universally available. I was repeatedly rejected when I tried to connect — possibly because I was in a non-3G area, though Cingular says it works on EDGE too, or possibly because I was connecting through a roaming partner, although Cingular advertises it as native coverage. Anybody’s guess.

Battery Life

Being a slim smartphone, you’d tend to expect the BlackJack to have poor battery life, despite coming with a 1200 mAh battery — the same size as is found in some larger smartphones. However, it actually does all right.

In testing the BlackJack averaged around 3.5 to 4 hours of "talk time." This compares reasonably well to equivalent devices like the Treo 750 and Motorola Q, though somewhat less than the T-Mobile Dash.

Accessories

Included in the BlackJack’s box are a bit more than the standard basic accessories. Besides a USB cable, AC adapter, and stereo headset, this smartphone also comes with a second standard battery, and a small battery charger for it.

It’s a most curious battery charger, at that. Instead of a more typical design which might sit on a desk and have the battery snap into it, it’s more like a small box. Stick the battery in, reattach the cap, and plug it into the same AC power adapter that you use for the BlackJack.

If you want to charge the spare battery and the phone at the same time, well, tough luck.

Conclusion

It’s hard to find too much fault with the BlackJack in either specs or design. While I disagree with the selection of a proprietary port for USB and audio, and the use of MicroSD cards, they’re not fatal flaws. It’s got a very nice design, and with the available carrier discounts it’s almost insanely cheap. As far as slim keyboard smartphones go, it’s definitely a major contender.

Pros:

  • 3G wireless broadband
  • Ultra-slim design
  • Solid construction
  • Inexpensive

Cons:

  • Lacks WiFi
  • Proprietary USB/audio connector
  • MicroSD card

Bottom Line:

  • Solidly designed and built slim device with broadband and a few trade-offs.

Hardware Overview

Processor: 220 MHz TI OMAP1710
Operating System: Windows Mobile 5.1 (Smartphone) with AKU 3.0
Display: 2.2 inch, 320 x 240 pixel transmissive/reflective LCD
Memory: 64 MB RAM; 128 MB flash memory (54 MB available)
Size and Weight: 4.4 inches long x 2.3 inches wide x 0.46 (0.xx) inches thick; 3.74 ounces
Expansion Single MicroSD slot
Docking: Proprietary USB/audio combination jack
Communication Quad-band GSM/EDGE; dual-band UMTS/HSDPA; Bluetooth 2.0
Audio: Proprietary USB/audio combination jack; speakerphone; speaker & mouthpiece for phone
Battery: 3.7v, 1200 milliamp-hour Lithium Ion rechargable/replacable battery
Input: 37-key thumb keyboard; jog wheel & back button; 5-way directional pad
Other: Java/J2ME compatibility; 1.3 MP camera

 


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