Samsung Omnia i900 Review

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When the Samsung Omnia i900 was unveiled a few months ago, this smartphone’s features quickly drew attention as a possible worthy competitor for the iPhone.

Samsung Omnia i900

It has a tablet shape with a relatively large touchscreen, and while it runs Windows Mobile 6.1 Pro, Samsung is adding its own user interface which has been designed to be easy to to use with a fingertip.

And like many consumer-oriented devices these days, it offers megabytes of built-in storage.

First thing’s first: I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw a shout out to the folks over at eXpansys, who happily and quite painlessly provided my review unit. Like a great many high-end gadgets, they offer the Omnia in an unlocked version suitable for use on any GSM carrier, in whichever color you prefer, as long as you’re not attached to your firstborn child. (I kid. They really only expect part of your liver, or one kidney.)

Inside this Review

Design and Construction

Pretty much the only way to describe the Omnia is as an iPhone clone. No insult intended, that’s just the way it is. It copies the same basic form-factor and some of the specs of the iPhone, albeit with obvious differences: addition of a removable battery under the backplate, more buttons, memory card slot, etcetera.

If the screen looks a little odd to you — say, longer than it should — there’s a good reason for that. The Omnia features a non-standard screen resolution, 400 pixels long by 240 wide.

It’s described as “WQVGA,” or “Widescreen QVGA” in the specs. But that phrase is pretty much meaningless, since there’s no standard for what Widescreen QVGA is. It’s also very much not a supported standard under Windows Mobile, meaning that your mileage may vary when it comes to program compatibility.

Now despite that, I found all the programs I tested, even ones that haven’t been updated in a long time, took perfectly to the longer screen resolution of the Omnia. The only roadblock I can foresee is games — which often have pre-rendered graphics — but I have no reason to think that these wouldn’t run fine, just without taking advantage of the extra pixels.

The display is 3.2 inches diagonal, making it a bit larger than the typical 2.8 inch screens used in most Windows Mobile Pro phones, but still a below the 3.5 inches of the iPhone, and well behind the 3.8-inch display sported by the new HTC Touch HD.

Below the screen you’ll find two buttons — the standard Call and End buttons used on virtually every phone ever made — and the small black optical pad that serves as a 5-way directional controller for the Omni.

Frankly, I’ve got no particular love for this touch-joystick. It’s hard to be precise when you’re using it to move, particularly along menu items. While I appreciate the idea, I would have been happier with a “real” D-pad. I wish companies would remember that usability comes first, before even keeping the sleek look of the device.

Samsung Omnia i900

As is pretty common for Samsung hardware these days, I have no complaints when it comes to build quality. The i900 feels quite durable, and the balance in the hand is excellent.

Features, Features, Features!

Where to start? The Omnia has just about every specialty feature that you can imagine being able to cram into a single device. TV output, FM radio, internal GPS receiver with geo-tagging, large flash memory, 5 MPx camera with auto-focus, etcetera, on top of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 128 MB of RAM, and a 624 MHz processor.

Some of these have catches, like the fact that you need to use a wired headset for the FM radio to work, or that the TV out needs a cable that’s sold separately. On the whole, though, you’d see the same kinds of minor things out of any other similar device… and won’t find another such feature-rich unit outside of some of the Nokia N series or the HTC Touch HD.

The one feature of the device that almost everyone’s sure to use is the Omnia’s large memory. Coming in 8 GB and 16 GB versions, this smartphone has more storage space than any other Windows Mobile device on the market. And with the newly announced 16 GB microSDHC cards, you can put them together for a maximum of 32 GB on your device, something even the iPhone doesn’t do yet.

As far as hardware goes, the Omnia is the highest of the high end.

A Customized Launcher: TouchWiz

Possibly the most unique thing in the Omnia’s arsenal is the “TouchWiz” interface that Samsung ships with the device. This is basically a customized launcher rebuilt to be fingertip friendly. Bigger icons, bigger buttons, sliding panels, gestures, the whole nine yards. The basic idea is that you can do 90% of your daily tasks without having to go through the regular Windows Mobile Pro interface, which is substantially less than finger friendly.

My opinion of TouchWiz was a little mixed. While some aspects — such as the design of the application launcher area — were pretty good, I found the Today Screen replacement to be less than inspiring. The ability drag and drop items from the side toolbar to the “desktop” sounds good in theory, but I think it too easily clutters the screen. I know others have raved heartily about it, so this may simply be a matter of taste. But as far as custom UIs go, I’d rate it below HTC’s TouchFLO.

One other thing that I wasn’t happy about: the specialty software keyboard. It seems to default to the assumption that you’re going to want to use T9 to input text, despite having the option of a proper keyboard. I really don’t understand that. While you can change that setting, the design of the keys also make it difficult to hit one without accidentally hitting others. I installed Resco Keyboard almost immediately, and never looked back.

While Samsung has done quite a bit, you can’t use the Omnia completely without returning to the old Windows Mobile Pro interface at some points, such as when you want to change the device settings. And this is where things get tricky, not because of something about the interface, but because of something that’s missing: a stylus. Unlike pretty much every other WM Pro phone ever made, the Omnia does not have a built-in stylus for those times when you need accurate writing or tapping. Instead, it comes with an external stylus with a small lanyard, which I assume you’re supposed to use to attach it to either the Omnia itself or something else about your person, like your keychain. Not cool. Even a really bad internal stylus, like those found on most of HTC’s sliders, is better than one that is bound to be either forgotten or in the way. My advice? Practice your precision fingertip work.

Wireless Connectivity

When it comes to the Omnia’s wireless connectivity, there’s a little explaining to do. The version of the Omnia I reviewed, the same one that’s currently being sold by eXpansys and others, does not feature the version of 3G being used in the United States. This is because it only supports 2100 MHz 3G, which covers Europe and Asia but not over here.

Samsung Omnia i900

Now, there is indeed a version of the Omnia that supports the US/Canadian bands. It was recently given FCC approval for use in the U.S.. But it’s not quite out on the market yet, so if you’re in North America, be careful what you buy. For all the money you’re spending, you don’t want to get stuck with nothing better than EDGE speeds over-the-air.

Despite rumors to the contrary, it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. version of the Omnia is going to be offered in an official version by AT&T. This carrier doesn’t want to compete too heavily with its cash cow, the iPhone. The carrier that apparently will get the Omnia is Verizon Wireless, which will be interesting to see. That version is likely to have EV-DO.

Of course, both current versions of the Omnia are quad-band GSM/EDGE, so they can be used on any worldwide network regardless of whether 3G is in the picture. On top of this, you’ve got the standard additions of Bluetooth 2.0 and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. The Bluetooth implementation of course does all the things that the iPhone doesn’t, such as BT headphones, AVRCP, and Bluetooth sync.

Wi-Fi was a bit slow to connect, but once it did performance was ideal, with a snappy connection and respectable range to the router.

Performance

For having a 624 MHz processor, I have to admit that the Omnia was often less speedy than I would have expected. Its performance, at least on user-interface tasks, was more akin to something I’d expect out of a 400 MHz machine. Of course that’s still not bad, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a fresh ROM update for the Omnia that gave it an extra boost of speed.

Running on a 1400 mAh battery, this smartphone has a decent amount of wattage behind it, but it’s also got plenty of fresh ways to suck up the juice. It’s more than adequate if you’re going to be using it primarily as a phone, but for Wi-Fi or media use, I might consider carrying a second battery. Fortunately you have that option, which isn’t true of  certain product from Apple.

 

Conclusion

The Omnia i900 is a stellar piece of hardware, if you can get accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. If you can’t, you’ll likely end up going nuts. Love it or hate it, there’s very little room in between. I’ve gone through both in the process of reviewing it, but in the end I know that a dedicated keyboard user like myself is just never going to be completely happy with it.

If neither that nor the astronomical price tag bothers you, then there’s very few devices out there that offer more in terms of specialty hardware like FM radio, TV out, GPS, and a shiny launcher.

Pros:

  • Good quality screen
  • Internal GPS
  • TV out
  • Very stylish
  • Large memory

Cons:

  • Touch interface is sometimes awkward
  • Not as fast as it should be
  • Bleedingly, mind-bogglingly expensive (at least currently)
  • No internal stylus

Bottom Line:

A lot of great hardware that’s perhaps too iPhone-centric to live up to its full potential, but still makes waves.

 


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