Review Coordinator Emeritus
Join Date: Dec 2005
From the Perspective of a Pocket PC Veteran - Samsung’s Blackjack SmartPhone Reviewed
Product Category: Windows Mobile SmartPhone
Where to Buy: Wirefly (Affiliate link)
Price: $499.00 - free after rebates with new Cingular Wireless account
Specifications: Samsung site
[*]Small and lightweight;[*]QWERTY keyboard;[*]Bright screen;[*]Very fast wireless data connectivity.
[*]Smartkeys easy to press by accident;[*]Proprietary connectors;[*]Battery life only fair;[*]Mediocre camera.
As a longtime Pocket PC fan and resident geek/gadget freak among family, friends and co-workers, I've faced the following question many times in the past:
"When are you going to move to one of those 'all-in-one' units that combines a PDA and a cell phone?"
I'd reply that most such devices were either too large as a cell phone or too small and limited as a PDA, at least for my needs and preferences. Some recent devices that look and act much like a PDA, but with roughly the same size as a cell phone, have tempted me to take the plunge. So here's my review of my new Samsung Blackjack, along with some comparisons to a couple of the very devices it's supposed to combine and replace. Can a diehard Pocket PC guy achieve satisfaction with a new kind of device? Join me in my odyssey into the world of Windows Mobile SmartPhones...
Windows Mobile has come a long way since the days of the first Handheld PCs running Windows CE. Those early machines were mostly superseded by the Palm-Sized PCs, designed as a competitor to the then hot Palm brand PDAs. Those units met with limited success. Microsoft followed up by fine-tuning the Palm-Sized PC concept, and the result was the Pocket PC. This concept achieved far greater success and more sophisticated and powerful units that still follow that original design philosophy are available today.
Both the Palm and Pocket PC platforms thrived for some time, but the PDA design philosophy has been challenged by the concept of the convergence device. The past few years have seen strong demand for a variety of portable electronic devices (PDAs, MP3 players and cell phones). Eventually, someone decided it would be better to carry a single device that combines the functionality of multiple devices.
While the concept of such a device seems appealing, the perfect design has proven to be elusive, since key qualities that are desirable in a cell phone are undesirable in a PDA and vice versa. Cell phone manufacturers tried to satisfy the demand for convergence devices by adding features such as PIM software to traditional cell phone designs. Microsoft tried to leverage their experience in PDAs with the Pocket PC Phone Edition, which took a pretty much traditional PDA and added phone capabilities to it.
Size is probably the most significant contributing factor when looking at suitability for the task with a phone or a PDA. Small size is generally considered a plus for a cell phone. The immensely popular Motorola Razr is touted as being one of the slimmest phones available and other manufacturers have responded with their own versions of the ultra slim phone. Having owned a Razr, I’ll admit that even with a leather case, I could slip it into a front pants pocket and barely notice that it was there.
While small size has its appeal with PDAs such as Pocket PCs, there are limits to how small they can be without compromising their expected functionality. Pocket PCs have certainly gotten much smaller than the rather brick-like proportions of one of the first units, the Cassiopeia E-115. My current Pocket PC, a Loox N560, takes up about half the volume and weighs 1/3 less than the Casio classic. To achieve its comparatively svelte dimensions, the N560 sports a smaller screen than the Casio (3.5” vs. 3.9”). It would seem that screen size is the main balancing act that Pocket PC designers have to perform. A large screen is great for legibility, but results in an overall unit size that some may find too cumbersome. On the other hand, a smaller screen results in a more compact unit that’s more easily carried, but others may find the smaller screen difficult to read.
For years, I’ve used my Pocket PCs as sort of a laptop “lite”. I take my N560 to every meeting at work and use it to take notes, utilizing Calligrapher or Fitaly along with Phatnotes, kind of like a small Tablet PC. And the available laptop class applications such as Softmaker’s Planmaker allow me to, for example, reference a key Excel report with around 15000 rows that changes frequently. This is the kind of functionality that defines a powerful PDA for me, functionality that a convergence device would have to provide for it to substitute for my Pocket PC. Yet I want my cell phone to be small enough to slip into my pants pocket and remain unobtrusive. These largely incompatible characteristics are what designers are trying to combine with the latest round of SmartPhones such as the Motorola Q and the Samsung Blackjack, the subject of this article. Let’s take a look at how successful they’ve been.
For purposes of comparison, I’ll use the Motorola Razr to represent the contemporary cell phone and the Loox N560 to represent the contemporary “classic style” Pocket PC.
The Samsung Blackjack
Figure 1: The Blackjack. The sleek and sophisticated lines attract a lot of attention. Click on the image for a larger view.
The Blackjack can best be described as a wide but thin candy bar style phone with an alphanumeric keyboard. Most earlier Windows SmartPhones were either candy bar style or flip phones with numeric keypads. While such designs continue to be available and improved, it seems that alphanumeric keyboards are all the rage with recent SmartPhone designs. Phones such as the Motorola Q, the T-Mobile Dash and the Treo 750v have similar designs to the Blackjack, while other designs like the HTC Vox feature a keyboard that slides out.
Figure 2: Dimensions of the 3 devices.
As you can see from the dimensions, the Blackjack is longer than the Razr, nearly as long as the N560. Of course, that’s with the Razr folded… it’s significantly longer when its cover is opened. As for width, the Blackjack is close to the Razr, with both being somewhat narrower than the Loox. The Blackjack is the thinnest of the three, although all three are within .05 inches of each other. The Blackjack is lightweight, being very close to the Razr, while the N560 is more than half again as heavy.
Figure 3: A comparison from the front. Click on the image for a larger view.
Figure 4: A comparison from the side. Click on the image for a larger view.
Figures 3 and 4 illustrate the comparative sizes of the 3 devices. As you’d expect, the Blackjack falls between the Razr and the N560 in size. The screens on both of the phones are smaller than on the N560, with the Razr’s screen at 2.2 in. and the Blackjack’s screen at 2.3 in. However, the Blackjack’s screen is higher resolution than the Razr’s, 320 x 240 pixels vs. 176 x 220. Given that a larger screen is a traditional advantage of the PDA, it’s no surprise that the N560 has a much larger screen at 3.5 in. and 640 x 480 pixels. Relatively few Pocket PCs have the Loox’s VGA resolution; most share the 320 x 240 resolution with the Blackjack, albeit with a 3.5 in. or larger screen.
Now let’s take a closer look at the Blackjack. It’s a quad-band GSM phone and the latest Cingular phone to support their UMTS/HSPDA network, which is a 3G technology that provides broadband data access to mobile devices. It runs the Windows Mobile 5 for SmartPhones operating system. Its most prominent physical feature is the small QWERTY keyboard on the front of the phone. Additional controls on the front include the SmartPhone soft keys, a Home button, a Back button, a Send key, an End key and the 4-way directional pad with OK button in the center. Most of the keys support multiple functions. For example, a short press on the Home key brings you to the Home screen, while a long press pulls up the Task Manager. More handy dedicated keys include ones to open Messaging, call Voice Mail and set the phone to Silent mode.
The number keys are embedded within the QWERTY keyboard. Some reviewers have criticized Samsung for the fact that the number keys are not all together; each column of number keys is separated from its neighbor by another column of letter keys. The intent is to not group the number keys too closely together… otherwise, with the small size of the keyboard, hitting the wrong number key would probably happen pretty regularly. Samsung has also designed the keypad so that either the number key or the key just to its right will register the number when pressed. For example, when dialing, pressing either the E key or the R key will register a 1. I’ve adjusted quite well to this arrangement and don’t find it to be a problem.
Yes, with the keys so close together, I hit the wrong key now and then when typing with my thumbs. But as I use the keyboard more, my accuracy is increasing. To save you from having to press the Symbol or Num Lock keys too often, a long press on a key while entering text will register the symbol tied to the key. I found this to be handy when entering numbers while typing text. However, I have one quibble with this arrangement… all of the number keys act this way except for the Space/0 key. When I give a long press to any of the other letter keys associated with numbers, the number is entered. When I give a long press to the Space key, however, it registers the + sign, the other symbol associated with that 3 way key. I know that this is consistent with other keys that have a symbol on them, but it’s inconsistent with other keys that have numbers on them. Since they couldn’t be consistent both ways, I think the better choice would have been to go with the number in place of the symbol.
Another gripe is that the soft keys are butted up against the directional pad and are nearly flush with it as well. As a result, it’s not uncommon to accidently press one of the soft keys when trying to press the pad to the right or left. If they would have left a 1/8” gap, the accidental presses would be rare.
Figure 5: The left side view. Click on the image for a larger view.
On the left side of the phone, you find a port that’s used for the power adapter, a USB synch cable and for a headset. Unlike the Razr, which uses a standard USB cable for charging and synching, the Blackjack uses a proprietary connector. An AC adapter and a synch cable are included, but you must buy a compatible headset or an adapter cable. The small hinged cover for this port seems a bit flimsy, but I haven’t had any problems with it so far. This side of the phone also features a rocker switch control for earpiece volume.
Figure 6: The top. Click on the image for a larger view.
The only control on the top is the power button. A quick press of the power button while the phone is on will pull up the Quick List, which provides access to the Wireless Manager, key lock, sound profiles and other items.
Figure 7: The right side view. Click on the image for a larger view.
The right side of the phone features a scroll wheel and a back button, a useful combination when web browsing. Pressing the scroll wheel brings up the Quick Launcher, a scrolling list of applications, URLs or files that you can easily select. The slot for a microSD card is also on this side.
Figure 8: The back view. Click on the image for a larger view.
The back features the lens for the built-in 1.3 megapixel camera, next to a self-portrait mirror. The external speaker is also on the back, along with the door to the battery compartment.
The Blackjack includes versions of many of the same applications as the Pocket PC. This includes the following:
[*]Messaging[*]Calendar[*]Contacts[*]Tasks[*]Pocket Internet Explorer[*]Notepad[*]Alarms[*]Voice Notes[*]Calculator[*]Solitaire and Bubble Breaker games[*]File Explorer[*]Task Manager[*]Picsel Viewer (a viewer for Office documents)[*]RSS Reader[*]Windows Media Player
Notable by their absence are the Office Mobile applications (Word Mobile and Excel Mobile) included with the Pocket PCs. Windows Mobile 6 has just been announced and will feature versions of these mobile applications. As it stands, the only access to Office documents included with the Blackjack is the Picsel Viewer, which I found to be pretty clumsy to use. Fortunately, for those of us who would like some editing capability on our SmartPhones, DataViz has just released Documents to Go for Windows SmartPhones, a version of the popular Palm application which allows you to create, view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. Best of all, it leaves the formatting of desktop documents intact when you edit.
Fortunately, since the Blackjack is a Windows Mobile device, there’s a pretty good collection of third party software applications available. But you have to be careful when shopping. Over the years there have been several different screen setups supported for SmartPhones (the original 220 x 176 portrait, QVGA, square screen and QVGA landscape). You must make sure that any software you buy supports QVGA landscape, or specifically mentions the Blackjack as supported. Be aware that even though the Motorola Q has the same resolution and screen orientation as the Blackjack, some applications written for the Q do NOT work on the Blackjack. Take advantage of trial versions whenever possible to confirm compatibility.
Since QVGA landscape is the newest screen format for SmartPhones, many software publishers have yet to provide versions of their applications that will work on a Blackjack. So the selection of software is more limited than for other SmartPhone designs and Pocket PCs. But a number of the big guns in Pocket PCs have embraced the SmartPhone market, so the choices are expanding every day. Here are some examples of available software:
[*]Advanced PIM replacements like Agenda One, Papyrus and Pocket Informant for SmartPhones;[*]Electronic wallets like eWallet, FlexWallet and CodeWallet;[*]List management software like ListPro;[*]File managers like Resco File Explorer;[*]Photo viewers like SplashPhoto and Resco Photo Viewer;[*]Games, calculators and lots more.
Now let’s take a look at some common uses of mobile devices to see how these units compare. My ground rules for the comparison are to pit the Blackjack against the two devices that it’s designed to replace… a “standard” cell phone and a “standard” PDA. So while the criticisms of the Pocket PC when evaluating cell phone tasks could be mitigated by using a Pocket PC phone, that device is not a “standard” Pocket PC… it’s another convergence device. So to fans of Pocket PC phones, please don’t give me feedback that the Pocket PC form factor would have done better had I compared to a Pocket PC phone… that would be a completely different comparison and out of the scope of this article.
This task is typically a strong point for PDAs.
With its numeric keypad, the Razr is out of its element here. Multiple keypress entry and predictive text may be adequate for text messaging, but is far too slow and cumbersome for any extensive text entry.
The Blackjack and N560 are both very capable for text entry. The Blackjack provides its QWERTY keyboard, an entry method at which most people can become quite adept. The N560, with its touch screen, offers the most options for text entry, including letter recognition, character recognition and a wide variety of onscreen keyboards, including QWERTY keyboards and specialized designs such as Fitaly.
I would call the Blackjack and N560 pretty much even in this task… it’s more a matter of preference. The Razr is a distant third in this task.
Menu Navigation and Launching Applications
Figure 9: The Home screen... the SmartPhone equivalent of the Today screen on the Pocket PC.
Figure 10: The Start menu on the Blackjack.
In general, this task doesn’t favor either the cell phone or the PDA.
Again, the Blackjack and N560 are similar. Both use a Start button, but the N560 offers a dropdown Start menu, while the Blackjack goes to an icon based screen. Windows Mobile 5 for Pocket PCs inherited the soft key concept from earlier versions of the SmartPhone Editions, but the Pocket PC soft keys are touch screen based, while the SmartPhones have dedicated hardware buttons. When dropdown or popup menus appear, the N560 offers the advantage of making selections with the stylus or scrolling to your selection, while the Blackjack is limited to the scrolling approach. All SmartPhone menus offer selection via number as well, so that’s an advantage in the Blackjack’s favor.
Although the Razr is not a Windows SmartPhone and uses a different operating system, it works much like the Blackjack for this task. While the devices have different approaches to this task, they all do well enough to make this one a 3 way tie.
Personal Information Management
Figure 11: The Blackjack's calendar.
Figure 12: Contacts on the Blackjack.
This is another strong area for the PDA.
The Razr offers a very basic Calendar/Datebook application, its contacts management is limited to a phone book with no postal addresses, and it provides no to-do application. These simple applications fall far short of the capabilities offered by a PDA and there’s virtually nothing available in third party apps to help here. People with serious personal information management needs should look elsewhere.
Once again, the Blackjack and N560 are pretty similar. The bundled calendar, contacts and tasks applications can store most of the same data that a desktop PIM application such as Outlook can. In views with densely packed information (such as a Month view), the N560’s larger screen is an advantage in that it can display more data more legibly. For power users, the Pocket PC offers more powerful third party applications, such as Pocket Informant and Agenda Fusion, than does the SmartPhone. These more advanced applications offer many more views and many additional and different ways to look at and manage your data.
Figure 13: A third party PIM replacement is a worthwhile addition. This image is from Agenda One by Developer One... other fine choices include Pocket Informant for SmartPhones, Papyrus and eXtreme Agenda. (Affiliate links)
On the other hand, the simpler PIM applications offered for the SmartPhone are streamlined and very easy to use. And while they don’t offer all of the features of the top Pocket PC PIM apps, they are still very powerful in their own right.
Since it offers more powerful applications, I’ll give the power users a nod and say that the N560 edges out the Blackjack in this category. The Razr is once again a distant third.
Obviously, this task favors the cell phone.
Since this is its raison d'ętre, it’s no surprise that the Razr excels at this task. The basic numeric keypad is an advantage here. Tags can be added to contacts as desired to enable voice dialing. The Razr’s Bluetooth implementation fully supports all functions of Bluetooth headsets, including voice dialing. Sound quality is excellent. The speakerphone has plenty of volume and delivers very good voice quality to the folks on the other end of the line. Overall, this phone is very good at being a phone.
The Blackjack makes a fine showing here as well, but some design compromises and some puzzling design choices cause it to rank a bit lower than the Razr. The main design compromise is the need to integrate the numeric keypad within the QWERTY keyboard. As mentioned earlier, the Blackjack has taken some criticism for the layout of its numeric keys. Overall, Samsung has done a pretty good job, but a dedicated numeric keypad is still better at making phone calls. This is the tradeoff for the Blackjack’s superior text entry capabilities.
The first puzzling design choice is the fact that a phone that retails for $500 does NOT support voice dialing. I was a bit blindsided by this… voice dialing is so common these days that it never even occurred to me that such a high end phone would omit the feature. Fortunately, Microsoft’s excellent Voice Command product works very well on the Blackjack, but it sets you back $40 to provide functionality that should have been built into the phone in the first place.
The second puzzling design choice is the somewhat limited Bluetooth functionality provided for the Blackjack. While most basic functions such as receiving calls, muting, disconnecting calls, etc. through a Bluetooth headset are supported, voice dialing is again unsupported. That even applies when Microsoft Voice Command is installed… even though the software supports voice dialing through headsets, the Blackjack doesn’t.
Aside from these issues, the Blackjack matches the Razr in its phone capabilities. Sound quality is excellent here as well, both in normal use and as a speakerphone. The QWERTY keyboard makes searching through the contacts list a bit easier than the Razr with its numeric keypad. Overall, it’s a great phone that bobbles the ball on some of the details.
The N560 doesn’t compete in this category, since it’s a standard PDA without phone functionality. Pocket PCs with Windows Mobile Pocket PC Phone Edition are available for people who prefer their phone with a PDA form factor. Such devices would perform about as well as the Blackjack as a phone, and would most likely include the voice dialing and Bluetooth features that are missing in the Blackjack.
Figure 14: Internet Explorer on the Blackjack.
Figure 15: The same page using Internet Explorer on the N560.
Of the standard devices, the browser software aspect seems to favor the PDA, while widely available wireless connectivity favors the cell phone.
Out of the box, the Razr provides limited web browsing capabilities. Web access is provided through its MediaNet application, which is more of a collection of categories and related links than a browser. If you want a more traditional web browsing experience, the free Opera Mini browser is available for the Razr. Within the limitations of screen size, Opera Mini provides a surprisingly usable browsing experience. Regardless, its smallest screen, portrait orientation and lowest resolution put the Razr in third place when evaluated in terms of browser software.
As for network access (in my experience, through Cingular or the new AT&T or whatever it’s called this week), the Razr can access the EDGE network, based on an older technology that provides speeds that are more like dialup on steroids than broadband. Like most contemporary cell phones, there are no other wireless data options. The Razr offers Bluetooth mostly for connecting to headsets and wi-fi is unavailable.
Of these 3 devices, the Blackjack has the best mix of standard browser and connectivity. Standard on this Windows SmartPhone is a mobile version of Internet Explorer, which provides a more desktop-like experience than the browsers on the Razr. At this point, the only other browser option for the Blackjack is Opera Mini, which can run in its Java environment. Opera has also announced that Opera Mobile will be available for Windows Mobile 5 SmartPhones. It currently is available only for WM2003 SmartPhones. Many people have expressed a preference for Opera Mobile over the mobile versions of Internet Explorer, so its availability on the Blackjack will be a welcome alternative. With IE mobile, the extra screen width and higher resolution of the Blackjack’s landscape screen are put to good advantage, providing good readability and sharp graphics.
Network access is similar to the Razr, but the UMTS/HSPDA support mentioned earlier gives the Blackjack broadband class access where that network is available. Availability has been limited in the US, but is expanding pretty rapidly. If you live in or travel to an area without support, the Blackjack will connect to the slower EDGE network. Like the Razr, Bluetooth is available, but wi-fi is not.
As a traditional PDA, the N560 has the most options for browser software, but the most limited network access. It comes with the mobile edition of Internet Explorer and other browsers, such as Opera Mobile, Thunderhawk and NetFront are also available. Its largest screen and highest resolution among these devices, along with support for portrait and landscape modes, provides the best readability and graphics rendering of the group.
Since this traditional PDA lacks phone hardware, the N560 doesn’t offer the other units’ expansive wireless network coverage. For wireless connectivity, you must rely in the availability of wireless hotspots. However, the N560 is the only unit that can take advantage of the hotspots, since it’s the only one of these 3 with wi-fi. Again, a Pocket PC Phone would have network options similar to those of the Blackjack.
So how did the Blackjack do overall?
Let’s summarize the Blackjack’s results in all of these tests:
Figure 16: The final summary. Click on the image for a larger view.
It seems like Samsung was successful in effectively merging the functions of a cell phone and a PDA without too many compromises. The Blackjack performs most cell phone tasks as well as a dedicated cell phone and most PDA tasks as well as a dedicated PDA.
So do I now have the one near-perfect device that can replace all of the others? Well, for my preferred use, not really. The laptop lite functionality that I described earlier on is still important to me. While the Blackjack’s QWERTY keyboard is a good option for a SmartPhone design, I’ve been using touch screen entry for years for note taking at meetings and I find it to be very effective. And while Documents To Go is a suitable alternative for light to moderate Office document access, the power of PlanMaker and TextMaker on the N560 is hard to give up once you’re gotten used to it.
The main issue for me is my “power user” use of my Pocket PCs over the years. I’ve figured out ways to leverage those devices as a convenient and very portable substitute for my laptop for certain tasks when I’m away from my desk. But the N560 doesn’t replace my laptop. When I’m at my desk, I take advantage of the laptop’s powerful processor, much greater variety of software and the full size peripherals (keyboard, monitor, etc.) that the docking station provides. Aside from the gadget freaks at Pocket PC Thoughts and other sites, most of the people that I know with PDAs use them much more like a powerful organizer and much less like a laptop than I do.
The truth be told, I’ve actually used 2 Pocket PCs for years, one for business use and one for personal use. My business calendar, task list and contact list are constantly clogged with huge amounts of information, so I decided a while back that my business Pocket PC would contain all of my business information along with critical pieces of personal information. My personal Pocket PC contains all of my personal information, as well as entertainment items such as games, e-books, videos, etc. When I’d buy a new and more advanced Pocket PC, that would become my business unit and the former business unit would be changed over for personal use. The other advantage is that this approach made it easy for me to rationalize having more toys, a key consideration for a certified geek like me.
So for me, the Blackjack serves primarily as my cell phone, but as a much more powerful PDA than any cell phones I’ve used prior to it. The robust PIM capabilities are a huge advantage and, when the need arises, the Blackjack can manage access to Office documents and text processing. As such, the Blackjack is roughly 90% of the PDA that the N560 is for me, as opposed to the roughly 60% that the Razr was. I get almost all of the functionality that I need from a PDA in a device the size of a cell phone, one that I can carry unobtrusively in my pocket at just about all times. So the Blackjack actually has converged 2 devices for me… my cell phone and my “personal usage” PDA. At work, I still use the N560 as my laptop substitute. From 3 devices (cell phone, personal PDA and business PDA) to 2 (SmartPhone and business PDA). I guess that could be classified as progress…
So some of you might ask “why don’t you get a Pocket PC phone? Then you’d have a fully functional PDA with phone capabilities.” For me, the issue is size… the Pocket PC phone form factor is larger than I prefer a cell phone to be. But for those who are willing to trade full PDA functionality for svelte size, the Pocket PC phone is the convergence device for them.
A few more comments on the Blackjack
While the Blackjack did quite well in comparison to the other devices, there are a couple of additional issues that weren't addressed in the comparisons that merit mention.
First, the battery life can be pretty short depending on how you use the Blackjack. The speed of the HSPDA network is great, but it's murder on your battery. Based on my experiences, you can get about 3-4 hours continuous talk or browsing time. With more typical use (for example, a few calls, 1 hour per day of browsing), I found that I can go about 2 days before I need a charge. I've gotten into the habit of charging the Blackjack every night just to be sure. At least they include a spare battery as part of the package.
The other issue is with the camera. As seems to be the norm with PDAs and cell phones with built-in cameras, the photo quality of the Blackjack falls far short of what can be achieved with just about any dedicated digital camera. Consider the Blackjack's camera to be nothing more than an "emergency" camera for a situation when even a fair to poor picture is better than no picture at all. If you want pictures with any real quality, stick to a dedicated camera. For the record, this describes the built-in camera in the Razr as well.
A few foibles aside, the Blackjack is a great cell phone. And for what I’d classify as general purpose PDA usage (PIM, entertainment, light note taking), it does a very good job as a PDA. For some tasks such as web browsing, it combines features of a cell phone and a PDA to be better at the task than either of the dedicated devices.
Existing Pocket PC users who place a high priority on a larger touch screen and/or the availability of some laptop class applications should give a good amount of thought to the question “would I be satisfied if I replaced my Pocket PC and cell phone with a SmartPhone”? For those users, the answer might be no. For the rest of us, the answer might be yes.
Doug Raeburn is a data architect specializing in data warehouse design. He lives in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, USA.