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Samsung I8910 HD Review

What Mobile
August 26, 2009

Formerly known as the Omnia HD (a name that Samsung has dropped in the UK to separate this model from the Windows Mobile devices), the latest smartphone that will inevitably find itself compared to an iPhone (similar size, massive display etc) is quite a beast.

If you’re after the latest, superslim, pocket phone then the I8910 HD probably isn’t for you. But if you want something that can record and play HD content, and display it on a massive 3.7-inch widescreen, then there’s little else out there to come close. The only other phone coming with the same size screen will be the Omnia II, which will be powered by Microsoft instead of Symbian.

From the front, the addition of some silver around the display hides the fact that it’s a pretty average slab of plastic with rigid edges. If placed beside an iPhone, the Apple will win the design stakes every day, but all of the things that impress are inside that rather dull exterior. Inside is the fastest processor yet used on a Symbian based smartphone, with the already mentioned HD capabilities, 8-megapixel autofocus camera, FM radio, surround sound and DLNA support to wirelessly play HD 720p videos on a PC, or suitably equipped television.

Touch me

This isn’t the first Symbian device from Samsung. The last major success was the I8510 ‘Innov8’, but while that used Series 60 3rd Edition, this uses the touchscreen 5th Edition. It goes up against the Nokia 5800, N97 and Sony Ericsson’s Satio (although this isn’t going to be out until the last week of September, assuming there are no delays).

Unlike all of the other S60 5th Edition devices, the I8910 HD uses a capacitive touchscreen, so it’s properly touch sensitive (like the iPhone) instead of needing pressure applied. As a result, it’s instantly more responsive than any of the other Symbian-powered models on sale now, or coming soon.

The large screen also makes finger operation easy, and the phone has a range of input options from the landscape QWERTY keyboard to a traditional on-screen phone keypad with multitap or T9 input. If you’re feeling really adventurous there’s also a handwriting recognition mode that lets you draw one letter at a time. Even on the fastest setting, it’s too slow to be of any real practical use. Don’t worry though, you can happily use the T9 keypad and type as quick, or even quicker, than using actual keys.

In the UK, only one phone network has so far taken the I8910 HD on to sell. Orange has the exclusive, although SIM-free models are available online, which means that some of the standard out-of-the-box content is different to other markets.

Instead of Samsung’s Share Pix service that allows easily photo uploading to online photo galleries and social networking sites, Orange has replaced this with Orange Photo. Orange has also embedded it’s Orange Maps navigation service (and not included Google Maps, although you can install this yourself) and Orange’s own Music Store.

Ovi and out

Although Nokia may be behind Series 60, the I8910 isn’t officially supported by the new Ovi Store. You can just about get it to work, but many applications will not install – especially anything specifically created by Nokia, such as the only Facebook client for Symbian. Links within the web browser to other downloadable content also took me to pages with no content at all.

This is exactly the same problem that the I8510 suffered. Although arguably better than the N96 it competed against, the lack of easily installable applications and, later, firmware updates did upset many customers. Samsung addressed the latter by offering its own firmware updating service (the SIM-free version has already had an update since the release of the phone), and is promising to launch its own application store later in the year.

If you’re not really up for getting games and applications by doing a bit more legwork, the I8910 HD may also prove too frustrating, especially compared to the ease of obtaining content with an iPhone.

But if you haven’t been put off yet, then you’re in for a real treat. Samsung may have announced a non-smartphone with a superfast ‘800MHz Application Processor’, but this phone is anything but slow. It also has 250MB of RAM to cope with running loads of applications at once, and it’s quick to swap between one and another.

The user interface isn’t perfect, because it has originated from something that was used by non-touchscreen devices, but the quality varies from one application to the next. This is the same problem as Nokia’s N97, but Nokia suffers even more by using an ageing resistive display that needs more prodding to respond.

Messaging and email is fine, although the email client could show more detail than it does and the web browser is starting to show its age. Although it supports multiple windows (if a link is set to open in a new window), you can’t open multiple pages by yourself and jump between them. Nor can you easily go back without waiting for the previous page to reload. This can mean a wait of 10-20 seconds, and it’s totally illogical. Cache the data to redisplay instantly and let us choose reload manually.

Opera Mini will install and fill up the whole screen, but unless you want to display all text in the largest size, it will be too hard to press links or use the menu. Until Opera is officially released for 5th Edition, you’re stuck with the standard browser for now.

Media overload

There are a number of ways to access your media (too many really). The standard gallery, which shows music, video and images in a range of views (searchable by name or date), or one of three dedicated apps for songs, video and pictures. The video player has to refresh your content from scratch every time you load it, which can be really annoying if there’s a lot of content on it. With 8GB onboard, and up to 32GB more using the microSDHC card slot, you could have loads of media to watch.

With so much power available, you don’t have to re-encode videos to put on the phone. In fact, the only real incentive for doing so is to keep the file size down. Watching a standard quality video on the AM-OLED screen is heaven, and the main reason you’ll be buying this phone. Nothing else comes close, not even the iPhone.

But, there are a few ‘gotchas’ to be aware of. You can’t bookmark positions in videos, and unlike the iPhone, there’s no easy way to continue from where you left off – or even see what videos you’ve already, or part, watched. As a result, you’ll be having to fast forward to where you think you were when interrupted.
Nor is there any easy way to download content. Now this may be a good thing for people that hate iTunes, but I suspect that the I8910 will be more popular with those that dabble in the world of P2P than people who want a nice easy method of finding and buying content.

If you’re not watching content, you’ll be generating it. With the 8-megapixel camera, which takes photos every bit as good as the I8510, this phone literally blasts the iPhone out of the water. But, this is also the first (and currently only) phone to record HD quality video. That’s 1280×720 resolution as against 1920×1080, but impressive nonetheless even though it’s only at 24 frames per second and the audio is at a bitrate worse than radio (a firmware update has already come to the Italian version and should follow to the Orange version soon – swapping the AMR audio codec to AAC).

There’s no image stabilisation, which means you need a steady hand – and the shape of the phone doesn’t help. Suffice to say, video recordings are better than anything offered by another mobile, but it is no replacement to a proper HD camcorder. HD video also eats up storage space quickly.

And what of using it as a humble telephone? It’s always nice to review a smartphone and leave something so basic until the end. There are three buttons sitting underneath the screen that haven’t been mentioned until now. The middle key acts as a menu button (which also fires up the task manager if held), with the others acting as call and end buttons. This means you can control calls wherever you happen to be at the time.

An on-screen keypad allows you to use voicemail services, or dial a number, and there’s a normal phone book with search facility, a speed dial application and a Samsung-built photo gallery where you can tag people in photos and then press on them to make a call. Orange has also got in on the act with a VIP list for six favourite contacts.

If that isn’t enough, the I8910 HD also supports Samsung’s mobile widgets, although the range on offer isn’t yet impressive enough to really see them offering much competition to full-blown applications. In fact, the widgets are quite large and clunky and a bit of a waste of time. Luckily, they can be easily turned off in favour of the Orange home screen, the standard Nokia S60 active standby or nothing at all.

Connect me

Because of the OS, the I8910 will appeal to users that are able to get their hands dirty and hook their phone up to a PC or Mac, go on the web to download themes and applications and send and receive files over Bluetooth. The iPhone has the App Store and makes everything simple, but you have a real sense of achievement when you’ve set up the I8910 the way you want it. And once you’ve got it set up, there’s an automatic backup tool that can be scheduled to save everything at a fixed time each day.

Samsung is also promising more support for the I8910, from its pending application store to firmware updates. There are also a few websites offering the tools to debrand the phone to get rid of the added Orange applications in favour of the standard ones. If you want to upload pictures to Facebook or Flickr, it could be the best move you could ever make.

Power surge

Finally, we always get asked the question and it’s always hard to answer. What about battery life? Well, when there are so many things you could do, or not do, on the phone it’s not a case of reporting how long it will last – but how quickly it will die. And thanks to the 1,500mAh battery that easily fits inside, you’ll be hard pushed to kill the battery in a day even if you do nothing but watch movies.

It means that you really can use this as your main phone. Not only that, but with the large display, you can actually use the on-screen keypad without having to constantly make corrections and rely on pinpoint precision. If you’re going to make a good touchscreen phone, you need the right type of screen. Samsung has found it, but the difficult part is convincing the general public. I say, check it out.


VERDICT

The biggest reason for not buying this isn’t the iPhone or the N97, but its size. The 3.7-inch screen means this phone is big – but while it takes up more pocket space, it takes photo viewing and movie watching to a whole new level. The AM-OLED screen may suffer a bit in sunlight, but anywhere else you’ll not find anything nicer. Series 60 5th Edition still needs some tweaking (Samsung is promising firmware updates) and the Orange branding has removed some applications, but there’s really nothing else to fault. Shame on all the other networks for letting this one pass by.

 

PERFORMANCE
****-

FEATURES
*****

USABILITY
*****

 

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