Around ten days ago, Samsung took me to a party and gave me an Omnia smartphone. I've used it intensively on my personal T-Mobile account since then – Apple having long retrieved its iPhone 3G – and decided to jot down a few notes on the experience. Those notes have grown into a three part ad-hoc review: this is part one, and here are parts two and three.
In hardware terms, the Omnia is the equal to or superior of the iPhone in many ways – 5 megapixel camera with flash, FM radio, 8 or 16 GB storage, 3G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, accelerometer, forward-facing conferencing camera, all packed into a device with almost exactly the same dimensions as the Apple. The home button at the base of the screen is also an optical mouse, which is cute, and it has proper talk and hang up physical buttons.
In other hardware ways it's not so hot. The screen resolution is 240x400 instead of the iPhone's 320x480 – and it has a flexible plastic surface instead of glass, which feels cheaper. There's no 3.5mm jack (an adaptor for the Omnia's proprietary connector is provided). You may think there's one button too many – a menu key at the top right of the case, which brings up a customisable applications screen – but in general, although the device lacks Apple's sublime design detailing, it's comparable.
So let's look at the software. Oh lord, where to start? In fact, that's the problem. Samsung has taken Windows Mobile 6.1 and lipsticked it with a friendly home screen, landscape/portrait orientation switching via the accelerometer, Opera and a smattering of other utilities. The supplied documentation covers almost none of this, and as far as I can find online there is no proper manual available anywhere. So I've had to try and solve the many problems I've found through trial and error and trawling the net; mostly, I've learned that I'm not alone.
Let's take that friendly home screen. It looks nice enough; there's an application dock down the left hand side that holds various shortcuts and applets and tidies itself away. To use the applets, though, you have to drag them out of the dock and onto the main screen – tap them in situ, and nothing happens. And if there's a way to add your own shortcuts to the ones provided – Web, clock, email/SMS notification, notepad and so on -- I haven't found it.
If you tap on Main Menu, you get to a couple of screens with lots of icons on, arranged not unlike the way the iPhone displays its applications. This too doesn't seem to be customisable as such, although there's a further level of short cuts you can set up. Finally, you can dig down into the old familiar Windows Mobile interface through the Start button on the home screen.
The main trouble with all this is the multiplicity of interfaces. Everything has its own way of doing things, and there is precious little consistency. Sometimes you can drag things with your finger, other times that selects them (or whatever's underneath your finger when you lift it off). Some scroll bars are draggable, others aren't. Some parts of the interface work with fingers, some need the precision of the stylus (which lives on its own little lanyard, dangling from the side of the phone like a tiny ebony and silver cigarette holder – labelling the Omnia owner as a cross between an Algonquin Round Table socialite and a Japanese schoolgirl. An arresting touch).
This is a crime against usability. You learn over time what lives where and how to use it, but it's a frustrating process. To be fair to Samsung, it's done a better job than most – opting for usefulness over flashiness, it's got most of the good stuff up front. Some things are excellent: its 3G and phone functions are more reliable than those of the iPhone 3G I used for a couple of weeks (although I haven't had a chance to test the latest software update on that platform), and the camera works particularly well.
The trouble, as you may guess, is Windows Mobile.
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