The date: November 16, 2006. The network: Cingular. Smartphone meets HSDPA for the first time on a North American market, with the Samsung i607 BlackJack launching alongside the HTC-sourced 8525. We headed down to our local Cingular corporate store on that fateful day, trying to get a feel for what (if anything) the landmark launches were doing for foot traffic and sales. Much to our surprise -- our very pleasant surprise -- the store is busier than we'd ever seen it, with virtually everyone in the joint inquiring about that sleek new Samsung with a keyboard they've seen on the telly. As it turns out, the store didn't even have any of the bigger, more expensive, less hyped 8525s; the curious customers and would-be customers had all wandered in on the strength of the BlackJack alone. By the end of the day, they'd sold out. What is it about the device that has everyone fired up? More importantly, is it justified?
Before we dive into the phone itself, a quick note on Cingular's intense marketing blitz: "good job." No, seriously. Big Orange's smartphone offerings have never been more than a footnote in its consumer product portfolio, and in failing to expose everyday customers to the overwhelming joy (and, occasionally, intense sorrow) that smartphone ownership brings, the Audiovox SMT 5600s and Motorola MPx220s of the world have historically been all but pigeonholed to business duty. With the BlackJack, Cingular has done a complete reversal -- likely in response to Verizon's overwhelming success in marketing the similarly-styled Q -- pitching young, hip music lovers (and anyone else with a couple hundred bucks to burn) the benefits of putting Windows Mobile in their pockets.
Anyhoo, onto the phone. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a second-generation Q: less plasticky, slightly smaller, and perhaps even a little more purpose-suited. Best of all, we hear black is the new black, so the BlackJack's got you covered in the fashion department.
Unfortunately, the phone's small outline comes at a price: usability. The battery could stand to put out a little more juice (more on that in a moment), and the keyboard is simply one of the tightest we've ever used. Even after extensive practice, we're still not as effective with the BlackJack's microscopic QWERTY pad as we'd like to be. At this point we've sorta come to accept the typos, but we can't shake the feeling that we'd be more accurate by leaps and bounds with wider, more closely spaced keys and another millimeter or two of width across the device.
Further complicating our typing woes was the phone's 220MHz OMAP1710 processor, which did a good job of buckling under the pressure at inopportune moments. Despite the fact that we never mastered the keyboard, we were still able to frequently type emails and text messages fast enough to get ahead of the i607's ability to process individual characters, leading to a frustrating lag between what you're typing and what you see. We also seemed to occasionally lose characters here and there, though with our clumsy digits fumbling over the keypad, it could've been our own fault.
From a productivity standpoint, we won't waste your time -- Windows Mobile is Windows Mobile, and there's not much to report here. Same goes for the utterly unremarkable 1.3 megapixel camera. Cingular and Samsung saw fit to throw in some extra goodies, including a Samsung-designed home screen that replaces Microsoft's default. Good thing, too, since Microsoft's was clearly not designed to work well on a landscape display. We're going to fault Microsoft here for not having the foresight to envision a landscape Smartphone and Samsung for failing to remove the defunct home screen entirely.
One of our favorite tricks on the BlackJack was streaming CD-quality net radio over HSDPA and completing the final leg of the music's journey to our ear canals via A2DP. We tested the setup using a pair of old-school Logitech Wireless Headphones for MP3 and it worked like a champ; our only gripe is the wireless audio's toll on processor utilization. When you're getting your A2DP on, using the BlackJack for anything else is pretty much an exercise in futility -- it'll respond, but very slowly. All in the name of battery life, we s'pose.
Ah yes, battery life. As we mentioned before, the BlackJack's thin form doesn't allow for much of a battery; draining it completely in an 8-hour period is a pretty simple task with moderate use (particularly in 3G areas). We've caught wind that the standard 1200mAh piece can be upgraded to an 1800mAh one with a new, bulbous battery cover (sound familiar?), though we haven't had an opportunity to try it. Users expecting the BlackJack to be their day-to-day workhorse are probably well advised to investigate the extra juice.
Bottom line: yes, the BlackJack is (perhaps by design) a jack of all trades and master of none. It's a device of many, many compromises. And yes, Windows Mobile 5 is its same ol' quirky self. Be that as it may, we find that it slots swimmingly between the power-above-all 8525 and the lesser SYNC, striking a balance between functionality, fashion, and broadband data that no other Cingular phone is able to -- for now, anyway.