byChris Ziegler||August 18th 2008 at 12:59pmAugust 18th 2008 12:59 pm
No longer does Windows Mobile alone a capable smartphone make. The platform's core is as relevant, powerful, and well-supported as ever, but that's not the problem -- the real issue is that it's just plain hard to look at. The days of WinMo looking even remotely modern in its stock form are long gone, and top-tier manufacturers clearly recognize that; everyone from ASUS to HTC has taken matters into their own hands to craft custom skins that kill off as many of the ancient visuals as possible while still holding onto everything that makes Windows Mobile great.
Enter the Samsung i900 Omnia, a phone that submits to design direction forced upon the industry largely by the iPhone -- full touchscreen, no keyboard, you know the drill by now -- and does pretty much everything in its power to overcome WinMo's limitations to make it competitive in the year 2008. Did Sammy succeed? Read on.
On paper, the Omnia sounds like a smartphone dream: 7.2Mbps HSDPA 2100, quadband EDGE, 5 megapixel autofocus camera, 3.2-inch capacitive WQVGA touchscreen, GPS, Windows Mobile 6.1, WiFi, and 8 or 16GB of Flash with microSD expansion, all wrapped in a tight little brushed metal case. One glance at the carbon fiber-look case tells you that Samsung is trying to position this thing as a premium product, and there's no question it has the specs to back up the claim.
Unfortunately, the phone has to get slapped with the usual word of warning that you won't be able to latch onto any 3G in North America, because Samsung (in its infinite wisdom) saw fit to forgo a triband 3G chipset. These days, we're not buying any justification for this, particularly in a phone that sits this far up into the high end. Want to sell this only to your European customer base? That's fine, Samsung, but many of those folks are going to be traveling stateside on occasion, and they're going to want fast data when they do. Radio gripes aside, we had no problem latching onto our relic of an EDGE network and going about our slow-ass business.
Spec-wise, the phone wins by a neck over its nemesis, the Touch Diamond -- but the big difference, and the thing you're going to be affected by more than any other day in and day out, is the user interface. HTC's TouchFLO 3D is already pretty legendary in the WinMo world, solidifying itself as the skin to beat. Samsung comes to the table with TouchWiz, a name that drills home the fact that Sammy wants you touching this screen, not tapping it with a stylus. Not loud and clear enough? How about this, then: the Omnia has no place to stow a stylus. None. Insane, we know, because even as WinMo licensees are trying to wean themselves off stylus dependence, they still come in handy from time to time. Alas, Samsung says you're fingertippin' it with the Omnia whether you like it or not -- so the interface had better be built to match, and it had better be deep.
So is it? For starters, the screen is plenty bright and crisp, and the display has a nice feel with no give -- perfect for touching. Like TouchFLO 3D, we found that TouchWiz let us spend our average day without really seeing a native Windows Mobile screen, and that's a good -- nay, a great thing. It doesn't have the bedazzling spit and polish of TouchFLO 3D, but what it lacks in sparkle, it arguably makes up for in raw usability and functionality. Flick gestures work great where they're implemented; unfortunately, they don't seem to be prevasive throughout the software, and it's pretty much a gussing game figuring out where they're going work and where they aren't. We'd like to see Samsung take the bull by the horns there and finish what they've started.
The shortcut menu and program list are perfect for fiddling through with fat fingers; no complaints there. Not the prettiest by default, that's for sure, but they can be reskinned to your liking.
Where TouchWiz really shines, though, is with the Today screen's widget bar. It's brilliant, it's useful, and we're going to miss it on any phone that doesn't have it or something like it. The concept is simple enough: a collapsible bar on the left side of the display presents you with a pretty wide selection of information and / or control widgets that can be dragged onto the background and placed however you choose. There's a pretty good variety of widgets available from the get-go, but we'd love to see Samsung release new ones or market an API very, very hard to developers to get them to create widgets of their own.
Oh, notice that mouse pointer up there? Yep, the Omnia borrows the optical d-pad concept from the i780, which can be used in a traditional four-way mode or turned into a desktop-style mouse. We were skeptical of the whole thing -- and maybe we're crazy, but we ended up loving it in mouse mode. We got used to it quickly, we didn't really think that it was slowing us down much, and it essentially negates the need for a stylus for those times when a finger just won't do (like those pesky "X" and "ok" buttons in the upper right of apps, for example).
We wish we had the same love for the soft keyboards. Samsung provides its own input methods to override Windows Mobile's own, a QWERTY and a SureType-style deal. No complaints there -- the default ones have to go. Sadly, we ended up hating both; of course, your mileage may vary. The keys on the QWERTY were too narrow to be reliably and consistently pressed accurately and there was no pop-up to indicate what key was actually being pressed until we'd already pressed it. The auto-correction is annoying, overbearing, frequently wrong, and implemented in stupid places like Opera Mobile's address bar (try typing "engadget.com" -- we dare you). SureType, on the other hand... well, it's SureType, which we've always found challenging to use. Pearl owners may disagree.
In the final analysis, despite its faults, the Omnia's strengths vault it to the head of the WinMo class for the moment, particularly in this form factor. We think that a slide-out QWERTY version would do very well for Samsung as well -- as would a true world 3G model, of course.