In the world of Android, it's not yet clear who's going to come out victorious -- QWERTY sliders or their keyboardless brethren -- but does there really need to be a winner? We say there's room for just about everyone in this open-source party, and Sprint is starting to round out its Android offerings by introducing the keyboard-equipped Samsung Moment to saddle up alongside the HTC Hero that was released a few weeks ago. In the scheme of things, the platform is still extraordinarily young which means that virtually every new handset that's announced brings "firsts" to the table; in the Moment's case, it's both the first Android device with an 800MHz ARM11 core and the first Android QWERTY phone with an AMOLED display (you'd have to go back to another Sammy, the Galaxy, to find the first AMOLED Android phone regardless of input method).
Being able to stuff Android, AMOLED, QWERTY, and 800MHz all into one sentence certainly sounds like a winning combination, but does the Moment deliver? Let's find out.
In the year since the first Android-powered device came to market, there's been virtually no effort on the part of any manufacturer to release beautiful, solid hardware that captures the imagination of an aspirational, high-end audience the same way that an iPhone or -- dare we say it -- many modern BlackBerrys do. That seems poised to change with the Sholes, granted, but for the time being, Android has left users stuck with a higher ratio of wobbly plastic than perhaps any other platform (some might actually contend that webOS takes the cake there thanks to the Pre's questionable build quality, but for the sake of argument, let's restrict ourselves to platforms with more than one released device). The Moment doesn't make a lot of upward progress in this regard, but that's not necessarily a bad thing -- yes, it's all plastic and it's not particularly sleek, but what is there feels tightly manufactured. When the display is closed, there's less play between the two halves of the phone than there is on the CLIQ; pressing hard on the left edge gives you just a little creaking, but it's not a continual "tap tap tap" as the halves clank together when you're touching the display like we've seen on both the G1 and the CLIQ.
We observed something interesting in the course of fiddling with the Moment in our hands: even though it's no thicker than the CLIQ and only marginally wider and taller, it somehow feels significantly more imposing. We think we can chalk that up to three things. One, the Moment is a very square device -- a little like the G1 in that regard -- which means that it's more likely to take on a brick-like feel sitting in your hand than a large phone with more deeply curved edges. Two, it's got a soft-touch back, causing it to stick a little more in your pocket and contribute to the sensation of it being too thick; don't get us wrong, soft-touch plastic is almost always preferred to its hard, cold, unforgiving alternative, but it's just a little food for thought. Finally, the Moment's screen slides a bit higher than the CLIQ's, giving it pretty massive footprint when open. Put simply, we didn't find the phone to be too big by any stretch of the imagination -- but if you're on Sprint and you're upgrading from something like a Centro, the Moment's large-and-in-charge presence might come as a bit of a shock.
Turning our attention to controls and ports, the Moment mixes it up a bit by adding in an optical pad (instead of the usual trackball or d-pad) and using touch-sensitive Home, Menu, and Back buttons. The optical pad was a bit finicky -- we generally like the technology and the fact that it's more robust than a trackball, but we never quite mastered control of the on-screen highlight using the pad to our complete satisfaction. We're sure we would've been just fine with a few days' more practice, and naturally, you don't need the pad whatsoever to navigate the interface. The Moment features real micro-USB and 3.5mm headphone jacks, welcome additions from a company still trying to shake a reputation for using wacky proprietary connectors; unfortunately, both are hindered by fiddly tethered port covers. Considering that micro-USB and 3.5mm stereo are both fairly robust ports and countless portable devices do just fine with 'em permanently exposed, we would've preferred them that way here, too.
The keyboard on this device is a series of contradictions. Actually, it really all boils down to one: it's generously large, hampered by a somewhat strange layout that makes mistypes a more frequent occurrence than they should be. On the left side, for example, Samsung has elected to make room for the Function key by pushing the letter keys to the right, meaning that A is further right than Z -- something that takes some getting used to. The space bar interrupts the lower row, placed between V and B, and the Enter key is to the right of the Up key, which is next to P in the top letter row. We're sure we could get used to all of these quirks, but why should we have to? Why couldn't have Samsung just come up with a more typical layout? Anyhow, once you get past that, the keys are generally easy to type on -- they're not particularly three-dimensional, but they're spaced far enough apart (and each one is large enough) so that finding them and hitting only the one you intend to is a pretty straightforward process, they're very clicky, and the dedicated numeric row is certainly a plus.
Call quality on the Moment is... well, in a word, loud. The earpiece was both loud and very clear, while the speakerphone may very well be the loudest we've ever heard on any cellphone, period -- we found that we could crank it high enough to actually be ear-splitting if held within a foot or so of your face. Voices started to get a little muddy at the top end of the volume range, but still recognizable -- good to know in case you've got to hold a conference call from your handset at a mile-long table surrounded by fifty people.
Picture quality (above) was about as good as we could hope for from a 3.2 megapixel autofocus lens accompanied by an LED flash, but the setup is hampered by ultra-bare-bones software that Samsung made no attempt to customize. We would've appreciated an on-screen autofocus indicator -- not a huge deal -- but what really blew our mind is that there's no automatic flash setting. It's either on or off, and you've got to dig into the app's Setting menus to toggle it. We can't remember the last time we used a flash-equipped handset without automatic control.
We're of two minds on Android: one says that we want the same experience delivered to us in as many form factors and styles as possible, and the other says that we're excited to see what sorts of crazy skins and customizations top-tier manufacturers like Samsung and HTC can dream up. We can see the justification for both philosophies, and so can these guys, apparently -- Sammy and Sprint have elected to deliver a very stock so-called "Google Experience" with the Moment, while Sprint is pursuing the customization angle with the Hero and Samsung's doing it on the upcoming Behold II for T-Mobile. Unfortunately, this multi-pronged strategy is liable to confuse customers at a critical time in Android's history where market share wins are particularly important to its long-term success, but on the other hand, at least we have options.
So, to reiterate: the Moment runs plain-vanilla Android -- currently Cupcake, to be specific -- with the typical Sprint add-ins like Sprint TV, Sprint Navigation, NFL, and NASCAR just like you find on the Pre. In practical terms, that means you won't have the revamped Android Market, Power widget, or battery usage screen that G1 and myTouch 3G owners have been enjoying for a few weeks now, but it's not the end of the world. The phone (thankfully) does support over-the-air firmware updates and we believe that Google Experience devices will be liable to get updated faster and more frequently than their customized counterparts (like the CLIQ and Hero, for example) in the long term, so we're at least hopeful that it'll be seeing Donut sooner rather than later.
Interestingly, there were a couple things missing from the Moment's firmware that belie its Google Experience roots -- nothing big, but we still found it a bit odd. First off, like the Dream and Magic found on Rogers, the Google search widget lacks a voice search button -- possibly because Sprint and Samsung have replaced Android's in-built voice search functionality with a Nuance-powered app and the fact that Sammy has provided a dedicated voice search button next to the camera button on the right side of the phone, but it'd still be nice to have. Secondly, the charging status screen lacks a battery percentage indication, something that we find surprisingly useful for deciding whether we've pumped in enough juice to take our phone off charge and head off. We really don't have an explanation for why that might be missing.
One of the biggest selling points of the Moment is its speedy 800MHz processor, and in general, it delivers on the promise of a faster, more pleasant Android experience. Most striking was our boot time showdown against the CLIQ: 41 seconds versus a staggering 1 minute, 22 seconds for Moto's machine. Of course, the CLIQ's got the additional hindrance of BLUR to worry about while booting, but that actually raises a good point: a fast core plus a bone-stock Android build are always going to deliver the smoothest user experience possible. Once you've booted, the processor boost is still noticeable -- animated window transitions are smoother, you can move between menus faster, and there's generally less drama as you try to move between applications. One area where we saw disappointingly little improvement was in the browser -- as you'll notice in our video, scrolling may have been marginally better, but not enough so to have a major positive impact, and rendering speeds weren't noticeably improved. Indeed, the browser's still very much a weak spot for Android 1.5 and 1.6, so we're hoping 2.0 knocks it out of the park -- and if not, we suppose that downloading Steel is always an option.
If there's one thing Android's in desperate need of right now, it's choices -- choice of carriers, choice of manufacturers, choice of form factors, choice of skins, and so on, because no single Android device is going to capture whole percentage points of market share the same way the iPhone has. On that level, we applaud Sprint for staying on the ball and recognizing that the keyboardless Hero wasn't enough to satisfy every last subscriber who'd like to get in on Android. Thing is, the Moment still feels like a first-generation device -- and for a platform that launched commercially a solid year ago, that's not really acceptable. We would've liked to have seen Samsung come to the table with a phone that was sleeker, prettier, more thought-out, and -- if nothing else -- ran the latest and greatest version of Android that Google and the OHA have to offer. Devices like the Behold II suggest that Sammy's going to be an open-source force to be reckoned with in the long term, but for its first outing on Sprint, it's a swing and a miss.