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Samsung Z is Galaxy on the outside, Tizen on the inside

While Samsung has been a loyal proponent of Android for quite some time, it's also spent the past few years cooking up its own open-source mobile operating system called Tizen. After several prototypes and revisions, the company finally saw fit to unveil the Samsung Z -- its first ever Tizen smartphone -- a couple of days ago. It was easily the star of the show at the Tizen developer conference here in San Francisco, so we were eager to take it for a spin.

At first glance, you'd be forgiven if you mistook the Samsung Z for one of the company's other Galaxy S handsets. It's all very familiar, from the Samsung logo at the top right down to the single physical home button at the bottom. Flanking the button on either side are hot keys for the menu and back functions respectively, which, again, mirrors its Android cousins. Flip it around, and you'll find that the rear is covered in that familiar faux leather material we've seen on other Samsung devices too. It does have sharper edges than either the recent S5 or the Note 3, however, with flatter sides and a far blockier aesthetic.

Still, the Z itself felt pretty solid from our few minutes handling it, and that 4.8-inch 720p HD AMOLED display remained sharp and vibrant under the show floor's fluorescent lights. On either side of the phone are buttons for volume and power, while an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash sits on the back. Other specs include a 2.1-megapixel front-facing cam, 16GB of storage, a microSD card slot, a generous 2,600mAh battery plus a 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. It even has a power saving mode, a fingerprint sensor and a heart rate monitor -- you know, like that Galaxy S5.

But enough of the hardware. Let's get down to what sets this phone apart from the rest of Samsung's mobile lineup -- the Tizen operating system. We'll just say it upfront: It looks quite a bit like Android, or at least, the TouchWiz version of Google's mobile OS. The app drawer, notification tray and settings page are very similar in look and feel to what we've seen on the GS5. Like the prototype we saw a few months ago, you can even fill the home screen with Tizen's "Dynamic Boxes," or what the rest of us call customizable widgets. You can apparently have as many as nine different home screens, and adding or removing these dynamic boxes is as simple as pressing and holding on the touch screen. Further, the camera app is almost identical to that of other Samsung devices, with similar settings such as "Best photo" and "Beauty face."

There are a few uniquely Tizen touches that stand out, however. The most obvious one is that instead of just four or five favorite apps along the bottom of the home screen, you have as many as eight. Additionally, when you swipe up on those favorite apps, you'll pull them to the top, revealing a split screen of the rest of your apps underneath. From there, you can navigate your app drawer as per usual by swiping left and right. You can also group apps together in a see-thru folder that look very similar to the ones on iOS. Also, when you're in split-screen mode like this, you can easily swap out your favorite apps by dragging and dropping them around as you see fit. Though it's a rather small thing, we also liked that you could change the interface's color theme just by swapping out the wallpaper.

Understandably, there weren't that many apps that we could play around with on the Z, as Tizen is such a young OS. Tizen apps are essentially web applications, built on standards such as WebKit and HTML5. A quick glance at the Tizen Store revealed a surprisingly healthy number of apps, though not ones from recognizable publishers. As you might expect, the Z supports most of Samsung's own applications, such as S Health, S Voice and S Translate, all of which we saw on our show floor model.

There's no word yet on pricing of the Z, but that shouldn't be a concern to most of you, because it will only be available in Russia in the third quarter of this year. Samsung sees it as a test market of sorts, and will be launching an app challenge in that country to help the Tizen effort along. When we asked a Samsung spokesperson as to how the company hopes to market Tizen next to Android, all we received was a rather non-committal answer that it's a "multi-platform company" that wishes to give its customers as many choices as possible. Still, we can't help but wonder if Tizen, and the Z, are further signs of Samsung attempting to step out of Google's software shadow.