Ecoustics: Hands on with the most feature-packed smart phone yet for those on a budget.
Joining the parade of sleek, sub-€160 smart phones, the Samsung BlackJack is anything but a me-too device. It’s the first affordable Windows Mobile phone to run on Cingular’s growing high-speed HSDPA network, and it includes a host of amenities the competition lacks, including support for Cingular Video and streaming XM radio. Some prospective buyers may lament the lack of Wi-Fi, but we think the BlackJack is the real deal.
At first glance, the BlackJack looks like a black-clad Moto Q clone. But while this device has all the sex appeal of a scientific calculator, it’s lighter (10 g vs. 116 g), a hair thinner (1.17 cm vs. 1.19 cm), and noticeably narrower (5.84 inches vs. 6.35 inches) than the Q. The soft-touch finish gives the BlackJack a good grip, and despite its tiny dimensions, the keyboard didn’t feel cramped. We had no trouble typing e-mail or URLs at a quick pace. Like the Q, the BlackJack sports a thumbwheel on the right side for scrolling through menus and Web pages, along with a corresponding Back/Clear key.
We have only two complaints about the design: 1) The BlackJack’s four-way navigation key is too close to the Send and End keys; we accidentally entered the phone menu or exited an application on more than one occasion. 2) With the way the dial pad is arranged on the QWERTY layout, a letter falls between each number (going from left to right), which slows dialing.
The right side of the device is where you’ll also find the microSD Card slot to supplement the 64MB of built-in RAM (about 40MB of it is user-accessible), and the volume keys and a proprietary USB/charger jack line the left side. The optional stereo headset uses the same jack, but we’d suggest springing for a stereo Bluetooth headset so you can talk and listen to music wirelessly. A raised portion on the back of the device houses the camera lens, self-portrait mirror, and speaker. This protrusion makes the BlackJack easy to hold during calls.
Like most other Windows Mobile 5.0 phones that run the Smartphone Edition of the OS, this one can sync your contacts, calendar, e-mail, and tasks with Outlook. But Samsung went the extra mile by including an Organizer, which includes a welcome Notepad app and a convenient Smart Converter tool (currency, length, weight, temperature, etc.). The D-Day tool, for counting down to a critical event, is a little overkill given that you already have a calendar with built-in reminders.
As the second smart phone to tap into Cingular’s HSDPA network, the BlackJack offered fast data rates when we were within 3G range. Most Web pages began to load within 15 seconds. In other areas, you’ll get slower EDGE data, which is fine for downloading e-mail and Web sites optimized for mobile phones (like Cingular’s own MediaNet), but not for traditional HTML sites. The carrier currently offers HSDPA in 130 markets with populations of 100,000 or more. That pales in comparison to Sprint’s and Verizon Wireless’ EV-DO networks (200+ markets each), so you may want to hold off on the BlackJack until Cingular has closed the gap.
When it comes to messaging, the BlackJack satisfies. For e-mail, the device supports Cingular Xpress Mail (working with consumer services like Comcast, Yahoo, and BellSouth), Microsoft Direct Push, and Good Mobile. You can open all sorts of attachments using the included Picsel Viewer application, but you’ll have to zoom in to read them. For those who prefer instant messaging over text messaging, the BlackJack supports AOL, MSN, and Yahoo.
Another way the BlackJack stands out from other WM 5.0 phones is its multimedia perks. For starters, it’s compatible with Cingular Music. That means you can stream 25 channels of XM radio (for $9 per month). Reception was quite good—even if the service didn’t always list the right artist and track name—regardless of whether we were in an HSDPA or EDGE coverage area. You can also use the free Music ID feature to identify songs you hear and then purchase ringtones or wallpapers for that artist. No, you can’t download songs over the air, but you can easily sync tunes to the BlackJack using Windows Media Player, whether you rip them yourself or buy them from PlaysForSure stores.
Another pleasant surprise is support for Cingular Video, allowing users to stream clips from CNN, ESPN, HBO (for an extra fee), and other content providers. When you’re within HSDPA coverage, the video looks smooth, but when we roamed into EDGE areas, our CNN hourly news update looked like a slideshow. Regardless of the data rate, enabling the Full Screen view doesn’t expand the actual viewing area. It merely makes the area framing the video disappear.
Yet another advantage of the BlackJack is that it can play Java-based games, something most other WM 5.0 phones can’t do. Although it took us a while to download Jamdat’s Midnight Bowling (€4.66), there’s no question that this device is as good at killing time as it is at keeping you organized. The selection of games for now, however, is limited to a few titles, since they have to be optimized for this device’s display. Samsung also throws in an RSS reader application so you can quickly update and read the latest headlines from CBS, The New York Times, Yahoo News, and more.
The BlackJack also saves you more time than the competition, thanks to several handy shortcuts. For instance, pressing and holding the thumbwheel launches the Quick Launcher, allowing you to jump to your calendar, music, or even a specific Web page. You can edit what’s inside the Quick Launcher from within the app. Another example: pressing FN + B turns Bluetooth on and off.
The 1.3-megapixel camera is a mixed bag. It took sharp photos with very nice color saturation when shooting outdoors. However, the shutter speed is lacking, so you can forget about capturing moving subjects. And without a flash, you’ll need a lot of ambient light when shooting indoors. The 15-second video clips are just decent.
Call quality in our tests was quite good. Voices on our end exhibited very little static, and some people we called couldn’t tell we were calling from a cell phone. The loud, back-mounted speakerphone impressed us as well—for calls and music—even with the BlackJack laid flat on a table. Talk time is rated for 5.5 hours, 2.5 hours more than the Moto Q. We didn’t have enough time with our unit to test that claim, but we can tell you that the BlackJack’s standby time is longer. The Moto Q generally needs to be charged every other day, but with Samsung’s smart phone, we got through an entire weekend before having to find an outlet.
Since Cingular’s HSDPA network is still being rolled out, the BlackJack is a device that will get better with age. But we think it’s a very good deal now given all the extras Samsung stuffed inside its thin frame. The BlackJack offers more features and battery life than the €77-cheaper Moto Q, and it boasts better voice quality and coverage than the identically-priced T-Mobile Dash, even though the latter offers Wi-Fi. The BlackJack is now our favorite value-priced Windows Mobile phone.