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Samsung Jack

December 13th, 2009
The Windows Mobile 6.5 answer to the BlackBerry.

In a world full of BlackBerries and iPhones -- not to mention Android and webOS -- it’s easy to forget that Microsoft has a smartphone OS to offer the world. The Samsung Jack is a friendly reminder and one of the showcases for Windows Mobile 6.5. But with a post-rebate price only $20 less than an iPhone 3G, does the Samsung Jack deserve attention from would-be smartphone owners? hardware and design

The Jack has a ‘BlackBerryish’ design with a QWERTY keyboard below a large screen with navigation tools between the two. It's fairly light: it weighs in at a mere 3.6oz, which makes it light to hold but not so much that it feels cheap or too easy to lose. As such, it's one of the easiest phones to hold that we’ve ever reviewed. The right side of the Jack houses a dual-use port that doubles as a USB adapter and a 3.5 mm headphone jack. Kudos to Samsung for letting users use standard 3.5mm headphones out of the box, but having to use a dongle to get to that 3.5mm jack is a big draw back in the phone's design. The other side of the phone houses the volume buttons and the power switch.

Like many phones these days, this handset tucks the microSDHC card slot underneath the battery compartment, which can be annoying if you regularly swap cards but just a minor inconvenience for most. Without adding storage, users are given a modest 256MB of storage space for e-mail, music, documents, and contacts.

The screen on the Samsung Jack measures 2.4 inches from corner to corner and has a resolution of 320x240. From a usage perspective, the screen is bright and the text is sharp, although it should be noted that most BlackBerries, like the Bold 9700, have sharper 480x360 displays.

The QWERTY keyboard on the Jack is comparable to that of a BlackBerry. The only major difference is that user control is handled via a D-pad as opposed to a rollerball or touchpad. We got used to typing on the keyboard in no time; it was no harder to acclimate to than any other we've tried before. It's intuitive to navigate the Windows Mobile OS and its apps through the D-pad and other controls, but not quite as easy as we’d like, especially when other competitors are moving forward.

Windows Mobile

Windows Mobile 6.5 has often been maligned (and sometimes righly so) for its insensitivity to touch, but its home screen is relatively easy to navigate with physical buttons. There are several main tiles through on the main page plus an entire apple list. The primary tiles give users quick access to features they'd have to access often, such as time and calendaring, messages, calls, major settings, IM, media playback and carrier-specific apps like AT&T Navigator. Accessing the Start menu gives users the access to the same applications and options plus a few others.

The ability to natively open Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files has always a huge plus for Windows Mobile; some phones now come with Office equivalents like DataViz's Documents To Go, but an official solution can be reassuring. We opened several files with no issues.

It’s a shame that we didn’t have the same experience with the integrated web browser. Despite Microsoft's protests to the contrary, the 'improved' Internet Explorer can simply be described as pitiful. Its rendering engine still couldn’t seem to get many websites drawn correctly, even mobile-optimized sites, and its page zooming capabilities were terrible. We were forced to scroll through pages when we should have been able to simply zoom out more. The rendering process was also painfully slow even though we were browsing over a Wi-Fi network. Accessing the web via the Samsung Jack was like using a dial-up connection with a Windows 95 machine instead of a modern computer connected via broadband. There are third-party browsers like Opera that are much better, but we'd still point to Android, iPhone or webOS if you want genuinely good browsing out of the gate.

Media playback is as always another Windows Mobile weakness; aside from some cosmetic upgrades, it's still the same years-old interface and just isn't made for those with more than a handful of items to play.

E-mail on the Samsung Jack is thankfully much better than the Internet integration. We linked up a Gmail account to the Jack and it synced e-mail instantly. Unfortunately, the e-mail app has an Outlook-like mindset and doesn't necessarily operate on a "push" level; short of a full Exchange server, mail at best arrives on a fixed schedule. This quirk of making the application feel like its desktop-based big brother, in spite of what's actually needed, seems to carry over into other parts of the OS; Windows Mobile at times truly does feel like a microscopic version of Windows XP, let alone Vista or 7. Everything from the file browsing applications to the confirmation prompts feels like Windows, which is not a plus in this environment. All other modern smartphones give users a unique interface that feels at least partly optimized for the platform instead of shoehorned into a space it doesn't belong.

battery life, camera, sync and call quality

When testing phones, we alternate between frequent use as well as leaving them on for days at a time while occasionally making calls, running apps and using data. Nearly every smartphone we've used will need a full recharge in a day, but we were somewhat disappointed with the Jack's light-duty longevity. Typically we can leave a phone alone for a few days and use it in an on-and-off manner as we just described, even with Wi-Fi enabled. Samsung's phone didn’t seem to last as long as other phones we’ve tested and still needed fairly frequent recharges. Chalk this up to a relative lack of battery optimization.

The camera on the phone boasts a 3.2 megapixel resolution, which as of the end of 2009 is virtually the standard. Our test shots produced a mixed bag. With all of the settings on auto, we had some shots that were washed out, lacking color or prone to noise, and others that were acceptable. Clarity on all of the shots was good, but it seems that the phone needs lots of light to get proper exposure and white balance readings.

Unfortunately, all Microsoft-based phones rely on ActiveSync for all computer interaction. Files located on the phone can't be opened from a file browser, as they can on Android devices; they first have to be copied to the host PC (supposedly being converted along the way). The approach seems like an unnecessary gatekeeper between users and the content on their phone when other smartphones, and even many ‘dumbphones,’ allow users direct access to their content. iPhones do share a similar limitation, but at least Apple is known for a fairly elegant process that doesn't alter the files themselves.

As far as actual phone calls, the Samsung Jack gets a passing if unexceptional grade. Audio quality on both ends of the call is good, as is the phone's speakerphone performance.

wrapping up

The Samsung Jack is in many regards emblematic of the typical keyboard-equipped Windows Mobile device. Most of the positives are attached to Samsung's hardware design: it's comfortable, straightforward and simple. But as has been the case for years, the negatives almost always relate to the Microsoft OS. If Microsoft could give users better browsing and media experiences, less of a Windows-obsessed philosophy and a more straightforward sync, the Jack could be an excellent handset in every area.

As such, our answer on the Jack is the same as it often is for most Windows Mobile phones: if you’re a professional looking for tight Office integration (with sleek hardware as a perk), the Samsung Jack is worth a look. If you’re more of a multimedia and Internet user, though, pass on. The poor browsing environment, rudimentary jukebox software and need for a headphone jack adapter will likely disappoint you -- especially since for just a $20 higher outlay to AT&T you can have an iPhone 3G that's much more well-rounded.

- Light, comfortable.

- Great keyboard.

- Simple home screen, Office support.

- Very poor browser; so-so e-mail.

- ActiveSync an obstacle.

- Display not as detailed as its rivals.

- Some camera shots washed out or noisy.

- 3.5mm earphones need an adapter.