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Samsung Omnia II

May 15th, 2010
Samsung Windows Mobile flagship gets good hardware but poor software.

The Omnia II is Samsungís flagship phone for not just Verizon but the world; even now, it's still trumpeted as an important device from Korea through to Europe and North America. Everything about the Omnia II on paper makes it out to be an iPhone contender, but we'll learn in our review whether a Windows Mobile device with a custom UI compete with Apple or Google in the smartphone space. Hardware: design, camera and call quality

When first powering up the Omnia II we immediately noticed the great screen it has. The screen is powered by AMOLED (active-matrix organic LED) technology and, as is often the case, very bright and very sharp (800x480). The caveat of most AMOLED displays still applies, however: while it's great indoors, the picture can wash out in bright light, especially outdoors. How much this will be an issue depends entirely on your own habits.

From a size perspective, the Omnia II is roughly the same size and weight as an iPhone but is noticeably thicker: about as thick as an iPhone with a heavy duty rubberized Speck brand case. Build quality is also a disappointment compared to Apple's smartphone, and indeed other smartphones: to be honest, it feels much more like a plastic toy.

One of the Omnia IIís greatest strengths is its great camera hardware and software, which is somewhat surprising for a Windows Mobile device. The test images we snapped from the 5-megapixel camera looked quite good with relatively little of the high noise and smearing exhibited by cellphone optics. The camera software rivals that of most point-and-shoots and lets you fine-tune color balance and sensitivity. Next to the camera lens on the back of the phone sits a small flash, which provides adequate compensation for low light but understandably won't fill a large room. It's certainly more than what many smartphones offer even today.

We also felt that the speakerphone volume and quality were impressive; this is perhaps one feature of the phone that unambiguously outshined the iPhone in a side-by-side test. Overall call quality was good with or without the speakerphone, and the Omnia II's fairly speedy processor (an 800MHz self-made chip) was a good match for Verizonís 3G network with quick web data transfer speeds. While ATT and Verizon may continue to squabble about who has the better 3G network, the reality is that the Omnia II is at least on par with if not better than what we encountered on AT&T's network, even considering the choices of web browsers on each.

Expansion is strictly typical: Samsung builds a healthy 8GB of storage into the phone itself and relies on a microSDHC card slot to add more. It's a healthy mix and something to consider if you need a blend of permanent storage and room for the future.

Software and the user experience

Unfortunately for Samsung ,the kind words and compliments of this review may largely stop here. While we had several good things to say about the hardware of the phone, the software is really quite terrible. The Windows Mobile 6.5 build that runs the phone is overlaid with Samsungís TouchWiz 2.0 interface, which at best could be described as "clunky." At times, we couldnít tell if the issues we were having with the touchscreen were hardware issues or software issues because the software just responds so poorly to touch input: every animation and transition on the phone is slow and feels awkward.

The main menu on the phone functions superficially like that of an iPhone, but the interface feels tacky and we had a hard time effectively and easily navigating the interface. By far the most egregious example is the "cube." It's a very poorly done menu interface that opens the browser as well as the games, photo, video sections. It not only feels underdeveloped but completely unnecessary: it actually takes more time than it would just to navigate through icons or a menu.

TouchWiz also allows widgets to be stuck on the home screen of the phone or the shortcut bar on the left-hand side. While most of the widgets seemed well intentioned, the phone didn't keep up managing even two widgets open on the desktop without some serious performance issues.

We will add that the phone comes preloaded with handy apps once you get past the top layer: in Verizon guise, there are apps for Facebook, MySpace, and Microsoft's Bing as well as several media apps and games. The Microsoft Office suite is still an advantage for workers, and we really appreciated the inclusion of Opera as a faster and more accurate Internet Explorer alternative.

One of the Omnia IIís most touted features is its support for Swype, an alternative text input method. It lets you quickly move from key to key without letting go and can potentially overcome some of the hesitations over the lack of physical buttons. We can see where Swype may have some potential -- it did recently break a messaging record -- but for this review, the verdict on Swype is still out. Swype has a steep learning curve (much more so than T9) and some of its functionality feels unintuitive early on. Periodic message writers or those who just prefer a direct input method won't get much extra from the new keyboard option.

We're all in favor of devices that improve on the Windows Mobile experience given its age, but Samsung's customizations are more often actually detriments. They add extra steps and, in some cases, bog down what would otherwise be a fast device. We've seen custom UI layers for Windows Mobile that have helped months if not years earlier, such as those from HTC. That Samsung hadn't learned this by late 2009 may show how far it has to go.

And as a Windows Mobile device, it still has factors that Samsung can't entirely avoid. It has a task manager, and we found ourselves constantly needing to close programs to save on memory; while this was fine on desktops running Windows 98, it's quite uncommon on modern smartphones. We like true multitasking, but Android (and soon iPhone 4.0) has a more elegant solution that lets you forget about quitting apps without bringing your phone to a crawl.

Wrapping up

The Omnia II is a classic example of understanding only superficially what makes a rival tick. Much like iPod challengers of ages past, Samsung's phone has a hardware feature set that makes it a true contender when just looking at spec sheets, but the user interface and performance leave much to be desired. As much as the screen and camera may be alluring, the actual day-to-day experience is simply too frustrating. There's something to be said for a phone which may not be as ambitious in features but is a pleasure to use simply because its interface gets out of the way.

Even if you prefer Windows Mobile over anything else, there are distinctly better choices in existence, especially if you aren't attached to Verizon. On that network, Samsung's own Saga as well as the HTC Imagio, Ozone and Touch Pro2 all provide a more direct experience, and in the case of the Ozone and Saga, cost much less. The differences in interface simplicity and price are more glaring if you're willing to consider other networks; the HTC HD2 at T-Mobile is considered by many to be a good phone even in the context of other operating systems. It's more expensive up front, but it's also an example of how a custom interface can not only improve Windows Mobile but improve it enough that many forget (or forgive) its quibbles. Moreover, we're now just months away from Windows Phone 7, making any choice of a conventional Windows Mobile 6 device a possible long-term problem.

Perhaps the real issue is simply that the Omnia II feels out of sync with the industry for its price. It currently has a $100 price on contract; for that money, there are many alternatives that, if not always as feature-packed, deliver a fundamentally better experience. Verizon now has the HTC Droid Eris and LG Ally at that price for Android; much of the BlackBerry range and Palm's two webOS phones are also within the cost range and are usually more enjoyable. As of this writing, the $100 iPhone does lack noticeably in features but will certainly be more intuitive to use.

Samsung is capable of making very good phones and was making them at the same time as the Omnia II was shipping. The Galaxy and Galaxy Spica feel noticeably better-designed and are easier to use. We're at least looking forward to the Galaxy S, too. But the Omnia II is just too far behind its competition, at least in software, to make it a viable alternative.

- Bright, sharp AMOLED screen.

- Good camera and photo features.

- High call quality.

- Opera and other built-in apps.

- Fast data speeds on Verizon.

- TouchWiz is extremely clunky.

- Future of classic Windows Mobile in doubt.

- Overall interface is slow and imprecise.

- Swype not necessarily a big advantage.

- More intuitive phones available for as much or less.