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Samsung Wave

August 14th, 2010
Samsung releases its first Bada phone with mixed results.

Samsung has lately taken to "owning" its smartphone experience, but it's best known for putting a layer on someone else's work. The Wave is something new: it's the first device ever to run Samsung's completely in-house Bada OS. We'll learn in our full Samsung Wave review if the mix of high-end hardware and new software gives Apple and Google reason to be worried. Design and the Super AMOLED display

It used to be that Samsung had a reputation for plain phones; in some areas, it still does. The Wave certainly breaks away from that tradition both in looks and, importantly, build quality. It's definitely on the thinner side at 0.42 inches, but it's also wrapped in a smooth but easily gripped aluminum shell that exudes a level of quality we're not always used to in this class. There are no attempts to go overboard with chrome.

Every control falls easily to hand, although that's helped by the relative lack of them. Due to the interface design of Bada, there are just three face buttons (call, center, cancel), a volume rocker, lock and camera buttons. Getting at the battery and microSDHC slot are relatively simple as Samsung uses a latch mechanism rather than requiring you pry the back off yourself. If there's a deficiency, it's that we'd like slightly more control for the OS, but we'll touch on that in the software side of the review.

As a technology showcase, the Wave does have a pair of tricks up its sleeve. It can connect to 802.11n Wi-Fi; while it's doubtful you'll see the raw speed of it anytime soon, it's helpful for those who've dropped 802.11g and don't want to sacrifice speed for compatibility. Bluetooth 3.0 is also onboard and theoretically makes for much faster transfer speeds for short-range transfers, but it's definitely just a checkbox or futureproofing feature at this stage, since virtually no computers, headsets or other devices use more than 2.1 at this stage.

What naturally draws the eye in the design is the display: simply put, Samsung's custom-developed Super AMOLED is gorgeous. In most ways, it's a best-of-both-worlds design. By merging the touch input layer with the display itself, Samsung has eliminated much of the tendency for OLEDs to "wash out" in bright outdoor light but kept the very rich color palette, high contrast and better battery life the organic displays give. We wouldn't say it's easier to see outdoors than a good LCD, but it's extremely easy on the eyes.

There is something of a catch, and that's in how Samsung handles pixels. Rather than a typical grid of pixels each with red, green and blue, the Wave uses PenTile uses a matrix of alternating red and blue pixels with green ones in between. The effect creates a slightly "fuzzy" look. It won't ruin your experience, but it's not quite as sharply defined as on an LCD screen like that of the Motorola Droid 2/X or the (now LCD equipped) HTC Desire.

And of course, Samsung can't claim the crown for sheer crispness anymore. The iPhone 4's 960x640 display is almost indistinguishable from print at usual distances, and it's definitely a better choice if you tend to read a lot of text or want to inspect the finer details of a photo.

An overview of Bada OS

It's rare that we get to see the first device for what's supposed to be a larger phone platform, so we were eager to try the Wave to get a feel for how Bada works. At its heart, it's a heavily customized version of BSD (which itself is a Unix variant) designed to put smartphone features like apps, good web browsing and multitasking on devices that would have either had to borrow an off-the-shelf OS (such as Android) or else used a much simpler OS.

For the most part, it works. Navigating Bada is quite simple, although it needs a slight amount of retraining to use: the center button brings up either the app launcher or a contextual menu, and you usually step forward or backward through menus through onscreen commands rather than physical buttons. The OS was clearly designed from the ground up for multitasking and has both an Android-style notification bar for updates like new e-mail and a simple app switcher/closer for the (rare) instances you need to manage what's running. It feels like a modern smartphone OS, which is important by itself, and is helped by a very fast 1GHz processor that always keeps things running smoothly.

Web browsing, still one of the most important features of any smartphone, works very well. The hiding UI (which you can toggle) is disconcerting at first, but Bada's browser uses WebKit and so renders pages accurately and quickly. It technically supports Flash, but only older, limited content and not full Flash 10. Multi-touch is pervasive and works very smoothly both in the browser and in obvious situations such as photo viewing. We did encounter a slight quirk when we tried to use a secure bank site, though, as the Wave failed where the iPhone succeeded.

It's when you dig deeper that things start to fall apart, and it becomes clear that Bada is either truly first-generation or flawed in its design. Media playback just didn't pan out. While you can drag-and-drop media on to the Wave's storage or uses Samsung Kies to sync content, it didn't handle very common media files well: we took songs that had been properly tagged in iTunes and found they were listed as out of order in album view or were missing information they clearly had. There was even a problem with the stereo mix, as one channel was decidedly weaker. We're not sure if that was a flaw of the phone, but the same earphones and music worked properly on other devices we own.

Typing with the on-screen keyboard is slightly odd, too. It's reasonably well laid out, but there's no auto-correction or suggestion whatsoever. This will help you learn to spell words correctly, but it won't win many favors from those on iPhones or larger Android phones who are used to not only typing quickly but rarely having to backtrack.

Samsung was thoughtful enough to include a number of preloaded apps , but we found these somewhat skeletal. The Twitter app includes features like retweets but is otherwise very simple and doesn't show nearly as many updates as you would hope for. Facebook, too, covers core features and not much else. Samsung's distinguishing trait on its newer phones, its Social Hub, for all purposes amounted to a shortcut launcher since it didn't truly merge data.

Also, we had to scratch our heads at how Samsung approached navigation. We tried to launch the app, but a microSD card is required just to even launch it. It's just not on par with Maps on the iPhone, and certainly not Google Maps Navigation on Android.

Widgets and Samsung Apps

As a fledgling platform, you'd expect Bada to be relatively light on extra content, and you'd be right, but more than you think. The Wave includes only a relatively small number of widgets out of the box. Some of these are helpful, but a few feel like novelties. Our real issue is simply adding more widgets: namely, you can't. Unlike Android, the current version of Bada doesn't have stand-alone widgets available as downloads.

More troublesome is the app selection in Samsung Apps, Bada's turn at echoing the trend of mobile app stores. At last count, we saw just 684 apps available worldwide -- a far cry not just from Apple's 225,000 or Google's 100,000 but even from relatively modest shops like BlackBerry App World, which has over 9,000 titles. While Bada's store should grow over time and is predicted to hit 7,000 apps by the end of 2010, the operating rule for Bada was the opposite of Apple's: there isn't an app for that.

This wouldn't be an issue were it not for the actual app selection. Most of what we saw were apps that would be considered very niche or novelty apps on other platforms,. There's an odd imbalance in how each app category is stocked, too. While genres like games were understandably some of the most full, areas such as productivity and social networking had so few apps that you could count them with your fingers where they usually overflow on other app stores. There are no true Twitter options, major Internet radio streaming outlets or much of what you'd expect elsewhere.

It's early days, but the practical reality of buying the Wave today would leave a user largely tied to the apps that come with the phone -- and that's a problem in an era where apps define the feature set as much as the phone itself.

Camera quality and interface

The Wave's camera is one of its better selling points in most respects. Samsung's choice of five-megapixel sensor is reasonably sharp and doesn't blow out colors, show significant noise in unmerited areas or carry the "smearing" you'd expect from typical phone cameras with plastic lenses. We did notice, though, that it tends to have desaturated colors; better that than garish hues, but you'll likely want to edit photos afterwards if you're hoping for vibrant output.

What we most liked for still image recording was simply the software. At least on the Wave, there's an extensive amount of control over ISO, white balance, shooting modes, scene presets and visual effects. All of it is presented in a fairly easy to understand interface. We do wish that Samsung had implemented tap-to-focus, as it would take much of the guesswork out of metering or framing the shot, but here it's forgivable. We were also impressed with the speed during shooting: the camera was ready almost instantly for its next shot, even at full detail and without continuous shooting turned on.

Video quality is good as well. Although it's curiously not enabled by default, 720p movie recording is available and doesn't disappoint. In testing, we noticed a slight amount of ghosting during fast movement, but noticeably less than on other phones. It adapts relatively quickly to changes in light levels. Our only gripe was with audio, which was certainly adequate but wasn't as clear and rich as we've heard in some cases.

Call quality and battery life

Phone functions on the Wave are strictly adequate. Sound quality is good both incoming and outgoing, but it's not as clear as on the Acer Liquid E and others at the top tiers.

Battery life is a pleasant surprise, though. Since AMOLED doesn't need a backlight, it (and the slightly smaller than average 3.3-inch display) contributed to a relatively long runtime between charges. On 3G, you can reasonably expect an above-average seven hours of calling or a roughly similar amount if you're browsing the web on Wi-Fi. Anticipate less if you're using large amounts of data on 3G or capturing copious amounts of HD video. The display certainly helps with idle time; where many phones lose a quarter or a third of their battery charge overnight, in the couple of days of idle time over the longer review period, the phone had rarely lost more than a sliver of its lifespan.

Wrapping up

How you like the Wave could depend entirely on what you're upgrading from. If you're new to smartphones or a light user, the Wave could be a great start. It's reasonably easy to use, it's fast, it's beautiful, and it's web friendly. As a hardware exercise, it's hard to fault.

Pricing is also a low-hanging fruit here as well. On Rogers, it's $80 on contract; that's not the cheapest, but it's low enough that it may be alluring for anyone who's willing to pay for a smartphone-level data plan and balks at the $150-plus pricing that's more common for this sort of device.

Samsung's main issue is simply that it's launching a new, still rough-around-the-edges mobile OS at a time when it's running up against some especially fierce competition. That it can at least keep up in some areas is a testament to how well Samsung realized it needed a head start, but anyone who either needs or wants a full smartphone OS will know that other platforms have more apps, often better apps, and that some aspects of the experience are already being done better.

More importantly, Samsung has effectively sabotaged the Wave itself through its Android devices. We've tried its Galaxy S devices, such as the Vibrant: while the same basic custom interface is present on both, the Android phones are simply better than Bada since they have a more mature interface and far more apps. Combined with a larger screen and more storage, there's little reason to buy a Wave over a Captivate, Vibrant or other Galaxy S edition if you're willing to pay a bit more for the phone, particularly if you're not attached to any one carrier.

The Wave, then, isn't necessarily an immediate buy, but it's interesting as a first peek at Samsung's smartphone OS plans. Bada won't be the majority platform anytime soon, but we're very curious as to what Bada 2.0 will do and what phones and apps will match up with it. Until then, get the Wave only if you're happy with what it does right away.

- High build quality.

- Outstanding Super AMOLED display.

- Good camera for photos and videos.

- Bada has good UI, multi-touch and web.

- Fast processor.

- Cheap with at least some carriers.

- Fairly long battery life.

- Very limited app and widget selection.

- Poor built-in Facebook, media, navigation and Twitter apps.

- Little reason to buy over Samsung's own Android phones.

- No text auto-correction.