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Samsung Continuum

January 22nd, 2011
Samsung spins Android with a rare dual screen design.

Samsung's Galaxy S smartphones are now ubiquitous, but the Continuum exists in a truly unusual space. Between a slimmer profile, dual speakers and its genuinely unusual Ticker display, Verizon users get a unique experience. But is it enough to justify buying over a Fascinate? We'll find out in our Continuum review. Hardware, design, and feature set

Before we begin, it's a great idea to read our Fascinate review. You'll get a lot of the core experience of the phone from this review and can compare it against the Continuum.

In the hand, the Continuum feels like a Fascinate massaged by a rolling pin. The phone has a longer, skinnier feel about it, and it's still easily pocketed. Its design is still unfortunately plastic, and while designed to be reliable, it doesn't have the premium feel of phones with true metal, like the iPhone 4 or Nexus One. On the top of the back of the phone sits its five-megapixel camera with autofocus and an LED flash; the camera also supports 720p video capture. The Continuum is unique, however, in having two speakers; most phones only have one. One speaker is positioned next to the camera and the other is near the bottom of the phone, so there's a degree of stereo separation.

The Super AMOLED screen on the Continuum measures 3.4 inches diagonally but has the same 480x800 resolution as on the Fascinate and every other Galaxy S phone. Given the density, it's subjectively better; it's overall crisper. We also still like the vividness and outdoor visibility of the phone, although sticklers will note that this first-generation Super AMOLED screen is still oversaturated and slightly "fuzzy" due to the PenTile pixel layout.

Below the main screen is the phone's true party trick: a 1.8-inch, also Super AMOLED secondary screen known as the Ticker Display, with a resolution of 480x96. This Ticker display can load a variety of data as well as launch certain phone menus. We'll touch on its functionality later, but as it's almost always showing icons or text, AMOLED's high contrast and slight oversaturation works in its favor by making it easy to read. A note, though, is that Samsung is 'cheating' with this display: it's actually part of the main display and segmented off by the four menu keys. It doesn't change the feature set, but it's not quite a true, separate display.

The sides and top of the phone contain the usual micro USB port and volume controls on the left, a 3.5mm audio jack on the top, and a microSD card slot (with an 8GB card included) and shutter button on the right side. Internally, the Continuum sports the same 1GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird processor and 2GB of internal memory. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are of course both included and the phone supports Verizonís 3G mobile hotspot feature for Wi-Fi sharing, albeit at a higher price.

Software and the Bing controversy, calling, the camera and the Ticker

Although Samsung has finally started rolling out Android 2.2 on Galaxy S phones in the US, the Continuum still runs on Android 2.1. That's a definite limitation on the apps and features you'll have: you won't have full voice command support or the ability to move apps to the SD card, for example. Still, it isn't an immediate liability and runs very quickly on the 1GHz processor as well as its fast PowerVR SGX540 graphics. Samsungís TouchWiz 3.0 user interface is onboard and, as always, is polarizing. It at times feels superfluous and is key to the months-long delays in getting timely Android upgrades. Some may prefer the Nexus S just for the straight-ahead OS experience. With that in mind, TouchWiz does help simplify the experience for newcomers and provides a handful of widgets that some might like.

Other than the features that run on the Ticker screen, not much has changed from the software perspective between the Fascinate and the Continuum, although that might not necessarily be a positive. Samsung's Social Hub portal for social networks survives here, as does the usual line up of Verizon V Cast and VZ Navigator software. With Google Maps Navigation an option, especially with the much more efficient vector-based maps in version 5 and beyond, VZ Navigator feels somewhat redundant. Swype is here, though, and can be a real help for some of those who have trouble with regular touchscreen keyboards.

Unfortunately, Verizon's search deal with Microsoft returns here and exemplifies what's wrong with Google's decision to let carriers hijack control from the users. Bing is not only the default search across the board, but users don't even have the option of restoring full Google search. While you can set your browser default to Google, Verizon actively blocks attempts to reinstall the Google search widget that most other Android phones (including some Verizon phones) have. It's somewhat telling that an iPhone user has at least as much control over search as the supposedly more open Continuum. This limitation won't bother some, especially those who still live in a Microsoft-heavy universe, but we like to have control over our phones if that's what we're promised.

Regular apps work as you'd expect, and gaming is a relative strong point here; we wouldn't buy Android for gaming first but have no complaints. We took a few test shots with the five-megapixel camera, but it's exactly the same as on earlier Galaxy S models -- that is, good compared to most smartphone cameras but not as sharp or as low light friendly as a class leader like the Nokia N8's 12-megapixel, physically large sensor. Like other new Samsung phones, the Continuum supports tap to focus on specific parts of the scene. Few Android phones have this feature, and like on the iPhone it improves the chances for an in-focus or stylized shot.

The Ticker's usefulness depends entirely on how much you thrive on constant information. In activation, it's very intelligent: simply squeezing the bottom portion of the phone turns it on, and it unlocks the phone outright in what could be a real boon to those who want to use the phone one-handed. Samsung's feature support is surprisingly broad, too: it carries social media updates from Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace as well as news, weather and sports from sources like ESPN, Reuters, and Weatherbug. The Ticker can also alert users to missed calls, voicemails, text messages, and new e-mail.

It's not for heavy social media users. Since the Ticker can only show one update at a time, those who follow hundreds or thousands of Facebook and Twitter friends will rarely catch the updates they want to see. A BlackBerry owner might also prefer a device like the BlackBerry Style if they want at-a-glance e-mail, since it shows decidedly more of a message and lets users flip through them quickly at a time. For more periodic users, however, and certainly anyone who values news and weather, it's extremely useful.

Call quality on the Continuum sounds very natural. It's good in usual to-the-ear calls, and the dual speakers on the back of the phone make for great speakerphone calls that are very easy to hear. Audio playback for music and video clips is also very good thanks to this dual speaker setup, even if it won't replace a stereo. Samsung is really onto something with the two speakers; we hope to see this feature on future models from Samsung and other manufacturers.

Wrapping up

If youíre on Verizon or unattached, the Continnum is a good choice for Android if you're focused on immediate functionality over long-term support and theoretical freedom. Priced at $100 with a new contract, the Continuum is not just fast and relatively loaded with features; it's a good bargain, too. The Ticker display is innovative and the dual speakers make for a superior speakerphone experience.

With a whole new range of smartphones on tap, though, the Continuum is ironically least appealing for early adopters or Android fans. The underlying Galaxy S hardware is now several months old, and its OS version is even older. If you're willing to spend more than $100 in 2011, you can get hardware that's far more future proof. On Verizon, you'll have the option of the Droid Bionic and HTC Thunderbolt, both of which will be faster, support 4G and get more timely Android updates. And if ease of use is your preference, the iPhone 4 is also available with just as much speed as the Continuum but much faster and stronger OS support that should last for years, not months.

The real audience for the Continuum is arguably that middle crowd in smartphones: it's for the person who can afford a smartphone and appreciates some flexibility but is perfectly happy with whatever comes in the box. For that person, other than the possible interface troubles for large-handed users on the smaller screen, we canít think of anything to gripe about. It's a better choice than the Fascinate in most areas. Sometimes, it's just about getting the right phone for yourself, not for everyone.

- Good form factor.

- Clever Ticker display.

- Capable 5MP camera with 720p video.

- TouchWiz handy for newcomers.

- Inexpensive for the speed and features.

- Forced use of Bing.

- Samsung slow on Android upgrades.

- Outperformed by 2011 phones.

- Main screen may be too dense for big-fingered owners.