Samsung SGH-F700 smartphone
iPhone insurrection quashed without incident
Review With the world and his wife seemingly happy with either Symbian or Windows Mobile running their smartphones, any phone OS newcomer - especially one without an Apple logo slapped on it - has something of a hill to climb.
Samsung's new F700 actually has two mountains to tackle. The touchscreen UI makes for an obvious comparison with the iPhone - reviewed here - so it clearly needs to compete with that. But it also needs to convince those of us attached to our more workaday N95s and TyTns that moving to a smartphone with an alien OS isn't going to get us into a world of pain for the sake of some fancy packaging and trick stylus-less UI.
Samsung's SGH-F700: a gentle nudge reveals a respectable keypad
On looks alone the F700 gets off to a good start. The glossy black handset measures up at 112 x 56 x 16mm and weighs 139g, making it broadly comparable to the iPhone and a tad larger than the LG Prada handset - reviewed here. Nudge the upper half to the right and a rather fine Qwerty keyboard is revealed, which explains the extra thickness over its two main rivals. Rather strangely, the unit comes with two different rear battery panel covers - a gloss black one which matches the front of the unit but really shows up fingerprints, and a matt black one that doesn't match and doesn't show prints.
The slide action of the handset is very smooth and nicely weighted, with a closing spring action that has enough force to ensure that it won't open accidentally when in use.
The Samsung's technical specification is hardly shabby either, coming loaded with tri-band GSM and HSDPA 3G good for 3.6Mb/s; a three-megapixel camera with flash; 100MB of shared memory; a Micro SD slot that'll take 4GB cards and comes complete with a 1GB card; A2DP Bluetooth stereo; a media player; and a messaging application that can handle IMAP4 and POP3 email. Plus there's all the expected subsidiary refinements we have come expect: a world clock, unit converter, web browser, voice recorder, document viewer, stopwatch and timer.
No Wi-Fi though, and perhaps less importantly no games, other than three demos. The Micro SD card can be hot-swapped, but you have to remove the rear battery cover to do so.
The Vodafone-branded test model we were supplied with also came pre-loaded with Google Maps, YouTube, MobileTV and a Java-based application called My Communities that allows access to the likes of Facebook, MySpace and Bebo along with such popular IM protocols as MSN Live, AIM and Yahoo! Messenger.
The front of the unit is dominated by the 3.2in, 240 x 440, 262,000-colour touchscreen, below which sits a button that brings the unit to life and takes you to the main menu. This control can be locked using a switch on the upper right of the handset - an effective if rather less elegant solution than that employed by the iPhone.
Other external switches are restricted to a camera activation button on the lower right of the handset and a volume/scroll control just above.
Smart-looking time and calendar read-outs
A row of four slim icons at the top of the home screen allows you to directly access the main menu, the phone keypad, the call log and the phone's silent mode. While usable, we found them just a little on the small side, and the size you see is the only size you get. While peering at the top of the screen it occurred to us that a device like this should have a rather better battery meter than the tiny three-bar article it actually comes with. Top-of-the-line phone, bottom-of-the-line power gauge.
A nice home screen refinement is the option of having two time zones showing in large, clear graphics. Swipe the clocks with a finger and they are replaced with the current month's calender.
At the centre of the home screen is a small, throbbing blue square. Tap that and you go to the shortcut menu with icons for the music player, web browser, messaging, phone and main menu. The quick-witted will notice that two of these functions are also accessible via the icons at the top of the main screen, which smacks of overkill.
Tap the main menu icon and you find yourself face to face with Samsung's Croix interface, which means when you tap an icon two blue lines, horizontal and vertical, converge on it. Menu styles are restricted to the 3 x 4 Croix configuration or a straightforward list.
As the F700 is currently a Vodafone exclusive in the UK, so two of the icons take you to Vodafone Live and the MusicStation subscription service, while the other ten take you to all the expected places.
Overall, the touchscreen UI works well, finger-sweeps allowing you move about with ease. To activate a menu function a pretty deliberate second 'push' is required, making accidental activation of a function a rarity.
When in good old-fashioned 'phone mode', the virtual keyboard works well with both dialling and texting. The handset comes with T9 predictive text, proving straightforward and error-free messaging. Of course, for serious text input you can always slide out the keyboard. Using the virtual keyboard, or indeed any part of the touchscreen UI, can be accompanied by either an adjustable volume beep and/or a variable degree of handset vibration - VibeTonz Technology, no less. This comes in handy when navigating web pages, letting you know for sure that the system has acknowledged your screen tap.
Welcome to Croix, ladies and gentlemen
The slide-out keyboard is a cracking bit of design and manufacture, pleasant to the touch and with a decent action, each key-depress being accompanied by a muted click. The quality of the keyboard rather highlights the lack of a word processor application. Sure you can type up a storm, but emails aside there is nothing to actually type onto, memos being restricted to 100 characters.
The included Samsung software package allows pretty painless synchronisation with Outlook and the F700 copied across data from our contacts book and calendar without any drama beyond the fact that some of the more extraneous data fields from our contacts didn't make it to the Samsung's address book.
The built-in HTML browser is pretty run of the mill and won't challenge the iPhone's Safari browser for Best in Show. When the browser is running the side Volume keys can be used to zoom in and out towards (or away from) the top left-hand corner of the web page on view - a tacit admission that the touchscreen isn't quite up to snuff for web browsing. Movement about the web page was rather slow and clunky compared to the iPhone, making browsing a somewhat less than fulfilling pastime. The only way to change the screen from portrait to landscape is by sliding out the keyboard.
The media player works well enough, though video isn't quite as bright nor audio quite as punchy as it is on Samsung's latest generation of audio players such as the YP-2P - reviewed here. The audio player lacks anything in terms of EQ adjustment, which is disappointing. One little bug with the audio player is that when accessed via the shortcut menu, the audio player key takes you to the last track played and not the main music player menu. To get to this you have to backtrack and access the player via the main menu.
File support is restricted to MPEG 4, WMV and H.263/4 video, and MP3, WMA and AAC audio. The audio player is a little short of, well, visual pizzazz. Despite all that screen acreage to play with, all you get is the Croix bars moving across the screen, the vertical bar moving across the screen to illustrate where in the song you are, and horizontal moving up and down according to volume level. The only interesting thing about this is that you can press down on the intersection of the crosses and change the volume and skip about through the track simultaneously. All well and good, but it looks just a little a Plain Jane when compared to the various 'now playing' screen options on the YP-P2.
Happily, the F700 has a regular 3.5mm headphones jack at the top and comes supplied with a rather fine, though small (unless we have big ears) pair of Samsung-branded earbuds that can either be plugged directly into the jack or into the supplied adaptor that in turn plugs into the mini-Samsung proprietary port next to the headphone jack.
This latter set up allows you to use the Samsung earphones, or any others to hand, as a hands-free headset, the top of the adaptor having a microphone and answer/hang-up switch built in. Incoming calls pause the current music track, which then resumes when you've finished gabbing and hung up.
The sound you can hear is the F700 slipping between two stools
The 3Mp camera (2048 x 1536 pixels to be exact) comes with autofocus and an LED flash of limited value, like all LED flashes. Along with the usual gamut of effects filters you can also alter the ISO settings to either 100, 200 or 400.
Alas, to do this you have to exit 'camera' mode and navigate back to the main camera setting menu, which rather seems to defeat the purpose. While a digital zoom is included, there's no macro mode. For such a high-res camera the results were just a little disappointing - not bad, but not great either.
The front of the handset also houses a VGA camera for 3G video calls. We searched in vain for any clue from the F700's spec sheet as to what resolution the F700 records video at, but it looks like 15f/s 320 x 240. Either way, it's nothing out of the ordinary.
Manufacturer-quoted battery times are up to 300 hours on standby and up up to four hours' talk time. In reality, a day and a half of heavy use in a 3G area with Bluetooth switched on took us down to the final third bar on the power gauge, so we reckon Samsung is being optimistic. Our retail pack came with a nifty power adaptor - think three-pin plug with a USB socket at the back. A nice idea... only ours didn't work. The same cable worked just fine when powering up the handset from a PC USB port, so we must have just got a dodgy power brick.
A final word on the basic functionality of the phone. Signal strength was fine even in areas that are normally problematic, while call volume and audio quality, both incoming and outgoing, were more than adequate.
It's hard to ignore the slight whooshing noise the F700 makes as it slips between two stools. If you want a cool gadget for surfing the web and media playback you're going to want an iPhone, with its Wi-Fi and better-than-the-rest browser. If you want something that does just about everything your PC does but is phone-sized and you're not concerned about using a stylus, you'll be wanting an HTC TyTn II or something similar. Should Samsung have perhaps partnered up with Google for the F700's OS, given it 8GB of memory and Wi-Fi and then really gone iPhone-hunting under the guise of the first Android smartphone?