Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Ace™ Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung Ace for Sprint offers dual-mode functionality for world-roaming, and it's unlocked for use with international SIM cards. The Windows Mobile smartphone has a compact design and features a 1.3-megapixel camera, EV-DO, and Bluetooth.

THE BAD: General performance can be sluggish at times. It doesn't support overseas 3G GSM networks and lacks Wi-Fi and GPS.

THE BOTTOM LINE: For Sprint customers looking for a world-roaming smartphone, the Samsung Ace is a nice and compact alternative to the RIM BlackBerry 8830.

Good news for any globe-trotting Sprint customers: You now have a choice when it comes world-roaming smartphones. Joining the RIM BlackBerry 8830 World Edition, the Samsung Ace SPH-i325 offers dual-mode functionality for seamless international roaming with voice coverage in 180 countries and data services in 100 countries. It ships with a SIM card, but the handset is also unlocked so you're free to plug in a SIM card from other countries (note: it won't work with our domestic GSM carriers). The Windows Mobile 6 smartphone does have its share of disappointments. For example, it doesn't work on the GSM 3G networks overseas, and it doesn't have integrated GPS like the BlackBerry 8830. Still, if you're not keen on the BlackBerry, the Samsung Ace is a nice alternative and comes with a fair price of $199.99 with a two-year contract after rebates.

The Samsung Ace is similar in design to the original Samsung BlackJack, yet there are subtle differences. At 4.6 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.4 inch deep and 3.9 ounces, the Ace is taller and heavier but thinner than the BlackJack. Its slimness makes the smartphone comfortable to hold and use as a phone, and you'll be able to slip it into a pants pocket. Plus, it has a soft-touch finish for better gripping when using it as a messaging device.

The Samsung Ace has a pretty compact design that should be able to slip into a pants pocket.

On the front, there's a 2.3-inch screen that's slightly smaller than either the BlackJack II's or the BlackBerry 8830's, but it still has a 65,000-color output and 320×240 pixel resolution for a vibrant and sharp display. Below it, you'll find a spacious and nicely laid out navigation array of two soft keys, Talk and End buttons, a shortcut to the Today screen, a back button, and a four-way navigation toggle with center select key.

We found the Ace's full QWERTY keyboard to be spacious and easy to use.

The full QWERTY keyboard is slightly improved over that of both BlackJacks. The keys have a slight pointed edge to them, making them easier to press than the smooth rounded buttons on the other models. In addition, they're not as stiff as the BlackJack II's, so we didn't make as many mistakes when composing e-mails and text messages.

On the right side, you'll find a microSD expansion slot, a scroll wheel, and an escape key. Some, including me, will be pleased to see the Ace has the more traditional side-mounted dial rather than the jog wheel on the Samsung BlackJack II. We prefer the former because it has better feedback and registers commands without problems, while the latter was a bit temperamental. The left side has a connector for the AC adapter and headset, but it's a proprietary Samsung jack, so that's an annoying restriction. Finally, the backside holds the camera lens, a self-portrait mirror, and a speaker.

The right side holds a microSD expansion slots as well as a jog dial, which we prefer to the Samsung BlackJack II's front scroll wheel.

The Samsung Ace comes packaged with an AC adapter, European and U.K. power adapters, a SIM card, a wired stereo headset, a USB cable, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phones accessories, ringtones, and help page.

The world roaming capabilities is the arguably the biggest draw of the Samsung Ace. It's dual-mode functionality means that the Ace will use Sprint's CDMA network for all domestic calls (Note: You cannot use it with AT&T or T-Mobile even though there's a SIM slot) but once overseas, you can switch to the GSM network. You can use the included SIM card, but be aware that you'll still incur roaming rates, which range from $0.59 to $4.99 a minute. Alternatively, since the smartphone is unlocked, you can purchase a prepaid SIM card from an international carrier and use their voice and data services. In all, you get voice coverage in 180 countries and data services in 100 countries.

Other phone features of the Samsung Ace include a speakerphone, voice-activated dialing, conference calling, speed dial, and text and multimedia messages. The phone book is only limited by the available memory with room in each entry for multiple phone numbers, e-mail addresses, work and home address, job title, and more. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a photo to a contact, any of 23 polyphonic ring tones, as well as a group category.

The Samsung Ace is also an EV-DO capable handset, so you'll get swift data speeds for Web browsing and can watch video on Sprint TV if you so choose. The add-on service, which starts at $20 per month, gives you access to programming from a variety of channels, including CNN, Comedy Central, E, the NFL Network, and Sprint Exclusive Entertainment. In addition, you can listen to live streaming music and talk radio from Sirius, VH1 Mobile, and MTV Mobile. Sadly, the Ace does not support overseas HSDPA networks.

The Ace is equipped with Bluetooth 2.0, allowing for wireless connectivity with mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets and hands-free kits. You can also use the Samsung Ace as a wireless modem for your laptop with its dial-up networking capabilities. You will, of course, need to subscribe to a Sprint Power Vision Modem Plan, which costs $39.99 per month for 40MB or $49.99 per month for unlimited for the privilege of DUN. Unlike the BlackBerry 8830, the Ace does not have integrated GPS.

The Samsung Ace is a Windows Mobile 6 device, running the Standard Edition with the full Microsoft Office Mobile Suite and Windows Live integration. The smartphone also ships with Microsoft's Direct Push Technology for real-time e-mail delivery and automatic synchronization with your Outlook calendar, tasks, and contacts via Exchange Server. You can also access POP3 and IMAP accounts.

Other productivity tools include a PDF viewer, a voice recorder, a notepad, a calculator, a world clock, a measurement converter. There's also a Task Manager so you can optimize memory usage and the smartphone's performance. The Samsung Ace has 64MB of onboard memory. The microSD expansion slot also supports up to 2GB cards, which is slightly disappointing since many competing products can accept 4GB cards. For more applications and utilities, there's a preloaded shortcut to the Sprint Software Store or you can check out CNET Download.com for more titles.

The Samsung Ace is equipped with a 1.3 megapixel camera, which is located on the back of the smartphone.

Finally, the Samsung Ace features a 1.3-megapixel camera with video recording capabilities. For still images, you have a choice of five shooting modes, three sizes, and three quality settings. There's no flash, but you can adjust the white balance as well as add various effects. In video mode, you have two size choices and the same white balance and effect options that are available in camera mode.

Image quality was decent though there's some lag time in shutter speed.

Picture quality was pretty decent. Objects were clearly defined and the color wasn't perfect, but definitely better than other camera phones we've seen. That said, we found that there's a bit of delay from the time you press the capture button to the time it actually takes the picture, so be sure not to move your hand, otherwise you'll end up with a blurry shot. Sadly, video recordings did not fare well. Clips were choppy and the color was off.

We tested the dual-mode (CDMA 850/1900; EV-DO; GSM 900/1800) Samsung Ace in San Francisco using Sprint service, and call quality was decent. Voices sounded a bit tinny on our end though there was plenty of volume, and we could still make out the conversation. We also had no problem interacting with our bank's automated voice response system or making calls back to the States from Barcelona, Spain. Meanwhile, our friends didn't have any major complaints about the audio quality. The speakerphone was satisfactory, though there was a bit of an echo. We had no problem pairing the Ace with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset or the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

General performance was typical of Windows Mobile devices. That is to say that response time slowed down a bit as we used more applications. Web browsing was pretty swift thanks to Sprint's EV-DO network, though some graphics-intensive sites took awhile to fully load. Multimedia performance could have been better in our opinion. Music playback lacked bass and richness through the phone's speakers, and we really wish Samsung would do away with its proprietary headphone jack so we can plug in a decent pair of earbuds. We watched some clips from Sprint TV as well, and though audio and images were synchronized, the picture could be pixilated and blurry at times.

The Samsung Ace's 1,300mAh lithium-ion battery is rated for 4.3 hours of talk time. The Ace beat the rated talk time as we were able to get 7.5 hours in our battery drain tests. According to FCC radiation tests, the Ace has a digital SAR rating of 1 watt per kilogram.

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