Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Highlight™ Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung Highlight has an easy-to-use design with satisfying call quality. It supports T-Mobile's 3G network and a functional feature set with a camera and music player.

THE BAD: The Samsung Highlight's call volume is low and speakerphone quality is unimpressive. Its memory card slot is located behind the battery.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung Highlight doesn't offer anything you haven't seen before, but it works quite well as an entry-level touch-screen phone.

When Samsung latches onto a trend, it usually does so with gusto. We saw it happen with both the thin and slider phone crazes, and now we're seeing it again with the touch-screen phone. Since the last half of 2008, the company has produced a wide selection of such handsets for the major carriers. Some, like the Samsung Eternity, Behold, Finesse, and Delve, are squarely midrange, while others, such as the Impression and Omnia, offer a bit more. The latest in the series, the Samsung Highlight SGH-T749 for T-Mobile, falls on the lighter side. Billed as a "touch-screen phone for the masses," the Highlight isn't very original, but it sports an agreeable design, Samsung's TouchWiz interface, and has satisfying performance. The feature set and speakerphone won't wow you, but you do get support for T-Mobile's 3G network, a music player, and a high-quality camera. Overall, it's a decent choice for a starter touch-screen phone, particularly if you can get it at the subsidized price of $149.

The Highlight takes a few design liberties that reflect its entry-level image. It's a bit rounder and sleeker than many of its Samsung touch-screen brethren and it shows a pattern on its rear cover. What's more, it comes in two bright colors: fire (red and orange) and ice (almost a turquoise). We reviewed the latter, but the features are the same on both models. The Samsung Highnote comes in similar colors, but the two handsets have little else in common.

At 4.27 inches tall by 2.11 inches wide by 0.54 inch thick, the Highlight a bit chunkier than some of its counterparts, but we welcome the extra girth. Indeed, it has a comfortable feel in the hand, and it fits easily in a pocket or bag. The phone is rather light (3.7 ounces)–we almost wish it were heavier–but with the exception of the plastic battery cover, the construction feels mostly solid.

The display measures 3 inches, which is just on the edge of what we consider acceptable for a touch screen. However, for what it lacks in size, it makes up in resolution. The display shows 16 million colors (400×240 pixels), which results in bright colors, sharp photos, and vibrant graphics. The icon-based menu interface is simple and easy to use, and we appreciate the support for Samsung TouchWiz interface. It remains a nifty and intuitive feature, even if we still lament the lack of user-created widgets.

At the bottom of the display sit permanent touch controls for the main menu, the Web browser, the phone book, and the phone dialer. The dialer interface features large alphanumeric buttons plus shortcuts for the recent calls list, voice mail, the messaging folder, and the phone book. Vibrating feedback lets you know when you're touching a control. Overall, the display is responsive with no noticeable lag. You can change the brightness, the backlight time, the font type, and the intensity of the vibrating feedback. You also can calibrate the screen if needed.

You can type messages using two methods: a standard alphanumeric keypad or a virtual keyboard. Naturally, we prefer the latter. The individual keys are a bit small, and you'll need to cycle through multiple keyboards for symbols and numbers, but the keyboard is relatively easy to use. We were off and texting with little delay and made few errors. We like that common punctuation is surfaced on the primary keyboard and that you get a shortcut to deactivate T9 predicative text. You'll also find the standard back, return, and shift controls. Thanks to the phone's accelerometer, you can switch from the alphanumeric to the QWERTY keyboard by rotating the phone to the left. The accelerometer also kicks in if you rotate the Highlight to the right, but the QWERTY keyboard will be upside down.

Below the display are the Highlight's sole physical navigation controls. The Talk, End/power, and clear buttons are spacious and easy to press. A large volume rocker sits on the left spine while a camera shutter, display locking switch, and combination headset/charger jack are on the right spine. Unfortunately, Samsung used its proprietary connection on the Highlight. The camera lens sits on the back next to a speaker. There's no self-portrait mirror or flash and the microSD card slot is inconveniently stashed behind the battery.

The Highlight has a generous 2,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for four phone numbers, four e-mail addresses, three instant-messaging handles (AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo), a URL, a birthday, an anniversary, a nickname, a street address, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can save callers to groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 17 (72-chord) polyphonic ringtones.

Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, a calculator, a memo pad, a task list, an alarm clock, a world clock, a timer, a stopwatch, a currency and unit converter, and a speakerphone. For more advanced options, you'll find speaker-independent voice dialing and commands, USB mass storage, PC syncing, a file manager, an RSS reader, Web-based POP3 e-mail, instant messaging, a voice memo recorder, GPS support with Telenav Navigator, and full Bluetooth with a stereo profile.

The Highlight's camera is on its back.

Though the 3-megapixel camera lacks a self-portrait mirror and flash, we were quite impressed with the photo quality. Our shots had a slight milky effect, but colors were relatively bright and there was little image noise. You can takes pictures in four resolutions, from 2,048×1,536 pixels down to 400×240 pixels, and choose from four quality settings. Other editing options include four color effects, three white balance settings, an adjustable brightness, six "scene" settings (night, landscape, action, and so on), and a self-timer. And like the Samsung touch-screen phones before it, the Highlight features three shooting modes (continuous, panorama, and mosaic) and a "smile shot" options that promises to detect when a subject is smiling.

The Highlight delivers on photo quality.

The camcorder shoots clips with sound in two resolutions (320×240 pixels and 176×144 pixels). Camcorder editing features are fewer than on the still camera, though you get a few options like brightness and a self-timer. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at about 1 minute, but you can shoot for much longer in the standard mode. For both the still camera and camcorder, the interface is informative and easy to use.

When finished with your shots and clips, you can save them to the phone, send them to a friend in a multimedia message, or transfer them off the phone using Bluetooth, a USB cable, or the memory card. You also can upload them to an online T-Mobile album and view your work in a slideshow. The Highnote even offers the capability to send an audio postcard. Internal memory is capped at 60MB, which is rather low, but the microSD-card slot will accommodate cards up to 16GB.

The music player has a simple, but straightforward interface. Features are limited to playlists, shuffle and repeat modes, and six equalizer settings, but the biggest worry is that T-Mobile still lacks a proper music downloading system. On the other hand, you can load music onto the phone using a memory card. We tried it and encountered no problems. You can send the player to the background while using other functions and select an airplane mode for listening to your tunes while aloft.

The Highlight's full HTML browser is comparable with other Samsung touch-screen phones, which is to say it's a mixed bag. On the upside, the display is responsive and we could scroll around pages in fluid motions. Also it's relatively easy to enter URLs using the virtual keyboard, and save bookmarks, copy images, or copy a URL to a text message. On the downside, we continue to hate the magnifying glass zooming method and the display is just a bit too small for comfortable viewing. Also, it's important to note that the Highlight will default to a WAP version of a Web site when one is available (which is usually the case). There should be an easier way to switch to the full HTML version.

You can personalize the Highlight with a selection of wallpaper and greetings. More customization options and additional ringtones are available for purchase from T-Mobile. The Highlight comes with demo versions of Midnight Pool 2 and Brain Challenge; you'll have to buy the full versions for extended play.

We tested the quad-band, dual-mode (GSM 850/900/1,800/1,900; UMTS 1,700/2,100) Samsung Highnote in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was respectable on several points. The signal remained strong and we encountered no static or interference from other devices. What's more, the audio was clear and voices sounded natural. On the downside, the volume was rather low. We had no trouble hearing under most circumstances, but it was difficult to follow conversations when we were speaking in a noisy place.

Callers said we sounded fine. Most could tell that we were using a cell phone, but a few of our friends had no idea we weren't on a landline. The complaints we heard were few, but they ranged from some wind noise to a slight audio hiss. We also heard traces of the hiss on our end, but it was barely noticeable. Automated calling systems could understand us most of the time.

Speakerphone calls were decent, but not spectacular. Though we appreciate that it takes just once click to activate the speakerphone after you've made a call, the audible hiss we noticed during regular voice calls was more apparent here. The volume on our end was slightly louder, but callers had more trouble hearing us than on normal calls. Also, we had to speak louder if we wanted automated calling systems to understand us.

Even if the Web browser isn't perfect, T-Mobile's 3G network delivers fast data speeds. Mobile sites for CNET, United Airlines, and the Los Angeles Times loaded in about 15 seconds.

Music quality was fine, but don't expect miracles. As with most music phones, our tunes lacked depth when played through the external speaker. Also, the volume isn't very loud. Headphones will provide the best experience.

The Highlight has a rated battery life of 6.5 hours talk time and 18.5 days standby time. It has a tested talk time of 4 hours and 58 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Highlight has a digital SAR of 1.31 watts per kilogram.

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