Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Epix™ Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung Epix features a touch screen and optical mouse that makes device navigation easier. The smartphone also offers Windows Mobile 6.1 and all the wireless fixings (Wi-Fi, HSPDA, Bluetooth, and GPS).

THE BAD: The QWERTY keyboard is a bit stiff, which led to a number of errors. You can't use the Epix as a wireless modem for your laptop. No built-in 3.5mm headphone jack.

THE BOTTOM LINE: While not a must-have upgrade for Samsung BlackJack II owners, the Samsung Epix expands the capabilities and usability of the messaging-centric smartphone with the addition of a touch screen, optical mouse, and Wi-Fi.

It's about that time of year. Smartphones that were released in 2007 are reaching the end of their life cycles, and the new school of devices are lining up to take their places. Such is the case for the Samsung BlackJack II. While not officially being retired, the BlackJack II has seen its day, and a flashier, shinier model is now on the block: the Samsung Epix.

While the two smartphones look largely similar on the surface, save for a couple of buttons, the Epix steps it up with a touch screen and optical mouse. It also ships with Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional Edition and adds integrated Wi-Fi. We wouldn't call it a major overhaul, but the new design features add great value and provide a good user experience; plus, the smartphone offers solid performance. It's a great messaging-centric smartphone for mobile professionals, but current BlackJack II owners could probably wait till they're due for an upgrade (no need to pay full retail price) to switch to the Epix, especially since you can download a Windows Mobile 6.1 software update for your device. The Samsung Epix is available now from AT&T for $199.99 with a two-year contract and after rebates and discounts.

At first glance, the Samsung Epix simply looks like an evolution of the Samsung BlackJack II but there's more than meets the eye. First, the smartphone measures 4.6 inches high by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5 deep and weighs 4.4 ounces. It's slightly thicker than the BlackJack II but the Epix houses a larger battery, so there's good reason for the extra thickness and weight. The smartphone comes in a silver/charcoal gray color and while attractive enough, we thought the device's casing was slippery and felt a bit plasticky.

While the Samsung Epix looks largely like the Samsung BlackJack II, but there are some key differences, including the addition of a touch screen.

The Epix features a 2.5-inch, 65,000-color TFT display with a 320×320 pixel resolution. Unlike the BlackJack II, however, the Epix has a touch screen so you can use finger touches or the included stylus to launch applications, navigate menus, and more. The screen provides haptic feedback so you get a slight vibration to confirm that the screen has registered your touch. Throughout our review period, we really enjoyed having the touch screen since it made navigation and accomplishing tasks easier. You can, of course, customize the home screen with various themes, background images, and more.

Below the display, you get two soft keys, Talk and End buttons, which also double as the Mute and Lock buttons. There's a Start key and OK button, and sitting in between those two buttons is the direction keypad/optical mouse. The Samsung Epix is the first smartphone in the United States with an optical mouse, though our first experience with it was on the unlocked version of the Samsung Omnia (more on this in a bit). Basically, you can track a mouselike cursor onscreen by moving your finger on the teeny tiny trackpad, and then double-click to select an item.

While we didn't particularly find it useful on the Omnia, we're singing a different tune with the Epix. The fact that the trackpad is slightly bigger and it's located in the middle of the phone (rather than the bottom) made the user experience so much better. We were able to comfortably scroll through menus and select items with one hand. If you find you're not a fan of the feature, you can switch it back to the traditional directional keypad by going to Settings > System > Finger Mouse.

The Samsung Epix is the first smartphone in the States to have an optical mouse (located between the Start and OK buttons).

The full QWERTY keyboard is similar to the one found on the BlackJack II, though the keys are a bit smaller. The size of the buttons wasn't so much of an issue as there's an adequate amount of spacing between them, but we did find the keys stiff to press. After typing an e-mail, we noticed that there were a number of errors. You have to make sure you firmly press each button, which is frustrating since it slows you down. On the plus side, the bottom row includes a number of application shortcuts for quick one-touch access, including those for the camera, Web, e-mail, and calendar.

The buttons on the full QWERTY keyboard are stiff to press, which caused a number of errors.

The camera is located on the back along with a self-portrait mirror. On the left spine, you'll find the power button and volume rocker, while the right side has a power/headset connector and a microSD expansion slot. Unfortunately, the Epix uses a proprietary Samsung jack for the AC adapter and headset, which restricts the accessory range. A small consolation is that a 3.5mm audio adapter is included in the box. Other accessories packaged with the Samsung Epix include an AC adapter, a USB cable, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

The Samsung Epix isn't a major overhaul of the BlackJack II, but there are a couple of additions in the features department. First, the smartphone now ships with Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional Edition, bringing the full Microsoft Office Mobile Suite for editing native Word and Excel documents, and viewing PowerPoint presentations; better Calendar management; better page navigation in Internet Explorer Mobile; and more. Other PIM tools include Picsel Viewer, a notepad, an alarm clock, a stopwatch, a calculator, a conversion calculator, a voice recorder, and a task list. A Task Manager is also available to help optimize CPU and memory usage; the Epix comes with 256MB internal ROM and about 150MB or internal RAM. The microSD expansion slot can accept up to 32GB cards.

There's a microSD expansion slot on the right side that can accept up to 32GB cards.

For e-mail, the Epix offers Microsoft's Direct Push technology for real-time e-mail delivery and automatic synchronization with your Outlook calendar, tasks, and contacts via Exchange Server. The smartphone also works with other e-mail solutions, including AT&T Xpress Mail and Good Mobile Messaging, and there's support for POP3 and IMAP accounts. We set up our review unit to access our Yahoo Plus e-mail, and after simply entering our login ID and password, it downloaded our in-box content within minutes. You can set the time interval (ranging from every 5 minutes to once a day) for how often you want message retrieval. The Epix also comes preloaded with three instant-messaging clients: AIM, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger.

The Samsung Epix's voice features include quad-band world-roaming, a speakerphone, speed dialing, three-way calling, conference calling, and text and multimedia messaging. The Epix does add voice-dialing capabilities, which was missing on the BlackJack II. The address book is limited only by available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts), and each entry can accommodate up to 12 numbers, several e-mail addresses, IM handles, job titles, and additional details. For caller ID, you can assign a contact a picture, a group ID, or one of 27 polyphonic ringtones. Like the BlackJack II, the Epix also supports AT&T's Video Share service, which allows you to make video calls. Plans for Video Share start at $4.99 per month.

Bluetooth 2.0 is onboard, so you can pair the Epix with wireless and stereo Bluetooth headsets and hands-free kits. There's also support for Bluetooth peripherals (keyboards, printers, and so forth), and wireless file transfers. Unfortunately, it doesn't support the dial-up networking profile, so you can't use the smartphone as a wireless modem for your laptop.

The Samsung Epix is a tri-band UMTS/HSDPA smartphone, bringing you data speeds of up to network for a broadband-like connection on your mobile device. There are multiple factors that affect 3G speeds, such as where you live and how many people are on the network on one time, but you can expect speeds around 400Kbps to 700Kbps (with the potential to hit up to 2Mbps). Since the Epix is a tri-band (850/1900/2100), you'll be able to access 3G networks while abroad as well.

Unlike the BlackJack II, the Samsung Epix has integrated Wi-Fi, providing you with another method for surfing the Web on your smartphone. Our review unit was able to find and connect to our wireless network with no problem. The Epix also features built-in assisted GPS. While you can get maps and text-based, turn-by-turn driving directions with an app like Google Maps for Mobile, for real-time tracking and data and voice-guided directions, you'll need to use location-based service. The Epix works with AT&T Navigator as well as the recently launched AT&T Navigator Global Edition, so you can get route guidance overseas.

On back, you'll find the 2-megapixel camera and self-portrait mirror. However, there is no flash.

The Samsung Epix comes with a 2-megapixel camera with 4x digital zoom and video recording capabilities. You can take pictures in one of five sizes and one of four quality settings. There's a self-timer as well as five shooting modes. Though there's no flash, you get white balance settings and you can add various effects to an image. In camcorder mode, you get the same four quality settings, but there's only a choice of two sizes.

Picture quality was OK, but colors looked washed out.

Picture quality was mediocre. As we've found with a number of camera-equipped smartphones, the objects were sharply defined with nice clean lines but the colors were a bit off and looked washed out. Meanwhile, we were quite impressed with the video quality. Recorded clips looked clean, with minimal pixelation and choppiness.

As for other multimedia features, you get the standard Windows Media Player 10 Mobile with support for a number of audio and video formats, including AAC, MP3, WAV, WMA, MPEG-4, and WMV files, to name a few. In addition, you can stream music and video via AT&T Music and AT&T Video. These add-on services enable you to access content, such as Napster to Go, streaming XM satellite radio, music videos, MusicID for identifying song titles and artist, and video programming from CNN, ESPN, and NBC, among other channels.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; UMTS/HSDPA 850/1900/2100) Samsung Epix in San Francisco using AT&T service and call quality was good. There was minimal background noise as we talked to friends, allowing us to enjoy clear conversations. In addition, we had no problems using an airline's voice-automated response system. On the other end, our callers reported similarly positive results, though there were a couple of instances of echoing. Speakerphone quality was generally fine. We noticed some slight static and hissing, but didn't find that it interrupted conversation. We successfully paired the Epix with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

During our review period, we found the Epix to be a very responsive device, with minimal performance lags even with numerous applications open and no system crashes. We were also impressed with the multimedia performance on the Epix. Music playback had a nice, rich sound and good volume. That said, we still wish the Epix was equipped with a 3.5mm headphone jack. Watching videos was also fine. We wouldn't watch any full-length films on the Epix, but the experience of viewing a couple of short WMV files was decent.

The Samsung Epix features a 1,800mAh lithium ion battery that has a rated talk time of 7 hours and up to 14 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, the Epix lasted 4 hours on a single charge on AT&T's 3G network. According to FCC radiation tests, the Epix has a digital SAR rating of 1.3 watts per kilogram.

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