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Samsung SPH-i330

Palm Powered combo is a great phone but a mediocre PDA

by David MacNeill

Posted May 23, 2003

In his review dated January 2002, my colleague Shawn Barnett wrote, "The Samsung i300 is easily the most convenient integration of PDA to cell phone yet produced. It strikes an excellent balance between the two types of communication devices, and manages to pack a lot of features into just a few buttons without bewildering the average user."

That may have been true then, but much has happened in the PDA space, particularly in the Palm OS world. New processors, new color displays, a major new rev of the operating system, new capabilities rivaling those in the Pocket PC camp-all these, plus major technological advancements made by Palm licensee Sony, have raised the bar enormously. I could argue that the very definition of what a PDA is has changed forever. We are clearly no longer talking about mere organizers here; anyone who is shopping for a Palm has expectations far beyond that of even six months ago.

Apparently, no one told Samsung about all this. Their new i330 smartphone is barely changed over last year's model. In a nutshell, I have to say that if you are a regular reader of this magazine, with its emphasis on the interests of PDA enthusiasts rather than beginners, this is probably not a product you will be happy with for long.

First the bad news...

I'm going to go ahead and list the aspects of the i330 that displease me, then move on to discuss the unit's positive attributes.

First, the device uses an ancient version (3.5) of the Palm OS; even the US$100 Palm Zire uses version 4.1. This isn't a huge drawback today, as most third-party Palm software runs fine on this version. In a year, however, I predict the software landscape will be oriented more towards version 5, leaving i330 users in the dust. The cool new software you will want probably won't work.

The 160x240 pixel display is color, yes, but only 8-bits deep, making it essentially useless as a digital photo-viewer. Without sufficient pixel depth, the benefits of having a color display are merely cosmetic. Given a choice between low-res, low contrast color and high-res, high contrast monochrome, I'll take the latter.

This device is limited to its built-in 16MB of memory, and lacks an SD card slot for expansion. 16MB is fine for basic organizer functions, but any kind of advanced use (photos, AvantGo, ebooks, games, MP3s) will eat that space up in a few weeks.

One of the most useful features of the i300 was the top-mounted LCD status display. You could check on a number of things without having to look at the big screen, a truly user-centric feature if I ever saw one. Inexplicably, it has disappeared from the i330. This is progress?

A smartphone is not a smartphone unless it can get all your email while you're on the go. While the i330 has the ability to access the Internet at a decent speed (see below), Samsung does not include a mail client; you'll need to buy one separately.

Then the good news

On the bright side, Samsung has redesigned the device in a sleeker, more attractive casing that feels very solid in the hand and slim in the pocket. All the buttons are in essentially the same positions, but they are better shaped and finished in shiny chrome instead of black rubber. The display is now a competent TFT part instead of the ghostly DSTN part present on the i300. The processor is now a 66MHz Super VZ Dragonball, versus the pokey 33MHz VZ chip of yore. Best of all, this machine supports CDMA2000 1xRTT for data speeds of up to a theoretical 144Kbps. Compared to its predecessor's 14.4Kbps limit, this is good news indeed. Of course, you need to pay Sprint for all this bandwidth, but if you need speed it's a worthwhile expense.

The display is narrower than most Palm devices, so the Graffiti pad is smaller. This is actually a good thing, as your characters are perceived by the touchscreen as larger, which in my experience consistently improves Graffiti's accuracy.

Though there is no mail client included, the built-in Blazer minibrowser is simply terrific. It uses a proxy server to render standard web pages into simplified, downsized version that make sense on small displays. Even skeptics are amazed at how well it works once they give it a try. Web browsing is the one place where the wimpy 8-bit display is not a hindrance, since Blazer-rendered pages aren't any deeper anyway.

All my complaints about the i330's abilities as a PDA take nothing away from the device as a mobile phone. It has all the right stuff, including voice dialing that really works, a dandy speakerphone, and detailed call logging. Of course, the phone's address book is actually the Palm address database, so you need only tap on a number to dial it. The four main Palm OS buttons on the face can be remapped to phone specific functions that only operate when the phone application is on the foreground. It's easy to make the Calendar button become the Speed Dial button, for example. Good feature, well implemented.

The biggest problem users are likely to have about the phone functionality is the lack of hard number buttons. Unless you use voice dial or speed dial, you must tap the soft buttons on the display to dial. Not a big deal for me, but some folks I showed it to did not like the idea of tapping the display with their fingers. I showed them my smudgeless finger tapping method (turn your hand upside down, then used the back of your middle finger's nail to tap the screen) but they were still skeptical.

Smartphones are still in their infancy, as any early adopter of these promising machines will tell you. One of the drawbacks inherent in the category is that when one-half of a combination device becomes outdated, you have to dump the whole thing and buy another. Personally, I find the modularity of using only Bluetooth-enabled phones and PDAs serves me better than one, do-it-all device. My wife Leslie takes exactly the opposite position, however, and prefers carrying her AT&T Pocket PC Phone Edition in place of her old iPAQ and Nokia rig. Samsung's latest offering may make you a happy camper, too, but only if you have minimalist expectations for the PDA part of the equation. US$499.

-David MacNeill

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