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PenLab: Samsung i500

The smallest expression of wireless voice and data (Pen Computing issue #51)

(Posted November 20, 2003) -- Long has it been said of Palm OS communicators that they are far too big to be accepted by the masses. "It's too wide, it's too heavy." No more. The Samsung i500 is small and elegant, with all the power of a basic Palm and all the conveniences of a cell phone, including two batteries, a large dialpad, and excellent CDMA-quality sound.

I'm careful to say "basic Palm" because though the i500 has a fast Dragonball Super VZ running at 66MHz, the lion's share of current Palm OS PDAs are running on far more powerful ARM processors. That means it can't run a few of the cooler applications emerging for OS 5 devices, like MP3 playback and video with audio accompaniment. Nor does it have an external expansion slot to give it enough memory for such applications.

But that's not what the i500 was designed to be. Samsung wisely stuck to their mission and made a small phone that runs the Palm OS very fast. It browses the Web, gets your email, and integrates with Sprint's PCS Business Connection Personal Edition for better email control, scheduling, and phone lookup from anywhere.


The 4.7 ounce i500 fits in the hand just right, its skin as velvety to the touch as to the eye. Its flip is best opened with the unit in the dominant hand using the thumb of the other. The lid now open, you're given your first look at the vibrant 64K color TFT. The four-button quick dial sits in a blue background that matches the blue glow coming from behind the 14 key dialpad. You can select one of the speed dial buttons or just start dialing. You can also hit the up scroll button, which launches the Search function. Here you can search the address book by phone number, name, or company.

Right under the 162 x 176 pixel screen are four application buttons for launching the Address Book, Date Book, Blazer browser, and VM/email application.

Below that, and above the keypad, is a traditional Graffiti area (incidentally, it still runs good old Graffiti, not G2). And between the keypad and the Graffiti area are the scroll button and an OK and Back button, which you can use to navigate onscreen without a stylus.

Left and right are a few buttons whose purpose can change depending on the mode. Two of the left buttons control the volume in the phone mode, and they also scroll in the Blazer browser. On the right are voice dial and "back to phone" buttons, both of which offer quick access to dialing. The only problem with these buttons is that they're very easy to accidentally activate when merely holding the unit.

The back and top have the biggish-though not offensive-rectangular antenna, a lanyard lashing point, IrDA port, ringer speaker, battery release button, and an expandable stylus similar to that on the Sony NX80V. The stylus is very nice, and its top conceals a reset pin; but I really have to question its position on the left of the unit. You might think that was fine, great for the lefties, but it's really not great for anyone when you have to make a large effort to get it out at all. I have to put the phone in my right hand, and employ my left fingernail to pry the stylus out. They gave it a grip, but it's in too tightly, and has a lip blocking accidental removal, both of which make removing the stylus a chore. We've seen this on almost every new handheld cell phone, especially the ones trying to de-emphasize stylus use with elaborate button solutions. There must be a reason for the trend, but it's frustrating for the Graffiti literate.

The cradle that comes with the unit is also worth mentioning. Its angle of recline is low, but there is still room for the extra battery to slide in from the rear. There are two charging status lights on the cradle, one for the phone and one for the spare battery. They shine red when charging and green when fully charged. The phone is gripped by two fingers left and right for a secure fit in the cradle, one that nonetheless breaks free easily with a simple pull in the right direction. The power cord at the back disconnects to serve as a travel charger. My sample unit came with two batteries, one slim and one standard. The slim is capable of 2.8 hours talk and 210 hours standby. The standard is 4.2 hours talk and 250 standby. An extended battery can go up to 5.4 hours talk and 350 standby. The slim is extremely light, and naturally offers the greatest portability, but I found I didn't notice much additional bulk with the standard battery.


It's inevitable. Though those of us who've been watching the category have long said the ultimate PDA/phone needs to be smaller to be accepted, someone is going to complain that the finest mix of PDA/cell phone to come along is just too small for comfortable PDA use. I will disagree with them in advance, but will also be the first to admit that such a small device does require finesse. It also requires good near vision, because the screen, while bright, displays some fonts that are a single pixel thick. They made an effort in most of the dial modes to thicken them up, but pure PDA apps written by third parties will use single pixel fonts, assuming that the device is a full-size Palm device.

Samsung wisely reprogrammed many of the applications for easier use on the small screen, starting with the single most important application for a phone: the Address Book. It's been modified to dial quickly straight from the main address list in two ways. You can tap on the name to pull up the entire listing, then tap on the phone icon next to the number, or tap on the number to bring up a full dialing dialog that lists all available numbers. Alternately, you can just press the OK button to dial the default number. You can enter characters on the standard Palm OS Look Up line with either the 10 key method or via Graffiti. Either way is as fast as Palm users have come to expect.

Other manufacturers have used more elaborate lookup methods, but I think this works pretty well for both experienced Palm users and novices.

Browsing is via the Blazer browser, and it works very fast over the CDMA network. Images and text load quickly, due to the combination of download speed and the Super VZ's fast processing. Sprint provides their own front end for the browser, and their selection is comprehensive enough that I frequently got lost in the browsing experience while preparing this review. That's indicative of an interface that serves up information both quickly and unobtrusively, not giving my mind time to wander. That's not an easy task, believe me.

Several Astraware games are included in the bundle, plus ZioGolf, and a few limited trial programs. Because it's a Palm OS device, users can turn the i500 into just about whatever they need it to be. With 16MB RAM, there's plenty of room for OS 4.1 applications and a decent store of data. My 1,118 Phone numbers and addresses alone take up only 168K.

Besides the light weight and tight feel, I like that the screen has just enough extra room for a network and battery status indicator on the top of the screen, which is always available.

The phone itself is a dual-band, tri-mode phone, meaning it works on 1900 and 800MHz CDMA and AMPS 800MHz. It also has a location-based feature, allowing 911 to find your location, and for programs to be customized based on your location if you choose.

Sprint and Samsung are to be praised for creating such a small and capable phone that still manages to be simple-without being crippled in the process. Unless you really need ARM power, the i500 will serve as a great phone and PDA for both novice and tinkerer alike. US$599

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