Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Samsung Omnia 7 review

The Samsung Omnia 7 is one of the most exciting new phones I've handled in recent months. It runs on Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 operating system. This still running on a Windows CE kernel, Windows Phone 7 represents a complete break from Windows Mobile and Pocket PC (it isn't binary compatible), not only in UI paradigm and also philosophy. While previous Windows Mobile was aimed at business and power users, Windows Phone 7 has its sight aimed at casual and first time smartphone users (I say that in a loose sense as Windows Phone 7 is anything but smart - but let's not go there yet).

Now let me begin by saying that the Omnia 7 is gorgeous. For one it does not look like a curvy Samsung phone, but a HTC designed one - what with its sharp edges and boxy design. The brushed aluminium back gives it a professional look. Like a well made ThinkPad, it is conservative yet stylish - something James Bond would use if he weren't tied to Sony. It feels solid and heavy, certainly well made. It thin profile makes it easy to slip inside a jeans pocket, though its large width may make it holding it for long uncomfortable. Best to invest in a Bluetooth headset I say.

Omnia 7 (bottom) against the Nokia X6, N8 and E55

The front is almost covered in glass from edge to edge. Dominating it is the 4" Super AMOLED screen, a plastic Windows start key and back and search (Bing) touch sensitive shortcuts. Due to the capacitive nature of the keys, I've found myself accidentally toggling Bing unintentionally a couple of times, so that is one area I hope Samsung can improve on with the next version of the Omnia 7. On the top by the earpiece are the ambient light sensor and proximity sensor.

The volume rocker keys are on the left side and can be used to bring up the music control app when in used. Sitting on the right side of the Omnia 7 are the power button and camera shutter. The 3.5mm headphone slot and micro USB port (with a lid) sits on the top. The bottom is bare bar from the microphone.

On the backside you will find the 5MP camera lens and LED flash, a loud speaker and battery door. The SIM card slot is behind the door and the battery has to be removed to access it. In an age of powerful smartphones it is nice to see a large 1500mAh battery there, something HTC has continuously failed to realise is needed (just have a look at the Desire HD's battery spec). What you won't find is an external card slot. It may be buried underneath the case, but it wasn't something I was willing to test. A huge bummer as the Omnia 7 only comes in two versions - 8GB and 16GB. In a age of multimedia and HD video recording, 16GB is nothing, much less 8GB. Microsoft does provide 25GB of storage on the cloud, but seriously, you will need a data plan with a massive bandwidth allowance to even make that useful.

The specs reads like the typical 2010 smartphone, and conforms with Microsoft's strict Chassis One requirements for running Windows Phone 7. The Omnia 7 ticks all of this but doesn't go beyond them. It has the same gorgeous 4" Super AMOLED screen from the Galaxy S, 1Ghz Snapdragon QSD8250 processor, 5MP camera with autofocus and LED flash with 720p with 25fps video recording, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, Accelerometer, GPS receiver with digital compass, 1500mAh battery and 7.2 Mbps HSDPA support.

The 4" Super AMOLED screen is rather lovely. Colours are saturated. In fact, perhaps too over saturated. Pictures looks awesome on it, but aren't accurate. On the other hand the use of PenTile subpixel matrix technology meant that small texts looks blurry as though ClearType is turned on by default. For a screen that supposedly have 480x800 resolution, it is rather unusual that I can actually see dots on it.

The Omnia 7 runs on the first version of Windows Phone 7. Turning it on it is apparent that Microsoft has done a good job in making Metro UI the most gorgeous mobile UI currently available. There is no longer any Today screen. Instead live tiles (or widgets) dominates the homescreen. These tiles can be anything from mere shortcuts or 'live' in a way that is possible to display quick infos (eg. missed calls, messages etc.). Unfortunately not all of the tiles are currently 'live' and certainly almost none of the third party applications I've installed are. It is a cool concept, but one that needs developers support if it is to take off.

Metro UI is slick, quick, uncluttered, easy to use and designed to operate with fingers. Most of the built-in apps is engineered using a design called hubs. Hubs are basically large panoramic apps. Here you can swipe left and right or tap to go through the different pages within the hub. It is fast, easy to use and is very quick.

Check out the video below as I demonstrate the UI of Windows Phone 7:

The social integration is another thing that Microsoft got right. Once I managed to get my contacts on it, the OS integrates my contacts with those of my Facebook contacts providing easy visual updates on my friends. In comparison, Nokia's Social Network app integrates contacts with both Facebook and Twitter, but is cumbersome and slow to use (you have to link each individuals social network manually!) and to be frank, utterly useless. So good job to Microsoft here. Now if they only provide integration with Twitter - that would be insane!

The Facebook integration actually does deeper than just the People hub. Any photo galleries in the user'sFacebook is sync'ed to the Pictures hub. It doesn't actually reside there as it is merely a shortcut, but it is quick and easy to use. It takes less than a couple of seconds to download all the thumbnails to make the experience smooth. There is little need to fire up the official Facebook application in order to show off your Facebook pictures.

Friends can be pinned onto the homescreen as live tiles and updates such as their latest pictures will be shown. This provides a quick and easy way to call or message a particular friend. Speaking of calls, the phone bit of Windows Phone 7 disappoints somewhat. While it looks pretty, the dialer does not support smart dialling. Curiously absent are also the ability to use music as ring tones. The contact's picture will appear full screen during a phone call and you will have to swipe up to reveal the answer/call reject icons. I found the call quality to be decent. There is no support for 3G video calls with Windows Phone 7 and I've found no third party apps that supports the use of the front camera.

Like most modern smartphones, text messages on Windows Phone 7 are sorted via a threaded view. First pioneered by Palm, threaded messaging is a useful way of quickly viewing conversations on text messages. Here they appear in the form of speech bubbles. The text message app also supports multiple recipients, and unlike the first iPhone, MMS is available out of the box.

The Omnia 7 does not disappoint as a music player. Audio quality is clear and decent, but unfortunately suffers from bass cut off. It is decent enough to be able to be used as an everyday music player in lieu of a high end DAP like the Walkman X-series, but audiophile is best off looking elsewhere. Music is accessed via the Music & Videos hub, is quick and easy to access. Albums and tracks (as well as videos) can be pinned to the homescreen as live tiles. Music control is accessible from any applications via the hardware volume keys. Unfortunately there is no equaliser available.

The battery life is pretty good, and it isn't surprising as the Omnia 7 is blessed with a 1500mAh battery. I found it very much capable of lasting a day of moderate to heavy use and a couple of days of light use. Charging is via the micro USB port.

I found the 5MP camera to be decent when there is good enough lighting. The LED flash is barely adequeute, and no matter how steady I hold the phone, it always produce some form of blur. Still with decent and natural lighting, the Omnia 7 managed to produce excellent quality images. Deep inside the menu, you will find plenty of options to satisfy photography geeks including options for AF mode, white balance, image effect (black & white, sepia tone etc.), contrast, saturation, sharpness, EV exposure compensation, ISO (50-800), metering, quality, dynamic range toggle, resolution (5MP, 3MP, 2MP and VGA) and anti-shaking. Images are captured in 4:3 aspect ratio, the standard aspect ratio of most digital compacts rather than 3:2 enjoyed by 35mm and DSLR.

A couple of untouched samples resized to 1024x768 (blogspot limitation):

The camera also supports 720p at 25fps video recording with continuous auto focus. In reality it barely reached 25fps, but is still smooth enough. Panning would produce jerky results, but with a steady scene I found the Omnia 7 capable of producing excellent video quality. Options includes 720p or VGA resolution (it defaults to VGA each time the camera starts up - much to my irritation), contrast, saturation, sharpness, exposure compensation and white balance.

Videos are recorded in MP4 format. I am not certain what bitrate is used, but I suspect it is variable. A three and a half minute 720p video footage like the one below came up at 158MB. Audio is encoded in AAC.

Here's a sample I recorded about a week ago:

Marketplace, Microsoft's answer to Apple's App Store is welcoming, with plenty of nice free apps like the Huffington Post (which isn't merely a glorified RSS reader/bookmark like BBC News app) and Snow+Rock (an amazing free application for walkers with free guides and trails). It is dead easy to use too. I downloaded 20 apps in 10 minutes. Most of the paid games I've seen include trial versions, so there is little harm in downloading and trying out before deciding. The Xbox integration includes Gamerscore and Achievements. I do not own a 360, so I am clueless as to how well the integration is - but a friend of mine is, and he thinks it is brilliant.

Getting contacts on it was a pain, but do-able. Windows Phone 7 does not sync with Outlook, at least not directly. This is a major fail to me, and I do not understand how and why Microsoft would not support syncing with their own product. Still I managed to get them on, but not without first downloading Outlook Connector, syncing my contacts to a Hotmail account and then finally syncing from there to the phone. This is one of the first clues that Microsoft has decided that business users are not their priority with Windows Phone 7. But dear Microsoft, not everyone wants to use the 'Cloud', especially when there's a perfectly good USB cable in front of us.

Input is via a virtual QWERTY keyboard. There is no haptic feedback, though feedback is provided through audible feedback. Each key presses is different from the last as Windows Phone 7 has eight variations of key press samples played in a loop. It isn't a massive different, but subtle. I find the audible feedback irritating, but have no choice but to leave it on because the keyboard does not support haptic feedback.

Auto correction and suggestions can be turned off if needed. My biggest issue with portrait QWERTY keyboard is I do not want it. I want T9 or even better yet, a virtual mini QWERTY. This is because I want to type one handed. Nothing irritates me more than trying to peck at small alphabets using with a single thumb.

Internet Explorer is a massive improvement over the older versions found on Windows Mobile. Rendering is accurate but slow. Panning and scrolling is supported, as is pinch zooming and multiple tabs. In addition to saving a site as favourite, it can also be pin to the home screen. The lack of Silverlight isn't a concern to me (who uses them?), but no Flash means that accessing online videos becomes an almost impossibility except via the YouTube app. There is also no text reflow. It's a great browser, but with no Flash I would prefer to be using Opera Mini - which incidentally isn't available on Windows Phone 7.

Bing Maps is fast and easy to use. Maps can be toggled between vector mapping and aerial (satellite) view. It supports pinch zooming, as well as step by step directions. Unfortunately there isn't any voice guided navigation. It is a good effort, but still lacking far behind Google Maps on Android and Nokia's all you can eat voice navigation Ovi Maps.

The lack of multi-tasking really hurts and is the single biggest reason I can not recommend Windows Phone 7 and the Omnia 7 yet. Yes, there is some form of multi-tasking, but really, no more than what you would find in any typical feature phone from the past couple of years. You can listen to music while messaging - nothing new with that - even dumb Sony Ericsson and Nokia Series 40 phones can do that. Casual users migrating from feature phones may be able to put up with that, but I can't imagine plenty of power users will like the idea of a dumbed down experience.

Something else irks me about Windows Phone 7 and you can guess it, it's the lack of copy and paste. There is no excuse here not to have copy and paste, absolutely none -especially for a 2010 OS. Microsoft has promised that copy and paste will arrive in 2011, but until then there is none. There are also plenty of other dislikes with Microsoft's new mobile OS - the lack of tethering, Bluetooth file exchange, video call, file manager, USB mass storage and support for own ringtones, for example.

All in all, there is plenty to like with the Omnia 7. Save for the camera and capacitive softkeys, the Omnia 7's hardware is downright appealing. It runs on Windows Phone 7 which has the most refreshing mobile UI. Unfortunately whatever Samsung did right here was quickly undone by the lack of features on Windows Phone 7. My experience with Windows Phone 7 is like stepping in a time machine and revisiting the first iPhone - gorgeous UI, but not much else. First time smartphone users who are just graduating from their featurephones wouldn't mind it, but I do recommend that power users to hold out until Windows Phone 7 catches up with its rivals in terms of functionality.

Thanks to Three Mobile for providing the Omnia 7 for review.


Anonymous said...

i wish i read your review before buying one. no video call quite ridiculous

Benjamin said...

Thanks for the great review. I would just like to point out, however, that you can access youtube without flash through youtube.com/html5 (don't know if IE for WP7 supports HTML5, but it's worth a try).

Again, good review, I appreciated it.

Sam Boycott said...

Samsung Omnia and Nokia Lumia are with the same windows technology, but what makes the difference is the looks and the hardware. Nokia is globally well-known for its superior quality hardware, design, color, battery backup and customer orientation. Nokia has also launched the windows phones from very lower to higher range affordable for all. so its better i think.
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