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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Test drive: Samsung SGH-D980

Samsung SGH-D980
Over Chinese New Year, I had the opportunity to try out Samsung's SGH-D980. It's a dual SIM (i.e. it can accommodate two SIM cards without the need to swap between them), touchscreen handphone with a five-megapixel camera and handwriting recognition.

Unfortunately, after two weeks of using it, I felt underwhelmed by it. This was in spite of the "high-tech" touchscreen. Sure, touchscreen smartphones have been around for a long time, like the early Sony Ericsson P-series. But it was the Apple iPhone that made people really sit up and take note of the technology. And its user interface has become the "de facto" standard.

It seems that people are more inclined to swipe a finger (or stylus, if really necessary) across the screen to scroll, rather than rely on a dedicated scrollbar -- especially one that is as mediocre as the one found in the SGH-D980! It was just impossible to scroll even with the stylus, and its implementation across applications, e.g. SMS and web browser, was inconsistent.

Here's my full review:

Thanks to Samsung and Cheil, I had the opportunity to try out the new Samsung SGH-D980. And good timing too, since it was Chinese New Year, so I could really make use of the camera and camcorder features!

However, the phone's key selling points are its dual SIM capability, handwriting recognition through its touchscreen, and 5-megapixel camera. The dual SIM function means that you can use two SIM cards with the same phone. Useful for home + work or home + leisure (or wife + mistress...). Unfortunately, I only have one SIM card, so I didn't get a chance to test this out.

Like most other Samsung phones, the SGH-D980 features a touchscreen that responds to fingers or the included stylus. While that feature is nifty, I felt that there was still lots of room for improvement. The touchscreen responded perfectly with the stylus, but not so with fingers. I found that a gentle tap would garner no results, so I had to press harder on the screen. And that caused me to worry that too much forceful pressing would one day cause the screen to crack. Where you pressed also made a difference, depending on what you were pressing (icon, keypad, web page link, etc). There were times when I'm sure that I pressed a button correctly, only to see that nothing happened or I got the wrong response.

Where the touchscreen -- and the built-in software -- shone was with handwriting recognition. As an ex-Palm user, I knew that I didn't want to learn a brand new way of writing just to work with a gadget. And thankfully, I didn't need to with the SGH-D980. As long as I wrote in large characters (even bigger than what primary school kids would write), the phone would recognise them. And even if I got them wrong, the software always provided suggestions that were close to what I had written.

In the end, though, I reverted to typing the letters rather than writing them out. It was much faster to type them with the on-screen keypad.

Chinese writers are not left out either. The software recognises Chinese characters as well. Since I only know simplified Chinese, that was what I wrote, and the software recognised my characters very well, again, as long as I wrote large and clearly. I don't know if the software works with traditional Chinese characters.

Its other key feature is its 5-megapixel camera. Having used only a 3-megapixel camera phone, I was eager to see what kind of results I would get with the larger resolution. The pictures I got were certainly larger, so I was better able to appreciate the results. But at that large size, I also noticed something else. Even under bright light conditions when indoors, the pictures looked grainy.

Take a look at this steamboat. Or this table of oranges. (Flickr has resized the images, but the picture qualities are the same as the originals.) Notice the graininess of the steamboat pot at top-left. And see how the white chairs around the table of oranges are speckled. This graininess was definitely not something I expected for an electronics company. I suspect that it is more due to the image processing software rather than the camera hardware (lens, etc) itself. Compared to Sony Ericsson's line of camera phones, the SGH-D980 doesn't hold a candle in terms of picture clarity.

The camera can also take videos at 640x480 size. Personally, I was just glad to finally be able to record such decently sized videos with a camera phone, so I've no issues there. The picture quality was similar to what you'd expect from other camera phones, i.e. don't expect crystal clear images or lack of jerkiness.

I had other peeves with this phone. The most glaring one was its user interface, in particular, the scrollbar. Firstly, I had to find out by trial-and-error that I could scroll only by pressing the up/down button at the side of the phone. Scrolling with the touchscreen is impossible with fingers and ridiculously difficult with the stylus. Why? Because the scrollbar is so narrow! On the screen, it's only about 1mm -- that's millimetre! -- wide. I barely noticed it the first time I used the phone, and when I tapped on it with the stylus, I had to tap so close to the screen's edge that most of the time, I had tapped outside of the touchscreen area.

But it was the lack of consistent application of the scrolling function that really frustrated me. In menus, the up/down button worked as expected. With SMS messages, pressing the up/down button caused the screen to zoom out, not scroll. And the up/down button simply didn't work in the web browser.

On a sidenote, here's a free tip that you won't find in the manual. To use a widget in the sidebar on the home screen, you need to drag it out of the bar to "activate" it. Tapping on a widget does nothing. I feel that this user interface goes against what is implemented with other widgets, i.e. you only need to tap a widget like any other icon/button to activate it.

Other specifications: 3G + Bluetooth (no Wifi), microSD memory card slot, music player (MP3 and AAC formats), video player (MPEG-4 format only). At 97.5x55x16.3mm and 117g, it fits comfortably in a jeans pocket, though ladies might find it a tad bulky and heavy.

Mac users, beware! In spite of the Bluetooth feature, the phone is not supported by iSync, nor is there a plug-in to make it work with iSync. Bluetooth File Transfer works, but the transfer has to be initialised from the phone, i.e. you can't use OS X's built-in Bluetooth File Exchange to transfer files.

Windows XP users: for some reason, I couldn't get Bluetooth file transfer to work with XP, whether initialised by the phone or computer.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend this phone. Sure, the dual SIM and touchscreen handwriting features sound extraordinary, even unique. But all of its other features are sub-par. The scrollbar was already a huge turn-off for me.

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