As it does with most trends, Samsung is pursuing eco-friendly cell phones with vigor. It already gave us the Samsung Reclaim, and now we finally have a chance to review the Samsung Blue Earth. Forgive us if we're a bit excited, but Samsung has been holding this handset under lock and key for several months. Indeed, the last time we saw it at CTIA in April, we could only gaze from afar while it sat in a glass case.
Like the Reclaim, the Blue Earth's shell is made from recycled materials--specifically, plastic water bottles--but it goes a giant step further with solar panels on its rear face. You still get a standard wall charger in the box, but the panels can help you top off the phone in a pinch. It's also free of harmful materials like polyvinyl chloride, and you can minimize battery use by adjusting the display settings. Outside of being green, the Blue Earth offers a functional feature set, but its small touch screen hampers its usability and there was static during calls. The Blue Earth GT-S7550 is an unlocked GSM world phone, though it lacks support for North American 3G networks. U.S. pricing was not announced at the time of this writing, but in the European market the Blue Earth will cost 300 euros ($447) without service. That's a lot of cash for some green cred, so you may want to focus your eco efforts elsewhere.
With its royal blue casing and clean lines, the Blue Earth has an attractive and, dare we say, soothing design. It's true it does resemble Samsung's other touch-screen phones, but you only have to look at the solar panels to know that this handset is different. The panels cover almost the entire battery cover and sit just below the camera lens.
At 4.25 inches by 2.11 inches by 0.56 inch, the Blue Earth is on the small side, particularly for a touch-screen phone (more on the later). It's easily portable, but at 4.2 ounces it's heavier than you might think. The extra heft gives it a solid feel in the hand even if the battery cover pops off a bit too easily.
The Blue Earth's display is a mixed bag. On the upside, it's bright and vibrant (16 million colors; 400x240 pixels) with sharp photos and graphics. The Blue Earth offers Samsung's TouchWiz interface and like the company's Omnia HD, the home screen also has three panels, which gives you more room for widget customization. Just remember that you can select only the widgets that Samsung provides. Three touch icons on the bottom of the home screen offer the phonebook, the main menu, and the numeric keypad.
But now, there's the bad news. At 3 inches, the display is just too small to be really useful (we think 3.25 inches is the bare minimum for a touch display). Even with three pages, the home screen and the TouchWiz bar feel crowded. The main menu, which also spans three pages, is slightly better, and we like that you change the position of the widgets. The numeric keypad with its shortcuts to the messaging feature and phonebook isn't bad either, but the Blue Earth lacks a full keyboard. We're not sure why that feature was omitted--perhaps the display is just too small--but it means you'll have to tap out messages on an alphanumeric keypad.
The touch interface is fairly responsive, whether you're plunking at keys and icons or scrolling thorough a long list. For accuracy's sake, the Blue Earth offers vibrating feedback, for which you can change the intensity. You also can change the font type and use a transition effect that activates sliding panels when moving between screens.
In keeping with the Blue Earth's green image, you adjust a number of display settings to save battery life. An "eco mode" will automatically adjust the brightness and backlight time to certain levels, but if they aren't satisfactory you can alter both settings to your liking. Other display options include a gesture unlock (draw a preselected charter on the display to unlock the phone) and an etiquette pause (turn the phone facedown when on a call to mute the sound).
The Blue Earth has just a few physical controls. Below the display are Talk and End/power controls and a Back key. The latter isn't labeled as such, but all of the controls are spacious and tactile. The volume rocker on the left spine is easy to find when you're on a call, but the combination handset locking key/camera shutter on the right spine is rather flush. Also on the right spine is the Blue Earth's Micro-USB port. Though we like that it accommodates the charger and the USB cable, we wish it didn't support a headset as well. We'd much prefer a separate headset jack with a standard connection. The microSD card slot is behind the battery cover.
Just like the Reclaim, the Blue Earth comes in a box made from recycled cardboard. It's not quite as sturdy as a normal cell phone box, but it carries a certain "feel good" factor. In fact, the only plastic parts are the bags that hold the USB cable and headset and the protective film on the phone's display. You can even reuse part of the box as a picture frame or a pencil holder; a helpful pictogram on the box's lid shows you how.
The Blue Earth has a 2,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for seven e-mail addresses, a birthday, notes, two e-mail address, two URLs, a nickname, a company name and job title, and two street addresses (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can organize callers into groups and you can pair friends with a photo and one of 25 polyphonic ringtones (five are designated as "eco tones"). You even can choose one of five vibrations and organize your favorite friends in a separate "photo contacts" list with a nifty pinwheel interface.
Basic features include text and multimedia messaging, a timer, a stopwatch, a world clock, a calculator, a memo pad, a task list, a unit and currency converter, a calendar and an alarm clock. You'll also find stereo Bluetooth, a file manager, Wi-Fi, a Google app for Gmail and Google Maps, a voice recorder, USB mass storage, and PC syncing. True eco warriors can use the Blue Earth's pedometer to count their steps and track how much carbon dioxide emissions and how many trees they're saving by walking. E-mail options are a mixed bag. Though POP3 access is available only through a clunky Web-based interface, the Blue Earth offers Exchange ActiveSync for Outlook e-mail.