The Samsung Beat DJ is a phone with a silly gimmick: you can DJ on it. But it also sports some innovative user-interface ideas, and, even if you never scratch a platter, it's still worth a look as a distinctive-looking device with a bright, beautiful touchscreen for a reasonable price.
The Beat DJ is available from free on a £25-per-month
contract, or costs £300 on a Virgin pay-as-you-go deal. You can also pick up a SIM-free Beat DJ for around £290.
Music passes muster
The Beat DJ includes Bang & Olufsen audio gubbins inside, but we're not bedazzled by names and were slightly disappointed with the phone's sound quality. We compared it to a SanDisk Sanza Fuze MP3 player using a pair of Sennheiser CX 300-II earbuds. We found the phone's audio lacked the fullness and depth offered by the MP3 player. The 5.1-channel surround-sound effect is decent for electronic music, but it adds a tinny, harsh quality to vocal and instrumental tunes. It's not a total disaster, however -- music is still very listenable.
Samsung has wisely included a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the top of the Beat DJ. It's also pleasing that the lock key on the side serves a double function: it launches the music player as well. But there are no dedicated buttons for play or fast-forward, and the user interface feels unfinished in places. For example, the music player has some fun elements, like the ability to drag an album onto a stylised CD player to get a tune started. But it's hard to navigate back to your tracks again, without starting again in the menu. Also, fast-forwarding and rewinding isn't easy. This is one of many regards in which the Beat DJ could really have exploited the round, touch-sensitive area below the screen, but it doesn't.
The touch-sensitive area comes into its own, however, when you're playing with the DJ application. While you can slap on a track and use a finger in the centre of the screen to 'scratch' it, you can also use the touch-sensitive area below the screen to navigate through menus and select filters and sound effects. Fast-forwarding and rewinding is easy: you drag your finger around a circular progress bar on the screen. We just wish more of these user-interface innovations had been used in the music player and elsewhere on the phone. It's a big waste.
The DJ feature itself is fun and easy to use, although it takes some practice to get a decent sound out of it, and we're filled with fear that we're going to be subjected to a mobile-phone scratch orchestra on the bus one day. Realistically speaking, though, you'd have to be extremely bored to throw yourself into producing a track on a phone. People create some amazing stuff with weirder gear than this, but, for most people, this DJ app will be the most unused feature of all time.
A microSD memory card is a must-have, since the Beat DJ has only 50MB of internal memory. The memory-card slot, located on the side of the phone, is easy to access, and the Beat DJ had no trouble detecting the tunes, images and videos we'd loaded onto the card.
Diamond in the rough
If you've used a Nokia phone in the past, you'll be familiar with the Symbian operating system that Samsung uses on the Beat DJ, although we think that the Samsung version is much better-looking. We also like the responsive touchscreen, although it's not as fast as that of a more powerful phone, like Apple's iPhone 3GS.
Typing on the on-screen alphanumeric keyboard -- there's no landscape Qwerty option -- is okay, but it proved too sluggish when we really got going. Occasionally, letters were missed out when we typed quickly, and we don't like the T9 predictive text because it's too time-consuming to select different words from the drop-down list.
You can drag widgets onto the home screen to display things like photos, media-player controls or upcoming events. It's all very flashy and customisable, but it can also be fiddly. We often ended up dragging widgets around the screen instead of activating them, for example. In addition, we sometimes found it hard to touch the smaller icons in the user interface accurately.
On the home screen, swiping your finger one way brings up the full menu, while swiping it the other way brings up a feature that allows you to tag people in photos, and contact them by tapping the image. It sounds like a cool idea, but it's time-consuming and mostly useless, since you can't use the tags when you're viewing your snaps in the photo gallery, for example.
The Beat DJ's buttons are well-placed and easy to press, but we were confused by the fact that the function of the volume key reverses depending on what you're doing. With the music player, which works in portrait mode, you predictably press up to increase and down to decrease the volume. But, when you open a song in the DJ application, which works in landscape mode, the key works in the opposite way. It's yet another example of how the user interface is well-designed in places, but not uniformly great throughout the phone.
We were also annoyed by other quirks, like the fact that most apps can't switch between portrait and landscape mode. When viewing photos, for example, it's useful to be able to swap between orientations.
Photos and videos look very good on the Beat DJ, thanks to a bright, beautiful, 71mm (2.8-inch) AMOLED screen, which ups the awesome level by being as bright and thin as an OLED screen while consuming less power. Despite this perk, though, the Beat DJ is battery-hungry, and we had to recharge it after only a day of testing.
Photos taken with the Beat DJ's 3-megapixel camera are average. It's good for capturing spontaneous moments or celebs eating lunch, but it won't replace your compact camera. The LED photo light does a good job of brightening up subjects in low light without being excessively harsh, but the shutter lag is very annoying. It takes about 5 seconds from pressing the camera button to seeing a preview of the final image. That's way too long.
The Samsung Beat DJ benefits from a lovely screen, unique appearance and a good range of features. The DJ app surprised us with its innovative use of gestures and the touch-sensitive area below the screen, but the rest of the phone doesn't exploit this potential and feels poorly thought-out. The sound quality also isn't as good as it should be. But the Beat DJ's not expensive, so it could be a good option if you're seeking a funky-looking touchscreen phone.
Update: We've updated the specs to reflect that the Beat DJ has GPS, which you can use to geotag photos.
Edited by Charles Kloet