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Samsung Galaxy Beam (unlocked) review: Samsung Galaxy Beam (unlocked)

Despite weak software, Samsung Galaxy Beam's bright projector pushes boundaries, and strong smartphone features make it a worthy standalone device.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

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12 min read

Never mind that the Samsung Galaxy Beam shoots 720p HD video or has a bright yellowjacket design. The one reason you're reading this is because of the quirky smartphone's capability to literally project the contents of your phone onto the nearest available surface. Your curiosity is justified. This is the first we've seen a pico projector in a finished commercial product in a long time, and the most important question on your mind is how well the standout feature works.

Samsung Galaxy Beam (unlocked)
7.7

Samsung Galaxy Beam (unlocked)

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy Beam</b> comes with an integrated pico projector, a dual-core processor, 720p video capture, and a 4-inch Super AMOLED screen.

The Bad

The Galaxy Beam's projection software needs some work, the 5-megapixel camera sometimes blurs indoor shots, and the build is thicker and heavier than many of today's phones.

The Bottom Line

Despite weak software, the Samsung Galaxy Beam's bright projector pushes boundaries, and strong smartphone features make it a worthy standalone device.

As usual, there's a short answer and a long answer. The bottom line is that the projector works well when you're beaming it in a dark environment on a light-colored surface. The quality isn't going to be as strong or last as long as a dedicated standalone projector, but you shouldn't expect it to. That said, when the novelty wears off, there are still controls that could improve the projection process and make it more practical for daily use, if one were really ever to use it that often.

At the end of the day, the phone is still a phone, and it's one that delivers a high software and hardware standard. Overall, Samsung did a nice job with this phone because it successfully integrates a technologically challenging component without compromising the rest of the phone features, the ones that any smartphone owner will ultimately use most.

Samsung Galaxy Beam shines brightly (pictures)

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Design
I'll just go right ahead and tell you what you want to know: the pico projector lens sits on the top of the Galaxy Beam so it can shine the phone's contents straight out, like a flashlight. The beam is bright (which you can control) and although the module is large enough to make the phone look like it got a goose egg from a bad fall, it doesn't swell the phone's silhouette too much.

The handset is on the thicker and heavier side to accomodate the extra hardware and the larger battery (2,000mAh). I'd call it hefty and sturdy, but it's not quite a beast. The Beam measures 4.9 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick (it's wider at the projector). At 5.1 ounces, it feels heavy by today's standards, but it isn't any heavier than an iPhone 4S (4.9 ounces) in a case.

Samsung is going with that sporty, semirugged look and feel in the goldenrod rim that also colors the plastic beneath the back cover. The back cover itself has a grippy, lightly textured surface with a very comfortable soft-touch finish.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
The Samsung Galaxy Beam is part projector, all smartphone. Josh Miller/CNET

The Galaxy Beam features a 4-inch Super AMOLED display with a 800x480-pixel (WVGA) resolution. Super AMOLED screens are known for their pop of color even when the phone is at more conservative brightness levels. On automatic brightness, the colors looked rich and the details looked sharp.

Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread is loaded onto the Beam by default. Samsung's custom TouchWiz interface rides on top of that, giving you access to Samsung's widgets and its seven customizable home screens with thumbnail overview page, and one-touch access to system settings like GPS, Wi-Fi, and airplane mode.

Below the phone's screen is a physical navigation button that does triple duty as the home button, the shortcut to the task manager, and as a way to call up voice commands. I find it overly narrow, but still functional, and I personally enjoy this button, which also makes an appearance on all versions of the Samsung Galaxy S3. Flanking the home button are touch-sensitive controls for the menu and back buttons. They light up when you touch them and fade away after a few seconds.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
The Galaxy Beam rocks a sportier look than you'd expect for a device that wants to be king of the conference room. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung has chosen to place all its storage slots above the battery cover, most likely to fit in the larger battery and projector module without further thickening the phone. You'll find the microSD card slot, power button, and projector button on the right spine. The SIM card slot, volume rocker, and 3.5mm headset jack are on the left. On the bottom is the Micro-USB charging port, which I always find an awkward location when I'm trying to use the phone while it's charging.

The 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and its LED flash make an appearance below the projection unit on the back cover, and there's a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera in the upper left of the phone's face.

Projector
The Galaxy Beam isn't Samsung's first stab at a projector phone; it's the company's third, behind the more mundanely named Haptic Beam and the AMOLED Beam. However, it is the first Android phone with this capability, and the first to leave the Asian continent.

The thought of sticking a projector into a smartphone has captured many an imagination. It's cheaper, lighter, and more convenient than buying and hauling a standalone projector unit, especially for business trips. However, Samsung sees other applications as well, like hosting an impromptu movie night; sharing photos on the device; and projecting images, like the night sky onto the ceiling of a child's room, or beaming branding materials onto walls at a concert or an event.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
The bright projection bulb beams out 15 lumens, whereas previous attempts at projector phones topped out at 10 lumens. Josh Miller/CNET

The Texas Instruments-made DLP (digital light projector) has a brightness of 15 lumens and display images up to 50 inches wide at a 640x360-pixel resolution. Turn on the projector by pressing and holding the button on the right spine. In addition to activating the beam, the action triggers an app that lets you adjust the focus of the image, rotate 90 degrees, or launch the "quick pad" tool bar that lets you annotate with pen or drag around a pointer.

You can get more granular by opening the more in-depth DLP app. You'll have the same access to focus and rotation, and to the quick pad, but you'll also be able to project whatever's in the camera's eye by using the "visual presenter." That tool lets you set up the phone over various documents or other 3D objects and demonstrate them through the projection. Something called ambience mode can be set to play an image and song of your choice for minutes or hours. You can also program a flashlight or blinking colored light, and can set a reminder to begin a presentation. Brightness, screen time-out, and screen orientation are adjustable from the settings. Almost everything I wanted to present looked better in fixed landscape mode, but there's auto and portrait as well.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
Projection software lets you tweak and adjust, but is inadequate for presentations. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I tested video playback and slideshow modes on my white bedroom wall (and ceiling), by placing the phone on a dresser while playing back a video in the darkened room. Video playback was good in that scenario, and the Beam's sound was sufficient. However, other situations may call for pairing with more powerful Bluetooth speakers. You're going to get the best image from the darkest environment and beaming onto a light surface. The light required to shoot the photos and videos we took of the Beam interfere with the projection quality, so just keep that in mind as you go through this review.

Projecting photos on the wall worked fairly well, as long as all you're trying to do is tell a story and not bear down into specific details. Since it's summer at the time of this review, showing a movie in the backyard or reviewing the day's hiking photos at night sounds like a good way to wind down and entertain, either at home or on a trip.

I also tested the presentation-giving capabilities on the projection screen of a CNET conference room. This is where the DLP app is meant to shine, but it's where I discovered the app's biggest holes. The projector beamed light just fine, but there wasn't enough software support to give a thorough presentation. I created a presentation with Google Docs, which I opened through Google Drive, and a much more basic presentation with the preloaded Polaris Office app. Both looked better in landscape mode, but the Google Drive presentation never went full screen, and I couldn't seamlessly or directly open or play rich content like an embedded video.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
The projector can beam up to a 50-inch screen. Josh Miller/CNET

The more graphically limited Polaris Office is much closer to true presentation mode; I'd like to see the app automatically facilitate presentation mode for common presentation formats. In addition, the app more jerkily hops from one task to another. For instance, you can't simply toggle off the annotation quick pad mid-presentation, you have to navigate out with the back button. There's also no shortcut to the presentation app from the navigation tray, so you'll have to reopen the app to do anything else.

So, there are other ways to achieve most things you'd want to do with a projector -- some better than others -- but does the physical projector do what it promises? Yes. Now it would be great to get some software backup to make the hardware even more useful.

Features
Android 2.3 Gingerbread gives the Samsung's Galaxy Beam life as a smartphone, with the standard-issue Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, mapping, search, and communication features for text, e-mail, and multimedia messaging. Google's services like voice Navigation, Places, and YouTube help define it as an Android phone, and there are the basics like a browser, a clock, a calendar, a calculator, and a music player. The Galaxy Beam has Swype as a virtual keyboard option.

Samsung's app contributions include its usual apps for sharing content across DLNA devices (AllShare) and wirelessly between the computer and phone (Kies Air, in the Settings.) There are also the social networking app ChatOn, a photo editor, and Samsung hubs (apps, games, social.) In addition, you'll find a memo app, Mini Diary, and the aforementioned Polaris Office. I'm a big fan of any phone that includes an FM radio, as this one does.

If you prefer to speak instead of tap, you'll have your choice in the phone settings of two different voice command services -- Google's Android voice actions, and Samsung's Vlingo-powered take (this is not marketed as S Voice.) The phone will also work as a portable hot spot, and includes Samsung's most basic motion controls, which do things like mute the phone when you turn it over. Phones like the Galaxy S3 have a deeper bench of motion options.

Camera

Samsung Galaxy Beam
The tomatoes looked even blurrier when blown to full resolution, but the colors are true to life. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I was able to take some pretty good photos on the Galaxy Beam's 5-megapixel rear-facing camera. Although the majority of my shots were taken in abundant light (it's summer, after all,) the phone does come with an LED flash. Outdoor photos are usually better than indoor shots, and even with the large amount of natural light seeping in, my indoor shots weren't as in focus as the outdoor pictures.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
These high-flying statues look great through the Beam's lens. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There's no continuous focus on the Galaxy Beam's camera, but you can tap to focus. The camera software is chock-full of adjustments and settings for things like white balance, ISO, metering, and resolution. Shooting modes include panorama, action shots, and smile shot. You can set the camera to shoot portraits or landscapes, to shoot at night, and to consider an indoor environment or a sports scene with rapid action. Other effects let you turn photos into negatives, grayscale, or sepia. You can turn on blink detection to try to avoid closed eyes in shots, and you can geotag your images.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
The Galaxy Beam's lens loves the sun. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Slide the onscreen control to video mode to shoot in 720p HD video. There aren't quite as many video settings, but you'll see the same choices for effects, resolution, and white balance. You can film shorter videos meant for multimedia messages, and you're also able to turn the camera on yourself for video taken out of the front-facing camera.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
The Galaxy Beam created brownish corners in our standard indoor studio shot. Josh Miller/CNET

Video playback was certainly smooth and colors looked fine; however, the microphone did a poor job capturing my subject's voice. I sounded loud and clear, and I could hear someone sneeze from across the room, but while my ears had no trouble hearing my friend, the Beam's mic only got my half of the conversation. Turn up the volume so you can hear the other person and my steady voice sounds like maniacal shouting.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
Focus on these indoor tulips is a little off. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Photos on the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera looked rather blurry, with a slight gray cast to them. Colors don't appear as warm. Samsung has better quality front-facing lenses, but I've also seen worse. This one fits in the middle of the pack. It has 8GB of internal memory, and room for 32GB of expandable memory through a microSD card slot.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
Shadows are unavoidable on photos taken at noon, but the camera once again lapped up the light. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Call quality
I tested the unlocked Samsung Galaxy Beam in San Francisco using AT&T's 3G network. A quad-band world phone, the Beam supports 850/900/1,800/1,900MHz voice bands and 900/2,100 UMTS. Call quality was on the better side of so-so. Volume sounded high at midlevel, and while voices did sound natural, with no background noise, they were also muffled and fuzzy enough to give my testing partner a lisp. Luckily, voices also sounded natural and warm, not hollow or tinny. On his end, my main testing partner said I sounded loud, though slightly distorted, due to high-frequency cutoff. I sounded slightly buzzy, he said, but intelligible without a trace of background noise.

Samsung Galaxy Beam call quality sample Listen now:

We both noticed an immediate volume drop when I switched over to speakerphone, holding the phone at waist level. I had to crank up the volume to maximum to hear at the same volume as before. I noticed the same voice quality as I had on standard, with muffled speech, but voices didn't seem as echoey or robotic as other phones, and the buzz I sometimes feel in my hand as the microphone does its work also seemed less intense than on recent Samsung phones I've tested.

Speeds
On the clock speed side, the phone's 1GHz dual-core Cortex A9 processor did a good job of quickly navigating between apps and playing back content. I spent far too long watching a movie I sideloaded onto the phone. Let's chalk that up to the immersive experience; the movie played back clearly, without any stuttering or blockiness.

Data speeds on the Galaxy Beam are somewhat limited on a good day. The hardware supports the HSPA 14.4 network as its cap. Using an AT&T SIM card, Ookla's Speedtest.net app measured speeds that averaged between 1 and 2Mbps downlink with a spike of 4.53Mbps down. 0.80Mbps was the fastest uplink speed over 3G. In the U.S., a T-Mobile SIM only gets you 2.5G speeds. In the real world, CNET's mobile-optimized site loaded in a speedy 6.3 seconds; the graphically rich CNET.com desktop site finished loading in about 26 seconds.

Battery life
Battery life was pretty impressive on the Galaxy Beam. I tested it heavily, often with the screen on full brightness with a 10-minute time-out. While my tests were more about beaming this time than about heavy Web use, the frequent projection could wear down the battery. However, the Galaxy Beam comes with a 2,000mAh ticker, which helps offset the resource drain. Even with that battery, Samsung calculates a rate of 3 hours of solid beaming.

Samsung Galaxy Beam
A 2,000mAh battery keeps the projector going for 3 hours, and has a rated battery life of 9 hours of talk time. Josh Miller/CNET

The LED bulb in the projector itself has a life span of about 20,000 hours, Samsung says, so you shouldn't have to replace it anytime soon.

During the talk time ratings test, the Beam lasted 13.17 hours. Samsung rates the Galaxy Beam at 9 hours of talk time, but of course your actual battery performance will vary depending on how you use your phone.

The FCC rating on the phone's digital SAR is 0.36W/kg.

Conclusion
Just because you can fit a projector into a phone, does it mean you should? There are certainly instances when it would be convenient to magnify your cell phone screen for all to see, but just how often someone would need or even use the projector on the Samsung Galaxy Beam is up for debate. And if you don't use it, does it make sense to carry it around?

Samsung gets credit for pursuing smartphone designs to fit all niches, whether people think they want them filled or not. Sometimes the gamble pays off, as with the 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note "phablet." In this case, the actual projector hardware is more than a gimmick. It's bright, rated to last, and works as advertised. The software, however well-intentioned, is on the right track, but needs some work to be made truly useful in the office environment.

Projector aside, the Galaxy Beam works well as a smartphone, without being overly heavy or thick despite the extra load. The camera, processor, and screen behave as expected for a midrange Samsung smartphone, which is to say, perfectly satisfactorily. So if you think you're going to really love using the projector, then the phone stands up as a smartphone all on its own without relying on any extra gadgetry to move it through the door. However, if you're skeptical about how often you'd beam anything anywhere, then you should shop around until you find the exact set of features that gives you what you want most.

The unlocked Samsung Galaxy Beam sells for about 400 pounds SIM-free in the U.K., and for $585 unlocked on Expansys.com. It debuted in the U.K. and India in July.

Samsung Galaxy Beam (unlocked)
7.7

Samsung Galaxy Beam (unlocked)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7
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