Gemlike is a good way to describe the angular Samsung Gem for U.S. Cellular. The touch-screen Android smartphone is glossy like its namesake, with sharp lines and points, and it has a pentagonal design element that evokes "Superman" as much as it does semiprecious stones. However, the comparisons stop there, since apart from its style, the Gem is an average, though reliable, entry-level Android phone with middle-of-the-road specs like a 3.2-inch touch screen and a 3.2-megapixel camera. Thankfully, unlike Alltel's version, which is powered by Android 2.1 Eclair, U.S. Cellular's Gem runs Android 2.2 Froyo. It costs a very reasonable $30 after an $80 mail-in rebate, which puts the Gem on par with a rival Android phone, the LG Optimus U.
If it weren't for its interesting curves and angles, very little would differentiate the Samsung Gem from any other basic Android smartphone. Like so many of Samsung's models, the Gem is glossy black, shiny, and smooth. Lines and angles swoop into points, and there's that repeating stylized element we mentioned that borders the front-facing speaker, the Select button, and the Gem's camera lens. These alone give the Gem an edgy personality.
The phone is 4.5 inches tall, 2.2 inches wide, and 0.5 inch deep. The plastic construction makes it a little light despite its respectable 3.9-ounce weight; it doesn't feel as sturdy or high-end as handsets made with metal or hard plastic materials. However, we appreciate its slim profile and portability.
The Gem has a 3.2-inch WQVGA resolution (432x240 pixels) and supports 262,000 colors. While usable and colorful, it certainly doesn't have the crispness, color saturation, or pop of the more premium devices. The screen size is also too petite for our tastes. Graphics and icons have been shrunk to fit the smaller screen, and the keyboard is tiny in portrait mode, a challenge for clumsy typists or for those with thicker fingers.
To Samsung's credit, the Gem leaves off the manufacturer's now-customary TouchWiz interface and runs the stock version of Android Froyo instead. That gives the phone five customizable home screens and three static icons for placing a call, opening the application tray, and launching the browser. The app tray displays a vertically scrolling list of app icons on a black background. You can find more details on the Android 2.2 Froyo interface in our T-Mobile G2 review.
There are five hardware buttons beneath the display: Talk, Menu, Back, End, and the aforementioned central Select button that's shaped like Superman's iconic chest emblem. The right spine hosts the camera shutter button; on the left are the volume rocker and the Micro-USB charging port. There's a power button and a 3.5mm headset jack up top, a 3.2-megapixel camera lens on the back cover, and a microSD card slot beneath the back cover. The Gem ships with a 4GB starter card, and the phone itself can accommodate up to 16GB of external storage.
The Gem carries all the essential Android features. Android 2.2 Froyo delivers support for Flash Player 10.1 and a mobile hot spot that powers up to five devices (an additional $25 per month). There's Gmail, of course, as well as Google Talk, YouTube, Google Maps, Voice Search, and Places. The Gem also comes preloaded with shortcuts to Web portals for backing up your contacts, buying ringtones online, ThinkFree Office, City ID, and TeleNav Navigator (it also offers Google's turn-by-turn voice Navigator app within Google Maps by default). Thankfully, Samsung and U.S. Cellular kept the preloads to a minimum, since you won't be able to uninstall them.
The Gem's personal organizer tools include a calendar, a calculator, a clock with alarm clock, and voice tools like speakerphone, Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi. There's the standard music player as well, which is totally functional but due for a refresh. You can customize the rest with the more than 150,000 other apps in Google's Android Market.
As on other Android devices, messaging, e-mailing, and social networking accounts are easily integrated, with support for Gmail, POP3 and IMAP accounts, Microsoft Exchange, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. As always, Android will attempt to merge your address book data from all your accounts, but more often than not you'll find that you have to go back and link some contacts together manually. The Gem also offers a unified inbox and calendar, though you can choose to keep these accounts separate if you prefer, which we often did to keep from getting overwhelmed.
The camera and camcorder are adequate, but not very impressive. Photos came out grainy and looking like they were created in a dot matrix, though they looked smoother once we transferred them to our computer. Indoor colors were duller than life in the auto mode, though the slew of white-balance presets, color effects, and other camera settings before you shoot can help brighten the images. However, the photo options can't guarantee sharpness or stabilization, and the Gem doesn't come with a flash. Still, you'll be able to share and upload images, e-mail them, and set them as your wallpaper or as a contact's photo ID.
We tested the dual-band Samsung Gem (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO Rev. A) in San Francisco using U.S. Cellular's roaming network. Volume was fine on both ends, and call quality was mostly adequate, but it was never clear for either of the two speakers. Voices sounded natural to our ears, but a little muffled, and with a gargling quality sometimes. Other times, mild distortion made it sound like voices skipped. We didn't notice any background interference, however--no blips, zings, or white noise. On their end, our callers said we sounded a tad unnatural, and they heard distortion, particularly on sibilants. We always sounded muddy, never crisp, they said. One listener heard a little white noise throughout.
The speakerphone was disappointing. It produced echoing, tinny voices on our end, although the volume remained high. For their part, callers said our volume was so low it was hard to hear us. The white noise increased at this point for one caller, and another noted that voices sounded clipped at higher frequencies.Samsung Gem call quality sample Listen now:
Browsing on 3G was slow on U.S. Cellular's roaming network. CNET's mobile site loaded in about 24 seconds; the full site loaded in closer to 40 seconds. The mobile version of NYTimes.com took 20 seconds to load.
Unfortunately, there were times when the Gem's 800MHz processor seemed to have a hard time keeping up. We never had to wait more than a couple of beats for tasks to complete, but we noticed that it didn't happen instantaneously.
The Gem has a rated battery life of 6.8 hours of talk time and 33 days of standby time with its 1,500mAh lithium ion battery. According to our tests, it has a talk time of 6 hours and 7 minutes. FCC radiation tests measured a digital SAR of 0.89 watt per kilogram.
While its small screen and basic hardware features make the Samsung Gem a fairly plain Android phone, its visual design and $30 price tag elevate it to "recommended" status. Set aside these two benefits, however, and the relatively tiny virtual keyboard on the 3.2-inch screen is our single biggest complaint. There are brighter, faster smartphones running a more recent version of the OS (Android 2.3 Gingerbread), but they come with much weightier financial burdens. The Gem, on the other hand, offers a uniformly reliable Android 2.2 experience on attractive hardware that does just fine. It's a great, competitive addition to the landscape of budget Android phones.