It's not often that we get our hands on a high-performance camera phone. While plenty of high-resolution shooters land in the laps of our lucky colleagues at CNET Asia, we've had to settle for unlocked 5-megapixel models like the Sony Ericsson K850i and the Samsung SGH-G800. And don't get us started on U.S. wireless carriers; they can't bring themselves to offer anything more power than 3.2-megapixel models, like the LG Dare. So count us surprised and excited when Samsung graciously decided to send us a review model of its new 8-megapixel camera phone, the Samsung Innov8. Sleek, powerful, and armed with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feature set, the Innov8 makes even the high-quality LG Dare look like two tin cans connected by a string. Photo quality is excellent, as we expected, and the editing features rival those on a standalone camera. You still won't find an optical zoom--you'll have to head to Korea to find a camera phone with one of those--and the flash is disappointing, but the Innov8 offers just about everything else. Yet, as powerful as it is, the Innov8's photo quality is only marginally better than those 5-megapixel handsets
Fortunately, the Innov8 isn't all about its camera. It also makes calls--with good performance to boot--and it offers plenty of other goodies for both work and play. On the downside, we had some design complaints and the interface could be poky. And on a superficial note, while we get where Samsung gets the "8" in Innov8, we can't say we love the name. But then again, the model number--SGH-i8510--isn't so enticing either. Since it's only available unlocked in the United States, the Innov8 will indeed cost you--figure about $700 to $800 on average.
For all its functionality, the Innov8 is surprisingly compact (3.9 inches tall by 1.9 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick). Sure, it is a bit weighty (4.8 ounces), but it remains portable and small enough to fit in a pocket. The basic black color has a minimalist appeal and we like the clean lines. The extra weight gives the Innov8 a solid feel in the hand and the slider mechanism is easy to use--neither too stiff nor too loose. Yet, we couldn't help but notice that when the phone is open, the Innov8's front face shakes slightly back and forth.
The expansive 2.8-inch display shows 16.7 million colors. Naturally, it's bright and beautiful with vivid colors and sharp graphics. It is difficult to see in direct light, but that's hardly unusual for a cell phone. You can adjust the backlight time and brightness and you can personalize the display with color themes and wallpapers. Our only complaint is that the text size isn't adjustable. It should be fine for most people, but if that is a concern, you should check before buying such an expensive phone. On the upside, however, the Innov8 has an accelerometer that will change the display's orientation from portrait to landscape as you rotate the phone in your hand.
Powered by a Symbian Version 9.3 OS, the Innov8's menus are simple and intuitive; you can choose between a list and grid view. Fortunately, a lot of options are surfaced on the main menu page. As such, you don't need to drill down too many levels to find popular features. You also can activate a shortcut bar to appear on the standby screen. It offers access to a user-programmable shortcuts menu, the calendar, the music player, the FM radio, and the personalization menu. We like the convenient tabs that are at the top of the display inside the submenus.
Below the display, you'll find the Innov8's navigation array. The primary tool is a square four-way toggle with a central OK button. Both tools are raised above the surface of the phone so they're tactile and easy to grip. When you don't activate the aforementioned shortcut bar, the toggle offers one-touch access to four user-defined shortcuts. Surrounding the toggle are two soft keys, the Talk and End/power controls and dedicated shortcut keys for the multimedia gallery and the main menu. When the phone is in standby mode, the soft keys give one-touch access to two functions of your choosing. Though the navigation controls are spacious, they're also a bit slick. Also, while it's easy to spot the multimedia gallery and the main menu-shortcut keys because of their silver color (most of the array is black), they don't have a lot of tactile definition that separate them from the remaining navigation controls.
The Innov8 offers a new feature called an optical mouse, which is unique to Samsung. Don't get consumed by the name (as we did), for this is not a mouse like you'd find with a computer. Rather, the optical mouse allows you to navigate the phone's menus in a new way. By sliding your finger across the OK button, you can move up and down and side to side through menus and lists. It's innovative and cool, to be sure, but we wouldn't call it a game-changer. In fact, the feature requires an acclimation period. We preferred to turn it off.
The keypad is hidden behind the slider. It's spacious as well, and the backlighting is bright, but we don't quite approve of its design. There is little tactile definition between the individual buttons and the keypad as a whole is very slick. We didn't have problems dialing numbers, but texting felt awkward. We also didn't like that the clear control is on the top row of the keypad, which makes it inaccessible when the slider is closed. On either side of the clear button are two additional user-programmable shortcut keys.
On the left spine you'll find a volume rocker/camera zoom control, the 3.5mm headset jack, and the micro USB slot. We're glad to see the 3.5mm jack, and we commend Samsung for using a micro USB charger. On the left spine, there's the microSD-card slot and a camera control. The camera lens sits on the back of the phone just below the flash. The lens cover opens automatically when the camera is on. Like many high-end camera phones, the Innov8 is designed to mimic the ergonomics of a standalone camera. Yet, because the camera shutter and zoom control are on opposite sides of the device--we can't think of a camera with a similar arrangement--it falls a bit short of accomplishing that goal.
The Samsung Innov8 offers an exhaustive feature set, but for this review we'll start with the 8-megapixel shooter, which is its star attraction. The camera takes pictures in seven resolutions, from a full eight megapixels (3,264x24,448) down to QVGA (320x240). The remaining feature set is pretty lengthy, but we'll attempt to do it justice. There are four color effects, bright and white balance controls, an 8x digital zoom, a self-timer, a mosaic-shot mode, three quality settings, an adjustable ISO, exposure metering, and three shutter sounds, plus a silent option. You also get nine fun frames, but they're available only when you're shooting in the lowest resolution.
Though that's an impressive assortment already, the Innov8 doesn't stop there. You can choose from 12 "scene" settings that will automatically adjust the camera for certain shooting conditions. The choices are portrait, landscape, sports, indoor, beach, sunset, dawn, autumn colors, waves and snow, night, fireworks, and text. Wide-dynamic range will compensate for subjects with too much backlighting, while the antishake mode does exactly what you think. The smile-shot feature promises to snap a photo instantly when it detects that a subject is smiling, while the blink detection alerts you when a subject blinked during a photograph. Those features certainly sound interesting, and we'll assess them over the next few days. You also can use the camera as a smart reader for business cards; it worked pretty well in our tests.
On the downside, we weren't thrilled with the Innov8's flash, which is really a dual-LED photo light. Thought it's bright by all measures, it's not a xenon flash. As such, shots taken in low light only come out well if at close range.
The panorama mode is particularly cool, even if it works only in the 640x480 resolution. After you snap you first photo, the Innov8 will shoot seven addition shots as you move the phone to the left or right. You don't need to press any additional buttons; rather, the phone uses an orange box on the display to shoot the next photo automatically. It is convenient, easy to use, and it works well.
On the video side, the Innov8 also goes the extra mile. You can record clips in two resolutions (640x480 and 320x240) with sound. The editing options are just about identical to the still camera's, minus a few options. Videos meant for multimedia messages are capped at 45 seconds, but you can shoot for much longer in the standard format. In the default mode, the Innov8 records video at an impressive 30 frames per second, but you also can shoot slow-motion video at 120 frames per second.
Not surprisingly, photo quality is quite good. In our standard CNET studio shot, colors were bright and there was little to no image noise. We'll continue testing the Innov8's still camera and video recorder to get a more rounded assessment, so check back to see our final assessment. The Innov8 offers a very generous 16GB of internal storage, but if you need more, the microSD-card slot accommodates cards up to 32GB.
When finished with your shots, you can get them off your phone in an e-mail or multimedia message or you can transfer them to a PC using a USB cable, Bluetooth, or a memory card. An integrated Print OTG app will assist in transferring snaps directly to a printer. We were impressed with just how easy it was to transfer photos using a USB cable. Indeed, we just plugged it in and our computer recognized it instantly. If you have trouble, you can use the included Samsung PC Studio software. Additional applications include photo and video editors, Shozu (for uploading photos to Flickr), and geotagging. Also, you can use the camera as a "digital frame" to play your shots on the display in a slide-show format.
As for basic features, each contact in the Innov8's phone book can accommodate 18 types of phone numbers, a job title and department name, an assistant's name and phone number, spouse and children names, three e-mail addresses, three URLs, three street addresses, a birthday, an anniversary, and notes. And since the Innov8 is a GSM phone, you can store 250 contacts on the SIM card. You can save contacts to groups and pair them with a photo, but only groups can be paired with one of the 20 polyphonic ringtones. The Innov8 offers a selection of alert tones, as well.
Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, a calculator, an alarm clock, a notepad, and a currency/unit converter. You'll also find HSDPA 3G support, full Bluetooth, a speakerphone, a file manager, a ZIP manager for compressing files, USB transfer and mass storage, PC syncing, instant messaging, and a voice recorder. The Innov8 supports POP3 e-mail access and it offers an application called RoadSync, which delivers push e-mail for Microsoft Exchange for corporate e-mail contacts and calendar. We particularly like the dictionary app, which allows you to enter and edit "acceptable" words that the predictive text feature will recognize. The integrated Wi-Fi couldn't be more welcome, but the lack of voice dialing is a big miss.
Thanks to the Symbian operating system, the Innov8 brims with third-party applications, many of which interact with the handset's integrated Assisted GPS. There's a dedicated Google portal for maps, Gmail, and search, and Yahoo Go for maps and driving directions. You'll also find a Real Player app, QuickOffice (to create, edit, sync, and print your office documents), Fring (for making VOIP calls), GyPSii (mobile social networking), DLNA (manage media content through a home network), Adobe Reader, CNN Mobile, Samsung Mobile Navigator, and two Java-enabled 3D games: Asphalt 3 Street Rules and FIFA 08. Just note that many of these apps require a W-Fi connection. You always can get more applications and more customization options with the wireless Web browser.
The Innov8's music player isn't too fancy, but it's functional and accessible. Features include playlists, shuffle and repeat modes, and an equalizer. Album art is supported, if the phone can find it, and you can choose from three visualizations. Also, you can use music tracks as ringtones. The player supports unprotected tracks in a variety of file formats (MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, AMR and RealAudio). As with photos, transferring files to the phone via a USB cable was a breeze. The Innov8 also offers an FM radio.
We tested the Samsung Innov8 SGH-i8510 in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. With support for four GSM bands (850/900/18900/1900) the Innov8 is a true world phone for calling. Yet, its 3G bands (900/2100) aren't used in North America (we use 1900). As a result, you won't be able to use UMTS or HSDPA networks here but you can drop down to EDGE or GPRS. Call quality was quite good--believe us when we say this handset isn't just about its camera. Throughout our test period we enjoyed a clear signal that was free of static or interference. Also, the volume was loud and voices sounded relatively natural. Our only gripe was that voices sometimes sounded a bit tinny, particularly at the highest volumes.
On their end, callers also reported a tinny quality at times, but on the whole we got positive reviews. Most of our friends could tell we were using a cell phone, but that's more or less the norm. We had few issues with voice-automated systems as well. Speakerphone calls were fine. The two speakers have decent output and our conversations were intelligible, as long as we were speaking in a quite location. We just wish we could activate the speaker before we made a call. Bluetooth headset calls were satisfactory.
Over time we noticed that the Innov8's menus are a bit sluggish. It doesn't take longer than a second to open some subfolders, but there was a noticeable lag. The same goes for backing out of menus. Also, unless you back out of applications completely, you need to select the "Exit" option rather than just hitting the End button or the app will continue running in the background. What's more, an icon will appear next to that app's icon in the menu. Chalk it up to being such a complicated phone.
The music player is serviceable. The external speaker has decent output, but the audio had the same tinny quality that we heard with voice calls. Also, there isn't a lot of warmth to the sound. You'll have a better experience if you use a headset.
The Innov8's battery life depends on how you use it. The rated talk time is 5 hours on 3G and 8.5 hours on 2.5G. Promised standby time is 13.75 days on 3G and 12.93 days on 2.5G. During our initial testing, the battery appeared to perform well during a full day of using various functions. Our tests revealed a talk time of 8 hours 15 minutes. According to the FCC, the Innov8 has a digital SAR rating of 0.287, which is quite low.