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The Samsung Soul (aka the SGH-U900) was one of the stars of this year's GSMA World Congress in Barcelona. Samsung showed it off at a big press conference, and huge banners with images of the phone covered the city, from the airport baggage claim to the convention center. Such hype can be difficult to live up to, but in this case we can report that the Soul deserves the attention. Samsung has created a sleek, solid, and powerful handset with a unique touchpad that's intuitive and easy to use. Its feature set is respectable, though we were miffed that it lacked voice dialing, and the call quality, while inconsistent, is satisfying. At the time of this writing, the GSM/3G Soul isn't available from a North American carrier, so you'll have to buy it unlocked. That should run you about $400.
Samsung loves its slider phones, so it's not surprising the company chose such a model for the Soul. But while many slider phones have flimsy, generic designs with unimaginative controls, the Soul takes a finer approach. The handset has a solid, firm feel in the hand and the slider mechanism is distinctly sturdy. The phone clicks into place in either position, and we could open and close it with one hand. Our only change would be the addition of a small thumb grip. As it is, you have to place your thumb on the screen when opening the phone. Not only is the display slippery but you'll also end up leaving a visible thumbprint in its center. As an alternative, you can use the tapered bottom end of the phone as a grip. Like most slider phones, the Soul is decidedly thin (4.16 inches by 1.94 inches by 0.51 inch) and relatively lightweight (3.95 ounces), so it's quite portable. We also liked the phone's attractive chocolate-brown hue and its shiny metal sidings.
The Soul's 2.2-inch display is positively gorgeous. With support for 16 million colors, it shows everything well, from graphics to photos to text. The icon-based menus are attractive and intuitive, but you can choose a more conventional list style if you wish. As is the case with many Samsung phones, the Soul's display is difficult to see in bright light and it attracts a lot of fingerprints. You can change the display's brightness, backlighting time, and the size, color and type of the dialing font.
Beneath the display is the Soul's distinctive navigation array. Forget a toggle or a joystick, the Soul offers a square (1.25-inch diagonal) touchpad that features lighted icons in place of buttons. Though that may sound relatively ordinary, the Soul's icons morph depending on which of the phones you're using. For example, when in standby mode, the icons take the form of four user-defined shortcuts plus a central menu control. But when inside the menus, the shortcut icons become directional navigation arrows, while the central icon becomes an OK control. While that alone is cool enough, the Soul has more surprises in store. The touchpad icons also change for both the camera and the music player functions. And in any mode, the vibrating feedback makes up for the touchpad's lack of tactile definition (it's flush with the surface of the phone).
The result is a touchpad that's intuitive and contextually relevant for whichever feature you're using. The concept is similar to both the Motorola Rokr E8 and the LG Venus, but Samsung adds a few degrees of personalization. You can change the color of the icons and the "swooshing effect" that will follow your finger around the touchpad. You can also change the sensitivity of the tactile feedback. We commend Samsung for not only doing something different, but also doing it well. We got the hang of it very quickly and had few usability issues. Just be aware that the touchpad, like the display, is a fingerprint magnet.
Surrounding the display are four conventional buttons. You'll find two soft keys and the Talk and End/power buttons. When using the soft controls, it can be a disconcerting to move your finger to the touchpad and back again, but we got used to it. These controls are flush but they give off an audible click when pressed.
The keypad buttons are well-designed for a slider phone. Though the individual buttons are flat, small ridges separate each row. The buttons also give a tactile "push" feeling when pressed. The numbers on the keys are a tad small but they do benefit from bright backlighting, which is adjustable. Above the keys you'll find a control that opens a secondary shortcut menu, a clear key, and a button that activates video calling. The latter is a bit random--we'd prefer a speakerphone key--but the shortcut menu is easy to use. Yet we weren't crazy about the location of the clear key, either. Not only is it a long way for your finger to travel, but it's also hidden when the phone is closed.
Above the display is a tiny camera used for video calling. The main lens sits on the back of the phone next to the self-portrait mirror and flash. Keep in mind the camera is exposed only when the phone is open. Other exterior controls are few. A camera shutter and a microSD card slot sit on the right spine, and a volume rocker and the charger port/headset jack rest on the left spine. We're not fans of the proprietary headset jack.
The Soul has a healthy 1,000-contact phone book with room for seven phone numbers, an e-mail address, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts). You can save callers to groups, and you pair them with a photo and one of 20 72-chord polyphonic ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, an alarm clock, a calendar, a voice recorder, a memo pad, a task list, a world lock, a calculator, a unit and currency converter, a timer, and a stopwatch.
Though the Soul offers a fair set of business-friendly features, it's missing some options that we expect to be on a phone of this caliber. Most importantly, it lacks voice-dialing commands. As that feature is found on many basic phones, we can't forgive its omission here, particularly at the Soul's price. The Soul also lacks GPS and Wi-Fi, and its e-mail integration is clunky. However, you will find full Bluetooth with a stereo profile, USB mass storage, a RSS reader, PC syncing, and a speakerphone. The Soul also has a Document Viewer for Office and PowerPoint files.
The Soul's 5-megapixel camera takes pictures in five resolutions and three quality settings. The Soul also comes with a wide range of editing features that rival a standalone camera. You'll find a self-timer, adjustable brightness and white balance settings, panorama and mosaic shot modes, five color effects, a 4x zoom, a macro setting, a multishot mode, exposure metering, adjustable ISO, wide dynamic range, and three shutter sounds (plus a silent option). You'll even find autofocus, face detection, and antishake. Each feature performed relatively well, though the camera has a long shatter lag. Camera ergonomics were a mixed bag. On the upside, the menus were intuitive and we had no issues using the touchpad and soft keys. But on the downside, we don't like having to hold the phone in the open position to take shots. It just feels a bit unwieldy. We also didn't love the harsh flash.
Photo quality was very good. Colors popped and objects were defined and in focus. What's more, our shots didn't suffer from excessive noise. When finished with your shots you can transfer them off the phone using Bluetooth, a memory card, or a USB cable. You also can edit your images with basic tools such as contrast, sharpness, and saturation. It's no Photoshop, but it works in a pinch.
The Soul's camcorder records clips in two resolutions with sound. Editing options are similar to the still camera, if a bit more limited. But, you also get an image editor. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at about 1 minute; otherwise you can shoot according to the available memory. The Soul offers a healthy 100MB of memory for safekeeping, but you can add storage using the memory card slot.
The music player is fairly generic but it also offers a fair set of features including an equalizer, track rating, repeat and shuffle modes, and playlists. The interface is basic, but you can choose from a variety of visualizations and you can send the player to the background while you use other features. Getting music on the phone is easy and we like that you can set MP3 files as ringtones. The music player supports a long list of file types including MP3, WMA, and AAC+. And as an added bonus, the Soul has an FM radio.
You can personalize the Soul with a variety of alert tones, background colors, clock styles, and wallpaper. You can get more options and more ringtones with the wireless Web browser. The Soul comes with demo versions of three games--Asphalt2, Minigolf Las Vegas, and Paris Hilton's Dream (we're not kidding)--you'll have to buy the full versions for extended play.
We tested the tri-band GSM (900/1800/1900) Samsung Soul in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was good, but it wasn't consistently so. Most of the time voices were clear and the signal was strong, but there were more than a few moments where the audio clarity wavered and we noticed some interference. Similarly, while the volume was loud during the majority of our tests calls, we also noticed moments when the sound faded out for second. On their end, callers said we sounded fine. They could tell we were using a cell phone, which isn't unusual, but they had some trouble hearing us when we were in a noisy environment. On the whole, it wasn't a bad experience, but it wasn't top-notch, either.
Speakerphone calls were variable as well. The volume was quite loud and we didn't hear any static, but voices on our end were quite harsh. It wasn't unbearably so, but it was noticeable at all volume levels. We also didn't like that it took more than one click to activate the speakerphone.
As an HSDPA phone, the Soul will support 3.5G networks. Access, however, will depend on your carrier's network and its coverage area. Unfortunately, we weren't able to test the Web browser on our review model. Likewise, we couldn't test video calling, either.
The Soul has a rated battery life of 4 hours talk time and up to 16.6 days standby time. According to our tests, we had a talk time of 9 hours and 7 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests the Soul has a digital SAR rating of 0.24 watt per kilogram.