Samsung showed off two new phones before Mobile World Congress officially launched. The Soul, which was announced last week, and the F490, which was announced previously. We had a chance to spend some time with both.
The Soul is one sleek phone. It has a gorgeous metal skin that covers the phone and feels great in your hand. It is smooth and comfortable to hold. It has a generous screen, and below the screen are four softkeys surrounding the morphing touchpad.
The four softkeys have good feedback and solid travel to let you know you've pressed them. They are spaced well apart from one another, so there's no mistaking which button you are using. In the center of these four keys is the touch capacitance control pad with haptic feedback. The navigation pad is about one inch by one inch square, so it is a bit small. Using it was natural enough, though, and the four directional arrows let you navigate the menus easily. When you switch from application to application, the icons on the navigation pad change accordingly. When you're in the camera application, the icons shift to camera-centric control buttons, and same goes for when you are in the music player and other applications. We found it intuitive and easy to use. The feedback from the haptics was good, and you definitely knew when you were interacting with the touch pad.
The slider mechanism felt solid and polished. Popping the phone open or closing it was natural and was very smooth. Samsung didn't say whether or not the phone we used was preproduction, but it was very well made. The spring assisted opening wasn't too powerful, nor was it too weak. It was just right.
With the phone open, you have access to the numeric keypad. The keypad on the Soul does not break any new ground for Samsung. It is very similar to the keypads on other Samsung models. It is essentially flat, with three horizontal ridges separating the rows of keys. These, plus the pimple of the 5 key, gave you more than enough physical cues to let you know where your fingers are on the keypad. All of the buttons had good travel and feedback. There was plenty of room on the keypad and your thumb never felt cramped when using it.
There were also some keys along both sides of the phone. The volume toggle on the left was a little on the small side, and we often raised the volume when we intended to lower it and vice versa. The hatch covering the power/accessory port was also on the left side. It was easy enough to dig open with your nail.
On the right side of the phone were two different keys. The bottom most key was the camera shutter release. It was small, but offered good feedback. Above it was an application key that was also small, and also offered good feedback. There was also a hatch for the microSD slot. It was not cumbersome to open it to access the slot.
Using the interface of the phone was simple enough. The softkeys bring up the main menu, which is intuitive to use. We did find that moving the selector around sometimes took several presses of the touchpad, though. The execution of the touch functionality of the D-pad was not flawless and didn't automatically just work all the time. Multiple key presses were somewhat common.
In all, the Soul is a solid contender. It offers many of the latest technologies, including stereo Bluetooth and a 5 megapixel camera with autofocus and face recognition. The camera launched quickly, had lots of customizable features, and took pictures almost immediately. We didn't get to listen to the Bang & Olufson-powered sound system.
Here is a short video preview of the Soul.
Th F490 is a full touchscreen phone that uses Samsung's Croix user interface. It is a hair shorter and narrower than the iPhone, but is a bit thicker from front to back. It is very slim and slipping it into you hand or pocket is easy. It is fairly light weight and feels good in your hand.
The only buttons on this phone are located on the sides, and are the volume toggle, application key, and lock switch. All of them were simple enough to find and use. The lock switch is spring-loaded, so you slide it and hold it for a second to lock or unlock the phone.
The main way you interact with this phone is the touchscreen interface. Croix is a black and white interface that is similar to, but not nearly as good as, the iPhone. You can slide your finger around the screen to the different selections, or simply press them firmly to open an application.
The speed of the UI was decent, and applications opened nearly immediately, though some were faster than others. The camera, for example, was a bit slow to open. Rather than displaying the graphical richness that the screen is capable of, the Croix UI is a simple affair. Opening most applications or folders brings up simple black and white lists. These menus get old after a while. Even though they are easy to figure out and help you find what you are looking for quickly, there's no pizzazz or fun in using the UI. It does get the job done, though, and most features of the phone are accessible with just one or two presses on the screen.
At the very bottom of the screen are three keys that remain constant no matter what. They are the send/end keys and the main menu key. Like the rest of the phone, these are software keys, and not physical keys. They stay the same even if you change applications. There is limited haptic feedback when you use the screen. It is there, but not as pronounced as on the Soul.
The F490 is a good alternative to the iPhone, and while it has some features that surpass the iPhone (such as the 5 megapixel camera) it is not as fun to use.
Here is a short video preview of the F490.