Review: Samsung Epix
Samsung churns out another Windows Mobile smartphone. This one fails to stir the emotions, but it will get the job done.
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The Epix is an uninspiring slab of a smartphone competing in a field of devices that is increasingly more image conscious. Where the BlackJack II had at least a little flair, the Epix is blockier, heavier, and not as pretty to look at. But it does have a few features that may tempt the more conservative user into giving it a shot.
The Epix is a monoblock phone with full QWERTY keyboard. Stylistically, it offers nothing new. The slate gray coloration says, "I am boring," loud and clear. But function over form is often what some people are looking for.
In terms of size, the Epix is about the same height and width as the BlackJack, though it is a smidge heavier. It feels big in your hand. I don't know if that's a function of the width and shape, but the perception is what matters.All the surfaces are smooth plastics and nothing sticks out or feels weird or pokes your hand. It is well balanced, and doesn't feel top heavy when held in two hands for typing.
The front has a large touch screen. Below that is the navigation cluster. One of the Epix's most notable features is the optical mouse. Rather than a D-pad, the optical mouse serves as the user's way to navigate the screen. An optical mouse works by using a sensor to take successive pictures of the surface on which the mouse operates. This lets the mouse detect motion and translates the movement of the mouse into the movement of the pointer on the screen. I like the optical mouse a lot, but it has a few limitations. It is sensitive enough and moves the mouse around well. What I didn't like is that you don't get enough travel out of the mouse each time you swipe your finger across it. The result is that you're cycling your thumb over the mouse again and again and again to get the mouse to move all the way across the phone's screen. Of course, the Epix has a touch screen, so you can just reach your thumb up and tap the screen to select what you want.
The mouse has a handful of buttons on either side. To the left is a soft key, send key and the Windows button. On the right is that OK/back key, the end key and the other soft key. All six of these buttons have nearly perfect travel and feedback. They produce a very satisfying click, and they are easy to find with your thumb.
The QWERTY keyboard reminded me very much of the keyboard on the Treo 650. The keys are a bit on the nubby (and tiny) side, but they have good travel and feedback. I was able to adjust to it faster than some other keyboards I've tested of late. A lot of this has to do with the narrow width of the device. It is much improved over the keyboard of the BlackJackk II, for example, because the height of the keyboard itself is taller. This means there's more room and the keys feel less squished. It isn't the best keyboard we've ever used, but it is certainyl better than many of its competitors.
On the left side of the Epix is the power/unlock key and the volume toggle. Considering how often you'll be using the power/unlock key, I wish it were a little bit bigger and not so hard to find. Travel and feedback weregood , though. The volume toggle feels great. It is easy to find and travel and feedback are good. On the right side of the phone are two hatches covering the microSD and charging/data ports. They both peel back easily.
The camera is on the back of the phone. Because of the way the phone is designed, there's pretty much no risk of smudging the lens. The back hatch covering the battery comes off with no problems. The stylus is found in the upper left corner of the Epix. It collapses into the phone's body, but I found it a little hard to pull out.
The Epix's screen looks great. With the 320x 320 resolution, everything looks clean and sharp. Web sites, pictures, video and graphics are all vibrant and clear. Readability in sunlight isn't perfect, though. In fact, it was sort of lousy.
The Epix was a signal hound. It grabbed five bars of AT&T 3G signal all over the place. In areas with strong signal, it performed on par with other AT&T 3G phones. Even in areas with weaker signal, it showed up other phones. I didn't miss any calls when using the Epix. The Epix performed in the NJ vault test well. It managed to find and hold signal in an area that many other AT&T (and other providers') phones cannot.
Sound quality of phone calls was good, but not stellar. There was some hissing and static on most calls, as well as some crackling. Earpiece volume was solid. I was able to hear phone calls with no problems in public areas such as shopping malls and coffee shops. Conversely, the ringer wasn't especially loud. Even when all the way up, it would be possible to miss calls when in noisy environments. The vibrating alert was strong enough to overcome the ringer's lack of volume. If the Epix is anywhere on your person, you're not going to miss the vibrating alert.
The battery of the Epix performed on par with other 3G phones. I was able to get two full days of usage when in areas covered by AT&T's 3G signal. If you turn on all the radios (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), battery life drops by about half a day. One odd note, the Epix appeared to take longer than other phones to charge. It took nearly 8 hours to reach a full charge, even with the phone off. Samsung said this was abnormal, so it could be that my test unit has a faulty battery.
The Epix has a touch screen and offers haptic feedback when touched. Combined with the stylus, you have plenty of options for interacting with the Epix. The screen is responsive to touch and registered input most of the time with having to double tap. The haptic feedback is not localized; the entire device vibrates when the screen is pressed. It probably provides more feedback than is necessary. In my opinion, the haptic vibrations are a little too harsh and last a little too long. But having the option to use the full QWERTY keyboard or the screen itself to interact with the Epix adds to its appeal.
The Epix runs Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional. Neither Samsung nor AT&T has bothered to cover it up with any sort of overlay or other user interface to make dealing with it easier or different. You get the bare bones WinMo experience with the Epix.
The home screen offers the standard Today layout, with application shortcuts running horizontally across the top, and customized calendar appointments, notes, email and other user content displayable below.
The left and right soft keys let you access the Phone and Contacts application, respectively. Hitting the Start key (next to the mouse) pulls down the main WinMo menu. If you scroll down to Programs, you canfind all of the Epix's features. It takes you to a grid of menu options. This is where you access the majority of the Epix's applications. It is only slightly more intuitive to use than many proprietary menu systems that are built into phones, if only because we are all somewhat familiar with the way Microsoft builds its menu systems.
Once you select a menu application or folder, it generally opens up to another grid of applications or a plain list with black letters on a white background. No fancy dancing icons here. Just utilitarian grids and lists.
The number pad of the Epix is buried in with the full QWERTY keyboard. Dialing calls is simple, and the send key lets you open a list of all your recent calls easily. With the recent calls opened, you can use the left soft key to jump to a software dialpad or use the right soft key to open the menu, which lets you call the highlighted number, send a text message or change the view of the calls.
Once you are in a call, the screen transforms and offers six software buttons to perform certain actions during the call. The left soft key always takes you to the dialer, and the right soft key becomes a menu button, which lets you do various things during the call, such as select the speakerphone.
The contacts database syncs seamlessly with Outlook and will hold reams of information about each contact. You can stuff your database with multiple email addresses, phone numbers, and IM screen names, as well as two addresses and lots of personal information, such as birthdays, anniversaries and kids' names. As with other Windows Mobile devices, you can filter contacts by company name, and also choose to see a list of recently-viewed contacts.
Because the Epix is a Windows Mobile-based smartphone, your messaging needs are well in hand. Not only will it accept push Microsoft Outlook mail, but you can also sync it with your personal POP3 accounts. We were able to load up multiple Google, AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo email accounts no problemo. They all delivered email without any hiccups.
When viewing the Today screen, there is a line reserved for messages. It shows you how many emails, SMS's, MMS's and voicemails you have in your inboxes. SMS, MMS and voicemail messages also have icons that appear in the status bar across the top of the screen, so you have two visual cues letting you know that messages are waiting.
From the Today screen, simply hitting the shortcut to the messaging center will bring you to the main messaging menu. It is also accessible from the start menu. Here, the messages are sorted by SMS, MMS, and whichever email accounts you have configured on the phone. There will be a number next to each one to let you know how many unread messages are in each inbox. Emails will only do this if you've set your phone to retrieve messages automatically.
Each message type has its own set of inboxes, drafts, sent and outboxes so you can tell the status of all your messages at a glance. From the home screen, you can also navigate down to the one inbox that has a new message, say an MMS, and select it. This will take you directly to that inbox, allowing you to skip the general messaging center.
The Epix is loaded up with Windows Media Player. It is a mildly capable application for playing your music and video content. You can open it from the Today screen or by going into the main menu via the Start key. You can sideload songs directly to the phone via USB cable, or stuff them onto a microSD card first. The library segregates your content by music, videos, TV, playlists and what was played last. The music menu gives you several different ways to sort your library: all music, artist, album and genre.
Once you pick some songs and start playing them, the music player interface itself is basic and utilitarian. Once you start playing music, all of the controls are on the screen itself and you need to touch them to play/pause, or skip forward or backward.
The right soft key opens up the music menu. There are a few selections that let you adjust the player's options and check song properties. The options give you only basic control over the player.
Since the Epix does not have a 2.5 or 3.5mm headset jack. You have to use stereo Bluetooth headphones or the Samsung proprietary port-to-3.5mm adapter if you want to listen in private. The default for the music player is to play through the built-in speaker. Sound quality through the speaker was so-so.
WMP gets the job done, but it certainly doesn't raise the bar.
There are a handful of the usual AT&T music applications also thrown into the Music folder, including XM Radio, access to music videos and music communities.
The Epix has a 2 megapixel camera that offers images with average sharpness and clarity. The only way to open it up is through the main menu. You can, however, set a shortcut for the camera to appear higher up in the menu system rather its default resting place, which is several levels down into the menu. The camera itself has a rich feature set and lots of tools to customize your pictures and the picture taking experience.
Along the top of the screen, it shows you what mode you are in (still/video), how far you're zoomed in, what size the pictures will be, where they are being stored, and how many more images you can take. At the bottom of the screen are three software buttons. The left button takes you to the gallery, the center button snaps a picture, and the right button opens up the phone's settings.
The settings menu lets you make a wide range of adjustments to the camera, jump to video capture mode, and initiate the Video Share program.
When you're ready to shoot, hitting either the center of the mouse or the software camera button will snap the shot in about one second. The picture appears almost immediately in a review screen. When reviewing the picture, there is a little menu bar along the bottom. It lets you jump back to the camera, delete the image, send it via MMS or email, or view it in the gallery.
In shooting mode, the mouse lets you adjust exposure and zoom on the fly. Exposure adjustments are made by scrolling left or right on the mouse, and zoom is achieved by scrolling up or down with the mouse. The extent to which the camera zooms depends a bit on what resolution you have the camera set to. Images are captured in the landscape form. Being able to select your settings directly on the screen rather than navigating with a D-pad makes adjustments far easier to complete.
The Video capture mode is identical to the still image capture mode.
The Epix gallery shows you six images at a time in grid layout. The left soft key is an "up" key, letting you go back to the previous folder, and the right soft key lets you open up the image. You have basically the same selection that we mentioned above: send, beam and so on. Using the mouse to find an image and hitting the center button will also open the image. With an image open, the Menu button brings up some different options, such as Zoom, but most are the same. Here, you can make minor edits to the pictures, such as cropping it, adjust brightness, light balance, flip it and automatically repair it.
There is a small button in the very bottom right of the gallery apps screen. If you press it, it will adjust the view of the gallery from grid to a simple list of file names, types and sizes.
Most pictures taken with the Epix were true to color and reasonably free of grain and noise. As with most camera phones, images captured outdoors in sunlight were the best in terms of color and quality. The Epix didn't perform as well indoors. First, images taken with indoor lighting had more grain than outdoor shots. But the camera also had issues with incandescent lighting. Even with an automatic white-balance measuring feature, images were very yellow. You can manually adjust the white balance to incandescent and fluorescent if you want pictures to come out with better color representation. The Epix does not have a flash, so lighting is crucial to getting good pictures.
The Epix did a good job at capturing video. You can set the video mode to record video indefinitely or optimized for MMS. Videos we shot were smooth and free of grain and ghosting. The Epix was able to track motion well as you followed a moving subject or just panned around.
Videos are accessible from the Windows Media Player library, as well as the gallery application. The mouse lets you play or pause the video, but on-screen controls are necessary to skip through to other videos in your library or fast forward/rewind the current video. The WMP Menu also lets you control video playback, but there's no way to create an MMS from within the player. If you want to send an MMS, your only option is to choose to send the video immediately after you capture it and are presented that option on the review screen.
3GPP / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 2.8 MB
The Epix comes preloaded with Pocket Internet Explorer. Paired with AT&T's HSDPA 3G wireless data network, it makes for a very capable browser. IE can be launched from the Start menu, and also appears as a shortcut on the Today screen.
Once open, the left soft key is the back key and the right soft key is the menu key. The Menu opens up a list of things to do, such as jump back to the home screen, pull down the address bar, view your favorites or add the current page as a new favorite. You can customize the view just a little bit, by adjusting the text size, having pages rendered as one column, fit to screen or in desktop mode. And you can also turn pictures on and off for faster or richer Web browsing, depending on your tastes.
For the most part, browsing was speedy. Only the most graphic-laden sites bogged down the browser. IE doesn't include any innovative and useful features such as a mini map or built-in RSS feed reader. But the decent screen size and fast wireless capabilities get the job done with no issues.
We also tested Opera Mobile and Skyfire on the Epix. They both worked very well. The beta of Skyfire, in particular, was blazing fast. Having the touch screen also makes the Epix more usable for browsing than some of its non-touchscreen Windows Mobile brothers.
Windows Mobile 6.1 lets you customize how you interact the phone to a good degree. The main Today screen can be viewed in nine different versions to suit your tastes, including the newer version of the Today screen that comes with WinMo 6.1. You can also adjust the color of the themes, as well as the color of the text on the themes. To be honest, anything other than white was rather difficult to read.
You can also fully customize what menu items appear on the Today sceen, which lets you set it up for quick access to the things you interact with most.
There are a decent number of included ringers on the phone, but you can't select songs from your music library to serve as ringtones.
Another great feature are the function shortcuts. When in the Today screen, you can set the Epix to launch a number of different applications by pressing certain keys. For example, you can set up the "B" key to toggle the Bluetooth radio on/off.
You can also move items into different folders and customize where applications are located in the Windows Mobile folder hierarchy.
The Epix paired with regular and stereo headsets quite easily. The connection with each type of headset was good, and we never experienced any hissing or disconnects. Music playback sounded good through stereo Bluetooth headsets. We were able to pair the Epix with multiple different computers and send files wherever we wished.
Like all Windows Mobile smartphones, you can sync your calendar with Outlook on your PC or an Exchange server. You can choose to view your calendar by week, month or agenda. The left soft key lets you swap between these views quickly. The right soft key gets you into the menu, where you can open new appointments, change the view, and configure the calendar application
The Epix is not a very good watch replacement. In order to wake the phone up, you have to punch the unlock/power key on the side of the device. The phone then immediately jumps to whatever screen you were last using. There is a clock visible on most screens, but it is tiny and stuffed into the upper right hand corner of the screen. It takes a moment for your eyes to locate it.
Because the Epix is a Windows smartphone, you can use the Office Mobile program to open Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Adobe PDFs. We were able to read and make edits to Word documents no problem. It's certainly not as effective as a regular computer, but making minor edits to a document from your mobile device certainly has its merits.
The Epix has GPS on board and is preloaded with AT&T Navigation software. You can also choose to download Google Maps for Mobile. Both were able programs at creating directions and getting me from point A to point B. Time tofirst fix (speed in which the phone locks onto a GPS satellite) was a bit on the slower side compared to other phones we've reviewed recently. The average was about 2 minutes.
Other applications pre-loaded on the Epix include Cingular Video, Wikipedia, MobiTV, an RSS reader program, mobile banking and a weather application. Cingular Video works through the browser and lets you watch short video clips. It worked best in areas covered by 3G signal, but was choppy in EDGE-only areas. MobiTV was a better option for watching mobile video. It offers full episodes of some TV programs such as The Office, and I experienced fewer playback issues. The Wikipedia application lets you search through Wikipedia easily from the phonetop, and the RSS reader lets you have RSS feeds delivered directly to your phone.
The Epix is a Windows Mobile 6.1 device with no flair or desire to be anything more than a business-class device. It covers the smartphone basics: QWERTY keyboard, Microsoft OS, decent call quality, GPS, and 3G. It adds little else to make it an enticing buy for anyone other than business users who need a phone for their daily working needs.
At the end of the day, the camera works fine, the music player does what it is supposed to do, it covers all the messaging needs that you could possible want, but there's nothing fun about it.
Final verdict? The Epix is epically boring, but bound to be useful for business-y types that need a workhorse, not a showhorse.
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A few clarifications about the Epix Review.
2. Launching the Camera application is as easy as pressing the Camera key near the bottom right corner of the QWERTY keypad.
3. You can assign your own MP3 ringtones. You need to copy them to "\Application Data\Sounds" first.
4. The Epix also has Wi-Fi, something I didn't see mentioned in the review.