posted by Hadrien Grasland on Sat 12th Mar 2011 12:36 UTC
IconAlthough the phone market is quite healthy at the moment, some parts of it are less healthy than others. In particular, the situation in the mid-end range isn't particularly stellar. The stagnation and scheduled death of Symbian and Blackberry OS, while their successors seem to mostly target the high-end market, only leaves Samsung's bada as a healthy mid-end phone OS at the moment. In this article series, I'm going to have an in-depth look at this OS, and see how well it performs in practice on some mid-end hardware which it has been designed to power, the Wave 533.

A look at the Wave 533 (or GT-S5330 if you prefer)

Being one of the lowest-end phones in the Wave family makes the Wave 533 perfect for stress-testing bada (yes, it's written this way, no caps), in my opinion. After all, Samsung state themselves that their goal with is to provide cost-effective smartphones, so they'd better come up with something which scales well down to this phone, which costs 200 euros around here.

Another good side of the Wave 533 as far as reviewing bada is concerned is that it offers a pretty complete hardware feature set : a 3.2MP camera, accelerometers, a 3.5mm earphone jack, Wi-Fi connectivity, a capacitive 3.2" touchscreen, a MicroSD slot, and a sliding QWERTY (well, AZERTY in my case) keyboard. The only things which are "missing" are a GPS sensor and high-speed internet connectivity. But 3G has never worked very well for me anyway, so I couldn't have tested things like max speed. I'm lucky enough when the network is there at all. Also, since I don't have a MicroSD card around and none is bundled in the package, I won't test this feature either.

Some people will also be happy to learn that the bundled 1200 mAh battery is easily replaceable.

Thankfully, not only the specs look nice. The phone itself is pretty slick.

Front of the phone

Samsung, following a longstanding tradition, have chosen to use glossy plastic on the front, but it's not that much of an issue as said plastic is of good quality. The anti-reflective coating is one of the best I've seen on a cheap screen so far, it does its job much, much better than the one on my Asus N61JV laptop's screen, and a bit better than the one on my Nokia E63's. Even outdoor and on sunny days, intense specular reflections of sunlight shouldn't be too much of the problem.

This does not mean, however, that you can use minimal screen brightness everywhere, as one of the few defects of this phone's screen is that it's not transflective, meaning that under heavy lighting conditions your ability to read something on it drops very quickly. You'll need to set screen brightness to a very high level if you want to keep things readable in some situations, except if you prefer to find a less sunny place to use your phone like me. Please note that this phone does not have an ambient light sensor: screen brightness, once set to a high level, remains high even indoor, which means that your battery will be drained fairly quickly.

As far as dirtiness is concerned, this screen also behaves pretty well: it doesn't attract fingerprints too easily and, perhaps most important, those that are attracted are not very visible, except when your fingers are very greasy. I have not managed to scratch it so far, but I've not exactly tried.

Despite its relatively low resolution by today's standards (400x240, aka WQVGA, for a 3.2" screen), pixels do not have a very perceptible presence and things just feel a bit blurry, partly due to heavy use of subpixel rendering. Colors are rendered quite well and feel warm. Vision angles are also very good, as can be expected from a modern LCD screen: no matter in what direction you rotate that screen, you (and, sadly, your neighbours) will still see what's displayed on it perfectly.

In short, this is a very good screen.

Underneath, there are three buttons:

  • The "Call" button, which works exactly the way you would expect: it is used to make calls from the dialer application, answer an incoming call, and on the home screen it invokes a list of previous sent, missed, and received calls. The sole unusual thing about it is that said list also includes your messaging history: SMS, e-mails, etc. This is part of Samsung's strategy of unifying the different means of communication, more on that when we discuss software.

  • The "Menu" button, which as the name says it is used to go to the main menu. Press it for some time to switch from one task to another, and a double-press opens a search box which works with pretty much everything on the phone.

  • The "End" button, used to end calls, close programs, and go to the home screen.

Back of the phone

On the side we have the overused shiny gray stripe, as has become increasingly common these days, however the back is more original in that it looks the same as the front. Many thanks to the Samsung guys for having a bit of taste on that matter, it just has become too common recently to make products with a black front and a white/shiny back so that they stand out more, and this sobriety is much welcome. Although it looks the same, the back is not made in the same way, though. There's a sort of dotted pattern, which has a nice feeling but has a nasty tendency to attract fingerprints and scratches and is harder to wipe. Apart from that, there's a loudspeaker and a camera there.

Let me talk a bit further about this camera, though, or more precisely the plasticy thing which protected it. You know these pieces of translucent duck tape which they put on phones in order to keep them shiny during travel? Well, on the Wave 533, it seems that Samsung have gone completely mad about them. They have put such pieces of tape absolutely everywhere on the phone, including in places where it's hard to remove them. Special mentions go to the USB port and the camera lens, where the tape was stuck between the back cover and the interior of the phone. Having not found this out, I've had a very hard time getting rid of it, noticeably needing to use a ballpoint pen at some point of the operation. Even when you know how to remove it, it's still an horrible thingie which sticks to your fingers and tears off instead of going nicely... In short, bad point for Samsung there, because even though it only becomes annoying once in the life of the product it doesn't exactly give a good first impression.

Side buttons

On the left side there's a black volume rocker and on the right side there's the power/lock and the camera button. A few things should be said about button usability. On the bright side, the phone is light, and thick enough to fit well in hand. I found fairly easily how to hold it in a way where I can reach every place of the screen with my thumb and most buttons fall right at an easily accessible place. Sadly, there's one exception, and it's perhaps the most useful button of the phone: the power/lock one. This button is a bit hard, the problem is that since my index falls naturally on the volume rocker, I tend to press it while pressing the power button. After a few days of use, I start to get how this can be avoided, but I think they could have made this button softer, or used the "end" button instead to do this job.

Top of the phone, USB door closed

There's nothing worth looking at in the bottom. On top, there's the 3.5" earphone jack and the USB/power socket. As a nice touch, the USB socket is not hidden behind an annoying elastic trap door, as is often the case on low-end phones, but behind a small sliding mechanism which is more robust and comfortable to use at the same time.

Top, USB door opened
MicroUSB

This is a standard MicroUSB port, which is used both to transfer data and charging. On these days, we're sadly reaching a point where it's worth mentioning that both a connection wire AND a power adapter are bundled. The power adapter is one of these compact ones which only use one electrical socket, many thanks to Samsung for that.

Keyboard

Finally, let's talk about the keyboard. It is, after all, a strong selling point of this device. However, since it is a sliding keyboard, you shouldn't except something absolutely wondrous. A good keyboard provides a nice haptic feedback using well-embossed keys which at the same time feel comfortable and can be distinguished from each other without having a look. This kind of perfect key is simply not doable on a sliding keyboard, for the obvious reason that the keyboard has to fit inside when it is retracted, which dramatically reduces the embossing options, resulting in a comfort vs usability compromise. Another issue with sliding QWERTY keyboards is that they are too wide to be properly used with one hand (believe me, I've tried). Depending on your usage patterns, this may be more or less annoying, as an example you shouldn't try texting on a bike with this phone.

But for a sliding keyboard, I must admit that the result which Samsung has achieved is good, save for the space bar which has quite an awful feeling. Said space bar is internally made of three buttons which clearly feel separated from each other on touch, making you wonder whether your finger is in the right place until you get used to it. If you can get away with these feeling considerations, one gets used to this keyboard fairly quickly and it does its job pretty well, much better than the one of the LG KS360 "Etna" as an example. Keys are large, well-spaced, and sufficiently embossed in the middle so that you know it when your finger is between two keys. They are pretty hard too, if you are used to Nokia keyboards it will feel strange in the beginning, it's more akin to what can be found on Blackberries. People who have big hands will also probably like this kind of keyboard, as it gives more room to their fingers.

The key layout which Samsung has chosen is interesting, in that you won't find any diacritical mark on it. All alternate keys are either digits or symbols, while letters like "é" or "à" are fully managed in software (more on that later). This probably means that alt keys are the same no matter whether your keyboard is English, French, or Korean, resulting in an increase of keyboard layout consistency. It also means that more frequently used characters like "_", """, or "$" are made easily available, which is obviously good news.

Apart from the letters you can type, there's a few special keys on this keyboard. I don't think I have to introduce you to this upper arrow in the bottomleft corner, and the yellow "Alt" key is used to access digits and symbols as usual. Keeping in the world of well-known special keys, there's also also the "Sym" key for symbols which are not on the keyboard, directional arrows (used to navigate within text, incredibly useful considering how unhelpful is imprecise touchscreen input on those matters), a "Delete" key and a "Return" key. Notable additions are the "OK" key, whose effect is akin to pressing return in an edit field on a desktop OS (leave field and "confirm" what's inside of it), and a "Message" key used to quickly start redacting a text, MMS, or e-mail. This last key proves to be incredibly useful in practice if you are into heavy texting like me.

The keyboard is also backlit when opened. Backlight is of good quality, it's very uniform and sufficiently powerful.

To conclude on those keyboard matters, it's worth mentioning that the sliding mechanism is pretty well done. The springs are sufficiently hard, so that the mechanism isn't triggered while you slightly press the phone edge by accident, and the amount of backslash is pretty low so that the keyboard stays firmly open or closed, which participates to the overall "solid" feeling of this phone. Overall, the Wave 533 feels very robust, it's not a device you are very afraid of accidentally dropping and throwing, and as far as my old knowledge of mechanical engineering goes this feeling is justified.

Well, this ends the first part of this review. In the next one, we'll start having a look at the bada OS itself, from its startup times to its overall UI.

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