Likely the end of an era for conventional phone design. (September 5th, 2009)
Cellphones are entering an awkward period in their development: smartphones are rapidly falling in price to where there's often overlap with even mid-range regular phones. To compensate, phone makers have increasingly been loading features into these devices, and a quintessential example is the Samsung Solstice. But does it present a compelling case against smartphones?
Product Manufacturer: Samsung
Price: $100 (2-year contract plus rebate)
- Small, lightweight design.
- Robust features and apps for a regular phone.
- Solid camera.
- Decent finger-based writing.
- iPhone costs as much with smartphone OS, better design.
- Less than precise touchscreen.
- No T9 or full QWERTY input.
- Mediocre call quality and speakerphone.
- TouchWiz UI not engaging to use.
build and design
The Solstice is a smaller than average phone, and we found its svelte design made it very easy to hold or slip into a pocket. The back is made of a rubberized plastic with a comfortable grip, and the entire back panel slides off to access the battery, SIM card, and the microSDHC card slot. Some might baulk at having to remove the battery to access the microSDHC card, but we didn't find it to be a major issue.
The screen on the Solstice is large for a non-smartphone (3 inches) and bright. The actual touchscreen isn't quite as well calibrated as those we have tested on other phones recently, however, so it's more prone to accidental input. It does make up for this somewhat with dedicated buttons on the front and sides for common tasks. The top has small button dedicated to releasing the lock on the touch screen -- a useful touch when many touch phones ask for special touch gestures.
However, there's no 3.5mm headphone jack or standard USB connection, and both of these hurt the phone significantly when trying to use it as a media device; you're dependent on the usual cellphone earbuds (that is to say, nothing special) and will be dependent on a proprietary cable to load content.
TouchWiz and the interface experience
Like nearly all Samsung phones (smartphone or otherwise) today, the Solstice has the company's own TouchWiz interface for the bulk of its features. In this device, however, the software has an overall clunky feel; navigating from point to point isn't entirely intuitive, and we found the widgets weren't especially useful. Moreover, screen transitions were slightly jittery when opening apps or menus. The fluidity of some phones simply wasn't there. While it's not a smartphone, the Solstice still arguably needs a touch screen environment of similar caliber to that of Apple, RIM, and Palm, which today the Solstice certainly doesn't have.
One positive is haptic feedback: like many newer touchscreen phones, the Solstice gives the user a soft vibration to confirm selections made on the screen. This feedback is typically appreciated, but while scrolling through menus on the Solstice the vibration feedback seems to lose control and buzzes non-stop.
There's also a fairly unique finger-based writing recognition component. When typing text such as a web address or text message, Solstice users can either tap in words through the traditional ABC style input or draw the words through touch. Oddly enough, though, the Solstice doesn't support any type of T9 functionality or offer word completion or predictive text support. For those with larger fingers or who don't like finger recognition in the first place, the lack of T9 and predictive text software could pose a serious issue. The recognition software took a lot of getting used to, and we're still not won over to using it daily.
specific features, call quality and battery life
While it won't have an elaborate app market thanks to its being a feature phone, the Solstice does have just about every feature a modern user would often look for. Like many newer AT&T phones, the Solstice has access to all of AT&T's media applications for music, news, and video along with the carrier's subscription-based GPS navigation app. Whether or not you appreciate these depends on your own actual needs, but that they're all here is valuable. Samsung has its own media player, though it's nothing special and doesn't have the breadth of features found on newer smartphones.
On top of the AT&T software, the Solstice sports native apps for both Facebook and MySpace. Native Twitter and weather integration would be welcomed additions to this list, but we'll take what's on offer as the last two are easier to manage solely through the web.
We were very impressed by the feature set of the 2.0 megapixel camera on the Solstice, as it rivaled that of the Sony C905 we recently reviewed in all but the megapixel count. From exposure control to white balance we found the photo software menus in the camera to be intuitive and the features quite useful. Image quality is strictly average for a cellphone, but here the camera is already designed to be strictly utilitarian.
Actual calling usage with the Solstice is average at best. The call quality was mediocre, and the speaker phone clarity was subpar. But even with these gripes, we should note that battery performance was excellent both during and in between tests: calls and data didn't drain the battery too quickly beyond the estimated 5 hours of talk time, and it was entirely possible to let the phone sit in standby for a few days while still having a usable charge.
The Solstice to us seems to be a decidedly mixed bag. It has a great feature set for its category and some awesome camera features, but the complaint list is fairly long. We really think the TouchWiz software and touch screen could use the most work, and T9 support is a must if this phone or a replacement will thrive without a full QWERTY keyboard. Beyond the technology concerns, we also have to consider the Solstice's nature as a phone. When call quality is below average, it's simply hard to justify much else. For our review team, the elaborate camera functions and social networking support just don't overcome the lackluster user experience.
Moreover, at the $100 asking price the Solstice also has one inescapable rival: the 8GB iPhone 3G. It's on the same AT&T service, and in most categories it's uniformly better. Its touchscreen is larger and more precise; its interface is more intuitive and responsive; it has a better media player and web browser. And as a smartphone, it has access to a much larger pool of third-party apps that can not only fill in the gaps for Facebook and MySpace but also Twitter, weather and other features that just aren't options on the Solstice. Samsung has hopefully learned that these devices need to have much more powerful software in the future, but for now there's no compelling reason to pick up this handset.