If you read anything other than Electrodes Monthly then you’ll have noticed that there’s something of a backlash at the moment against “the cult of size zero” and super-skinny models. Once mainstream media has finished flambéing Kate Moss and friends, I can only assume they’ll turn their dark attentions to other proud advocates of the less-is-more ethos, the ever-shrinking mobile phone. And I fear Samsung has perhaps most to worry about, with their harem of millimeter-thin candybars and wafer-like clamshells; most scorn, though, will be heaped on their so-called smartphones that really ought to know better than extreme dieting.
It’s one of those smartphones I’ve been testing over the past few weeks, and a model that has caused no little amount of confusion. Ostensibly similar to the much-hyped Blackjack, which launched last year to fanfare, squeals of delight and outraged disappointment at the “blink and you miss it” battery life, the similarly slim i320 is more of a feature-spared younger sibling that lacks the high-speed HSDPA and instead makes do with quad-band GSM EDGE for its data shuffling.
Otherwise it’s a relatively reasonable bevy of functionality, with the basic Windows Mobile 5.0 offerings paired up with a 1.3-megapixel auto-focus camera, replete with anaemic LED flash, support for Microsoft Exchange push email, Voice Command, Bluetooth and a rich, glorious (if atypically proportioned) 320 x 240 TFT screen.
Battery life was my primary concern, knowing of the troubles Vincent had experienced with his Blackjack, and initially my worries seemed well founded; out of the box the i320 managed just over a day on standby (with Exchange connected), meaning I was plugging it in every night. However, after a few charge cycles the 1,000 mAh battery obviously stepped up its game, and low-battery warnings became a 48hr affair. Not great, no, but comfortable to get you through a jam-packed day of use should you be having “one of those Mondays”.
In use, then, the i320 did not disappoint. It’s hard to quantify the functional worth of shedding a few extra milimeters, but I certainly noticed the difference between its 95g bulk and the chunky N80 I usually carry. Once past the initial oddness of the landscape screen, which limits the number of lines shown but makes up for it with a crispness and richness of colour that made my eyes weep with joy, it’s straightforward to nip about the menus with the large, tactile D-pad. I had a persistent button-fumble when faced with the “end call” button and the “home” key, pressing the former expecting it to take me back to the standby screen when in fact I should have been using the latter, but this lessened over time and if the i320 were your everyday handset you would quickly adapt to the comfortable layout.
The QWERTY thumbboard suffers, of course, from the narrow width of the phone, but Samsung have attempted amends with sharply bevelled keys and each number being shared across neighbouring pairs. Typing was fair, perhaps on a par with the Treo’s oft-celebrated keyboard, but I longed for the luxury of extra spacing as found on the Sidekick 3. For battering out the odd email and firing off terse replies it’s above-average and certainly should not put anyone off.
Samsung have garnished the i320 with eye candy and shortcuts, and while each in itself might not amount to much as a whole it makes using the handset a far speedier affair. The standby screen can be part-filled with a status panel indicating missed calls, number of unread messages, USB connectivity status and links to recently used programmes. On the right side of the phone there’s a shortcut to a profile menu, which if held locks the keypad, as well as a multi-function button present to launch Voice Command on a short press and the camera on a long press.
Ah, Voice Command. This was my first experience with it, and with dubious results; whether it had issue with my accent (cut-glass British vowels, naturally) or I was somehow misinterpretting its functionality, I never managed to get past dialing a number from the phonebook and into programme-launching mode. I learnt to be quick with the “end” key as it regularly tried to call some long-neglected contact whereas I actually wanted to use the calculator. In the car, however, the accuracy of recognising a name (and doing so with no prior training) was impressive.
In-call quality was good, and the i320 was tenacious with a signal. Slightly more worrying was the occasional failure to audibly notify me to a new message – either email, SMS or MMS – which I would only notice from the icon when later using up the phone. Ending calls, too, was a confusing affair, as thumbing the “end” button seemingly did not have an immediate effect: the in-call timer continued to count upwards, and I was unsure whether the call had been dropped or if I was still paying for it.
A combination of mediocre connection speed and vertically cramped screen meant I did little web browsing on the phone, and although entering addresses is made straightforward thanks to the full keyboard the excess scrolling required to view a page in its entirety put me off. Shortcuts to standalone portals such as the Yell.com business search on some of Nokia’s higher-end handsets would have made far more sense; these are of course potential additions each user could make, thanks to the flexibility of the WM5 OS, but I could see first impressions putting people off.
The 1.3-megapixel camera, though suffering a pregnant-pause in loading, produced average quality photos with only some variable colour reproduction marring the images. As with most LED flash systems it’s best avoided unless you’re mere inches from your subject and going for that clichéd Blair Witchlook; however the 120MB of on-board memory, expandable with microSD cards, can store a decent amount of photos. Frustratingly the microSD slot is positioned underneath the back cover and you need to remove the battery in order to access it.
All that memory potential encourages Samsung to position the i320 as a smartphone that lets you leave your mp3 player at home. In actual fact the experience is spoilt by the bland supplied headphones and inevitable reduced battery life when playing music. Bluetooth 1.2 does mean you can use wireless headphones, however (though that will drain the power even quicker) and transferring music to the phone is straightforward dragging and dropping in Windows Explorer. It supports a fair range of formats, too – MP3, AAC, AAC+, WMA and even OGG – although you’ll need Samsung’s cable to load them since the i320 uses a proprietary socket. Alternatively there are some surprisingly rich stereo speakers on the back of the phone.
Who is the i320 for, you might ask. It’s a reasonable question, with hardcore users probably preferring the Blackjack (boringly named the i600 on the British side of the Atlantic) with its combination of HSDPA cellular and b/g WiFi, while mobile media fans would find the i320′s mediocre battery life a serious drawback. Taking a look at the price tag brings it a little more into context, however; sign up to a new 12 month contract in the UK and you’ll likely get the phone free. Buy it SIM-free and you’re looking at £220 upwards (or $320+ in the US); figure on spending an extra £100 for the Blackjack/i600.
If you’re keen on mobile messaging, particularly push email, and you have small pockets (both in the physical and financial sense) then the i320 might be the phone for you. It’s certainly attractive enough to hold its own on the cellphone catwalk, and that 11.5mm thickness still gets coveting glances. Heavy data users will want to look elsewhere, but for everyone else it’s a fair balance between style and substance.
Many thanks to Samsung UK for the loan of the i320
Writing for R3 Media since 2006, Chris Davies is currently executive editor for SlashGear, Android Community and the other network sites. Based in London, UK, he's responsible for SlashGear's editorial decisions and covers all forms of consumer technology. You can follow him on Twitter.