SlashGear Review: Samsung's HSDPA, WiFi-toting SGH-i600 Smartphone

Back in November last year, Samsung US took the wraps off the Blackjack smartphone. It understandably turned some heads: slim and lightweight but still with high-speed cellular data access and a full QWERTY keyboard, it made a convincing argument when compared with HTC's bulky range and the ubiquitous Blackberry. Months later, and the Blackjack has finally reached Europe; during that long boat-ride, however, it's had a chance to grow a new feature, WiFi, and take a new name: the i600.

So, what do you get for your money? Or, more accurately, when the i600 can be had free with a new contract, what do you get for signing your soul away for 12 to 18 months? For a start you get a handset that remains one of the thinnest, lightest smartphones on the market. Yes, Samsung's own i320 (my review of which is here) bests it on both size and weight, but then that lacks HSDPA and WiFi. Both the i320 and the i600 have a 1.3-megapixel camera on the rear, but the i600 also has a front-facing VGA camera for video calls.

Running Windows Mobile 5, the i600 supports push-email via Microsoft Exchange, has a media player compatible with MP3, AAC, AAC+, WMA and WAV audio files (though, strangely, not the OGG support that the i320 has) and H.263, H.264, MPEG4 and WMV video, and the usual bevy of document viewers. Memory expansion is care of a MicroSD slot. Samsung have also added in an RSS reader – which is simple to use but for reasons of processor power and data charges is better with a few feeds rather than hundreds – and a Podcast app.

Sadly missing is the half-screen status page of the i320, replaced with a single line showing unread messages, missed calls and, scrolling down, recently used programmes. It's handy, and it lets you see more of your wallpaper, but I missed the one-glance ability to get up to speed with all communications. WM5 is its usual mixture of flexibility and frustration, with a wealth of inbuilt functionality and third-party programmes for just about every need, yet commonly accessed features like the alarm and profile switching buried away in menus. The i600 has a programmable 'back' button beneath the scroll wheel on the right side, which a long-press by default starts the camera, but that can be re-purposed as a profile shortcut. Better by far, however, would be a dedicated profile/wireless manager accessed from a short press of the power key, as found on Nokia's cellphone range.

Having used HTC's S710 smartphone running Windows Mobile 6 (look for a review very soon), it's a shame that Samsung haven't upgraded the i600 to this latest OS. The improvements are incremental but common-sense in many areas, reducing the number of key presses needed to access frequently-used applications and actions, and if Samsung are sincere about seeing their handset as "at the forefront of smartphone innovation" (quoted from their website, no less) then WM6 would seem a must.

In terms of performance the i600 is a reasonable, if not outstanding, cellphone. Its ability to find a signal is good, but too often it failed to keep a 3G connection in areas my everyday phone, a Nokia N80, has no problems with. Call quality proved fair, although it benefited from being held apart from the ear; up close, sound from the earpiece was raw and rough. Microphone wind-noise seemed equally prevalent, with the mic itself perched near the edge of the handset's face.

When it kept an HSDPA signal download speeds were impressive. Theoretically rates of up to 3.6Mbps are possible, and while I never reached such heights the limiting factor for web browsing was most definitely the cut-down IE browser supplied with WM5 and the relatively small (for a smartphone), albeit pleasingly high-resolution, screen. It certainly blows away the EDGE-equipped i320. WiFi – present in 'b' and 'g' flavours – is a welcome addition, with good range and simple setup. Some indication of which connection is being used would've been nice, however, as you're left unaware whether the i600 is prioritising the (free) WiFi or (costly) cellular routes.

Battery life concerns plagued the Blackjack in the US, and I had prepared myself for daily recharges. Sure enough, with an Exchange data connection constantly active (as would be the case for most users) and casual text messaging/calling, the i600 managed a little over a day of use. More frustrating was the inaccuracy of the battery gauge, which would show two bars of phantom power remaining but the handset itself shut off soon after. To be generous, I've no way of knowing how this review sample had been treated by previous sadistic users, and brand new, cared-for models may prove more accurate. My attempts to charge/discharge the battery and recalibrate the meter were unsuccessful.

Unlike the upright, bevelled keys on the i320, the i600 uses slightly rounded lozenges flared out from the centre-line. It's still not as usable as the Sidekick 3, again due to the reduced width, but with a little practise it's decent enough for short emails and SMS messages. Occasionally the phone would miss keypresses, though I'm not sure if that's a problem with it being unable to keep up or whether I simply was attempting to type too fast and didn't hit the keys fully. I didn't have such problems on the i320.

If I sound critical of the i600, it's only because the finish line has moved on since the launch of the Blackjack last year. WiFi is a great addition, and the shape is attractive and pleasingly compact, but faced with competition from the seemingly-bottomless pits of innovation of HTC and coming smartphone attractions from Apple and Motorola, to mention but two, and Samsung's omissions look more ominous. Windows Mobile 6 is a much-needed upgrade, and given the ease of use promised by the iPhone the i600 – or its successor – needs to bolster the Microsoft OS with tangible improvements in usability.

Buy this phone and, assuming you can live with a nightly recharge, you won't be much disappointed. Is it the best that Samsung can come up with? No, probably not, but for now it's a decent and recommendable peak of their smartphone range.

Thanks to Samsung UK for the loan of the i600. You can see all our i600 photos here