This review originally appeared on NotebookReview.com.
Riding off the success of the Samsung BlackJack, newly offered by Sprint, Samsung recently released the new Ace. The Ace is a smartphone that comfortably supports the typical features in addition to some new ones designed to allow the device to be used domestically and internationally.
Samsung calls it the Ace, but you could just as easily call the company's newest Windows Mobile smartphone the BlackJack 1.5. This model from Sprint shares a lot with its GSM-based cousins, including the basic design, look, feel, and even some of the same components.
But while it's very similar to the Samsung BlackJack offered on the AT&T network -- and you'll notice more than a couple comparisons in this review on that basis -- the Ace technically isn't in the same device family, instead standing on its own.
Design and construction
The Ace, also known as the SPH-i325, features a basic slim design, just 0.46 inches thick over most of the casing, with a small bulge on the top rear housing the camera. The entire affair is wrapped in a hematite-grey plastic, prominently branded with the Sprint logo.
Despite what seems like a lot of wasted space around the screen, the display is actually slightly larger than is average for a Windows Mobile Standard smartphone. Only by about a tenth of an inch, mind you. Most of that wasted space is caused by the fact that the Ace is slightly taller than similar designs: probably to make room for the extra radio hardware inside it, allowing it to sport both CDMA for use in North America and basic GSM functions for overseas.
They've also changed the docking connector, making it slightly thicker. This obliterates all compatibility with existing Samsung cables and headphones, for no actual benefit that I can see. On the bright side, they did include a stereo headset in the box, which they failed to do with the BlackJack. Still, I'd advise that anyone looking at the Ace should seriously consider the use of Bluetooth for headphones and synchronization.
Changes aside, the BlackJack and the Ace are still close enough that you can actually swap standard batteries between them and have them work. The cover for the BlackJack's extended battery doesn't fit the Ace, however, and the Ace doesn't come with an extended battery of its own. Or a second regular battery, for that matter. The standard capacity is a little higher for the Ace, 1300 versus 1200 mAh, but not enough that you might not find yourself wanting a second battery at some point.
For reasons unfathomable to me, Samsung chose to drop the BlackJack's easy press-and-hold system for getting access to special characters on the keyboard, instead going back to a function-key system. They also changed the keyboard keys, making them flatter, angled rather than curved, and flatter to the casing. I don't know why -- the original BlackJack had a great keyboard. The Ace's keyboard doesn't give up much to it on a tactile basis, but I just wonder why they decided to fix something that wasn't broken.
Overall, I really like the Ace's design. Other than the minor camera bulge, it's very slim, it has a good keyboard, and the build quality is solid.
Operating system, software and performance
The Ace runs Windows Mobile 6 Standard, and comes with a suite of software for Web browsing, exchanging email messages, working with Microsoft Office documents, and more.
Besides the stock software, the Ace comes with the usual complement of Sprint applications such as Sprint TV, On Demand, and some apps for activating and tracking usage of the international roaming features of the device -- more on that later. Also preloaded is a copy of Microsoft Voice Command.
The Ace shifts from using the notably weak 200+ MHz OMAP processors found in the BlackJacks to a much more peppy 416 MHz Marvell XScale chip. It shows. Even routine tasks like scanning for music on Windows Media Player are distinctly faster, the camera display is smoother, and overall system response is noticeably improved. That's to say nothing of the value of the added speed in playing back video, or other high-drain tasks.
I attempted to test this using something that typically chokes slower processors, the use of Bluetooth headphones. Unfortunately, all three of the Windows Mobile 6 Standard devices I have at the moment seem allergic to my Jensen WBT212s, repeatedly dropping the connection and refusing to play any audio through them. Guess it's time to upgrade to newer headphones.
Contrary to some reports, the Ace does not have built-in GPS, at least no more than any Sprint device does. Certainly nothing accessible by the user in its current configuration.
Unlike most new devices for Sprint and Verizon, the Ace only supports the basic EV-DO Revision 0 standard for high-speed Internet access, as opposed to the newer and updated EV-DO Revision A. While the lack of Rev. A isn't a critical flaw, it does mean that Ace users can't take advantage of the lower latency and improved upload speeds that Rev. A support brings.
Not found in most smartphones, the Ace also has a GSM radio in addition to its CDMA hardware. Don't get too excited, though -- the Ace's GSM is strictly dual-band, 900 and 1800 MHz, for use overseas. It can't even see the GSM networks used by companies like AT&T and T-Mobile here in North America, let alone get service on them, so forget any ideas about 100% domestic coverage. Not that it would do you a lot of good if it could get it to work on the North American frequencies: the Ace only features GPRS for data, meaning slow, slow Internet whenever you choose to roam.
It's not seamless roaming, either. You have to manually change between modes, and the change requires confirmation and a reboot of the phone. Of course, this is a breeze when compared to business users needing to pack an entirely different phone for use overseas, so the hassle is minor compared to the alternative.
Unfortunately, lacking a ticket to Europe, I wasn't able to test out the GSM roaming. However -- and here's the good news -- unlike comparable world phones sold by Verizon, the Ace isn't SIM locked to a single overseas provider. You can take a SIM card from any local network, slip it into the device, and be good to go. Or you can use Sprint's international roaming service, which is probably a lot more expensive, but allows you to use your Sprint phone number.
Speaking of roaming, the Ace acted a little sketchily when roaming on Verizon Wireless around my home. Several times over the course of my testing, I found it displaying "no service," or repeatedly searching for other towers to connect to, both activities not seen on previous Sprint units. Not a concern for infrequent roamers, and something an updated Preferred Roaming List might cure, but worth mentioning.
I've already mentioned that this smartphone has Bluetooth, but I should point out that it lacks Wi-Fi. But I can't complain too much; there aren't many Windows Mobile Standard models that have this.
Expansion and memory
The Ace features the increasingly ubiquitous microSD card slot for memory expansion (see image at left). Unfortunately, that doesn't extend to the use of microSDHC cards; like several of Samsung's recent devices, the Ace is limited to fully supporting 2 GB cards and under.
This just compounds the fact that the internal memory on the device is inadequate. Leaving the user with 49 MB out of 128 might have been acceptable or even generous at one point when WM Smartphones had less software and were being called upon only for more trivial tasks. But these days, with more and more complex programs available, and with flash memory prices dropping like a rock tied to a lead balloon, 128 MB is just stingy. You can certainly work with it, but having even just another 128 MB would make things much more comfortable.
I found it hard to judge the Ace's battery performance. The device seemed to drain its battery unusually quickly, lasting only about a day of very light use, probably due to the odd roaming behavior I mentioned earlier, and repeatedly scanning for Sprint towers.
Lacking more experience with the Ace on its home network, I hesitate to characterize the battery life, other than to say that similarly built Samsung devices have proven out quite well in the past, and would usually go a solid several days of use even on a standard battery.
While the Ace doesn't have any break-out features that would make it a must have, it does build on a solid and well-made design, and delivers fast connectivity in a slim package. With the relative flop of Motorola's recent updates to their original Q design, the Ace is left as the preeminent choice for Sprint users who want a robust, keyboard-enabled smartphone without sacrificing size or style.
Its combination of technologies makes it a good choice for pond-hopping business users who need email access, as well as light users of all stripes, though some of its limitations may frustrate those looking for a heavy multimedia phone. But if you want high speed Internet and a stylish build, and don't need more than 2 GB of memory, then the Ace is a fine machine.
- Solid design
- Well built
- Fast processor
- GSM for international roaming
- Not enough memory
- No MicroSDHC support
- New proprietary connector
A solid, simple smartphone that, while it has its faults, has plenty of appeal and potential.
|Processor:||416 MHz Marvell XScale PXA270|
|Operating System:||Windows Mobile 6 Standard (Smartphone)|
|Display:||2.3 inch, 320 x 240 LCD|
|Memory:||64 MB RAM; 128 MB flash (49 MB available to user)|
|Size and weight:||4.65 inches long x 2.3 inches wide x 0.46 inches thick; 3.9 ounces|
|Expansion:||Single MicroSD card slot|
|Docking:||Proprietary Samsung connector|
|Communication:||CDMA/EV-DO Rev. 0; Dual-band (900/1800) GSM/GPRS for overseas roaming; Bluetooth 2.0/EDR|
|Audio:||Internal microphone and speakers; proprietary headphone jack|
|Battery:||1300 mAh replaceable Lithium Ion|
|Input:||37-key keyboard; 5-way directional pad and system buttons|