We slide open the speakers in our Samsung Highnote review and listen to this musical Sprint phone. Is it singing our tune?
Review summary of the Samsung Highnote:
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The Samsung Highnote would be a much better music phone if the musical features were truly something special. The music player needs a serious upgrade, and considering this is the only slide-out speakerphone on the U.S. market, the speaker should have been something truly impressive, a replacement for our mini speakers and travel alarm clocks. Instead, the phone gets the same music apps as every other Sprint Power Vision phone, and the speaker is comparable to, and not better than, many other music phones on the market. Kudos to Samsung for finally adopting a standard microUSB port, 3.5mm headphone jack and packing in a gigabyte of memory, but competitors, including arch-nemesis Nokia, has been doing this for years. We also think Samsung should have followed Nokia's lead with some real playback controls, since this is a music phone, after all. Still, besides these shortcomings, Sprint's One Touch menus make this phone competitive, with great shortcuts and a modern look to the interface. But if you're looking for a phone with some music power, strangely that's one area where it just doesn't stand out. Release: October 2008. Price: $100.
Pros: Unique dual-slide speaker design. Great One Touch menu interface from Sprint. Scroll wheel worked well in every app. Suprisingly robust messaging features.
Cons: Music features are nothing special; even the speaker didn't impress us like it should have. Other multimedia features are a wash. Slow, mediocre Web browser.
Full Samsung Highnote Review:
Hardware design - Good
The Samsung Highnote represents the first U.S. launch of a design that is something of a Samsung tradition - the dual-sliding speaker phone. Push the slide up and you get a normal keypad, and the Samsung Highnote has a nice trio of dedicated keys for voice dialing, text messaging and navigation. Those are all great candidates for dedicated keys. Push the slide down and up pops a stereo speaker. With this action, the Samsung Highnote also opens a brief multimedia menu, with an icon each for music, TV (Sprint TV, that is), and games. It's a neat idea, but unfortunately we've been jaded by some of the previous Samsung dual-slide speaker phones, especially the Bang and Olufsen Serenata, a phone that will probably never make it to these shores. On the Serenata and other music speakerphones, Samsung emphasized the B&O partnership for sound quality, but the Samsung Highnote gets none of this high-falutin technology, but that also keeps the price down to a more reasonable $100.
So, while we're not blown away by the innovative speaker design, it was the little things that Samsung has adopted on this phone that made the difference for us. For one, Samsung has finally ditched their proprietary USB / headphone / power adapter port in favor of common standards. You get a microUSB port as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack, which is a necessity for a music phone. All of Sprint's new One Touch phones use microUSB, so we're betting that a wise Sprint exec stepped in and laid the smack down on the proprietary port like we've been unable to do. The Samsung Highnote also uses a spinning scroll wheel for navigation. It wasn't perfectly sensitive, and could be a little touchy at times, but we liked being able to use the scroll wheel for navigation in every part of the phone's interface. You can scroll the home screen's carousel, move through long lists of songs and generally control the cursor anywhere. The scroll wheel clicks, too, so you can just press left or right if you're tired of spinning. We think an accelerating wheel would have helped us manage our long song lists, but the scrolling wasn't too slow, so it was never difficult to find the right song quickly.
Interface design - Very good
We raved about the Sprint One Touch interface in our LG Lotus review, and the Samsung Highnote is among the first of the carrier's phones to sport the new design. The menu system places a slew of shortcuts and useful widget-like apps, called tiles, on a menu bar, called the carousel, at the bottom of the today screen. It looks great and adds plenty of useful functions to the phone that are easily accessible. The system is better suited to messaging and Web browsing devices, as many of the tiles are simply bookmark links to the phone's Web browser, which on this phone is pretty underpowered and sluggish. There is a music tile for the carousel, but it simply jumps directly into the music player. You can play tunes in the background, but you can't control playback without opening the music player app.
Besides the music tile, the Sprint One Touch menus have plenty of other tricks up their sleeve. Google and Yahoo both have their own tiles with links to their respective mobile services, including Google Reader and Google Docs, as well as Yahoo Maps and Yahoo's Calendar, among plenty of others. You can personalize and rearrange the carousel as you see fit, and there is even a simple shortcut tile that lets you pick a list of favorites. Sprint's One Touch is by far the best standard interface on any of the big U.S. carriers, and it blows away the simple, aging icon-based menus on AT&T and Verizon Wireless' standard multimedia phones.
Calling - Good
The Samsung Highnote did an average job with phone calls, though it did have a nice host of features. Calls from the phone had occasional crackling problems, with errant noise, especially when reception dipped. We had 3-4 bars of service in lower Manhattan, but in our New Jersey home, we saw reception dip to a single bar, and often the phone would resort to roaming. For battery life, Samsung was fairly on target, maybe a bit conservative with their 5.8 hour estimate. We managed a few minutes beyond 6 hours in a single call.
The contacts list was very basic, with plenty of fields for numbers and addresses, but nothing too fancy beyond that. The phone can access your corporate address book using Sprint's surprisingly capable corporate e-mail app, and we appreciated the ability to look up contacts from our Exchange accounts. These can also be copied to the phone from the mail app, but we wish there was a more straightforward Exchange (or Lotus Domino) sync. The voice dialing button on the keyboard activates speaker-independent dialing, and this worked perfectly in our tests. Also, as you might expect from this design, the speakerphone was plenty loud, and also quite clear, light static issues aside.
Messaging - Good
Sprint's One Touch has a great, long list of text messaging options, including IM for AOL, MSN and Yahoo as well as access to MySpace and Facebook for changing status updates on the go. The e-mail app was robust, with plenty of presets, including the corporate e-mail app, which loaded the last 100 messages in our Exchange Inbox. Our biggest complaint with the Samsung Highnote as a messaging phone is that the keyboard was small and flat, with keys that were raised just slightly to an uncomfortable ridge. Still, the phone made nice use of the scroll wheel even in messaging, and we liked being able to scroll through our word choices while using T9 for auto-complete typing.
Multimedia - Good
For a music phone with such unique music features, the Samsung Highnote just didn't feel very, well, musical. As we've said, the Sprint One Touch interface, while impressive, did little to improve the music experience. When we flipped open the speaker, we expected to find a great, powerful little music player app or at least a better dedicated music menu, instead of the trio of icons we found. We liked the scroll wheel for navigating our playlists, but some hardware playback buttons would have been even nicer, and would have let us control the music while it was in the background, instead of having to jump to the player to skip an unruly tune. Aside from the dedicated speaker, and perhaps the 3.5mm headphone jack, music seems like an also-ran feature on this phone. The LG Lotus synchronized with our Windows Media Player library much faster than the Samsung Highnote did, and that messaging phone even had external controls to play and pause the music. We were happy to find a 1GB memory card in the retail box, but true music fans will have cards with much higher capacities, so this isn't really a competitive plus.
The real selling point is obviously the music speaker, and this was a nice feature, but again it didn't push the Samsung Highnote ahead of the pack. Testing this phone side-by-side against the LG Lotus and the Nokia 5310 XpressMusic phone on T-Mobile, we found the Highnote to be a bit more clear sounding, but not much louder, and the overall gains in quality were so great that we'd insist on buying this phone just for the speaker. The lack of bass was forgiveable, considering the speaker's small size, but we really expected more from such a unique design. Perhaps it's time to give Bang and Olufsen a call?
For streaming video, the Samsung Highnote gets access to Sprint TV, but this is a feature most folks will skip, especially after watching a couple streaming clips. Playback was plenty blurry, even on the phone's small, 2.1-inch screen. Clips stuttered and would stop and start abruptly. Sometimes, the audio track would keep playing even while the screen was black. We would have preferred if Samsung had hidden this feature away and spent more time improving the music experience, bringing our tunes front and center in the multimedia menu.
Web browser - Mediocre
The Web browser on the Samsung Highnote was unreliable and mediocre, which is unfortunate because so many of the Sprint One Touch tiles rely on this browser to work. For an EV-DO phone, the browser was also quite slow, slower than other simple multimedia browsers we've tried recently. Google Docs, which lets you read your documents online, had frequent trouble, as did Yahoo's Flickr app. These are all mobile pages we're talking about, so the browser won't be rendering versions faithful to the desktop original, but when it worked smoothly we found the mobile browser, with all those bookmarks front and center, was quite convenient and fun. Again, we wish that the phone would offer more information from the home screen, instead of booting up the Polaris Web browser every time, but in the end the phone still offers more convenience than similar phones from other carriers.
Camera - Mediocre
The camera on the Samsung Highnote was also mediocre, with plenty of noise and blurring contributing to a lack of detail overall. In sunny spots, we found plenty of purple fringing around objects. The lens was perhaps a little better than we've seen on Samsung phones from the past, but these images were a far cry from being printable.
Our self portrait actually looks okay, until you zoom in to 100% crop. There, our skin takes on oily tones, as if we were wearing thick foundation makeup. Details in the shady bits aren't lost, but they are overcome by the noise that lurks there.
Here, the phone actually captured the sign in the midst of all that neon with some clarity, though there is obvious noise surrounding. The wall behind the sign is actually white, though with the shade and the bright neon it come out more of a brick color here.
Glass building, Blue sky
A fine, clean shot, with some nice blues in the glass and in the sky. The camera didn't go too purple on us here, and though the smaller building has plenty of noice and feathering around the edges, this shot is okay.
Again, the Samsung Highnote captures more detail in the shade than some of the worse cameraphones we've tried, but the fringing is a problem. Check out that white car near the center, it seems to be glowing with radiation.
GPS navigation - Very good
The Samsung Highnote uses Sprint Navigator for turn-by-turn directions, and in our tests the phone did a fine job finding us in New York City and tracking us on our drive home to the suburbs. Standard complaints about Sprint's One Touch apply here. Though Sprint Navigator gets its own tile on the carousel, this just allowed us to jump into the Sprint Navigator app, it didn't offer any useful info on its own. While this was convenient to jump directly into a map of our current location, we wish the point-of-interest database was accessible from the home screen. That's a feature we've seen on some Windows Mobile smartphones, among others, and it would be very useful to have here.