The Samsung Jack ($100 with a two-year contract from AT&T, as of June 22, 2009) handles work and play somewhat better than its predecessors, but the mobile-phone landscape has changed significantly in the 18 months since the BlackJack II came out. For a smartphone today, it doesn't do much to attract newcomers to the Samsung fold, especially when matched against the impeccable design of the iPhone 3GS or the refined utility of the BlackBerry Curve 8310--both of which AT&T offers at the same price.
The original BlackJack made waves as a competent PDA/phone, and Samsung hopes (with the help of Ozzy Osbourne) to continue that legacy with the Jack. Running Windows Mobile 6.1, the Jack relies on a bevy of preinstalled applications to handle most basic business and PDA functions. Out of the box, the Jack comes loaded with Microsoft Office Mobile (mobile version of Excel, OneNote, PowerPoint, and Word), Adobe Reader LE, and Internet Explorer; an RSS reader; and applications for eBay, Wikipedia, and a handful of media portals. Most of the stuff I wanted to do didn't require delving into too many menus or setup screens, and adding applications isn't difficult: Google Maps and YouTube, for example, were easy to download from their Web sites, and I installed them without much fuss.
Basic smartphone functions such as a calendar, IM (the built-in IM client supports AIM, MSN, and Yahoo Messenger; other protocols, like Google Chat, require third-party applications), text messaging, and e-mail are readily accessible from the Home set of menus. Though the mail client handles multiple e-mail addresses fairly well, it's meant for people who need to send and receive mail on the go, not people who would need the more advanced sorting or search functions that a full-fledged PC mail client would provide.
Like the BlackJack and BlackJack II, the Jack is candybar-style smartphone; the whole body has a dark chrome finish that looks incredibly slick. Unfortunately, "slick" refers to the texture as well as the aesthetics: Between the finish and the tiny dimensions (the Jack measures 4.4 inches by 2.4 inches by 0.5 inch and weighs 3.6 ounces), the phone threatened to slip out of my hands every time I pulled it out of my pocket or held it up to my ear. The body itself seemed strong enough for everyday use, but I'd be worried about dropping it more frequently than usual.
Taking its cue from various Blackberry models, the Jack splits its face fairly evenly between the hardware full-QWERTY keyboard and the display. The latter is sufficiently large and well lit to support most phone functions--browsing contacts, handling texts, displaying caller ID, and the like--though I never got used to browsing the Web on the 2.4-inch (320-by-240-pixel resolution) screen. Samsung nixed the navigational scrollwheel included on earlier BlackJacks in favor of a four-directional central button. It worked fine for navigating through Windows Mobile but seemed to skip all over the place with Internet Explorer--especially when I was too impatient to let the page load before I started trying to read.
Regrettably, the hardware keyboard that initially drew me to the Jack ended up being its biggest flaw. Even users accustomed to the hunting and pecking on a Blackberry will have to adjust to the Jack's keyboard. The keys are so small and so tightly packed together that typing becomes an ordeal. Rectifying typing errors involves using the delete key (which also functions as the Go Back button), located next to the scroll buttons and just under the right menu button. This arrangement makes the following scenario something of a recurring nightmare: You enter a typo like "hwllo" instead of "hello," notice the mistake after you finish typing the word, and try to correct it--at which point you accidentally hit the Scroll Right button instead of the delete key (which navigates you away from the text field you were editing), and then hit the delete key (which has now become the Go Back button, since your previous action deselected the text field), sending you to a completely different application.
The keyboard also contains a bottom row of shortcut buttons to certain options (mute, camera, e-mail, browser, and GPS); volume control is on the left side of the phone's spine. Both the volume control and the mute buttons affect just the ringtone/IM/text message notifications--not the applications--so if you start streaming a YouTube video during a meeting, you may get outed by the (rather wimpy) speakers. Also, the modifier keys (one for caps, the other for punctuation and other characters) are somewhat "sticky": If you accidentally change to caps, it's faster to delete the wrong character and then type the correct character than to press the Shift key again and hope that it switches back to lowercase--because, well, sometimes it just doesn't want to.
Call quality was impressive on both ends, though the phone dropped calls more often than I had expected, usually in areas where it attempted to switch between 3G, Wi-Fi, and EDGE networks. Samsung advertises the Jack's battery life at 7 hours of talk time; and in our lab tests we obtained 8 hours of talk time, but sustained tasks like browsing the Web or using media applications will deplete the battery more rapidly. You can probably get through a day of work and play on the Jack, but you'll have to get used to charging it nightly. And since it uses proprietary ports, you're out of luck if you leave your charger elsewhere.
The Jack's multimedia capabilities are average. The phone has a built-in 3.2-megapixel camera that can take pictures and video at a decent resolution; but like most cell phone cameras, it doesn't handle poorly lit scenes or moving subjects very well. You can easily e-mail pictures, send them via MMS, transmit them via Bluetooth, or upload them to HP Snapfish directly from the camera app.
The Jack supports most major audio and video file formats (including AAC and MP4)--and you can buy music directly through AT&T's Mobile Music service--but the phone's external speakers aren't strong enough to encourage you to abandon your MP3 player of choice. In addition, anyone dealing with a large selection of music won't appreciate slogging through thousands of tracks in Windows Media Player Mobile.
To my surprise, setting a custom ringtone required quite a bit of menu navigating and file format changing. And I couldn't figure out a way to set the text/IM/email alert sounds to external sound files, meaning that I couldn't use my preferred Metal Gear Solid codec ringtone and "!" text message indicator.
All in all, Samsung could have called the Jack the Jack of All Trades: It has array of applications, features, connectivity options, and A/V functions you'd expect in a modern smartphone. But in terms of design, the Jack represents an incremental update of the BlackJack from 2006--and the smartphone marketplace has changed dramatically since then. These days, most consumers with $100 to spend on a phone from AT&T would be hard-pressed to justify buying the Jack over the Nokia E71x (the contract-subsidized version of the Nokia E71) or the BlackBerry Curve 8310, both of which offer similar functionality with a better keyboard.
The Samsung Jack can handle your work and play needs fairly well, but doesn't really manage to shine in any way.
- Very slick physical design
- Very functional with minimal setup
- Keys are cramped and poorly delineated
- Feels slippery and hard to hold on to