capsule review

Samsung Highlight (T-Mobile) Cell Phone

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At a Glance
  • Samsung Highlight

Nowadays everyone wants a device to manage their schedule, access social networking services, and play the occasional music video--all on a touchscreen that resembles a Star Trek tricorder. The Samsung Highlight ($130 with a two-year T-Mobile contract, as of 8/5/09) has few features that make it stand out from the iPhone, the Palm Pre, or the T-Mobile G1. Instead, it looks and feels like a lesser iPhone--and it costs $30 more.

The Highlight's biggest selling point is its full HTML Web browser, which takes advantage of the 2.5-inch touchscreen. It didn't impress me, however; though it was great at rendering mobile-optimized Web sites, it consistently failed to load at least 70 percent of the standard Web sites I visited. On lifestyle staples such as Yelp, page elements were erratic and unreadable. Here's hoping that a future firmware update will make the browser more usable, because as of this writing, the Highlight's crisp display is wasted on mobile-optimized Web sites that any full-featured phone can handle just fine.

Because the Highlight runs a proprietary operating system, it doesn't have access to an app store. It can run J2ME apps, but they can't take advantage of the touchscreen, making them feel (and look) rather crude. What's more, some of them (Gmail, most notably) simply didn't work at all. The built-in messaging client was similarly confusing: It logged me in to AIM just fine, but displayed only 9 of my online buddies even though about 30 were actually online. Samsung plans to open an app store in the fall, which might help.

One thing I did like was the Highlight's TouchWiz home menu screen, which works kind of like the Mac OS X desktop. On the left side is a scrollable list of widgets (text messages, Web browser, RSS reader, MyFaves tab, and so on) that you can drag out to the desktop area for immediate access. It gets cramped rather quickly, so you have space for maybe four or five widgets at most, but it helps minimize the time you spend navigating the menus. It doesn't look particularly slick, especially compared with the iPhone's clean interface, but the customizability is welcome.

The touchscreen itself is incredibly quirky; about two weeks passed before I felt comfortable using its on-screen keyboard to send texts or fill out Web forms. It doesn't have any autocorrect functions, either, just T9 predictive text, which doesn't really fill in the gaps. Even after two weeks, I found that I was far more error-prone when I tried to type with both hands, so I stuck with the hunt-and-peck typing method.

While the Highlight's haptic feedback helps some, it's rather laggy and inconsistent. The Web browser, for example, won't always respond after you've touched a button or selected a text field. Also, the Highlight's accelerometer is supposed to determine when to switch from the standard alphanumeric phone keypad to the horizontal QWERTY keyboard, but sometimes it didn't notice the switch until the third or fourth take.

As a media phone, the Highlight performed well. It comes with an earbud set that attaches by a proprietary connector. While the audio quality was surprisingly good, the lack of a standard 3.5mm headphone jack is always disappointing. Without the earbuds, the sound quality is acceptable but the volume is much too low. I tried streaming YouTube videos; though the video quality was fine, I could barely hear the sound.

Uploading songs or sound files is simply a matter of sending files via Bluetooth. Music mavens will probably need more management capabilities than the built-in MP3 player can provide, but for casual use it's not bad. I noticed that the video player seems to choke on higher-quality files, however. Oddly, the music video that's preloaded on the Highlight drops a few frames here and there.

Physically, the Highlight's design is rather unremarkable. The slender phone weighs about 3.7 ounces with the battery, and it has only a few physical buttons. An unlock button sits on the top of the handset, the volume rocker is located on the left, a shutter button for the (unremarkable) 3.0-megapixel camera is on the right, and three buttons on the face make a call, return to the desktop screen, and end a call. The rubberized, textured backing felt nice and stable in my hand, especially when compared with the Samsung Jack smartphone, which felt slippery. Make sure to get a screen protector for the Highlight, though, because it'll scratch fairly easily in your pocket or bag.

The call quality was hit-and-miss. I experienced an inordinate amount of dropped calls in the first couple of days, but that was probably due to T-Mobile network problems rather than the phone itself, because it stabilized fairly quickly. I was pleasantly surprised by the battery life (Samsung estimates the battery life at 6.5 hours of talk time). I used the phone for everyday calls, texting, and plenty of Web browsing on the 3G network, and had to recharge it only every six days or so.

Ultimately, the Samsung Highlight is a decent touchscreen phone that can handle basic Web browsing and media functions just fine. At $130, however, it's just too expensive. Phone buyers who aren't wedded to T-Mobile could opt for the $99 iPhone 3G and save $30 (or even pay just $49 for a refurbished 8GB iPhone 3G), and T-Mobile loyalists could go for the G1 or its successor, the T-Mobile myTouch.

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At a Glance
  • The Samsung Highlight offers standard cell phone functions in an attractive package--for the price of a smartphone.


    • Big, bright screen
    • Customizable interface


    • Too expensive
    • Built-in apps are unreliable
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