One look at Samsung's Blackjack and it's clear who the electronics giant has got in their sights. Like the Motorola Q, the Blackjack is a Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition device that features a full QWERTY keyboard and high-speed data capabilities. Blackjack is thinner, lighter, and narrower than the Q, but it's keyboard and controls had to be a bit cramped in order to fit onto that narrow frame. On the other hand, Blackjack's processor is a hair faster than the one found inside of the Q - but did it make a difference in real world usage?
Currently available only on Cingular, the Blackjack is a quad band GSM handset that's compatible with the network's new 3G HSDPA data services, which are currently available in most major metropolitan areas in the US. If you live outside of a 3G area, you can use Cingular's slower EDGE network for Email, Web, and other data services on Blackjack. Unfortunately, Blackjack does not include an 802.11 antenna for WiFi compatibility.
Windows Mobile is Windows Mobile, but Cingular has packaged a few extras with the Blackjack much as Sprint did with the Q. Is the Blackjack the answer to your slim, sleek, smartphone needs? Much of that depends on how big a power user you are. Blackjack is great for those with smallish fingers and smallish smartphone needs. Bigger Cingular users (literally and figuratively) will likely be happier with the HTC-made 8525.
Measuring 113 x 59 x 12 mm and weighing just 99 g, Blackjack is a few millimeters shorter and narrower, .5 mm thinner, and 16 grams lighter than the Q. Blackjack fit comfortably into pants and jacket pockets, and was generally even less noticeable than the Q when not in use. The one caveat to this lay in Blackjack's rear panel design: a noticeable bulge around the camera housing detracts from an otherwise sleek, flat design.
A 2.25" screen sits at the top of the front panel just beneath a silver earpiece grill. A Samsung logo frames the screen on the bottom edge, and beneath that you'll find a two-row horizontal array of controls: A centered five-way D-pad is flanked on the left by Call, Home, and soft key buttons, and on the right by a second soft key along with Hang Up and Back buttons. Beneath this array is a full QWERTY board made up of slim oval shaped keys fanned out at a slant (the left side keys slant to the upper left, the right side to the upper right). Buttons are finished in black save for the ten that double as a dialing pad - these are finished in grey and spaced over every other column to stand out.
A scroll wheel and back-button combination on the right panel of the Blackjack allows for one-handed access to many functions, and an excellent programmable shortcut menu is accessible by pressing and holding the scroll wheel. A rubber-capped microSD memory card slot lies just above the plastic ridge which sets the wheel and back button off from the rest of the side panel. Samsung's infamous single-port USB/charger/headphone jack (also rubber-capped) can be found on the left side panel along with a volume rocker switch.
The back panel of the handset is largely given over to the battery cover, which also conceals the SIM card slot. Centered near the top of the panel is the aforementioned camera sensor bulge, which also houses a self-portrait mirror and speaker.
Overall, I found the Blackjack's design very nice but it also led to some usability issues for me. The QWERTY board was simply too small - and a bit too slippery - for me to get used to. My hands and fingers are a bit larger than average, but not exactly huge, and I really had to work hard to make sure I hit the buttons I was trying to hit. This lead to numerous typos while composing messages or entering Web URLs, and eventually to my having to slow down while typing lest I get lost in a sea of frustration. The flush-mount D-pad caused similar problems, if on a much smaller scale.
On the flip side, the small, thin, light form factor of Blackjack is excellent, and the soft-grip plastic finish was very easy to hold for extended periods of time. I would definitely recommend getting this phone in hand for a few minutes before ordering one for yourself. If you find the keypad comfortable to use, you'll love the design. But if you're like me, the small, cramped buttons will effectively turn using Blackjack into a very frustrating experience.
Samsung built Blackjack with a 220 MHz processor inside, but it's really not enough for power users. Performance was more or less on par with the Motorola Q that I recently tested: Running one application at a time was generally fine - save for the issues with fast typing and Web browsing I mentioned - but switching between applications was relatively slow and hopping, say, from Email to Contacts to the Web definitely involved some waiting around. While it remains to be seen if the forthcoming Windows Mobile 6 OS - which Samsung has confirmed will be available to Blackjack owners - will improve performance, a smartphone with a heartier processor such as Cingular's 8525 (and its 400 MHz chip) can do more for you faster than Blackjack can. Of course, a beefier handset will be, well, beefier in the hand; Samsung had to sacrifice some performance to keep Blackjack so small and light.
Cingular included a few multimedia applications that give access to their exclusive content. Cingular Video, which features clips from CNN, HBO, and other content providers, requires access to their 3G HSDPA network, while Cingular Music and XM Streaming Radio worked fairly well over the slower EDGE network that most rural users will have to settle for. Cingular's Blackjack definitely has an edge over Sprint and Verizon's Q when it comes to entertainment options - at least for now.
Outlook mobile handles email, contacts, and organizer functionality, and should be familiar territory to users of its desktop counterpart. Caller and photo caller ID are supported. Scheduling and editing Outlook appointments was easy using the Blackjack's front panel controls, and scrolling through calendars with the phone's right-side scroll wheel was a snap, as well. That being said, Outlook Mobile's user interface is serviceable but certainly nowhere near as pleasant in terms of look and feel as calendar apps found on Symbian devices. Again, Windows Mobile devotees are eagerly awaiting the updated version of Outlook soon to arrive on WinMob 6.
Windows Media Player 10 Mobile handles audio/video playback, and it works well with media files loaded onto the Blackjack via Bluetooth and microSD memory card, as well as those downloaded directly from the Net. Though it lacks the grace of iTunes or even Nokia's mobile music player, Windows Media works well as a digital audio player, supporting playlists and album art display. Video clips looked excellent when viewed on the Blackjack's QVGA screen, though at 2.25" it is a bit smaller than the Q's 2.5" screen or even the 2.4" display found on the T-Mobile Dash.
It should be noted that Blackjack's battery life isn't quite on par with that of other smartphones, though it does fall into the same "acceptable, but you need to recharge it every night" category that most of its competitors do. With medium-heavy use of broadband data and multiple applications, and some Bluetooth activity, the phone was in dire need of a recharge by the end of a single work day. My review handset actually came with a backup battery, and an extended life battery is available as an option.
Blackjack features a 1.3 megapixel camera with 2x digital zoom. There is no flash or assist light on the phone, but a small mirror is mounted next to the optical sensor for self-portrait taking. The camera features timer, multi-shot, and video capture modes.
The camera's performance was adequate, if nothing to get too excited about. Photos tended to come out a little soft-focused, though those taken outdoors in ample lighting yielded better results. Sending photos via email over Cingular's network was fast and easy, and photos could also be used for MMS messages or transferred to a computer via microSD card or Bluetooth.
A video capture mode is available, as well, but video capture is limited to just nine frames per second, resulting in some pretty unspectacular motion effects. Videos can, however, be captured at resolutions up to 320x240, which is quite large for a camera phone.
That 2.25" diagonal, 320x240 pixel display is quite easy on the eyes, even if it is a bit smaller than the ones found on Blackjack's closest competitors. While the display is limited to 65,000 colors, and not the 240k or 16 million found on state-of-the-art, it still worked very well for viewing documents (particularly via Picsel Viewer's smooth pan and zoom capabilities), reading messages, and watching movie clips.
As with the Q, Blackjack's display is not a touchscreen. As such, the handset runs WinMob Smartphone edition, and not the full PocketPC version. Navigation options are obviously more numerous on a stylus-enabled smartphone, but all of Blackjack's features are pretty easily accessible via the scroll wheel and various buttons on phone.
Windows Mobile 5 allows for customization of the display including installation of background images on the Today screen. Font styles and sizes can also be customized throughout the system.
Call quality on Blackjack was generally excellent, and voices came through loud clear through both the earpiece and speakerphone. Wired earpieces will work with via Samsung's proprietary accessory port, and a 2.5-to-3.5mm stereo adapter is available for use of standard stereo headphones with Blackjack. I find Samsung's one port-fits-all design (found on most of their handsets) needlessly frustrating, as it limits the user to connecting the handset to either an earpiece, USB cable, or AC charger, one at a time. The phone also supports stereo Bluetooth using the A2DP profile. Need to charge your phone while on a call using headphones? Those had better be Bluetooth headphones.
Windows Mobile allows for extensive customization of ringtones and system sounds on Blackjack. WAV and mp3 files can be assigned to ringtones, caller ID tones, and a plethora of system sounds. While Windows Media Player does a fine job of handling music playback, a variety of third-party audio applications are available.
As mentioned, Cingular also included their Cingular Music applications on Blackjack. Cingular Music is something of a compilation of other music services including Napster and Yahoo's streaming music offerings, and it also features MusicID, which lets you record a snippet of a song and submit it to Cingular's database of some 3 million + tracks. The service then tells you what song that snippet was from. It actually worked surprisingly well for me, and could come in handy on a road trip or other occasion when you're prone to grimace and say, "If only I knew what that song was! Then my life would be complete at last!"
If Blackjack's keyboard suits your hands, it makes a quite nice messaging device, thanks to Outlook Mobile and Cingular's inclusion of the Oz Instant Messenger client. Outlook handles POP and IMAP email with relative ease, including (manual) downloading of email attachments for viewing with Picsel. Email can also be downloaded from and synched with Windows PCs via Active Sync. Windows Mobile users are looking forward to support - at long last - for HTML formatted Emails in WinMob 6. Again, Samsung has said that Blackjack owners will be able to upgrade to WM 6 in the near future.
SMS and MMS messaging is also supported on Blackjack. Images and audio and video clips can be attached to MMS messages, provided that both sender and receiver have compatible cellular service. Instant Messaging support is better than most Windows Mobile devices thanks to the included OZ application, which supports AIM, Yahoo, and MSN Messenger.
I won't repeat myself here by going into detail about Blackjack's QWERTY board. Suffice it to say it was too small for my hands and fingers. One nice feature, however, is single-click access to ALT keys by way of holding a button down for a second or so. Emailing on a truncated smartphone keyboard means lots key combinations for punctuation and so forth, and Blackjack's system effectively eliminates the need for many of those two-thumb keystrokes. If only they could build that into a slightly bigger keyboard, I'd be happy.
Blackjack is compatible with Cingular's 3G HSDPA network as well as their slower EDGE data services. Web surfing and Email on Blackjack was quite speedy when I was within HSDPA coverage areas in the San Francisco Bay Area, and slowed noticeably when I moved into EDGE-only coverage.
Blackjack does not have an internal WiFi antenna, so Internet connectivity is limited to HSDPA cellular data (the rough equivalent of Sprint and Verizon's EV-DO protocol). Note that Cingular's HSDPA coverage is not quite as prevalent throughout the US as Sprint or Verizon's EV-DO networks, though Cingular is catching up quickly. EV-DO also tends to be just a bit faster than HSDPA, though the speed difference tends to be more noticeable when using a handset as a PC modem than when browsing the Web on the phone itself.
As mentioned, Blackjack comes with the standard install of Internet Explorer, which really left me wanting for an alternative. Picsel's Web browser would be a welcome addition to this phone, as would Opera Mobile. Sadly, neither is included out of the box.
Blackjack was designed to take full advantage of Cingular's HSDPA data network, and can be used on its own or as a cellular modem tethered to your PC. That being said, if 802.11x connectivity is a "must-have" for you, you'll want to look elsewhere for your next phone. Cingular's HSDPA network provides excellent data transfer speeds, but if you travel out of range you're stuck with the dial-up-esque performance of EDGE.
Being a Windows Mobile device, Blackjack relies on ActiveSync for syncing of organizer, contact, and email data with Windows PCs. Syncing is supported over Bluetooth 2.0 and USB connections. Bluetooth also supports mono and stereo audio devices and file transfer.
I tested the Q with a few Bluetooth headsets and it worked fine, pairing easily with both mono and stereo devices and delivering good sound quality. Mono and stereo wired headsets are also available, though you are limited to those compatible with Samsung's proprietary accessory port.
Blackjack also has a microSD card slot which supports removable memory cards. No memory card is included in the retail packaging, and you'll probably want to pick one up as the handset has only about 31MB of internal memory accessible for user storage.
Thin is in when it comes to cell phones, and with good reason. A thin handset can be more comfortable to use, easier to stow away, and lighter to carry around than a bulkier counterpart. However, sacrifices in the way of keypad design, power and battery life must often be made in the name of saving space. When it comes to smartphones and their sophisticated controls and power hungry processors, successfully negotiating these trade-offs can be tricky business indeed.
Samsung has tried to strike a fashion-forward balance between form and function with their Blackjack smartphone for Cingular. Compared to its closest rival, the Motorola Q, Blackjack is smaller, lighter, and more or less equally as powerful. While both devices struggle with multitasking and browsing of complex Web pages, they also shine when it comes to broadband-enabled Email and carrier-specific information services. Some of Samsung's other smart devices come with Picsel's excellent Web browser installed but Blackjack did not - too bad, as this might have made surfing the Web on the device a much more pleasant and useful experience.
If Blackjack's QWERTY board were a touch bigger - or my fingers a tad smaller - I might have really taken to the phone as a quick, easy to carry messaging handset with some great multimedia features. As it is, though, Blackjack's buttons are simply too small and close together for my comfort. I simply can't type on Blackjack like I can on the Q, and when it comes to a device like this, typing is half the attraction (if not more).
If you're a Cingular customer in need of a smartphone, get a Blackjack in your hands and see how you like it. If you're not sure - or think of yourself as a power user - make sure you also check out the HTC-made Cingular 8525. By taking on a little more size and weight, the 8525 gives you back a lot more in the way of comfort, horsepower, and functionality.