AT&T’s Samsung Epix could easily be called the BlackJack III: It has a similar design to both the BlackJack and BlackJack II, but adds a few new features, including Wi-Fi, and its Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional operating system takes advantage of the device’s touchscreen. We also like the new built-in optical mouse and faster 624-MHz processor. The Epix is certainly a step up from the BlackJack II but, at $199, it also costs $50 more than the BlackJack II did when it first hit store shelves. Is it worth the price?
We like the smoke gray coloring of the Samsung Epix, although we still think the original black of the BlackJack looked sharper. At 4.6 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches, the Epix has a slightly larger footprint than its predecessor. It’s also 0.3 ounces heavier, likely due to the higher capacity 1800mAh battery and integrated touchscreen. In our hands, the device felt a bit bulky but solid. It’s taller than the BlackBerry Bold but not as wide.
Below the screen are silver keys that include Menu, Send, and End, and two soft keys. The volume keys are high on the left side, making one-handed volume adjustment difficult. With the Epix, the controls have been moved down to the middle of the device, which we appreciate.
The right side of the unit has a microSD slot; the Epix supports SDA 2.0, which means that microSD Cards up to 32GB in capacity will be supported as they become available. Also on the right side of the Epix is a shared headphone/charging proprietary jack. We would prefer a 3.5mm headphone jack, which would accommodate any standard earphones, but at least Samsung includes an adapter. There’s a 2-MP camera on the back of the unit, but it doesn’t have a flash.
Display and Optical Mouse
The 2.5-inch, 320 x 320-pixel touchscreen display can be operated via touch or with the included stylus, which fits snugly in the top left corner of the phone. While we appreciated the vibrating haptic feedback, we enjoyed much better accuracy with the stylus. A capacitive display this is not.
Because this is a touchscreen device, you won’t find a Back key for backing out of menus or selections. There’s a soft key on the touchscreen for this purpose, which takes some getting used to.
The jog wheel has been replaced by an optical mouse, similar to that of the Samsung Omnia, which let us easily control a cursor on the display by moving our finger on it as if it were a small touchpad. The optical mouse feature can be turned off, and the pad can be used as a multi-directional controller, which some may prefer when scrolling Web pages.
The full QWERTY keypad remains relatively the same as on the BlackJack II: small with somewhat stiff keys, but we appreciated its good tactile feedback and that the numbers were still close together for quick dialing. Within a day, we were typing at the same pace as we do on our BlackBerry Curve.
User Interface and Performance
Running Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional, the Epix reminds us of the unlocked Palm Treo Pro, which has similar features. The touchscreen’s haptic feedback gave a gentle buzz each time it registered an on-screen selection. Navigating the standard Windows Mobile home screen was easy; you can customize it to display your calendar, e-mail, and more.
We noticed during our testing that Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional didn’t hang while we had other applications open; this is likely due to the significantly faster processor on the Epix (running at 624 MHz, a significant improvement over the 260 MHz on the BlackJack II), and the 256MB of included ROM and 128MB of RAM.
Windows Mobile Professional 6.1 comes with Outlook Mobile, which you can configure with any POP or IMAP e-mail address; it will even go and search for the settings of such online e-mail providers as Yahoo and Gmail so you don’t have to worry about custom configuration settings. As with all Windows Mobile 6.1 devices, support for Microsoft Exchange is included on the Epix.
The Epix also comes with support for AT&T’s push-enabled Xpress Mail. You can use this to set up those various online accounts, as well as custom POP or IMAP accounts. It also supports common e-mail providers like Comcast, EarthLink, and .Mac (it doesn’t say MobileMe, yet). Xpress Mail was easy to use, and it did a good job updating our inbox.
The Epix comes with AIM, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo preinstalled. Our AIM account continued running in the background, and our buddy list was clean and easy to access. We were alerted of new messages while we were surfing the Web, too.
Even though it’s not a multimedia-centric device, the Epix handles music and video fairly well. Using our own pair of headphones plugged into the 3.5mm adapter, our music sounded as good as it did coming out of our iPod. The Epix supports stereo Bluetooth, too, so you can use wireless headphones. We installed DivX and watched a few episodes of Mad Men using our microSD Card; voices weren’t always in sync with video, however.
The Epix also supports MobiTV and XM Radio; both of these features are available inside the AT&T Music folder. XM Radio provides 25 channels of radio for $8.99 per month, and you get a free 10-minute trial on the phone. We enjoyed listening to Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes Radio channel in our office, but audio sounded watery and not as full or loud as our MP3s, even with a full 3G signal. We appreciated that we could leave XM Radio running in the background while we did other tasks.
MobiTV is also available on the Epix, offering 40 channels for $9.99 per month. We watched NBC Sports Mobile, but the picture was a bit distorted and wasn’t fluid while we watched highlights of a UFC fight. The same was true for The Office, which cut out after 20 seconds to a black screen until it restarted.
Photos and Video
Using the Epix’ 2-MP camera, a shot of a co-worker in our office came out better than we expected; colors were represented quite well, although background objects were a bit blurry, and we couldn’t read the headlines of an article she was holding from our distance of about 3 feet. The zoom function had a very loud and obnoxious robotic sound effect to it, too. We like that the Epix has built-in Photo Slides software, which rendered and sorted our pictures faster than Windows Mobile’s own photo viewer did.
Our recorded video clip of a co-worker looked decent, and audio came through well. We wouldn’t use this phone to record a special event, but it’s satisfactory for shooting casual videos.
Unlike older phones such as the Motorola Q 9h global, the Epix doesn’t come packaged with the Opera Mobile browser, which we would have preferred. Instead, it comes with the basic and handicapped Internet Explorer Mobile. CNN.com and NYTimes.com loaded in 10 seconds each, and ESPN.com took 12 seconds. That’s on a par with the BlackJack II, which loaded NYT.com in 9 seconds over AT&T’s same 3G HSDPA network.
Our own Laptopmag.com homepage, not designed for mobile devices, took 1 minute and 23 seconds to fully load on the device, but we were able to read it after just 20 seconds. For faster load times of full Web sites, we suggest downloading Opera Mobile or Skyfire Beta.
Using Wi-Fi yielded much better results. We were able to load ESPN.com in 8 seconds, CNN.com in 9 seconds, the NYTimes.com in 6 seconds, and Laptopmag.com in 58 seconds.
The Epix comes with a shortcut to install AT&T Navigator, which is powered by TeleNav. This $9.99 monthly service provides spoken turn-by-turn driving directions and maps along with a local directory, which you can use to search for ATMs, gas, food, and more in your area. Outdoors, the software pinpointed our location in 4 seconds, but it was off by a block. We were able to plot a route to the Lower East Side in 5 seconds, and the map began loading right away, although it took a few extra seconds to complete. The directions were accurate as we began moving, and we were able to navigate without any issues.
Voice quality was good with the Epix; we had no complaints during our frequent phone calls with family and friends both in Manhattan and outside the city. Outdoors, we left a message on a landline using the Epix and the voice clarity was excellent, although we could hear muffled background noises in the background and an occasional honk from passing taxis.
The Epix’ endurance is far from epic. During testing the handset started showing a low-battery warning after 4.5 hours of intermittent data usage. You’ll likely need to recharge every day.
Samsung Epix Verdict
In many ways, the Samsung Epix improves on the BlackJack II. This new device adds Wi-Fi (a feature the Motorola Q 9h global lacks), Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional with a unique optical mouse and touchscreen, and a faster processor. And we still like the keyboard. However, the Epix doesn’t last very long a charge, and it’s bigger and heavier than its predecessor. At $199, the Epix is an affordable alternative to the $299 BlackBerry Bold, but we would wait for the price to come down even more (the BlackJack II and BlackBerry Curve both currently sell for $79.99 with a rebate) before investing in this smart phone.
Samsung Epix: Hands-On Video
The Epix is basically a new BlackJack and while we like the improvements made over the BlackJack II— the implementation of Windows Mobile 6.1 Professional with the haptic touchscreen and stylus is nice, and the included 3.5mm headphone adapter rocks—we think its $199 price tag is too steep. The Blackjack II, for example, came out on the market at $149.99. Check out the hands-on video for more design elements we enjoyed and others we found lacking.