Can a smart phone deliver the info you're looking for almost as fast as you can take it out of your pocket? That's the Samsung Continuum's mission. This Android handset from Verizon Wireless ($199 with mail-in rebate) features a ticker screen right underneath the main display that flashes social networking updates, news headlines, e-mail and IM alerts, and more. You don't even need to unlock the device to peek at the ticker. In a way, the Continuum feels like it's more connected than other smart phones, but you'll need to make some sacrifices if you want to always be in the know.
The Samsung Continuum looks like the Fascinate got hit with a shrink ray--in one dimension. Although it's taller than its Galaxy S cousin on Verizon, the Continuum is considerably narrower (2.3 vs. 2.5 inches). It's also slightly heavier, at 4.4 vs. 4.2 ounces. The glossy black handset sports nicely rounded corners and a slick fine grid pattern on the back cover, though it smudges up fast.
Interestingly, this Android phone's four buttons (Menu, Home, Back, Search) sit between the two displays but are really all part of a single panel. While small, these buttons worked fine.
We appreciate the dedicated camera button and external microSD card slot on the right side of the Continuum for easy access. You don't get a front-facing camera, but given the lackluster quality we've seen from Android phones thus far, that's not a big loss.
Although the Continuum looks like it has two displays and a separate area for buttons, all of these elements are part of the same Super AMOLED panel. The main part of the display, which is just as brilliant and rich as other Galaxy S phones we've tested, measures 3.4 inches, while the ticker measures 1.8 inches. While the main area has the same resolution as the 4-inch Galaxy S phones (800 x 480), everything appears smaller on the Continuum because you have 0.6 inches less real estate. For example, we had to zoom in more on websites to make out text, and typing proved more of a challenge.
The Continuum includes two keyboards: Swype and the stock Android layout. The former option, which is turned on by default, is best for entering text with one hand, because you can trace a line from letter to letter without lifting your finger off the keyboard. We actually prefer the latter for thumb typing, However, we found the Android keyboard more accurate when typing with two hands, despite the fact that it has smaller keys.
Software and Interface
Given that Android 2.3 is probably right around the corner, it's a bit annoying that the Continuum is stuck on Android 2.1. The interface itself is similar to other Galaxy S phones. You get seven customizable home screens and an iPhone-like applications menu that lets you display your apps in a grid or in list view. Samsung's Android notification area continues to be one of the best, offering buttons for toggling Airplane Mode, Bluetooth, GPS, and Wi-Fi.
The Continuum's ticker display promises "zero-click" access to news feeds, weather, and social networking updates, as well as e-mail and instant message alerts. You can even use the bottom screen to control music playback (though not with third-party apps such as Pandora). What Samsung means by zero-click is that you don't have to unlock the screen to get your info fix; two touch sensors on the bottom side of the device let you squeeze the Continuum to light up the ticker display. It worked well, but sometimes we had to touch the sides more than once.
Once the display is activated, you swipe sideways to peek at different ticker items. If you want to look at all your updates in one place, just press the icon on the right side of the ticker to launch the ticker app. It aggregates everything from social networking updates to RSS feeds to e-mails (though they're strangely called Events).
Getting the ticker up and running requires a fair amount of effort, and that's because you have to enter account information for services such as e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter separately from the Accounts feature within Android. We wish you could do this just once when setting up the phone.
Once we entered all this info, the Continuum treated us to a steady stream of social updates. At first it was overwhelming; you'd be surprised how many tweets you might miss when you're away from your desktop. (You can always tweak the settings so that you only receive Twitter messages.) When you click on a Facebook update, you're brought to the Android Facebook app, and clicking a tweet launches the bundled Twidroyd app. Our only gripe here is that the ticker was sometimes an hour or more behind Twitter itself.
Setting up RSS feeds was cumbersome. While we like that Samsung pre-loaded a bunch of choices (CNN, ESPN, NYT Politics, etc), it's not immediately apparent how to add your own. First you touch RSS Feeds under Ticker Settings, then "User added RSS feeds," and then the Menu button. Next you click Add RSS Feed (if you know the exact address) or Search (to find the feed by website name). Unfortunately, website logos only displayed for pre-loaded feeds, while the ones we added used a generic RSS logo.
Last but not least is weather, displayed by default to the left of the time. Clicking on the weather icon displays the current conditions and five-day forecast, courtesy of WeatherBug. Too bad you can't touch the time in the ticker to set your alarm.
Like its Galaxy S brethren, the Continuum features a 1-GHz Hummingbird processor, but how much of a resource hog is the ticker? In some benchmarks, this phone notched slightly slower scores than the Fascinate. The Continuum trailed in Linpack (7.7 vs 8) and in Nbench's memory (2.8 vs. 2.9), integer (3.9 vs. 4), and float (0.76 vs. 0.77) tests. It also fell behind the Fascinate in the Nenamark graphics test (44 frames per second vs. 47).
On the other hand, the Continuum fared better in some parts of the Benchmark app, turning in higher graphics, CPU, and memory scores than the Fascinate. The only part of this test where the Continuum struggled was the file system portion, where it scored a lowly 40 to the Fascinate's 74.
In everyday use, the Continuum was mostly responsive when opening apps and switching between open programs, as well as switching display orientations. However, we noticed lag at times--whether we were backing out of apps or swiping between home screens--especially when the ticker was delivering updates. Launching the search app could take 4 seconds or more.
Since this is not a "Google Experience" device like the Droid series, the Continuum maps the search button to Bing instead of Google search. We'd prefer to have a choice. Verizon also bundles its 3G Mobile Hotspot app ($20 extra per month) V CAST services (music, videos, and tones), Blockbuster, Kindle, Skype Mobile, and VZ Navigator. We like that Verizon pre-loaded a couple of games, such as Scrabble and Tetris, but they're just trials.
Samsung adds plenty of its own apps to the mix, including AllShare (for streaming video and other content to DLNA-compliant gear), Daily Briefing (news headlines, your schedule, and weather), Voice Recorder, and Write and Go for updating your status on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter at once. ThinkFree Office lets you view and edit office documents. The bundled Nuance app lets you do a lot with your voice--with decent accuracy--such as call or message contacts, search, opening apps, and checking voicemail status. Unfortunately, the app took as long as 20 seconds to initiate.
Unlike other Galaxy S phones, the Continuum doesn't come with the Media Hub store for downloading movies and TV shows, nor did we see this app in the Android Market. Instead, you'll have to make due with Verizon's services, such as Blockbuster (powered by V CAST). At least the titles were recent when we poked around the app, including $3.99 rentals such as The Expendables and Eat Pray Love. An episode of Rules of Engagement we viewed through V CAST Video looked a little stretched on the Continuum, but it played smoothly.
We appreciated the music playback ticker when we sideloaded some tracks onto the phone. It displays a little thumbnail of the album art on the left side. Amazon MP3 isn't pre-loaded, but you can download it from the Amazon Market or use the bundled V CAST Music with Rhapsody instead. When we used Pandora, the Continuum's speaker got fairly loud, but it sounded tinny closer to 100 percent.
Camera and Camcorder
The Continuum's 5-megapixel camera is capable of taking sharp images, but only when your subject is absolutely still. Shots of two children came out blurry, but a photo of a fruit stand looked much better with punchy colors. We were much more impressed with the HD camcorder on this phone, which delivered high-quality 720p footage of New York City traffic. We only saw a bit of jerkiness. Indoors, the camcorder handled low light well, with less fuzziness than we're used to.
Voice Quality and Battery Life
On our end the Continuum sounded pretty good when making voice calls but others said they could hear static on the line. When we called back, they had the same complaints. Engaging the speakerphone resulted in loud but harsh-sounding audio.
The 1500mAH battery inside the Continuum lasted a good 7 hours and 46 minutes in our web surfing test; however, that was without the ticker running. Anecdotally, the device lasted from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with light to moderate usage, but we noticed the battery draining faster when the ticker was most active.
Samsung has pushed the Android envelope with the Continuum. The ticker not only saves time; it can also help you kill time. However, you'll sacrifice both performance and screen real estate versus other $199 smart phones, including the 4-inch Samsung Fascinate and the 4.3-inch Droid X. We also wish that you didn't have to enter account information more than once for services such as Facebook and Twitter. We'd like Samsung to give users the option of turning the ticker on or off for those times when you want to use the whole screen for apps, similar to Palm's webOS notification area. Nevertheless, the Continuum represents a solid effort and will appeal to information junkies on the go.