Reviewed March 10, 2008 by Tong Zhang, Senior Editor
If you think the Samsung Ace looks familiar to you, well, it is. We’ve seen its close cousins, the Samsung BlackJack late last year and the Samsung BlackJack II early this year, both on AT&T. While AT&T customers might think the Ace is old news, Sprint made a safe choice for its own customers by providing a proven and popular device that’s also a world phone. The Samsung Ace sits in between the BlackJack and the BlackJack II feature-wise with Windows Mobile 6, full QWERTY keyboard, EVDO and 1.3 megapixel camera. There is no GPS or Wi-Fi onboard. One thing that Ace is superior to both BlackJacks is the processor: the Ace has the Marvell PXA270 running at 312MHz. This world phone runs on Sprint’s CDMA network in the US with support for Sprint’s EV-DO for fast data; and it also comes with a SIM slot and the technology that allow users to use GSM/GPRS overseas. Please note that the GSM bands that work with the Ace are not available in the US. The Samsung Ace joins the BlackBerry 8830 in Sprint’s world phone line-up for those who want Sprint service at home, but wish to use the phone abroad with a GSM SIM card. The GSM portion is unlocked for use with any GSM carrier, and you must supply that SIM.
The Samsung Ace runs Windows Mobile 6 Standard edition (the non-touch screen edition of Windows Mobile). The smartphone supports syncing data to Windows PCs via ActiveSync, comes with Windows Media Player Mobile, Bluetooth v2.0 with EDR, a microSD card slot with support for up to 2GB cards and Sprint’s value-added content including Sprint TV and Sprint On Demand. Unlike the BlackJack that came with 2 batteries or the BlackJack II that came with a beefy 1700 mAh battery, the Samsung Ace comes with a standard 1300 mAh battery with the option to separately purchase an 1800 mAh extended battery.
Design and Ergonomics
Though a hair bigger than the BlackJack II, the Samsung Ace is narrower and thinner than the MOTO Q 9c and it looks slim. The Samsung measures in at 4.6 x 2.3 x 0.47 inches and weighs 3.84 ounces. The Ace is wider than a normal candy bar feature phone, but feels comfortable in hand. The Samsung has a muted and soft surface, similar to the first BlackJack but in contrast to the shiny and slippery black BlackJack II (the red BJII has a tetured surface). The only part that’s shiny on the Samsung Ace is the bezel around the 2.3” landscape display.
One of the things we disliked about the BlackJack’s control keys below the display was that they were too flat which made it difficult to use by touch. The Samsung Ace changed that a bit by enlarging the Call Send and End keys, and moving them to the outside. This makes dialing and picking up calls much easier. The shoulder soft menu keys and the Home and Back keys curve in the middle, creating a tiny gap that’s meant to help use the controls without too much looking. The keys are still too flat but at least there is some help that didn’t exist on the BJ.
The 5-way d-pad on the Ace is square (though tapers at the bottom) and the QWERTY keyboard has pyramid-shaped keys rather than domed shape found on the BlackJacks, and we have a slight preference for the Ace’s keys. The keyboard can’t compete with the Moto Q9 series devices, which have some of the best keyboards out there. The number keys are white against a silver background that lacks contrast, but we do like the backlight that illuminates brightly and evenly. You will find the usual Shift, Sym and Fn keys as well as dedicated keys to launch messaging and camera. Like the BlackJacks, the Ace has Fn key commands to speed up access to common tasks, and you can add your own Fn key shortcuts. For example, Fn plus the ‘b’ key opens Bluetooth settings, saving many button presses.
Side button controls include a volume rocker and the charging/syncing port on the left, microSD card, trackwheel and back button on the right. The power button is up top. The built-in camera with self-portrait mirror and the rear firing speaker live on the back of the Samsung above the battery door, and the hard-to-open battery door hides the battery and the SIM card slot. You will need to remove the battery to access the SIM card slot.
Phone Features and Reception
The first BlackJack had a stellar reception while the BlackJack II had a less powerful radio. The Samsung Ace has a good reception but not a superb one, though when you make a call or access the EV-DO network, the radio can go into super drive. In the Dallas metro area, the Samsung usually gets full signal strength in well-covered areas and ¼ full in spotty areas. Even in the spotty coverage areas, the Ace signal strength will increase dramatically when the radio is in use. The voice quality is very good for a Sprint phone with clear sound and loud volume. The rear-firing loudspeaker also has good voice quality and loud volume, though high-pitched voice sounds a little blown when volume is turned to max. The Samsung Ace comes with Bluetooth v2.0 and has support for Headset and Hands-free profiles, which means you can use Bluetooth headsets and car kits with your Ace. We tested the Samsung with the Plantronics Explorer 330 and the BlueAnt Z9 Bluetooth headsets. Voice quality through the Plantronics Explorer 330 was middle of the road: our call recipients could tell we were using a headset but the voice was clear enough to hold a smooth conversation. The DSP performance wasn’t stellar; and it scrambled road noise but didn’t reduce it by much. The volume was good and the range between the Explorer 330 and the Samsung was about 10 feet. The voice quality through the BlueAnt Z9 was about the same with better incoming voice quality than outgoing voice. The DSP worked better on the BlueAnt than the Plantronics with noticeable noise reduction. The volume wasn’t too loud and the range reached about 20 feet on the BlueAnt headset.
The Samsung Ace supports many popular call management features including call waiting, three-way calling, caller ID, unique ringtone, speed dials (99 total with 1 and 2-touch dialing) and voice dialing. Samsung and Sprint bundle Microsoft Voice Command 1.6 which works well both on the phone and via Bluetooth headset. The voice command software can not only handle voice dialing but also can read out your appointments, event alerts, messages, time and more. There is no dedicated button to launch Voice Command, you will need to press and hold the green Call Send key until the voice prompt appears on the screen and you hear the “listening” sound.
While the Samsung Ace has never dropped a voice call, the EV-DO data connection was sometimes a bumpy ride. In the areas where the voice signal is at ¼ of full strength, we experienced some connection drops in EV-DO. We tested the data speed using DSL Reports and the results reflected the correlation between the signal strength and data speed. In Sprint’s well-covered areas where the phone gets full signal strength, the DSLReports mobile speed test averaged 450-500 kbit/sec. But in spotty coverage area, the speed results were more like 200 kbit/sec. Despite the sometime slow data speed, web sites load fast with all images intact. The built-in browser (Internet Explorer mobile) is quite good compared to feature phone HTML browsers and can display web pages in desktop mode, keep cookies, history and favorites. Like more phone browsers with the exception of the iPhone, Nokia S60 and Opera, the Ace browser has trouble dealing with dHTML. As with all other Windows Mobile 6 devices, the Samsung supports POP3 and IMAP email as well as Microsoft Exchange and MS Direct Push email with Exchange 2003 SP2 or later. WinMo 6 manages full HTML format display and other nifty features if you are using Exchange 2003 SP2 or Exchange 2007. For those who wish to use their phone as modem, the Samsung Ace has the Bluetooth DUN profile, which means you can use the phone as modem via Bluetooth wireless. You can also use USB for the modem connection.
Horsepower and Performance
Like the MOTO Q9m and Q9c, the Samsung Ace runs the Marvell PXA270 processor at 312MHz, a faster processor than those in the BlackJack smartphones. The Samsung feels fast by Windows Mobile smartphone standards, but slower than feature phones, BlackBerry smartphones and the iPhone. Applications launch without lag and multimedia apps run smoothly. The only time that the device feels slow is when the device is booting up. The Samsung Ace has generous 96MB of RAM and decent 192MB of ROM. At boot, you will get 30.2MB free RAM which is good and 44.5MB of storage which is average. To add more storage, use the Samsung’s microSD card slot that supports up to 2GB cards (sorry, no SDHC support). You can run most applications off a card and store of your data there as well.
Thanks to the value-added Sprint content, the Samsung Ace is a good multimedia phone. Sprint TV is one of the most popular services for Sprint customers and the Samsung Ace has support for it. The on-demand video services offer a large and broad collection of TV news channels, music, sports, entertainment and even full length episodes of some popular TV shows including Lost, Big Brother, Jericho and many more tittles. While the content is quite competitive to similar services provided by AT&T and Verizon, the application was a bit flaky and hangs on the Samsung occasionally. The buffering speed was fast in good EV-DO coverage areas; and it was slow and sometimes lost the connection in spotty coverage areas. The landscape display of the smartphone is great for TV viewing and the full-screen TV programs (especially the full-length TV episodes) look good.
Like all Windows Mobile devices, the Samsung Ace comes with the mobile version of Windows Media Player for your MP3 and video pleasure. Music playback is smooth and you can multi-task while playing music. The sound quality was decent via the phone’s built-in speaker but excellent via Bluetooth stereo headset. Thanks to the phone’s support for Bluetooth A2DP and AVRCP, you can use Bluetooth stereo headset to listen to music wirelessly. The sound through Bluetooth headset was full with great channel separation and the volume was very loud. If listen to music on your smartphone is one of your main concerns, get a nice Bluetooth stereo headset. You will fully enjoy the experience. We tested the Plantronics Pulsar 590A which performed superbly. Video playback of locally stored content is average. We tested a couple of 300-500 kbit/s videos recorded at 20 fps and up, the Samsung Ace played them decently. MS Smartphones aren’t video playback powerhouses. If you want to play ripped DVD movies, consider a Pocket PC phone (Windows Mobile Professional Edition phone).
The Samsung Ace comes with a 1.3 megapixel camera that performs well by phone standards. The still images have good color balance and reasonably accurate exposure. Some outdoor landscape shots looked a bit over exposed and a little too saturated, but not bad at all for a 1.3 mp camera phone. The more challenging low-light shots were also good without excessive noise. The images look as good as those taken with the 2 megapixel camera on the BlackJack II. You can shoot still images in 3 resolutions with 4x digital zoom and can set options for brightness, effects, frames and use multi-shot and self timer features. The camera is capable of taking video clips in 320 x 240 or 176 x 144 resolutions with audio. The video clips were smooth without dropped frames or blocky-ness, though the audio quality was poor.
If you’re hoping for the two-battery treatment, as with the Motorola Q Global and the BlackJack, you’ll be disappointed. The Samsung Ace comes with a single standard battery that’s 1,300 mAh in capacity and offers just OK runtimes. Samsung claims 4 hours of talk time and in out tests we experienced 3.5 hours with calls in both well-covered areas to spotty coverage areas. Claimed standby time is up to 10 days though our unit didn’t make out of a week of standby. The most battery-taxing task on the Ace is accessing the EV-DO data network for web access or Sprint TV video playback. If you watch Sprint TV heavily (like 30-40 minutes a day), make a moderate amount of phone calls and access PIM applications a few times a day, you will need to charge the phone daily. But if you just make moderate amount of phone calls, access PIM, listen to some music, the Ace should last 2 to 3 days. Power hungry users can opt for the 1,800 mAh extended battery for which you will pay $49.99 extra.
While most Windows Mobile Smartphones come with a standard set of Microsoft applications bundled with the OS, the Samsung Ace has some modified versions. It comes with mobile versions of the Internet Explorer, Outlook, Windows Media Player 10, Image viewer and PIM applications including Contacts, Calendar, Tasks and Notes. The Samsung doesn’t come with the usual MS Office applications, instead it has a File Viewer that can display Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF files. You can read these files only, and you can’t edit or create files in these formats.
Sprint included support for its software store where you can purchase and download applications over the air. The Samsung also comes with the On Demand application powered by Handmark (also known as Handmark Express), a very popular information portal that offers news, weather, sports, stock info and more. Also included is Windows Live search which can provide you with maps, POI (Point of Interest) data and directions.
Comparing the Samsung Ace with the MOTO Q9 and BlackBerry 8830
If you’re mulling over the Moto Q Global/Moto Q9c and the Samsung Ace, we’ll try to help with a few comparison points. In a broader scale, the Samsung Ace has a lot in common with the Q9: both run Windows Mobile 6 standard, both have front QWERTY keyboards and similar processor speeds.
The Samsung is a bit smaller and lighter than the Q9 family of phones—particularly it’s narrower which feels better in smaller hands. The Q9 has a little edge on multimedia playback and seems better built with higher quality materials. The keyboard on the MOTO Q9 is still unrivaled in Windows Mobile 6 Smartphone crop, though the Ace’s keyboard is by no means bad. The Q9 has built-in GPS which the Samsung lacks; and the Q9 comes with 2 batteries while the Ace comes with only a standard battery. If you are a Sprint customer who wants a Q9c but needs a world phone, the Samsung Ace fits the bill.
We’re happy to see Sprint add a Windows Mobile smartphone to their world phone-capable lineup, previously populated only with the BlackBerry 8830. A comparison between the BlackBerry and Ace comes down to your preference of Windows Mobile or the BlackBerry OS. In terms of hardware and design, these two are similar with front-facing QWERTY keyboards, color QVGA display, EVDO and overseas GSM support. The Ace adds a camera but lacks the 8830’s GPS.
Really liked the Samsung BlackJack and BlackJack II but wanted to stay with Sprint? The Samsung Ace is finally your chance to have your cake and eat it. On top of that, the Samsung Ace is a world phone with support for both US CDMA and international GSM. The phone’s specs are competitive among Windows Mobile Smartphones and Sprint adds Sprint TV for a little fun. At $199 with contract and rebates, the Samsung Ace is $100 more than the MOTO Q9c. But if you need that international GSM capability, this is the price you pay.
Pro:Slim form that makes the smartphone easier to pocket. QWERTY keyboard is an improvement over the original Samsung BlackJack and easy to use. Has Microsoft Voice Command. Rich multimedia features including Sprint TV support. Fast processor and good camera in its class.
Con:Reception isn’t the strongest with a weak spot in the EV-DO department. Battery is small relative to the Ace’s power needs. No Office applications, only a file viewer. No GPS. No SDHC support for cards over 2 gigs capacity. Sprint TV is a bit buggy on the Ace, but we assume software updates from Sprint will improve things.
Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract after savings and rebate.
Display:2.3" TFT display with 65K colors. Resolution: 320 x 240 pixels landscape mode.
Battery:1300 mAh Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. Claimed talk time is up to 40 hours. Claimed standby time is up to10 days.
Performance:Marvell PXA270 processor running at 312MHz. 96MB RAM (~30.2MB available at boot), 192MB ROM (~44.5MB free at boot).
Size:4.6 x 2.3 x 0.47 inches. Weight: 3.84 ounces.
Phone: Digital dual band CDMA (800/1900MHz) in the US; GSM (900/1800MHz) overseas. Supports EV-DO for fast data.
Camera:1.3 megapixel camera with fixed focus lens and 4x digital zoom. Still image resolutions include 1280 x 960, 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 pixels. Can record video with audio at 320 x 240 or 176 x 144 resolutions. Self-portrait mirror but no flash.
Audio:Built-in speaker, mic and Samsung proprietary headphone jack. Voice recorder and Windows Media Play 10 mobile included for music and video playback.
Networking: Integrated Bluetooth v2.0. Profiles supported: A2DP, AVRCP, GAVDP, HFP 1.5, PBAP, HSP, HID, BPP, GOEP, SDAP/SDP, DUN, OPP and SPP.
Software:Windows Mobile 6.0 Standard Edition operating system. Microsoft Mobile version of Internet Explorer and Outlook. File Viewer for viewing Office documents and PDF. Other standard apps include Windows Media Player 10, Solitaire, Bubble Breaker (game), Voice Recorder and Microsoft Voice Command software included for voice dialing and more. Additional applications: RSS reader, Task Manager World Clock, Tip Calculator, Stopwatch, Alarm and Windows Live Search. Sprint includes Sprint TV, On-Demand and Sprint software store ActiveSync 4.5 and Outlook 2007 trial for PCs included.
Expansion: 1 microSD card slot with support only up to 2GB cards.
In the box: The Samsung Ace smartphone with standard battery, AC charger with 2 prong and 3 prong adapters for EU and UK, Sprint Worldwide SIM card, stereo headset, USB sync cable, software installation CD, printed Get started guide, User guide and other brochures.