Review posted February 25, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Party time, photography buffs! The Samsung Memoir t929 is the first 8 megapixel camera phone offered by a US carrier. T-Mobile has scored this impressive camera phone, and the only downside is it makes the 5 megapixel Samsung Behold released just 3 months ago on T-Mobile look like a second class citizen. Like the Behold and the Samsung Eternity on AT&T, the Memoir is a slate-design touch screen phone running Samsung's pleasing TouchWiz UI. Unlike the TouchWizzified Samsung Omnia i910 on Verizon, the Memoir is a high end feature phone and not a smartphone.
The Memoir looks ever so convincingly like a camera, with design cues from retro Leica models. It's just a tiny bit bigger than the Behold (it's thicker) and is smaller than the iPhone, though again, thicker. It features a 3" resistive touch screen with haptic (vibration) feedback, 3G HSDPA, a GPS that works with TeleNav, Bluetooth, an HTML browser, and music and video players. There's an SDHC high capacity microSD card slot on the phone's side (no need to open the back cover or remove the battery as with the Behold and Eternity). You'll need that to store lots of high resolution photos and video!
Under doors: the USB sync port and microSD card slot.
The left end is raised because the lens housing protrudes.
The phone's sides are completely straight, which makes it easier to handle but also makes it look thicker since tapered sides are slimming. The right side (when held in camera position) is textured, similar to a camera grip while the rest of the phone is matte black. The Memoir is more attractive and novel looking that the overseas Samsung Pixon and looks better than more standard slate-designed phones like the Behold and Eternity (assuming you like the looks of cameras). The front is dominated by the large display which acts as a viewfinder for the camera and as your window to all phone functions. Since the lens housing protrudes a bit, the phone doesn't lay flat on a table.
Though by no means slow, the Memoir isn't as super-snappy as the Behold and Eternity. Tap the Menu button at the bottom of the home screen and there's a 1 second delay before the programs menu opens up (it opens instantly on the Eternity and Behold). This is surprising since the CPU and RAM specs must be quite good to process 8 megapixel images, show them in the photo app and record/playback high resolution video. The phone handles video and photo playback well, and the camera application is fast in all respects.
The Samsung Memoir and Behold
The Memoir's haptic feedback makes text entry on screen seem more natural, and the on-screen QWERTY keyboard is large and easy to use (it's the same as the Behold and Eternity's). If you prefer text entry via number pad, simply hold the phone in portrait mode; the QWERTY only appears when you rotate the phone to landscape mode. The phone's accelerometer handles automatic rotation in supported applications (web browser, photo viewer but not the home screen or in Java applications). The photo viewer application moves to the next and previous photo when you tilt the phone right or left, and we found this very difficult to control.
The large QWERTY on-screen keyboard appears in landscape mode. It has handy shortcut keys for www. and .com.
Here's our 10 minute video review of the Samsung Memoir t929, covering design, interface, video playback, web browsing and a very detailed look at the camera application:
Phone and Internet
The Samsung Memoir is a quad band GSM world phone with 3G HSDPA on T-Mobile's 1700/2100MHz bands. It will not operate on AT&T's 3G network, though it can utilize AT&T's GSM/EDGE bands when roaming. As with the Behold, T-Mobile wants you to get their $24.99/month T-Mobile Smartphone Unlimited data plan with the Memoir if you wish to use the web browser, email and other Internet services. This plan includes 400 text/MMS messages and there's a Smartphone plan with unlimited messages for $34.99/month. Since this isn't a smartphone, we're once again not thrilled; T-Mobile's competitors offer 3G feature phone plans for considerably less than their smartphone plans. As a consolation, you need not purchase a data plan if you don't wish to access the Internet or photo upload services bundled on the phone.
The phone supports T-Mobile's MyFaves service along with standard calling services like call waiting, speakerphone and voice dialing. Voice dialing is handled by Nuance's excellent VSuite 3.1 voice command application which handles voice dialing, digit dialing and basic commands like "open calendar". To launch voice command, tap the VSuite icon on the widget bar of the home screen. Unfortunately, there's no hardware button for voice dialing so you'll have to interact with the screen to start voice dialing or use a Bluetooth headset.
The programs menu.
The home screen with the camera widget open.
Even over 3G which supports higher quality voice codecs, voice quality was good but not great. Incoming voice isn't super clear and sharp, though you can easily understand what the caller is saying. The same is true of outgoing voice: it's intelligible but not extremely clear and full. The phone actually sounds better with Bluetooth headsets like Samsung's own WEP200, Plantronics Discovery 925 and others. Call quality over Bluetooth stereo headsets isn't fantastic (the same is true of most phones), but music quality is very good.
T-Mobile lauds the Memoir's full HTML browser, and we suspect that full HTML browser and 3G data connection are the reason for the more expensive data plan. The Memoir upgrades to Netfront 3.5 from the Behold's 3.4 (the Eternity also runs 3.5), though the software controls and settings resemble the Behold's rather than the Eternity's. We really like the finger scrolling, easy zooming and hide-able on-screen controls, but found that bookmarking the current page took too many steps (tap the star icon to bring up bookmarks, tap add bookmark, tap the more button at the bottom of the screen, then select "add current" from the pop-up menu. In contrast, on the Samsung Eternity there's an add bookmark icon on the main control palette. For a feature phone web browser, the Memoir and Netfront do a very good job of rendering HTML sites: layout is largely intact, text is readable and we didn't crash the browser when visiting heavy pages though we did run into the limitations imposed by T-Mobile's web proxy. If we have to pay for a full smartphone data plan, why do we have to put up with feature phone style gateways?
The Memoir comes with a basic Java email client that supports AOL, Yahoo mail, Comcast, Compuserve, Earthlink, Gmail, HotPOP, Juno, .mac, SBC Yahoo and Verizon email accounts (other email accounts aren't supported, sorry). As with other T-Mobile phones, loading Google Maps flopped since Google doesn't offer a signed version of their application (the Memoir rejected it upon download). We managed to install and run Opera Mini, a very good free web browser, by not going with the default version on the opera.com/mini website and instead selecting the version with multiple certificates. Unfortunately, the accelerometer doesn't work in most Java applications, so there's no way to browse in landscape mode. The on-screen QWERTY keyboard (only available in landscape mode) does work if you tap in a text field then rotate the phone to landscape mode-- go figure.
The music player handles MP3, AAC (unprotected iTunes format), WMA and Real Player. The phone supports both Mass Storage mode and MTP (Media Transport Protocol) for copying music files to the phone's microSD card (the Behold lacks MTP, so the Memoir is a step up for those who wish to use this Windows transfer method). T-Mobile and Samsung include a stereo earbud headset which is fortunate since the phone uses Samsung's proprietary blade connector rather than a 3.5mm stereo jack. The headset's audio is OK for music playback, but if you're serious about using this as your portable music player you'll want to buy a blade to 3.5mm stereo jack adapter so you can use better headphones or otherwise use Bluetooth A2DP stereo headphones.
The Memoir plays mobile YouTube content via its media player. This is the lower quality mobile YouTube optimized for smaller screened phones with less multimedia power, and the videos fill only a portion of the Memoir's 240 x 400 display. Quality isn't bad though, and the media player automatically rotates YouTube videos to landscape mode for playback. It can also play locally stored content (copy movies to a microSD card and you've got a decent iPod substitute thanks to the large and bright display). We tested it with some 240 x 320 MPEG4 files formatted for the iPod and iPhone, and they played very smoothly as long as the bitrate was below 650kbps.
Syncing and PIM applications
The Memoir has a calendar, address book, memo application and tasks. The address book is finger-friendly and scrolling is easy thanks to a draggable tab that moves quickly through each letter of the alphabet. As a lefty, I'm thrilled that Samsung added a "one handed operation" setting for the address book that allows you to set it to left handed mode (the scroll control relocates to the left side of the screen so your left hand isn't blocking your view of the contacts list). There are fields for first name, last name, nickname, mobile phone, home phone, work phone, other number, group, 4 email addresses, 4 IM addresses, URL, birthday, anniversary, street address (street, city, state, country and zip), notes and a custom ringtone. The address book can store up to 2,000 contacts.
Samsung's "New PC Studio" Windows desktop syncing software supports their TouchWiz feature phones. It's a very cool desktop app that mimics a virtual desktop with user interfaces that are similar to the phone's for address, calendar and more. As of this writing, that doesn't include the Memoir, though once the phone is released Samsung will post a driver update to support the phone. We tried to connect using the latest downloadable version of the Behold syncing software and it told us the phone wasn't supported, so we weren't able to test syncing.
One word: nice! The Memoir's 8 megapixel camera with autofocus lens and Xenon flash takes excellent photos. It also has the fastest focus of any autofocus camera phone we've tested. Though not as fast as a dedicated digital camera it's fast enough to catch a crazy kitten in action with just a smidgen of luck. At max resolution, the camera saves photos to a microSD card quickly as well, and images average 2.2 megs each. Not only that, it takes excellent videos up to an impressive 720 x 480 pixel resolution at near 30 fps (actual averages 27 fps). That's higher resolution than the top dog Nokia N95 and N96, though the 2 Nokia smartphones' video quality is superior.
Maximum photo resolution is 3264 x 2448 with a variety of lower resolutions as small as 400 x 240. The camera uses the entire touch screen as its viewfinder, with a control strip on the left and right sides and a zoom bar at the bottom. These auto-hide but a tap of the screen brings them back.
Click on a sample photo to see a larger version in a new window. Sample photos were taken at max resolution, highest image quality, center-weighted metering and auto scene and white balance settings.
Above: The viewfinder with controls visible.
Below: the options screen for focus modes (left) and shooting modes (right).
There are a wide variety of photo settings that rival a point and shoot camera's: focus (auto, macro, face detection), shooting modes (single, continuous, panorama, smile shot and mosaic), brightness compensation, flash (on, off, auto), self-timer, resolution, save location (internal memory or microSD card), scene (none, portrait, landscape, action, night, incandescent and more), effects, quality and metering (center, average, matrix), white balance, contrast, saturation and sharpness.
How are the images? They're definitely better than any other phone offered by a US carrier, including the 5 megapixel autofocus Samsung Behold and Moto Zine ZN5 on T-Mobile. They're natural, well-saturated, well-exposed and look as good as the average 5 megapixel point and shoot camera's images. The default sharpness is a little soft, though one can change this. Most camera phones oversharpen, so we're not complaining-- better to add a little sharpening in Photoshop if needed. In outdoor shots, we give the Nokia N95 and N96 better marks even though they're lower resolution. It's not just the number of pixels that counts-- the Nokia phones are a little sharper with better metering (less white out) and loss of definition on glossy subjects (see the berries photo above where the shiny fruit loses definition). As a serious photo buff I'm being picky, and the average person would likely be thrilled at the results. But this camera phone will likely attract avid photographers, who are picky. For indoor shots, the Samsung beats the Nokia N95 and N96, whose indoor shots are weak given their lack of a Xenon flash. But clearly it's more than just Xenon vs. LED flash, 1) the Samsung's Xenon flash isn't blindingly effective like high end Sony Ericsson camera phones, 2) even in indoor shots where none of the phones fired their flashes, the Memoir's had less chromatic aberration, less noise and more life-like colors.
Video quality is again better than any other US carrier camera phone, but not as good as the Nokia N95 and N96. While photo quality is a close race, the Nokia phones easily win for video recording. The Memoir can shoot up to 720 x 480 video with lesser resolutions including VGA (same as the Nokia phones' max resolution) down to MMS size. The Memoir's video is decent but there's plenty of chromatic aberration, color noise and a lack of smoothness even though video is recorded at an average of 27 to 28 fps. But then, these two Nokia smartphones take impossibly good video that's smooth as butter. The Samsung can record audio with video, but the audio track sounds as if there were a thin sock over the mic, while the Nokia audio is clear and loud.
The Memoir has an internal GPS that works with TeleNav, a $9.99/month service that provides turn-by-turn spoken and on-screen directions, traffic information, POIs and maps which are downloaded over the wireless connection as needed. The GPS worked well in our tests, even getting a fix indoors near a window, and a cold start (just after a reboot) took 20 seconds while warm starts took 5 to 10 seconds. That's much better performance than our Samsung Behold, which took a long time to get a fix and had trouble indoors. As mentioned, we couldn't use Google Maps since the Memoir wouldn't accept unsigned Java applications.
If you use the phone heavily, especially the camera, 3G and GPS, you'll need to charge it nightly. Once the shiny newness wears off and you're not photographing everything that you see and surfing the web over 3G like mad, the Memoir will likely last 2 to 3 days on a charge. Standby times are good and the phone charges quickly (ours charged from 25% to full in an hour).
The Samsung Memoir should be one of the hottest phones of 2009. It has a wonderful touch screen interface courtesy of Samsung's TouchWiz user interface and the large haptic display. The camera is superb and it's the fastest autofocus we've seen on a high resolution camera phone. The Memoir has a very good web browser by touch screen standards, an excellent on-screen keyboard, an accelerometer and proximity sensor-- all the right features to combat iPhoneitus. While it might not have iTunes, it does have a very good video player and a decent music player along with expandable storage to carry that media. This is an easy phone to recommend to those who like touch screens and are into photography.
Pro: Very good touch screen experience, attractive camera-like design, looks high quality. Has 3G and a good web browser by feature phone standards. The TouchWiz software includes a large selection of widgets (more than the Behold) and they're actually useful (TeleNav, photo viewer, voice dialing and more). Super camera with fast autofocus. Easily accessible microSD card slot.
Con: Call voice quality through handset is mediocre. T-Mobile's data plan is expensive if you wish to access the Net and the data connection is proxied through a gateway. Limited email account support.