Samsung Omnia II Review

Samsung, stop doing this.

The Omnia II is frustrating from the second you pick it up to the moment you lay it back on your desk, defeated and distraught. There was so much potential here, so much obvious potential. Through a series of bizarre decisions and grating software design, Samsung has managed to squander it. Every. Last. Ounce.

The Hardware Is Decent

This handset is categorically impressive, shipping with a 480x800 AMOLED screen, an 800MHz processor, a 5MP camera with 720x480px video capture, 8GB of internal storage with room for microSD expansion, and FM radio, complementing the standard trio smartphone of GPS/Wi-Fi/3G connectivity.

The screen is beautifully sharp, though the whites—as seems to be common in Samsung's AMOLED screens—often render as slightly blue. It's not that distracting as long as you don't have a whiter screen for reference, and the screen's brightness, sharpness and general colour reproduction are satisfying. It's a resistive display, which is still kind of a necessary evil on Windows Mobile; as much as I enjoyed the capacitive panel on the Touch HD2, Windows Mobile 6.5—and specifically, some of its app selection—isn't quite ready to kick the stylus. The screen is no more squishy than any other 3.7-inch layered plastic display, which is to say slightly.

The design could be described as clean and conservative, if not for two features: the Chrome buttons on the front, and the ill-advised secret red accents on the back. It's a bit too tuner-car chic for my tastes, but neither detail is all that offensive. The sides of the phone, which are fairly narrow (the handset is only about 13mm thick—about as thin as a HTC Hero, and slightly thinner than a close Pre) are littered with buttons and ports, including the 3.5mm headphone jack, the volume rockers an "OK" button, and microSD port for charging, and lock and camera shutter buttons, which are a bit close for comfort.

(sample shot)

The 5MP camera benefits from extensive settings software, and the sensor itself is good enough to replace a point-and-shoot in daytime, while the video, though it suffers from motion distortion more than your average pocket camcorder, will suffice in most situations. The conclusion here is unsurprising: Though it's no HD2, the Omnia II is an impressive piece of hardware. This, sadly, doesn't really matter.

The Software Is Terrible

The Omnia's got a veritable arsenal of software tricks behind that spongy little screen, from the ability to broadcast video over DLNA, to the newest version of Opera Mobile, to the semi-lauded Swype keyboard, which lets you type without lifting your finger, and which takes fairly bold—but generally effective—guesses at what you're gesturing toward. And the crowning achievement, the reason that the Omnia II is worthy of a review over the rest of the same-y Windows Phones that are flooding the market right now, is TouchWiz 2.0, Samsung's take on total interface conversion, which reaches far deeper than the original TouchWiz did on the first Omnia.

And it is a disaster.

It's flawed in the most basic ways a phone interface can be, violently convulsing from one interface paradigm to another through a series of inconsistent, layered, and most importantly slow animations. Seriously, what's going on here?

The widget menu feels like its always about to freeze, and the widgeting system as a whole is laggy and disorganised, more of a free canvas for thoughtlessly-sized shortcuts than an actual, interactive dashboard. The Cube—oh, that horrible fucking cube—is just a six-sided spinning shortcut menu for multimedia apps, which feels like an obstacle, not an interface. Ugh.

And stuff like this is everywhere on the Omnia II—you can't avoid it. Windows Mobile's new Start Menu has been replaced with an iPhone-style set of icon panels, which would be fine if they didn't register half my swipes as taps, opening up to two applications at once instead of just cycling left. The new dialpad crunches the inbuilt recent calls list into a two-item-tall sliver. The SMS interface has been replaced, but only in bits and pieces. Closing an app with one "x" button reveals a second "x" button of a different colour and size, attached to that bright green start menu. The Wi-Fi selector is a floating orb of icons, in which you drag one bubble—representing a network—into a larger bubble—representing your phone. The task switcher alternates between a set of panels and a Cover Flow-esque turnstile. The media player app looks like it was hastily ripped from one of Samsung's older PMPs, and the remaining Windows Mobile native elements have been doomed to wear a black and blue neon colour scheme that harks back to Windows 98's High Contrast Mode. Haptic feed accompanies almost all animations, which makes the lagging transitions feel like they're literally grinding.

I won't go on too long about how this interface looks. Let's just say it's oppressively ugly, and leave it at that. But the way it functions is inexplicable, an inexcusable. It's as if Samsung assigned each tiny piece of this phone's software to a different team, and ordered them not to speak to one another under any circumstances. This isn't design by committee. This is worse than design by committee. And the effect on user experience is crippling: Fiddling with this thing for a few minutes is akin to being yelled at by a panel of six men, none of whom speak languages you've ever heard before, and all of whom take pleasure your cranial pain. You could conceivably get used to this with enough, but it's an order of magnitude less usable than the regular Windows Mobile 6.5 interface, which hey, isn't that good. Perhaps more importantly, everyone I handed this to was visibly frustrated within seconds. You can't turn it off, either: With a little effort you can kill the homescreen, but the rest of the modifications are there to stay.

The most alarming thing about this interface is that it's Samsung's entire design philosophy now. Matt said of the Android Behold's UI:

TouchWiz is the first custom Android interface that's worse than the standard one, and shows what kind of horrible things emerge when Samsung's interface designers are left unchecked.

It only got more scatological from there. The Omnia II's UI is essentially the same concept, adapted for Android and intended to penetrate a little deeper. There are even some striking similarities between the Omnia II's interface and that of the Omnia HD, a Symbian-based phone from a few months ago. In short, TouchWiz is an epidemic at Samsung. And for all intents and purposes, the pathogen is fatal.

What To Buy Instead At the $US200 price point, it's hard to recommend anything else but the Droid on Verizon's network—it's their clear flagship, and it's an extremely capable phone. But even if you're specifically set on buying a Windows Mobile phone, there are better options, like the HTC Imagio, which benefits from HTC's vastly better TouchFlo or "Sense" UI overhaul, or even the Touch Pro2, which despite having Windows Mobile 6.1 (which you can probably just upgrade yourself) offers a much more pleasant experience. Because unless you replace the software entirely, a pleasant experience is miles from what you'll be having with an Omnia II in your pocket.

It's another in what I expect to be a long line of impressively spec'd Windows Mobile handsets

The camera is better than average, though it still suffers in low light

It's a Windows Mobile phone, which will be a dealbreaker for some, and a feature for others.

It's almost always laggy, despite a fast processor

It gives you a headache to use, like reading tiny text in the dark, or reciting the alphabet backwards when drunk

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