review It’s not one of Nokia’s flashy new Lumias, it doesn’t run the latest version of Android and it’s not an iPhone. But it is a high-end smartphone launched only recently on Australia’s top mobile network, Next G. Can Samsung’s low-profile, Windows Phone 7-based Omnia W compete on an even keel with the big boys? Read on to find out.
When you pick up a Samsung Omnia W, the first thing you’ll notice is how superficially similar the phone is in design to Apple’s flagship iPhone series. The Omnia W is almost exactly the same size as an iPhone 4 or 4S, it’s got a similarly sized display (3.7″) surrounded by a black plastic border, there’s speaker grill at the top and a camera, and a button at the bottom to summon the home screen. It all just feels quite familiar upon first glance.
But that’s where the similarity ends. The design of the iPhone 4 and 4S, while striking, has never precisely translated into the easiest feel in the hand. There’s no doubt that the phone is the right size for most hands, but something Samsung and HTC have learnt over the years that Apple doesn’t appear to is that bevelled edges formed from moulded plastic with a gradient feel a bit more comfortable on the fingers than sharper edges with a metal casing.
Thus, the Omnia W just feels a lot more comfortable than the iPhone in the hand, and when you flip it over you can see why. Where the iPhone has a flat back, mirroring its front, the Omnia W has much more curved edges, meaning it sits more comfortably in your hand.
Apart from that aspect, there’s not much more to say about the phone’s design. It’s got the standard camera and flash on the back, volume buttons on its left-hand side, on/off and camera buttons on its right, a standard 3.5mm headphone socket on top, and the back case can be removed so that the curious can tinker with the Omnia W’s battery and insert their SIM card. It’s easy to do if you have longish fingernails.
We somewhat agree with MG Siegler on TechCrunch that for many technology products in 2012, technical specifications are irrelevant. Most modern smartphones are quite similar, specification-wise, with the secret sauce being how well they’ve integrated those features, be they hardware or software. In our experience, the best melds in the smartphone space are currently coming from manufacturers like Samsung, HTC and Apple. In this case, the Omnia W is no exception. But before we get into that, let’s go through the Omnia W’s specs on paper for the record :)
The phone features a 1.4Ghz CPU (although Samsung doesn’t disclose what model it is), 8GB of on-board storage space, and a 3.7″ Super AMOLED touchscreen running at a resolution of 480×800 pixels. It measures 115.9 x 58.8 x 10.9mm and is 115g in weight, making it one of the smaller out of the latest range of top-level smartphones, which have tended to feature larger screens beyond 4″, and it’s also lighter than most by a couple of dozen grams. The Omnia W’s phone is a five megapixel model, with a VGA front camera for video calling (although we’ve never seen anyone actually do that in the wild), and it’s a GSM quad-band model supporting the 850/900/1800/1900MHz frequencies. Notably, the phone does not support the 4G/LTE speeds which some areas of Telstra’s network have been upgraded to.
And of course, the Omnia W runs Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango). It’s not clear whether it will be able to support Windows Phone 8 when it’s eventually released, as there is some debate about that issue at the moment. But there is at least a possibility, as the Omnia W has some pretty strong specifications.
Lastly, there is the obvious lack of 4G support in the Omnia W. If you love your mobile Internet access and are regularly in the CBD of a major city, it would be a little silly to buy a phone in mid-2012 without support for Telstra’s burgeoning 4G network. We don’t really consider this a weakness of the Omnia W, but it may turn off some buyers.
To be honest, the Omnia W is simply lovely to use in practice.
The phone fits really well in the hand. It’s got a lovely low-profile in its design that sort of gets out of your way and lets you get on with using it without distracting you. If you’re using an Apple or HTC smartphone, in 2012 — or even a Sony model — you can’t help but feel conscious of the design choices which the manufacturer has made. They make a statement.
In comparison, the Omnia W’s design doesn’t make a statement. Nobody, seeing you holding the phone up to your ear, would immediately be able to tell who had made it. The phone looks like a generic mid-sized smartphone. However, this is great. You feel relaxed around the Omnia W. It’s unassuming, it’s there and it’s just easy, sitting nicely in your hand or pocket. It’s kind of hard to describe this effect, so we recommend you pick one up in a store if you want to know what we mean.
The deep black colour of the screen and the associated brightness of the colourful Windows Phone 7 tiles are the only striking bits about the phone. In this sense, it emphasises its software over its form, which is perhaps appropriate, given the lovely interface which Microsoft has created in Windows Phone 7, so much more fluid than that of the iOS or Android platforms. The performance of the Omnia W, with a couple of caveats, was also stellar. It plays HD video with no problems, the interface is extremely zippy and lag-free, the touchscreen and buttons are satisfying to touch and use, and overall we just had very few problems.
Its battery is a decent 1,500mAh model (which supposedly boasts up to 6.5 hours of 3G use). In practice, we streamed HD video to the phone from YouTube over a half an hour and didn’t see any drainage, so we think it’s going to have pretty good battery life. In addition, over a day or so of using the phone for moderate use, it showed only a modest drain. The lack of 4G support and a whopping screen will help keep battery life sane.
Perhaps the only real caveats which we would attach to the phone are in its camera and its speakers.
In some phones, a five megapixel camera would be OK. But for a high-end Windows Phone selling through Telstra at a top-range cost, the Omnia W’s camera really is sub-par. We took a few shots and found them a bit grainy and hazy for a phone of this level, especially when you consider the Lumia 800, perhaps the Omnia W’s most visible high-end Windows Phone 7 rival in Australia, features an eight megapixel camera and Nokia’s trademark strong photo quality. The volume of the sound through the speakers also wasn’t great. If you wanted to watch a video on your Omnia W with friends in a crowded bar, you might struggle. Obviously this isn’t a make or break feature, but it’s worth noting.
In our opinion, the Windows Phone 7.5 (Mango) operating system used by the Omnia W is also still just about three quarters baked — it needs another year or so of polish before it’s as easy to use as iOS or Android. Although often it’s brilliant, and it’s always more than acceptable, sometimes Mango is a little confusing, hiding options in non-intuitive ways and making navigation a little difficult. In addition, we question the need to tie the user into Microsoft’s Windows Live platform. But these aren’t specifically criticisms of the Omnia W — and if you’re familiar with the Windows Phone 7 ecosystem, you’ll find the latest iteration of it here and likely be satisfied with its implementation in the Omnia W.
If you want an unassuming yet powerful and highly functional Windows Phone 7 smartphone with snappy performance, and you’re not a stickler for photo quality, there’s no better option in Australia than the Omnia W at the moment. It won’t grab attention in a crowded room, but it feels great in the hand or in the pocket and the quality and performance is definitely there. Plus, not everyone wants to turn heads with a fluoro Lumia. The Omnia W is no iPhone, but then Apple doesn’t have a comparable phone to this little gem from Samsung.
We think it’s probably overpriced right now through the carrier, but you can pick the Omnia W up through Telstra on a $99 per month plan with zero handset repayment fees, or head to an independent retailer like Mobicity to buy the phone outright for around $470.
Image credit: Samsung