THE GOOD: The Samsung Zeal has a unique two-way flip design with an innovative e-ink keyboard and handy external music controls. It accepts up to 32GB of expandable memory.
THE BAD: Samsung's proprietary charging port is inconvenient, and the Zeal's call quality could be better.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Fans of the Samsung Alias 2 should love the Samsung Zeal's identical convertible flip design and e-ink keyboard. However, if you're not open to a learning curve, the Zeal has little new to offer.
Editors' note: The Samsung Zeal has a very similar design to the Samsung Alias 2, and portions of this analysis were taken from that review.
No, you're not taking crazy pills. The "new" Samsung Zeal (SCH-u750) for Verizon Wireless is an almost identical rebranding of its 3G Verizon ancestor, the Samsung Alias 2. Very little has changed in the phone's design, which isn't a problem considering we've always liked the interesting dual-flip design and chameleonic e-ink keypad/keyboard.
Yet, the trouble with mimicry is that Samsung should have upgraded old-school external features like the 2.5mm headset jack and the proprietary charging port. As much as we may enjoy seeing the Zeal's e-ink revival, the outdated hardware sockets are a sign of inexcusable laziness. Still, if that doesn't bother you, the Zeal sells for $79.99 after a $50 rebate, and with a new two-year service agreement.
On the surface, the Samsung Zeal resembles many a Samsung flip phone, like the Samsung Haven. The lines are straight and angular, despite having some rounded corners. Hematite accents dress up the black, plastic body, which measures 4 inches tall by 2 inches wide by 0.7 inch thick. (The Alias 2 was metallic dark gray with black accents.) The Zeal feels substantial enough at 4.34 ounces. Although it's on the tall side, it cradles nicely on the ear and it's slim enough for most pockets.
On the front face is the 2-megapixel camera lens with the 1.3-inch external CSTN display just below. The screen--which has a 128x128-pixel resolution and 65,000 colors--shows the time, date, battery life, and reception meter. Beneath it are touch-sensitive playback controls for music. The right spine houses the power button and a hold button. Samsung gives the microSD card slot a bump; it can handle up to 32GB external memory, where the Alias 2 topped out at 16GB.
The left spine has a short volume rocker and a voice command convenience key. We're not too pleased with the 2.5mm headset jack (we long for the 3.5mm standard), but the charging port is the phone's biggest disappointment. Just when we thought that Samsung's proprietary sockets were a thing of the past, the manufacturer revived it in the Zeal, instead of opting for the Micro-USB jack that's been adopted by most everyone else. This is a real setback for Sammy, but most of all for future Zeal owners who will have less recourse if they misplace or forget their charger.
The Zeal is a dual flip phone, which means it opens in both portrait and landscape modes. A double hinge raises concerns about sturdiness, but happily, the hinges are thick and stout in the Zeal, just as they were in the Alias 2; they appear to be built to last.
Tall as it may be when opened in portrait mode (about 8 inches), the Zeal does have a nice-size 2.6-inch internal display with a 320x240-pixel (QVGA) resolution. The TFT LCD screen supports 262,000 colors, making it look crisp and colorful. The default theme requires a bit more work to navigate its pictographic rec-room metaphor--a toolbox icon standing in for the Settings menu and a chalkboard as the portal to your recent calls. Navigation is simpler if you switch to one of three grid-style themes.
Take one look below the Zeal's screen and you'll know that the e-ink keyboard remains the real star of the show, just as on its Alias 2 predecessor. The 42-button keyboard is composed of smooth plastic nubs that rise slightly above the surface. Instead of the markings being printed on top of the buttons, the e-ink display lights the numbers and symbols from below. And as we note below, the same button also has different uses. We admit: it looks pretty cool. The buttons themselves are a little slick to the touch, but have an appealing, gel-like tactility. Though they'd be even better if they stuck out more, typing isn't much trouble. However, they were too slippery and closely spaced to type and dial by feel.
Whether you love or hate the e-ink configuration in portrait mode comes down to your personal comfort zone. The white Talk and End buttons and a clear/back key are squashed between the keypad and the navigation buttons. Though we got used to their location after a few minutes, we had to hunt for these controls during our first test. Ideally, we'd prefer if they were a different color than the keypad buttons. Also, since the soft keys are quite a distance from the bottom of the display, they don't sit directly under the corresponding commands on the screen. It's not a huge deal, but it did take some getting used to. In our first minutes of use we had to remember that the clear key was down in the middle of the keypad. Navigation was a bit trickier as the arrow keys felt just a bit too small, though still manageable, and we wish they were a more vivid color than gray. Still, it isn't for everyone.
The QWERTY keyboard was much more traditional to use. Snap the Zeal shut, flip it open horizontally, and you'll see those dialpad numbers and other phone buttons transform into a four-row QWERTY keyboard. The "magic" behind the motion is aforementioned e-ink, and it doesn't appear to have changed since the days of the Alias 2. The ability to switch over to a keyboard comprised of numbers and symbols was quite handy. Shortcuts like the camera shutter, voice command, vibrate mode, and speakerphone all live on the symbols menu, which is accessible by a mode-changing button. When you're in a compatible program, you'll be able to bring up a third keyboard with more symbols and punctuation. Though the total of three keyboards will result in a lot of switching back and forth, it was only tedious when typing long messages. The novel keyboard setup is refreshing overall.
The keyboard may raise the most eyebrows, but the Zeal3's feature set deserves just as much attention. Its address book is 1,000 entries strong, with room for multiple phone numbers, e-mail addresses, a street address, an emergency contact number, an instant messenger handle, and a note. You can personalize each contact with a calling group, a photo, and one of 21 polyphonic ringtones, or a silent mode.
In addition to the essentials, the Zeal supports 3G speeds and Bluetooth. It's a fairly good communicator as well, with threaded text, multimedia messaging, and audio messaging. Free visual voice mail is a bonus (though you may have to pay for data), and an accessibility feature will read out menus, calls, and digits as you dial, which is especially beneficial for those with visual impairments. On the social side, the Zeal has Social Beat, a free downloadable Verizon preload that connects to Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Mobile e-mail costs $5 per month for access to AOL, Yahoo Mail, Windows Live Hotmail, and others. A $9.99-per-month subscription gets you Microsoft Exchange e-mail support via the RemoSync app. Mobile Web mail, however, is free, seeing as it's just a list of shortcut links to a mobile site. Don't hold your breath for high-quality rendering.
Like all good Verizon phones, the Zeal comes with preloaded apps, such as VZ Navigator. Subscriptions to the turn-by-turn directions GPS service cost $9.99 per month, or $2.99 and $4.99 for shorter-term contracts. Others include a backup app, and City ID, a reverse lookup phone book.
For Internet, the Verizon mobile WAP browser is a visually crowded mess, which is standard for this type of phone. Still, shortcut links and menu options make browsing more bearable. Wi-Fi, which would be useful on a messaging phone, is not an option.
The 2-megapixel camera has five resolution settings that range from 1,600x1,200 pixels to 160x120 pixels. There are five color effects, a white-balance setting, and four ISO presets. Metering, icon displays, night mode, and sound effects join the fray, along with three shooting modes. The photo quality isn't bad for 2 megapixels, and we appreciate the assortment of post-production editing options, like photo effects and clip art decorations.
The camcorder settings are similar to the camera, and include an option to limit video recordings to 30 seconds for use in multimedia messages. Video is choppy on playback, which is expected for a feature phone with lightweight camera power.
The Zeal follows in the footsteps of the Alias and Alias 2 with basic music player software that's heightened by three touch-sensitive hardware controls for pausing and skipping songs. Once you start a track, flipping the Zeal closed shows any available album art on the external display. Inside the visually outdated music player, you can repeat a song, shuffle, and create a playlist--though not on the fly. Verizon's V Cast subscription music service with Rhapsody is a money-maker for the carrier; songs start at around $1.99 per tune and you can sync music with the Rhapsody client on your PC. In addition, you can load up to 32GB of music (or photos and videos) on an expandable flash memory card.
There's an online marketplace to buy or download games, more ringtones, and other apps, like Skype Mobile, Bing search, and WeatherBug. Not all apps and services cost money, but buying into the lot of the ones that do nickels and dimes you. At that rate, you'll likely find better value in a smartphone with a comprehensive or tiered data plan.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 850/1900) Samsung Zeal in San Francisco on Verizon's network. Call quality was mediocre on our end. Though voices sounded natural, the calls had a fuzzy veil. There were no background blips or other echoing distortions, however. Our callers, on the other hand, thought we sounded clear, if a bit hollow and unnatural--not quite "us."
Speakerphone calls sounded typical to our ears: quieter, with hollow-sounding and distant voices from our end, but we've heard worse and could carry on a conversation this way. For their part, our friends said we sounded distant, but mostly clear and intelligible.
Internet speeds were decent over EV-DO, taking about 9 seconds to load CNET's mobile-optimized site. Unfortunately, the browser sometimes choked on heavy Web sites that aren't optimized for the mobile phone.
The Zeal has a rated battery life of 5 hours talk time and 14 days of standby time. Our tests reveal a talk time of 4 hours and 48 minutes. The FCC measures the Zeal's digital SAR at 0.54 watt per kilogram.