Samsung Moment, redux

Remember that big, long review I posted of our new phones a couple of months back? Well, it’s gotten a long-anticipated update to Android 2.1 which, honestly, almost makes it feel like a new phone. I know at least a few of you have been considering it, so let me give you a run down of what’s new.

Battery life. A lot of users have complained about the battery life of this device and with good reason. Out of the box, you can sometimes exhaust it in as little as 6 hours. You have to put a little bit of effort into squeezing the most juice you can out of this sucker. Android 2.1 adds a new widget, the power bar, for quickly and easily turning on and off common battery suckers like WiFi and Bluetooth. I found that shutting down the syncing of e-mail, calendars, and contacts can as much as double your useful battery life which is now just a mere touch away. When I’m at a PC, odds are that I’ve got Gmail open anyway, so it’s not like I need my phone to tell me when I get new mail. I’ve been able to get around 16-18 hours before the phone hits 15% and starts warning me to charge up. It’s a marked improvement.

Also note that signal strength plays a huge role in battery life. I was at a friend’s apartment on Saturday with poor signal and my battery went from 60% to 15% in just a couple of hours. The best way to beat this is to use WiFi where it’s available. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the most power-intensive part of a wireless connection of any type is getting the initial connection going. When you’re going in and out of signal, you’re draining that battery life nobody’s business. Using WiFi at home consistently has made it much easier to keep the battery going.

If you find yourself unable to figure out where the juice is going, the new built-in battery meter has your back. It will give you a detailed breakdown of what’s chewing up your battery and give you suggestions to fix it. It’s almost a tacit admission that they didn’t quite get it right the last time.

Google Navigation. Throw away your Garmin, this is just as good. In addition to getting traditional directions from Google Maps, there’s a new Navigation app that will give you turn-by-turn voice directions. It works fairly well, though I could stand it announcing the turns a bit sooner. This is a great think for hands-free operation.

Voice dictation. The voice commands in 1.5 were limited to things like “call Bob Jones” and the like. Now the voice part is turbocharged and can be used on any text entry field. Yes, you heard me right: you could voice dictate text messages, e-mails, or Google searches. The accuracy is sometimes a little off on oddball words (it took a few tries on ‘tahini’), but it’s a fairly handy feature. Search has also been extended to let you pick what items on your phone to search for. Several apps will also provide hooks into this search functionality.

No more face-dialing. EVER. Once of Shauna’s bigger annoyances with these phones was the tendency to face-dial when the proximity sensor couldn’t detect your face. That’s been solved by improving the sensor and moving functions such as mute and speakerphone to slider controls instead of buttons. The slider has also been extended to unlocking and even silencing your phone without having to unlock. They’re small touches, but they solve big annoyances.

Everything is prettier. Another small thing, but the polish is nice. All of the icons and controls have been redone to look much nicer, animations are smoother, and apps now fade in from and out to the background instead of sliding from one side or the other. Most of the dialog boxes also look more finished.

Better app selection. Many apps would only run on Android 1.6 or 2.1 and it was kind of frustrating to not be able to try out the latest cool stuff. Being on the bleeding edge now opens up a lot more selection than before.

I’ve also found a lot more ways to improve this device via the software. I heavily recommend checking out LauncherPro because it not only offers a much snappier interface and some cool effects, it also lets you add up to 7 home screens instead of the stock 3. That’s a plus if you use a lot of apps and widgets, but the speed bump alone justifies picking it up. It also moves a lot of shortcuts into the same bar as a app drawer to free up home screen space. There’s icons for the dial pad, contacts, text messaging, and the default browser. In the future, you’ll be able to customize it. It’s kind of like a mix between HTC’s very popular SenseUI and the upcoming Froyo (Android 2.2).

I’ve also found that while the hardware keyboard is hard to beat in specific applications (SSH or blogging come to mind), there are some software keyboards that actually are quite compelling. My personal favorite is SlideIT, a clone of the very popular Swype. Instead of pecking out a word on the keyboard, you tap on the first letter, then slide your finger to each of the other letters in the word to spell it out. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it is a very fast way to enter text once you get the hang of it and would make me consider getting a model without the hardware keyboard in the future. If you prefer to peck things out, check out ThickButtons. It will enlarge the next key you’re likely to hit, sort of a way to apply predictive typing to your keyboard and not just what you’ve typed so far.

I feel like the Samsung Moment is a solid device that’s holding up well against heavy use over an extended period. Bigger, badder phones are coming down the pike (and aren’t they always?), but this is an excellent entry-level Android device and a good way to get into the smartphone game without spending a lot of scratch.

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