Friday, December 5, 2003
Pocketing Samsung's SPH-i700: The Ultimate Connected Pocket PC?
Posted by Janak Parekh in "HARDWARE" @ 10:00 AM
<!>The Samsung SPH-i700 is perhaps your best solution if you want a connected, cable-free Pocket PC with Verizon's best-of-breed CDMA service. Pair that with a top-notch screen and a solid software bundle and you've got a one-piece powerhouse... with a few gotchas, of course. But first, some background...
Who is this review for?
I've tailored this review for two audiences -- those that may have experience using a Pocket PC but have never used a Pocket PC Phone before, and those who have used the 1st-generation HTC Pocket PC Phone -- known as, among others, the XDA, the T-Mobile Pocket PC Phone, and the Siemens SX-56 (hereafter referred to as the XDA for brevity). I'll also throw in discussions of CDMA2000 as a standard where appropriate, as I know our international audience has far more experience with GSM as a standard.
I'm also a strong believer in a "thorough" review -- that's why I've used the device for a few months now instead of doing an immediate review. This way, I have the opportunity to pick up a feeling of the i700 as an "everyday" phone and Pocket PC, and to comment on the little things that make it rewarding, as well as pointing out some of the less-noticed shortcomings. You may find this review a bit long, but I hope you also find it helpful.
In case you're curious, my Pocket PC experience, before the i700, consisted of an original iPAQ 3650, an iPAQ 3870, and the T-Mobile version of the XDA. I used all three of them extensively, and I've also had the opportunity to work with (but do not own) some newer devices, including the iPAQ 1910, 2215 and 3975 devices. I'll be making comparisons throughout the remainder of this review against a number of these devices. I'd like to thank my colleagues, Suhit Gupta and Phil Gross, with providing me access to the 2215 and 3975 for comparison shots, and also to Suhit for providing me with some photo help with his awesome Canon 10D.
Obtaining the i700 and Verizon Wireless service
Figure 1: The nice Verizon-branded i700 box. It's clear they target this as a business device...
Right now, the i700 is only sold by Verizon Wireless in the US. As you can see from the packaging, the device is jointly cobranded by Samsung and Verizon Wireless. I'd presume the phone is provider-locked; the programming is done "in the back room" by Verizon, and you're handed an activated phone.
Verizon is known to be an excellent carrier in the United States, especially in the Northeast and in the New York metro area in particular. This is largely the case because of Verizon Wireless's history. Verizon Wireless when two "Baby Bells" -- Bell Atlantic and GTE -- merged and formed Verizon; at the same time, Bell Atlantic Mobile merged networks with PrimeCo, AirTouch (a Vodafone subsidiary), and GTE to form Verizon Wireless, which is an independent jointly-held subsidiary of Verizon and Vodafone. In the Northeast, Verizon Wireless's network was inherited from Bell Atlantic's network, which in turn came from the old CellularOne network of the 80s. As such, the network has had years to grow and mature. Many of the towers around here were installed well before modern-day NIMBY (Not In My Backyard)-based concerns about cell towers sprung up, which impedes many new carriers (especially T-Mobile and Sprint).
The bottom line is that Verizon's service is excellent: strong signals throughout the New York Metro area because of uniform tower coverage and because of their use of 800MHz signal (with better building penetration compared to 1900MHz). That's why I jumped at the chance to activate an i700; I had been using T-Mobile service with my XDA, but had lousy coverage in my house. Not so with Verizon, which works well both at home and work. Since Verizon doesn't have Bluetooth, the i700 is the best wireless Pocket PC option for people who need the coverage they provide. (I don't consider the Audiovox Thera to be a Pocket PC Phone, as it uses Sierra Wireless's telephony software instead of Microsoft's, and is known to have absolutely terrible battery life.)
The one downside of Verizon Wireless is cost. They know they have the best network and that people are willing to pay for it because, in many cases, they have no choice. As a result, both plan and data prices are noticeably higher than younger networks like T-Mobile; the latter, still in an aggressive growth phase, prices their network to attract subscribers. For example, a 400 minute nationwide plan, with unlimited night and weekend minutes, costs $49.99 at Verizon Wireless; T-Mobile, on the other hand, offers 600 minutes and unlimited nights-and-weekends for $10 less. Even more drastic are the data plans: Verizon Wireless charges $44.95 for unlimited handheld data, whereas T-Mobile merely charges $19.99. As I'll talk about in a minute, the two data services are not equivalent, but the cost difference is substantial. Some i700 users have managed to set up their Verizon Wireless service to use minutes at no additional cost over the base America's Choice plan, but Verizon Wireless claims this is not a "valid" plan for devices like the i700. It will be interesting to see what number portability will bring us, promotion- and price-wise, when it goes into effect in the middle of November. Oh, and did I mention that the i700 costs $599 with a two-year contract? 8O
CDMA and 1xRTT: What does it mean?
The i700 uses a wireless standard known as CDMA (or Code Division Multiple Access), which was pioneered at Qualcomm in the early 90s. CDMA differs from older standards, especially TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access, used by GSM and IS-136 networks around the world) in that it doesn't allocate dedicated timeslots to a particular wireless device; instead, each wireless "packet" is prefixed with a code that enables the base station to reassemble the packets into a data (or voice) stream. There are several substantial advantages for CDMA: first, it's more spectrally efficient: since the number of available timeslots is no longer a limitation, a given tower can handle more simultaneous calls; and second, it's more naturally geared towards wireless data.
In fact, CDMA is rapidly being adopted worldwide as we move to 3G. Verizon and Sprint in the US, and parts of Asia use Qualcomm's CDMA2000 standard, while the GSM Association has adopted UMTS/wCDMA as a solution to lay out 3G over existing GSM/GPRS/EDGE networks. Anyone who makes the argument that "CDMA is inferior to GSM" is being overly simplistic; the fact of the matter is that CDMA will be dominant across the globe in about 10-15 years (unfortunately, using incompatible frequencies and standards, but that's another issue).
Here, we'll focus on the Qualcomm implementation as used by Verizon Wireless and the i700. The i700 supports the first level of CDMA2000, known as 1xRTT, which supports a 144kbps peak data rate. While this is similar to GPRS's theoretical 128kbps peak data rate, in practice 1xRTT is noticeably faster. In my experience, Verizon Wireless's 1xRTT-based "Express Network" frequently reaches 80k-100k, while my T-Mobile GPRS devices rarely exceeded 45k. CDMA2000 is likely to evolve more quickly than GSM, as well, since upgrades can be done with full backwards and forwards compatibility -- in fact, Verizon Wireless has deployed 1xEV-DO, which offers 250kbps-500kbps service, in Washington, D.C. and San Diego, CA (the latter, of course, being the home of Qualcomm). Sadly, the i700 won't support this faster data rate, but it will at least work with the newer towers as they become more widespread across the US.
That's the good news. The bad news is that CDMA2000 as implemented in the US has no SIM card or equivalent thereof. This is not because CDMA as a technology can't handle it, but rather because there was never a mandate that wireless carriers support it here, and in general US carriers prefer much tighter control over the wireless devices they carry on their networks. There exist CDMA SIM-like technologies, such as UIMs in Korea, but if you get a Verizon phone, it must be electronically programmed, which typically requires unlock codes that only Verizon knows how to access. It is possible to reprogram CDMA phones for another network, but it's done much less frequently than SIM-swapping with GSM devices. Add the fact that companies like Sprint are adamant about activating only phones sold by themselves, and you quickly discover that you're not going to be able to trivially move the i700 to another network if you're not happy with Verizon... and there's not much you can do about it. :evil: That's largely the reason wireless technology moves slower here -- large carriers are more conservative about deploying new wireless terminals here until they have the opportunity to do significant amounts of "testing" in advance, and it's harder to get a CDMA phone off-the-shelf and get it activated.
All that said, let's take a closer look at the i700 and how it actually performs once you get it activated.