The Good: A sleekly designed touch-screen device in an elegantly small package
The Bad: Pricey; multitap text entry on a dialpad is a pain when Web surfing; not available in U.S. stores
The Bottom Line: A solid phone that's plenty sexier than the iPhone, though nowhere near as smart
The iPhone is a near-perfect device. That's why I'm already tired of it.
The problem with perfection is it begets popularity. Seemingly every week, another person in my gadget-loving office walks in brandishing a big grin and an iPhone. While it remains easy to be impressed with Apple's (AAPL) touch-screen marvel, I want something a little more exclusive if I'm going to spend $400 on a cell phone. I want one that will inspire oohs, aahs, and, dare I say, a little envy.
To find such a phone, I looked to Korea and Britain. When it comes to mobile devices, our chatty friends across the Pacific and Atlantic are known for getting the latest and greatest a bit earlier than us here in the U.S. Samsung responded to my search with its Giorgio Armani P520, a touch-screen fashion phone released earlier this month in Europe. Although it's not officially available here, you can buy an "unlocked" version online for $500 to $600 and then insert your tiny SIM card from a U.S. carrier such as AT&T (T) or T-Mobile.
Looking and Sounding Good
The Armani has everything that's become de rigueur in haute design for mobile devices. Like the iPhone, the P520 is a nonflip, nonslide "candy bar" handset with a front surface that's nearly all screen. Yet it's far smaller, barely as thick as a pencil and with a surface about the size of a credit card.
Like an Armani suit, the tailoring on this device is minimalist and elegantly understated. Buttons are, of course, scarce and subtly placed: There are just two at the base, one for placing calls and one for turning the device on and off. Nearly everything else is controlled via the 2.6-in. touch screen, which displays a dialpad for calls and menus for other functions. The phone also comes with a protective leather-like case that flips up to reveal the screen.
Despite its diminutive size and minimalist design, the P520 has most of the features you'd expect in a smartphone. It comes with a three-megapixel camera that's also capable of capturing video with audio. Video playback is impressive, particularly for a mobile device.
The phone's music player supports songs recorded in the MP3, ACC, and ACC+ formats (though AAC songs from iTunes need to be stripped of Apple's proprietary digital rights protection codes). The handset also features built-in speakers for listening without headphones, as well as a slot for microSD memory cards for storing and accessing music and photos. Although it lacks the multitouch technology of the iPhone that lets users flip through their music collections, the Armani makes it easy enough to scroll through playlists and fast-forward with deliberate taps on the device.
More Beauty Than Brains
But much as all these features impressed me, I was disappointed with the phone's Web surfing. The main problem here is that you need to type in Web addresses, search words, user names, and any other text by double- and triple-tapping on the phone's numeric dialpad. While this limitation is understandable on a phone that has a physical number pad, the Armani's is just an image on a touch screen, so it's unclear why there's no alternate image with a full-blown QWERTY keyboard like the iPhone's.
The Web browser is also awkward to navigate, and rather than displaying Web pages in the normal HTML format seen on a computer, it adapts them into that awkward format that's supposedly optimal for small cell-phone screens (a theory handily refuted by, you guessed it, the iPhone).
I know a phone from Armani is clearly meant to be more about form than smartphone functions. Yet if I'm going to spend $500 and up for a phone, I feel entitled to a more robust Web browser and a full touch-screen keyboard. Despite the designer label, Samsung's Armani is more than a fashion phone, but not quite a smart one. Still, if design envy is what you're after, this touch-screen device is worth getting your hands on. You may even see some lustful looks from iPhone owners.