The BlackBerry template has been as copied a template as any in the world of mobile phones in recent times. But while many companies have tried to emulate the archetypal email handset, few have been able to match the usability of RIM’s excellent QWERTY keyboard and scroll wheel navigation.
RIM even managed to improve on the classic scroll wheel design with the four-way clickable ‘pearl’ of the 8800 and 8100 series recently – and introduced a more effective keyboard too. In fact it’s now hard to imagine any keyboard-and-screen device matching it for sheer usability.
Samsung has mounted a challenge with relish in the past. Its i600, specifically, was much slimmer than the BlackBerry handsets, included fast 3G data speeds and had a digital camera, but its keyboard failed the usability litmus test, and its simple five-way navigation key was nothing special either. And it’s taking up the challenge again with the i780 – the latest evolution in Samsung’s canon of keyboard-below-screen handsets.
This latest handset (provided by Orange) adds some interesting innovations to the rather basic design of the i600, the most obvious of which is that, instead of the fiddly five-way navigation key, it has what can only be described as a track button. Like the track pad on a notebook, you move your thumb or finger around on top of this small, square key to control an on-screen cursor, and press it to select items or click links.
If this sounds fiddly, in practice that’s far from the case. In fact, it works surprisingly well, and before long controlling Windows Mobile like a notebook feels like second nature. The track button is flanked by two useful buttons – a Windows Start key and an OK key. The soft keys and pick-up and hang-up buttons are located to the left and right of this small cluster and it all makes for a very easy to use phone. If you don’t like the mouse control method, you even can switch the button to act as a touch-sensitive d-pad.
The keyboard has also been improved. Though the buttons seem smaller than on the i600, they’re actually easier to type on, but it has a long way to go to match the BlackBerry 8800’s keyboard, which is the benchmark for devices of this type.