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Samsung BlackJack II

Why spoil a good thing? Samsung kept this idea in mind when designing the BlackJack II, an evolutionary update to the original and well-received BlackJack smartphone. The new version adds a number of useful enhancements: the built-in camera now has 2-megapixel resolution; there's a built-in GPS radio with optional TeleNav GPS Navigator; and it's compatible with AT&T's (expensive) Video Share service. My review unit was made of glossy black plastic instead of a rubberized casing like the original; there's also a burgundy version available. Thankfully, Samsung has replaced the odd split-numeric keys with a tighter, more conventional arrangement. You also get a slightly increased processor speed and double the RAM—always a good thing with a Windows Mobile handset. There's also a higher-capacity battery. At just $149, the BlackJack II isn't perfect, but it's a worthy upgrade and a compelling high-speed alternative to the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8310.

The BlackJack II is a bit larger than the original, weighing 4.1 ounces—about half an ounce more—and measuring 4.4 by 2.3 by 0.5 inches (HWD), which is a little thicker as well. Screen size is up to 2.4 inches, though it retains the same 320-by-240-pixel resolution, brightness, and 65K color support. The BlackJack II features a jog/shuttle wheel that also acts as a control pad. The wheel scrolled a bit slowly, but it's a nice enhancement and makes quick work of thumbing through menus, Web pages, and option lists.

The BlackJack II's keyboard is a little cramped and clicky, but it's fairly comfortable to type on, though not as comfy as the keyboard on the Motorola Q9h, which costs $50 more. The BlackJack II's keys are oval as before, but wider than on the original model and closer to being square. The device's proprietary connectors aren't all that practical. The box includes a charger and a USB cable, but you're on your own for wired earbuds, and finding emergency replacements will be difficult, since the device doesn't have a standard headphone jack.

Voice quality was bright and crisp over 3G and somewhat less so over GSM, but still not bad. Despite its proximity to Manhattan, my Queens neighborhood has spotty 3G coverage, so I experienced the problematic high-speed hand-off fairly often—as did my callers, who pointed out static and a volume drop whenever it occurred. The BlackJack II exhibited good reception otherwise. Calls made outdoors on the street were intelligible except when an overhead train rolled by. The handset sounded fine when paired with a Plantronics Voyager 510 Bluetooth headset, and the speakerphone was loud enough to use outdoors in a pinch.

The BlackJack II features 256MB of ROM and 128MB of RAM, with 87MB of free memory and 131MB of free storage available, both of which are welcome improvements over the original. The new 260-MHz CPU and extra RAM definitely help when running multiple programs at once: "Out of Memory" error messages are rarely seen. However, the handset still felt a little sticky in operation. Screen redraws were occasionally sluggish, and some key presses took a beat or two before registering, but that's endemic to most Windows Mobile 6 handsets.

Since the BlackJack II runs Windows Mobile 6.0 Standard, you can edit but not create Microsoft Office documents. AT&T also bundles an RSS reader and an IM client that supports AIM, MSN, and Yahoo! Messenger. (The Q9h goes the BlackJack II one better, though, with its built-in DataViz Documents To Go office suite and excellent Opera Mobile browser.) Using the BlackJack II's built-in HSDPA 3.6 radio, consistent data speeds in the 1,000-Kbps range are seen —an impressive showing. AT&T packs in its clumsy XpressMail client, but you also get Outlook Mobile, which supports POP/IMAP, Yahoo! Mail, and Windows Live support, along with Microsoft Direct Push E-Mail. There are also icons for AT&T Video Share, which lets you stream live video to other callers; TeleNav GPS; and MobiTV; all of which cost extra to activate. Video Share, in particular, is too expensive at 35 cents per minute. AT&T offers a few Video Share–related plans to offset the cost, but none are unlimited, and none reduce the additional cost below 25 cents per minute.

With MobiTV, you get dozens of streaming television channels. Live MSNBC and CNBC look okay, but transmission sometimes stutters and takes a while to begin streaming. MP3 and WMA music files sounded clear over a set of Bluetooth Etymotic Ety8. Inconveniently, the music stopped every time the BlackJack II's volume was adjusted. To resume playback, the Done soft key in Windows Mobile had to be pressed and then press Play again, which was pretty lame. Standalone video files played smoothly, even in full screen mode, though there was no way to skip forward or backward while watching files.

The 2-megapixel camera took disappointingly soft and blurry photos. The BlackJack II lacks auto-focus and an LED flash. You are able to record smooth 320-by-240-pixel videos—a usable size—but some of my test files were plagued by intermittent stutters. The phone's microSD slot supports up to 4GB microSD cards, but not higher-capacity microSDHC media.
HSDPA data radios are notoriously hard on cell-phone batteries. Fortunately, the BlackJack II was a welcome exception, lasting 6 hours 14 minutes on a talk-time rundown test. That's more than 2 hours longer than the original BlackJack's score of 3:51. This alone might be enough to sway BlackJack owners to upgrade.

Anyone tethered to Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Outlook can make a solid bet on the BlackJack II on AT&T, especially if they can't afford the HTC Tilt or aren't a fan of its larger size. The Motorola Q9h's comfortable keyboard and Documents To Go suite makes it a better choice for Microsoft Office mavens on the go, but that device doesn't match the BlackJack II's sheer broadband speed. The BlackBerry Curve wins out on e-mail handling and overall OS responsiveness, although its pokey EDGE radio pales in comparison to the BlackJack II's HSDPA chipset. Overall, the BlackJack II plays a strong, winning hand, just like the original BlackJack did back in 2006.