The Samsung Gem is Samsung's latest foray into the hugely popular and lucrative entry-level Android smartphone market. This is where Android is going to grab what's left of the market share, and any company that builds a solid performer but still keeps prices in check is going to do well. The Gem is that solid performer. Checking in at $29.99 (with the standard two-year agreement), or free through U.S. Cellular's Belief Project if you qualify, it really makes buying a feature or messaging phone seem like a poor decision.
Of course it doesn't offer up the level of performance that you would see from some of the high-end Android phones out there, but it's not designed to. You'll see what I mean, after the break.
We always like to start things off with a video overview, and this time is no exception. Have a peek and then read the details after.
YouTube link for mobile viewing
As you can see, it's not a bad little piece of equipment. There are moments when it spins it's gears, but not very often and not for very long. It's certainly a snappier user experience than any feature/java/brew phone on the market. Let's give it a once-over, shall we?
- 800 MHz S3C6410 Samsung CPU (think Omnia II or Transform)
- 160 MB RAM
- 512 MB ROM (with 124 MB available for app storage)
- 3.2 inch TFT display at 240x400
- 3.2 MP camera
- Wifi (802.11 b/g), Bluetooth and AGPS
- Support for up to 16 MB microSD card, 2 MB card included
- 1500 mAh battery
- Android 2.2.1
The Gem is a pretty well built phone. Everything fits together well and nothing was loose or creaky. The outer shell is hard glossy plastic, with the same textured look but not-really-textured feel that we're used to with the Nexus S. It's not the most pleasant feeling in the world, and I really wish Samsung would start using some sort of soft-touch coating on their phones, but the materials and assembly were both done well.
The Gem has five physical buttons, including a large diamond-shaped home button as well as send and end keys for phone use. The big home button is something I could get used to, and I'm a huge fan of dedicated buttons for the phone function. Yes, this is a new and different layout -- something I love to complain about -- but it's so different I didn't find myself constantly hitting the wrong button. Instead I had to stop and think about what I was doing. I big old honking home button is really nice, especially with a third party launcher that lets you assign a new function to it. The diamond shape is carried to the back for the camera opening.
That same diamond shape (it's the Gem, after all) is used for the phone's earpiece -- which is loud and crystal clear. There's no noise cancelling and callers told me everything sounded good, but they could tell I was using a cell phone from the slight "hiss" that accompanied my voice. As should be expected from any phone running Froyo, the Gem paired with and used my Bluetooth earpiece without a hitch.
Samsung finally built a phone with the power button back up top, right after I got used to it being on the side. The standard 3.5 mm headphone jack perches up top beside it, and the supplied wired headset worked just fine.
On the left side of the phone are the volume rocker switch and the microUSB port. On the right is a dedicated camera button -- something I think all phones should have. The controls are all well placed and easy to use with one hand, which is handy when you use a phone while working.
Combine the small screen with the big battery, and the Gem will last you at least a full day of messaging and web browsing.
One thing worth mentioning here is the overall shape of the phone. If you use your Android smartphone as a phone, you'll appreciate it. It's bulgy and curvy in the right places for very comfortable use.
Nobody associates a good camera with an inexpensive phone. I won't go as far as saying the Gem has a good camera, but I have to mention that it was much better than I expected on an entry-level device with no camera flash. As promised in the video, here's a few stills.
View them full-size, and you'll see they are a bit grainy. Having said that, when you consider the phone they're coming from they aren't bad at all. If you're out somewhere and need to grab a quick pic it will work, but use something else for the family portrait. The video camera on the other hand, well let's just say 15 fps and forget that it's even there. You can't win them all I reckon. The camera software is nice, and the dedicated shutter button makes snapping pictures fast and easy.
I know a lot of people want a high-end phone with stock Android on it. While the Gem isn't a high-end phone, it delivers the unmolested Android experience many people want. To make things even better, the app drawer isn't filled with crapplications. The Gem is stock Android 2.2.1, with five (yes, only five) apps added in by U.S. Cellular -- and three of those are useful. Besides U.S. Cellular's MyContacts Backup app (which is something everyone switching to Android from a messaging or feature phone is going to use), there's ThinkFree Office for editing documents, and Your Navigator Deluxe -- U.S. Cellular's branded version of TeleNav. Of course there's also ToneRoom and CityID. Did I mention that you can't win them all?
There's not much else to say about the software. It's Android 2.2.1 vanilla. Everything you would expect to work works, including features like voice actions and Wifi Hotspot. On this unit Wifi Hotspot worked out of the box, but the opening dialog did mention that you would need to have the correct plan when I first ran it. About that 2.2.1 -- I don't expect this phone to get updated to Gingerbread, though it would benefit from it. I do hope U.S. Cellular updates to at least 2.2.2, because there are some important security fixes that all phones need. That should be relatively minor, and I'm sure engineers at both U.S. Cellular and Samsung are aware of the patches. Fingers crossed.
No, you don't get to see my secret ones :p
It's made by Samsung -- that means the bootloader or any other hardware won't have anything funky done to it, but waiting for any proprietary software (kernel modules, radio -- things of that sort) is going to be longer than anyone wants. Samsung doesn't deserve all the flack they get about OS updates, but they certainly weren't first out of the gate for the Galaxy S line. Maybe that will change, but if the next version of Android needs updated "drivers" for the Gem to use it, don't count on getting anything as fast as you'd like.
Using the RATC exploit I was easily able to get root through adb, but didn't want to tinker with anything in the file system itself just in case I
assploded something couldn't undo it :) This one should be easy to root if the right person gets hold of it -- if you're handy and aren't afraid to make a brick, contact me. Once this thing gets rooted, a custom recovery and a Gingerbread update probably wouldn't be too difficult. Notice I said probably, because there isn't much developer interest in this one.
The wrap up
While the Gem isn't something you should upgrade to from your current Android phone, it is a very nice way for someone to get a taste of Android for the first time, or a first smartphone. U.S. Cellular's network works very nice in my area, and made using the Gem more than tolerable. I ran into a grand total of zero show-stopping bugs, and other than some random stuttering when working the phone a little hard, everything went well.
I wouldn't recommend the Gem to any sort of power-user type, but if a family member or friend is ready to try a smartphone without a multi-hundred dollar investment, the Gem would be a good choice.