It's not often that we get our hands on a high-performance camera phone. While plenty of high-resolution shooters land in the laps of our lucky colleagues at CNET Asia, we've had to settle for unlocked 5-megapixel models like the Sony Ericsson K850i and the Samsung SGH-G800. And don't get us started on U.S. wireless carriers; they can't bring themselves to offer anything more power than 3.2-megapixel models, like the LG Dare. So count us surprised and excited when Samsung graciously decided to send us a review model of its new 8-megapixel camera phone, the Samsung Innov8. Sleek, powerful, and armed with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feature set, the Innov8 makes even the high-quality LG Dare look like two tin cans connected by a string. Photo quality is excellent, as we expected, and the editing features rival those on a standalone camera. You still won't find an optical zoom--you'll have to head to Korea to find a camera phone with one of those--and the flash is disappointing, but the Innov8 offers just about everything else. Yet, as powerful as it is, the Innov8's photo quality is only marginally better than those 5-megapixel handsets
Fortunately, the Innov8 isn't all about its camera. It also makes calls--with good performance to boot--and it offers plenty of other goodies for both work and play. On the downside, we had some design complaints and the interface could be poky. And on a superficial note, while we get where Samsung gets the "8" in Innov8, we can't say we love the name. But then again, the model number--SGH-i8510--isn't so enticing either. Since it's only available unlocked in the United States, the Innov8 will indeed cost you--figure about $700 to $800 on average.
For all its functionality, the Innov8 is surprisingly compact (3.9 inches tall by 1.9 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick). Sure, it is a bit weighty (4.8 ounces), but it remains portable and small enough to fit in a pocket. The basic black color has a minimalist appeal and we like the clean lines. The extra weight gives the Innov8 a solid feel in the hand and the slider mechanism is easy to use--neither too stiff nor too loose. Yet, we couldn't help but notice that when the phone is open, the Innov8's front face shakes slightly back and forth.
The expansive 2.8-inch display shows 16.7 million colors. Naturally, it's bright and beautiful with vivid colors and sharp graphics. It is difficult to see in direct light, but that's hardly unusual for a cell phone. You can adjust the backlight time and brightness and you can personalize the display with color themes and wallpapers. Our only complaint is that the text size isn't adjustable. It should be fine for most people, but if that is a concern, you should check before buying such an expensive phone. On the upside, however, the Innov8 has an accelerometer that will change the display's orientation from portrait to landscape as you rotate the phone in your hand.
Powered by a Symbian Version 9.3 OS, the Innov8's menus are simple and intuitive; you can choose between a list and grid view. Fortunately, a lot of options are surfaced on the main menu page. As such, you don't need to drill down too many levels to find popular features. You also can activate a shortcut bar to appear on the standby screen. It offers access to a user-programmable shortcuts menu, the calendar, the music player, the FM radio, and the personalization menu. We like the convenient tabs that are at the top of the display inside the submenus.
Below the display, you'll find the Innov8's navigation array. The primary tool is a square four-way toggle with a central OK button. Both tools are raised above the surface of the phone so they're tactile and easy to grip. When you don't activate the aforementioned shortcut bar, the toggle offers one-touch access to four user-defined shortcuts. Surrounding the toggle are two soft keys, the Talk and End/power controls and dedicated shortcut keys for the multimedia gallery and the main menu. When the phone is in standby mode, the soft keys give one-touch access to two functions of your choosing. Though the navigation controls are spacious, they're also a bit slick. Also, while it's easy to spot the multimedia gallery and the main menu-shortcut keys because of their silver color (most of the array is black), they don't have a lot of tactile definition that separate them from the remaining navigation controls.
The Innov8 offers a new feature called an optical mouse, which is unique to Samsung. Don't get consumed by the name (as we did), for this is not a mouse like you'd find with a computer. Rather, the optical mouse allows you to navigate the phone's menus in a new way. By sliding your finger across the OK button, you can move up and down and side to side through menus and lists. It's innovative and cool, to be sure, but we wouldn't call it a game-changer. In fact, the feature requires an acclimation period. We preferred to turn it off.
The keypad is hidden behind the slider. It's spacious as well, and the backlighting is bright, but we don't quite approve of its design. There is little tactile definition between the individual buttons and the keypad as a whole is very slick. We didn't have problems dialing numbers, but texting felt awkward. We also didn't like that the clear control is on the top row of the keypad, which makes it inaccessible when the slider is closed. On either side of the clear button are two additional user-programmable shortcut keys.
On the left spine you'll find a volume rocker/camera zoom control, the 3.5mm headset jack, and the micro USB slot. We're glad to see the 3.5mm jack, and we commend Samsung for using a micro USB charger. On the left spine, there's the microSD-card slot and a camera control. The camera lens sits on the back of the phone just below the flash. The lens cover opens automatically when the camera is on. Like many high-end camera phones, the Innov8 is designed to mimic the ergonomics of a standalone camera. Yet, because the camera shutter and zoom control are on opposite sides of the device--we can't think of a camera with a similar arrangement--it falls a bit short of accomplishing that goal.
The Samsung Innov8 offers an exhaustive feature set, but for this review we'll start with the 8-megapixel shooter, which is its star attraction. The camera takes pictures in seven resolutions, from a full eight megapixels (3,264x24,448) down to QVGA (320x240). The remaining feature set is pretty lengthy, but we'll attempt to do it justice. There are four color effects, bright and white balance controls, an 8x digital zoom, a self-timer, a mosaic-shot mode, three quality settings, an adjustable ISO, exposure metering, and three shutter sounds, plus a silent option. You also get nine fun frames, but they're available only when you're shooting in the lowest resolution.
Though that's an impressive assortment already, the Innov8 doesn't stop there. You can choose from 12 "scene" settings that will automatically adjust the camera for certain shooting conditions. The choices are portrait, landscape, sports, indoor, beach, sunset, dawn, autumn colors, waves and snow, night, fireworks, and text. Wide-dynamic range will compensate for subjects with too much backlighting, while the antishake mode does exactly what you think. The smile-shot feature promises to snap a photo instantly when it detects that a subject is smiling, while the blink detection alerts you when a subject blinked during a photograph. Those features certainly sound interesting, and we'll assess them over the next few days. You also can use the camera as a smart reader for business cards; it worked pretty well in our tests.
On the downside, we weren't thrilled with the Innov8's flash, which is really a dual-LED photo light. Thought it's bright by all measures, it's not a xenon flash. As such, shots taken in low light only come out well if at close range.