The Samsung Soul (aka the SGH-U900) was one of the stars of this year's GSMA World Congress in Barcelona. Samsung showed it off at a big press conference, and huge banners with images of the phone covered the city, from the airport baggage claim to the convention center. Such hype can be difficult to live up to, but in this case we can report that the Soul deserves the attention. Samsung has created a sleek, solid, and powerful handset with a unique touchpad that's intuitive and easy to use. Its feature set is respectable, though we were miffed that it lacked voice dialing, and the call quality, while inconsistent, is satisfying. At the time of this writing, the GSM/3G Soul isn't available from a North American carrier, so you'll have to buy it unlocked. That should run you about $400.
Samsung loves its slider phones, so it's not surprising the company chose such a model for the Soul. But while many slider phones have flimsy, generic designs with unimaginative controls, the Soul takes a finer approach. The handset has a solid, firm feel in the hand and the slider mechanism is distinctly sturdy. The phone clicks into place in either position, and we could open and close it with one hand. Our only change would be the addition of a small thumb grip. As it is, you have to place your thumb on the screen when opening the phone. Not only is the display slippery but you'll also end up leaving a visible thumbprint in its center. As an alternative, you can use the tapered bottom end of the phone as a grip. Like most slider phones, the Soul is decidedly thin (4.16 inches by 1.94 inches by 0.51 inch) and relatively lightweight (3.95 ounces), so it's quite portable. We also liked the phone's attractive chocolate-brown hue and its shiny metal sidings.
The Soul's 2.2-inch display is positively gorgeous. With support for 16 million colors, it shows everything well, from graphics to photos to text. The icon-based menus are attractive and intuitive, but you can choose a more conventional list style if you wish. As is the case with many Samsung phones, the Soul's display is difficult to see in bright light and it attracts a lot of fingerprints. You can change the display's brightness, backlighting time, and the size, color and type of the dialing font.
Beneath the display is the Soul's distinctive navigation array. Forget a toggle or a joystick, the Soul offers a square (1.25-inch diagonal) touchpad that features lighted icons in place of buttons. Though that may sound relatively ordinary, the Soul's icons morph depending on which of the phones you're using. For example, when in standby mode, the icons take the form of four user-defined shortcuts plus a central menu control. But when inside the menus, the shortcut icons become directional navigation arrows, while the central icon becomes an OK control. While that alone is cool enough, the Soul has more surprises in store. The touchpad icons also change for both the camera and the music player functions. And in any mode, the vibrating feedback makes up for the touchpad's lack of tactile definition (it's flush with the surface of the phone).
The result is a touchpad that's intuitive and contextually relevant for whichever feature you're using. The concept is similar to both the Motorola Rokr E8 and the LG Venus, but Samsung adds a few degrees of personalization. You can change the color of the icons and the "swooshing effect" that will follow your finger around the touchpad. You can also change the sensitivity of the tactile feedback. We commend Samsung for not only doing something different, but also doing it well. We got the hang of it very quickly and had few usability issues. Just be aware that the touchpad, like the display, is a fingerprint magnet.
Surrounding the display are four conventional buttons. You'll find two soft keys and the Talk and End/power buttons. When using the soft controls, it can be a disconcerting to move your finger to the touchpad and back again, but we got used to it. These controls are flush but they give off an audible click when pressed.
The keypad buttons are well-designed for a slider phone. Though the individual buttons are flat, small ridges separate each row. The buttons also give a tactile "push" feeling when pressed. The numbers on the keys are a tad small but they do benefit from bright backlighting, which is adjustable. Above the keys you'll find a control that opens a secondary shortcut menu, a clear key, and a button that activates video calling. The latter is a bit random--we'd prefer a speakerphone key--but the shortcut menu is easy to use. Yet we weren't crazy about the location of the clear key, either. Not only is it a long way for your finger to travel, but it's also hidden when the phone is closed.
Above the display is a tiny camera used for video calling. The main lens sits on the back of the phone next to the self-portrait mirror and flash. Keep in mind the camera is exposed only when the phone is open. Other exterior controls are few. A camera shutter and a microSD card slot sit on the right spine, and a volume rocker and the charger port/headset jack rest on the left spine. We're not fans of the proprietary headset jack.