When Sprint first introduced the Samsung Transform a little over a year ago at fall CTIA 2010, the most remarkable thing about the Android QWERTY slider was Sprint ID, the carrier's experimental attempt to let people pick thematic startup profiles for their phones. The problem was, not everyone liked it (including me), and even for those who do, Sprint ID is a more minimal addition than a full-on custom UI experience like HTC Sense or Samsung TouchWiz. Still, Sprint ID is going strong, and on the Samsung Transform Ultra for Boost Mobile, it takes on the slightly different name of Mobile ID.
Mobile ID aside, the Transform Ultra is itself a pretty good phone, and a worthy Android 2.3 Gingerbread addition to Boost's no-contract Android selection. It has a nice, tactile design, a 1GHz processor to get things moving, and 3G speeds. Yet apart from the newer Android OS and gray-on-gray Argyll backing, there's little about this handset that brands it as an "ultra" experience compared with the cream of the smartphone crop. But don't get me wrong--it's worth considering. The Transform Ultra costs $229.99 without a contract, which fits right into Boost Mobile's smartphone pricing.
The newer Transform Ultra gets a few changes to visually distinguish it from its predecessor, including a slightly different keyboard, new buttons, and a changed-up fit and finish. First, the body. The Transform Ultra has a shiny black face with matte gray sides. There are rounded corners, a silvery trim hugging the spines, and a gray plastic backing with a lightly textured surface in a diamond pattern that reminds me of Argyll socks and sweaters. (I personally really like this touch.) The phone is 4.6 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.55 inch thick and weighs a solid 4.9 ounces.
The screen size is a rather modest 3.5 inches, which is just about the smallest it should be for reading Web sites and typing. The HVGA 480x320-pixel resolution renders the screen bright, colorful, and sharp enough to comfortably perform. It supports 16 million colors, which is good, although I'm disappointed that Samsung didn't take the opportunity to update the original Transform's screen specs. The Transform Ultra comes with the Swype virtual keyboard preinstalled, but you can also switch to the standard Android keyboard if you'd prefer.
Boost Mobile mostly leaves Android to its stock Google settings, which means you'll see a total of five home screens ready for you to customize, with the central home screen already prepopulated by the Google Search bar. The static icons at the control bar lead to the dial pad, the vertically scrolling app tray, and Mobile ID (more on this shortly.)
Below the screen are four physical buttons that open the menu, go home, go back, and launch a Google search query. The buttons themselves are large enough for most fingertips to comfortably gain purchase and are nice and responsive.
Slightly less satisfying is the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Don't get me wrong, the sliding action felt smooth and strong without any wobbling or sticking, and the backlit keys are easy to see in the dark once they alight. Although wide enough and fully separated, the buttons are also typically flat. A slight hump in the center of each key helps with the typing, but the combination of the width of the keyboard and the flatness of the keys produced a few stumbling blocks for me, even though most of the keys themselves do snap back after you press them. Of course, everyone's hands and preferences are different; you may have a different experience.
Extras on the four-row keyboard include separate emoticon and symbols buttons, a speakerphone button, and four directional buttons to aid in navigation.
When it comes time to charge the Transform Ultra, the phone's Micro-USB port is on the bottom, with the camera shutter button on the right spine. The volume rocker is on the left, and the power button and 3.5 millimeter headset jack take up residence up top. On the back is the phone's 3-megapixel camera lens with flash. There is a front-facing VGA camera above the phone face, as well. Beneath that hatched back cover, a microSD card slot waits for you with a 2GB card already preinstalled (hooray). It holds up to 32GB total memory.
If you never tap the Mobile ID icon or the corresponding app in the app tray, not even accidentally, you'll get along just fine using the Transform Ultra as you would any other Android phone. However, if curiosity sets in, you'll find a gallery from which you can choose additional "ID packs," each with its own congregation of apps, wallpaper, widgets, and ringtones that the developer picked to represent their theme. The Social Networking ID Pack, for instance, adds apps and shortcuts to get you yapping on various networks. The idea is that you're able to load a couple ID packs and even swap between them as profiles when you want to switch gears.
It takes a while for a Mobile ID pack to initially load, so be patient if you're exploring the Mobile ID feature, and continue being patient if you don't want all the shortcuts or apps that the pack gives you. You'll be able to pare down the pack after, but not before installing everything. (I happen to think of this as bloatware, but to each their own.) I've softened a bit on Mobile ID/Sprint ID since Sprint engineers have sped up and smoothed out the initial download process. Downloading and switching among your IDs is much faster than it was a year ago when the feature first rolled out.
Mobile ID is meant to be the Transform Ultra's main draw, but even without it, you're looking at a reassuringly typical Android smartphone. Once you sign in with your Google account, you'll be able to import your Google contacts online, and from an SD card, storing as many contacts as you'd like as long as you've got the space (I've never come close to running out.) There's room for a multitude of phone numbers, e-mail addresses, Web sites, addresses, IM handles, notes, and so on, plus you'll find sorting options and the ability to link inboxes for your Google, Web mail, and Microsoft Exchange accounts in the "Email" app (a word of warning: Google sometimes confuses a few contacts and their images in the sync.)
One of Google's biggest wins with Android is the ability to quickly access Google services. On the Transform Ultra there's Books, Gmail, Google Search, Latitude, Maps, Navigation, Places, Talk, and YouTube.