Can a mobile phone be too thin? Samsung deems determined to find out, as they keep pushing the envelope when it comes to building feature-rich mobiles that are as thin as possible. While the 8mm thin T-Mobile exclusive "Trace" SGH-T519 isn't Samsung's thinnest phone - that title currently rests with the X828, a 6.9mm thin model - it's darn close.
Samsung packed a solid feature set into the Trace, including a 1.3 MP camera, audio player with mp3 and AAC support, microSD removable memory card slot, and compatibility with myFaves, T-Mobile's new multi-network unlimited calling plan. Debuting at a retail price of just $99 with a two-year contract, the Trace is one of the first hi-tech fashion phones aimed squarely at the middle of the market.
Once you get past that astonishingly thin profile, can the Trace measure up? Let's take a deeper look at this ultra-thin mobile.
Quite similar in appearance to Samsung's SGH-X820, the Trace is a long, wide, wafer of a phone. At 113 x 50 x 8mm, this handset looks much like a flattened-out version of your standard candybar phone. The Trace is also a featherweight, "tipping" the scales at a mere 71g. The back panel bulges out slightly at the top, where the camera sensor and speaker are housed, giving the phone the look of the top panel only of one of Samsung's thin slider phones.
The front panel of the Trace is split about 50-50 between the 1.8" screen (and it's substantial black border) and keypad. Large Samsung and T-Mobile logos flank the display on the top and bottom, and a cut out for the earpiece is visible just above the upper edge of the display panel. The keypad is quite roomy, and features large buttons that are nearly flush to the phone, giving a high-tech appearance similar to that of touch-sensitive controls. Above the standard 12-button dialing layout are six large control buttons laid out as three columns: left softkey and Call, a four-way directional pad with center-mount OK button, and right softkey and End/power. All buttons are labeled in an almost-black dark grey, save for the traditional green Call and red End keys.
While the flush mount keys look nice, they do have a downside. Since there's literally not much room for tactile feedback amongst the buttons, it's easy to accidentally press the wrong key or multiple keys. I had trouble with the navigation pad, in particular, as the delineation between the four directional keys, the center OK button, and the clear key just below is blurry in a tactile sense.
As mentioned, the top of the rear panel bulges out to house the camera sensor and speaker, and is labeled with a "1.3 Megapixels" logo. The rest of the panel is blank save for an embossed Samsung logo in the middle and the new T-Mobile myFaves logo at the bottom edge. The bottom portion of the panel acts as a battery cover, and slides off to reveal the battery and SIM card slots.
On the left side of the phone, we find a rocker switch used to control volume and a covered port used to connect the included AC charger and wired headset. The right side of the phone features a covered slot for microSD removable memory cards and a single programmable button labeled with a camera logo and, for some odd reason, a red stripe. As you might guess, this button is used to access the camera features.
The dimensions of the Trace felt great in my pocket but rather odd in my hand. While such a slim phone is a joy to carry around - particularly for someone like me who often keeps his mobile in a front pants pocket but hates having it visibly bulging out - it made for somewhat awkward use. The Trace is so slim as to be a little awkward to use for one-handed dialing. Akin to an overly-light tennis racquet that twists in your grip upon impact with the ball, I found the Trace a little "wriggly" when I tried to push its buttons. Whereas thicker candybar phones stay put in the center of my hand, the Trace's longer, wider footprint meant I had to grip it with my fingers cradled around its side panel, causing the phone to hover somewhat above my palm. This meant that the phone wasn't braced against my hand and so moved around some when I pressed the keys with my thumb.
The Trace has a solid feature set highlighted by compatibility with T-Mobile's new "myFaves" service plan. myFaves allows for unlimited calling between you and your choice of any five numbers on any mobile networks, and is available as an optional add-on to standard T-Mobile rate plans. Only very recent release T-Mobile handsets are compatible with the service.
Samsung's standard digital audio player is also included on the Trace, and it performed well with mp3, AAC, and WMA files. Audio files may be played back from internal memory and/or microSD cards.
The phone has the common set of organizer applications, including a calendar with appointment alarms and to-do lists, and alarm clock, and a 1,000 entry contacts application with support for five phone numbers, email addresses, and other information for each entry. Contacts may also be organized into groups, and caller ID pictures and ringtones are supported. A voice memo application is also present, though voice commands are not.
The Trace supports J2ME Java games, and three titles came pre-installed. I spent some time playing "Bobby Carrot," an addictive puzzle game that you've likely seen before in a different skin. Additional games, ringtones, and wallpapers are available for download through T-Mobile's optional T-Zones service.
Samsung built the Trace with a 1.3 MP camera that's capable of taking both still images and movie clips. The camera wasn't the best, and images were often blurry under all lighting conditions. Also, there is neither a flash nor a self-portrait mirror on the phone. A wide range of user-controllable features are built-in, including six resolutions, three quality settings, night, mosaic and fun frame modes, and very useable digital zoom. One annoying aspect of the camera is that while multiple shutter sounds are available, the shutter can't be silenced altogether.
The camera yielded similar results in camcorder mode. Two resolutions and a number of options are available, and movies are recorded with sound. The Trace does feature a substantial 80 MB of internal memory to which images and movies may be stored, and optional microSD memory cards allow for further storage space. Videos meant for MMS messages are capped at 90 seconds in length while other videos can be as long as the available memory will accomodate.
The 1.6" TFT screen on the Trace is quite nice. With a resolution of 220 x 176 pixels at 262,000 colors, the display is capable of sharply rendered photos and graphics, if not on par with the QVGA screens now found on higher-end phones. The screen isn't readable in direct sunlight, but otherwise performs quite well.
Samsung built the Trace with a simpler interface than the Flash-driven UIs common on their recent handsets. The main menu is a simple nine-icon grid done up in greyscale with the current selection magnified and animated in color. The UI isn't flashy, but it is easy to navigate.
The Trace supports user customization of the home screen wallpaper, as well as basic settings for text style and color. Wallpaper images may be loaded on to the phone via memory card, Bluetooth, or MMS/Web download. A number of wallpapers are pre-installed on the phone, as well.
I tested the Trace on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Trace is a Quad-Band GSM handset, and reception and performance was generally excellent. Audio was clear on both mine and the other end of calls. Volume levels, however, were rather low on my end. I often found myself reaching for the volume switch only to find that the level was already high as it could go. This didn't make voice calls unbearable, but the phone was noticeably quiet.
Calls on the built-in speakerphone were clear but a little quiet, as well. Note that the speaker is rear-mounted on the Trace, which means that the phone must be laid face-down for true hands-free speaker calls. The Trace comes with a wired handsfree earpiece with an in-line microphone that worked quite well for voice calls. I would like to have seen a stereo headset included to take advantage of the built-in audio player, but one is available as an optional add-on.
The Trace supports Bluetooth audio devices. I was able to easily pair a Bluetooth earpiece with the phone, and voice quality with the earpiece was good. Stereo over Bluetooth is not supported.
The Trace has support for SMS, MMS, and IM messaging. Messaging packages are available through T-Mobile as add-ons to voice service plans, and messaging is also available without a package on a fee-per-message basis.
Composing SMS and MMS messages on the Trace was straightforward, as was attaching images, videos, and audio clips to MMS messages. Samsung's predictive text input system worked well, though I did have some trouble with the phone's flush-mount keypad when tapping out longer missives. There is no email client on the Trace, though WAP email access is available through T-Mobile's T-Zones service.
The Trace's IM client supports AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, and ICQ instant messaging. T-Mobile includes instant messaging as part of their messaging packages, and it is available on a fee-per-message basis, as well.
Internet access on the Trace is limited to T-Mobile's T-Zones service. The service worked well, and the Trace supports EDGE for faster data rates. T-Mobile's done a pretty good job of making T-Zones an easy-to-use and worthwhile WAP experience.
While not on par with multimedia Internet offerings from Verizon, Sprint, and (recently) Cingular, T-Zones does give quick access to news, sports, weather, and other information. I was able to use it to quickly retrieve World Series scores, weather reports, and other information. Not as nice as full Web browsing access, but still handy on the go.
A quad-band GSM handset, the Trace supports the 850/900/1800/1900 bands as well as GPRS and EDGE data transfer. The phone is suitable for use abroad on T-Mobile and other GSM networks, and a European voltage adapter was included in my review sample. Wi-Fi support is not included on the trace.
Bluetooth includes support for audio devices as well as file transfer and syncing. I had no trouble pairing the Trace with a mono headset or my computer. The phone features a single accessory port that's used for the included wired hands-free earpiece as well as the AC charger.
The phone has an impressive 80MB of internal memory built-in, and also features a microSD slot for expansion via removable memory cards. No microSD card is included in the retail package.
Thin is in, and Samsung keeps pressing the outer boundaries of just how thin a mobile phone can be. The Trace is a solid mid-range handset that represents Samsung's "thin" foray into the middle part of the consumer market. While not quite as thin as the company's X820 and X828 handsets, at 8mm from front to back, the Trace is plenty thin to be eye-catching. And it won't mess up the lines of your jacket or pants pocket.
While I had some trouble with the long, thin form factor and flush mount buttons, I'm sure that other users will see these aspects of the Trace as "features" and not "issues." That being said, the Trace is attractive and functional, with a solid offering of features bolstered by a generous amount of internal memory and a microSD card slot. The phone also works with T-Mobile's new myFaves plan, which should save some money for heavy talkers with friends on other mobile networks.
Save for minor volume issues, the Trace is a solid performer with an amazingly thin body. At its introductory price of $99 with service, it's sure to wind up in the hands of more than a few T-Mobile customers in the months to come.