With a seemingly endless stream of flagship phones hitting the market before the holiday season, it can be easy to forget some of the other devices that play a more niche audience. The Samsung Galaxy Beam definitely belongs in this category, as it includes a built-in Texas Instruments DLP pico projector. All told, the phone faces a lofty challenge: while the projector could be useful for the PowerPoint crowd, the phone itself falls on the lower end of mid-range, and isn't powerful enough to do business users much good otherwise. With a 1GHz dual-core NovaThor CPU, an overly outdated OS, a 2010-era display and a middling 5-megapixel camera, the Beam's target demographic appears to be ridiculously small. Still, might the projector be enough to carry this device to its full potential? Does a niche device like this have a place in such a crowded market? Read on to get in touch with our thoughts, feelings and emotions regarding the Samsung Galaxy Beam.
In many respects, the Galaxy Beam is just a Galaxy S Advance that's been redesigned to fit that projector. While the two look completely different on the outside, the internal specs are nearly identical, with the exception of battery capacity. For instance, both devices have a 1GHz dual-core NovaThor CPU with 768MB RAM, a 4-inch WVGA TFT display and a 5-megapixel rear-facing shooter with 720p video capture. Both have 8GB of internal storage, though the Advance also has a 16GB option. These aren't the only similarities between the two, but you get the idea for now.
In many respects, the Galaxy Beam is just a Galaxy S Advance that's been redesigned to fit that projector.
The outside is a different story. The Galaxy Beam has a rugged, sporty look, with a black textured battery cover on the back and a large yellow stripe ringing the outside of the device. (Note: a white-and-grey option is also available in certain markets.) While we doubt it's actually as rough as your standard MIL-spec device, it's at least trying to give off the impression that it's not built with run-of-the-mill cheapo plastic. To its credit, it certainly has a solid feel, and its 124 x 64.2 x 12.5 mm (4.88 x 2.53 x 0.49 in) frame is small enough to ensure that the jaws of life wouldn't be able to relax your grip on the thing. At 5.11 ounces (145g), the phone isn't terribly heavy, but the projector still makes it weigh a bit more than your average 4-inch device.
The star of the show is perched on the top edge of the phone, and its heft creates a bulge that pokes out the top of the battery cover. Let's give the designers some credit here: we figure it can't be easy to design a phone around a projector (or vice versa), and the team did a good job of somehow incorporating it into the chassis without turning it into an awkward mess. Yes, the phone is much thicker than what we're accustomed to, but it's still comfortable to grip. In fact, this may be a reason the company chose to stick with a 4-inch display -- we could definitely see the thickness becoming an issue on devices with larger screens.
Since the top of the Beam seems to be the normal locale for the 3.5mm headphone jack, this particular feature migrated to the phone's left side to make room for the projector. That isn't a good place to stick it -- most smartphone users who listen to music on a regular basis find this setup quite frustrating when they need to stick the device in their pockets. Ultimately, in this case, the best place for the jack would've been on the bottom.
Accompanying the headphone port on the left side are the volume rocker and full-sized SIM slot. This is cause for another frustration, as most smartphones released in the second half of this year take advantage of micro-SIMs. If you sport a smaller SIM, you'll need to either swap it out for the super-size option or quickly find a $1 adapter. Be careful though: the SIM port's ejection mechanism can be a bit fickle (the cards go in just fine, but getting them out takes a little more effort), so avoid cheap plastic adapters that snap like twigs.
The right side of the phone houses the projector on / off switch, the standard power button and microSD slot. The latter port can support cards up to 32GB, which is important to point out since you only get 8GB internal storage (which ultimately leads to less than 6GB that you can actually play with when all is said and done). A micro-USB charging port sits on the bottom of the phone.
As we briefly mentioned earlier, the Beam's display is a 4-inch WVGA (800 x 480) TFT panel. This is the sort of resolution you'll mainly find on budget phones nowadays. Frankly, we would've preferred to see a qHD screen here, especially since the going price is around £270 ($430). For what it's worth, Samsung's decision to use TFT over the PenTile Super AMOLED was a wise one, as we didn't find ourselves getting too distracted by pixelation or jagged edges. While it isn't as sharp a panel as we like to see on today's fancier phones, we still found watching movies to be pleasant. Additionally, the screen is bright enough that we were able to pull off some daylight reading, and the viewing angles are also better than we originally expected.
The back cover features a soft rubbery finish with a fine texture to offer some extra grip and keep fingerprints away. You'll also see the 5-megapixel camera and LED flash front and center, with the Samsung logo sitting directly underneath. The only other feature on the back is the speaker grille, which is slightly raised to keep the external speaker from being muffled. The back cover and accompanying 2,000mAh battery beneath are both removable.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the Galaxy Beam -- and frankly its sole reason for even existing -- is the 15-lumen DLP nHD (640x360) pico projector built directly into the upper half of the device. Unconventional as it may seem to some, this isn't Samsung's first (or even second) time at the projector-phone rodeo; we've seen the manufacturer attempt this form factor with the AnyCall W7900 (aka the Haptic Beam), the AMOLED Beam W9600 and the original Galaxy Beam I8520. Of course, this is the best of the bunch, and the competitive landscape is virtually non-existent at the moment; most manufacturers haven't even bothered with this particular niche. (Warning: it likely goes without saying, but don't look directly into the projector when it's turned on.)
This isn't Samsung's first time at the projector-phone rodeo, but it's the best effort we've seen so far.
The idea is that you can project movies and images up to 50 inches in size, and maintain its clarity for up to six feet away from the wall or ceiling you're projecting it onto. We were quite pleased with its overall performance: it maintained solid video quality and synced audio smoothly, so that everyone's voice came out at the exact time it was supposed to. The projector itself has adjustable brightness levels, although even at its brightest setting the projection was a little darker than what we saw on the screen. But that's to be expected -- the Galaxy Beam won't be replacing anybody's TV, but it still works well in a dark room (results are mixed in daylight). Also -- and this shouldn't come as a surprise -- but it's worth noting that the projector gets quite hot after extended use.
If you're considering using the Beam as a TV substitute, we have some good news: we had no problem watching movies via third-party apps like Netflix, which means you can stream video with ease. There are also a few extra settings that Samsung has thrown into the dedicated projector app, such as a flashlight mode, a "quick pad" mode that lets you take screenshots of your screen and draw on it (ideal for presentations) and an ambience mode that lets you watch slideshows with music playing in the background. There's also a "visual presenter" that uses your phone's camera to act as an overhead projector.
At first, we couldn't think of many uses for the Beam's projector, outside of a businessperson using it for presentations, but it actually came in handier than we expected. This editor watched movies on the wall (and ceiling) in his bedroom before falling asleep -- a convenient option, since the projection was larger than the TV he had laying around. What's more, restless children can watch a movie (or use the quick pad to draw) in almost every possible situation. And think about the amazing impromptu vacation slideshows you can show off to your friends. Is that enough justification for most people to buy this phone? Not really, but we're happy the option is available for anyone who feels the need.
Think the hardware is a tough sell? The firmware isn't going to help convince you to purchase a Galaxy Beam either, since it's running Android 2.3 Gingerbread. As a quick reminder, this build of Google's mobile OS is about to celebrate its two-year anniversary. There's simply no excuse for a modern smartphone to be running an antiquated OS, even if it is an entry-level device. To be fair, Samsung's confirmed that Jelly Bean will come eventually, but the company hasn't given at ETA. It's quite possible we won't see an update until sometime next year.
There is no logical reason this phone should be running Gingerbread.
What you get on the Beam is the same standard-grade TouchWiz 4.0 UI that first shipped on the Galaxy S II. And since it's not tied to any specific carrier, you won't have to worry about any frustrating bloatware -- good thing, too, since it's not so easy to get rid of unwanted apps on Gingerbread. Worst-case scenario, this particular version of TouchWiz allows you to add folders into the standard app menu, so it's much easier to just tuck annoying apps out of the way so you don't have to see them.
Looking at the Beam's spec sheet, we're not surprised to see a 5-megapixel shooter and VGA front-facing camera. These are Samsung's go-to modules for lower-end smartphones, and we didn't really expect to see many breathtaking images come out of this phone as a result. Sure enough, our sample shots were okay, but if imaging is your thing you'll want to look to the manufacturer's higher-end options.
In terms of features and settings, you actually have quite a few ways to tweak your shots -- Samsung has always been very generous in that regard. You can customize the settings sidebar with the features you use the most. Tap the viewfinder to lock focus but not exposure; if you want to do both, just hold down the shutter button until you're ready to fire away. You can also take panoramic shots and use the usual smattering of scene modes (low-light will be particularly valuable), exposure adjustments, macro focus mode, three filters, white balance and ISO. HDR isn't an option here, unfortunately, but chances are you won't miss it too much on a lower-end camera.
Spec-wise, the camera has a focal length of 3.54mm and an f/2.6 aperture. In daylight, lighter colors were typically washed out, while the white balance appeared to favor a shift toward yellow. Detail wasn't much of a concern here, and we didn't notice any compression in our photos. Low-light images actually turned out well, so long as we used the dedicated low-light scene mode (standard and backlight shots won't do any good). Additionally, the LED flash enabled the camera to capture more color than we anticipated.
With a lower-res camera often comes lower-res video capture, with 1,280 x 720 being the best you can get here. All movies are recorded in MPEG-4 format at 30 fps (on average) and use a bit rate of 12.3 Mbps. The mic picks up voices well, but the resulting footage is slightly choppy and lacks a lot of detail and sharpness. It doesn't meet our expectations, but it's adequate for the occasional home video.
If you've chanced a gander at the silicon inside, you'll know that the Beam isn't meant to please the high-end power user. It packs a 1GHz dual-core NovaThor U8500 (a 45nm 32-bit Cortex-A9 processor) with 768MB of RAM and a Mali-400 GPU. Samsung's processor selection is a little curious here, as ST-Ericsson's NovaThor brand isn't exactly known for high performance. The Sony Xperia U and Xperia P both share the same chipset but again, we don't think top-notch performance was a priority for the company with this device. Anyone resigned to getting a budget phone will be happy with its speed and responsiveness, but power users will crave something more robust. Also, we'd advise you not to use this device if you're planning to play a lot of graphics-intensive games, though the phone does work fine for casual gaming. Here's how the benchmarks pan out:Samsung Galaxy BeamSony Xperia PSony Xperia UGLBenchmark 2.5 1080p Egypt Offscreen (fps)SunSpider: lower scores are better. Xperias were tested on GLBench 2.1 and Vellamo 1.0, which are now obsolete.
The Beam has a 2,000mAh removable battery that performs respectably. Our standard rundown test, which involves looping a video with the screen at 50 percent brightness, yielded nine and a half hours of life before it dwindled down to 10 percent capacity (the video refused to play after that). As for real-world usage, we got a day and a half with moderate use. But how does the phone hold up when you're using the projector? As you might expect, battery life takes a huge hit, but the phone managed to last four hours with the projector running. As an aside, we ran our test as it circulated through the same slideshow over and over, so the battery will likely drain even faster if you're using the projector to stream Netflix or perform similarly graphics-intensive tasks.
The Beam offers good battery life, but its performance will be off-putting to anyone not looking for a budget smartphone.
You'll find above-average audio quality on the Beam when listening to music or watching movies. Before the review, one of our biggest worries was how loud the sound would be when viewing multimedia via the projector (not everyone will be gathered around the phone, after all), but we can confidently say that there's no reason to be concerned unless you're in a crowded room; the external speaker exceeded our expectations, though the audio wasn't all that wonderful when we had our Klipsch Image S4A headphones plugged in. You're not going to get quite the dynamic audio range or fullness of sound that you'll hear on a flagship handset like the Galaxy Note II -- the bass that comes through sounded muddy, and voices were slightly distant.
While the Beam's HSPA+ radio is only capable of hitting a theoretical limit of 14.4 Mbps, it actually performs admirably given its constraints. Our unit, which offers quad-band 3G (850/900/1900/2100) and quad-band GSM / EDGE (850/900/1800/1900), was consistently able to reach average download speeds between 6 Mbps and 7 Mbps. It won't access 3G on any AWS networks, unfortunately. Calls came through loud and clear, and we didn't have any struggles hanging onto a conversation since the Beam's reception was quite reliable throughout our tests.
How much of a premium should be placed on a phone that comes with a projector, especially when the rest of the device merits a resounding meh? The Beam's price varies by market, but in the UK, at least, it's available for £270 ($430), while the Galaxy S Advance goes for £250 ($400). It's also available in France, Singapore, India and Brazil. Interested US customers can import an unlocked model with AT&T-compatible 3G. Samsung's still courting other markets as well, so there's a good chance we'll continue to see the Beam become more widely available.
There's definitely some excitement to be had when reviewing a device so out of the ordinary, but we found it a little difficult to make a final judgment call. The Galaxy Beam does well at what it claims to be good at (projecting media), but it's otherwise mediocre at best. That's not to say it's a horrible phone, but the low-to-mid-range feature set makes it a tough sell at $430, especially when you can pay the same price for much nicer devices these days. In this situation, it means that you either have to love the projector enough to justify the higher price, or the feature is so important to your business that you're willing to sacrifice a lot of modern functionality to get it.
The Beam is interesting as a proof of concept, but we don't see it blossoming into anything more than that at the present time. That's not to say this über-specific category doesn't have a future, but something as unique as a projector would likely find more success in a more premium phone: it needs to be incorporated into higher-end devices without making compromises in components, firmware or size. Only then can it be viable as a mainstream device. Until then, it's a fun gadget to show off to friends, but that's the extent of its strengths.
Richard Lai contributed to this review.