The Bada Anomaly

One of the things I had to give up when I left my previous job was an iPhone 3GS, and although I’ve very recently gotten another one on loan (not to mention the prospect of eventually getting a 4 soon), one of the opportunities my recent job shift provided was trying out another kind of company phone.

After some dilly-dallying around the notion of carrying a Blackberry again and realizing that no matter how great they are I could not possibly go back to a physical keyboard (as well as being a clear loser in the current stage of the smartphone rat race), I turned to the list of then available Android devices and ultimately gave up, largely because I refuse to use anything but the vanilla, junk-free experience that you’d get on a Nexus One or similar, and there were none available at the time.

So, after much hesitation, I picked the phone at the very end of the listing - the Samsung Wave 8500, which, as it happens, was reviewed on Engadget a little while ago.

Now, allow me to make it perfectly clear that I loathe Samsung phones for a number of reasons (not the least of which was having to deal with a joint product development cycle for the past two years), but I eventually came to think of my distaste as unfair and decided to tackle it head on - something I try to do with everything that I dislike or am initially biased against, for I prefer to try to find some merit in things rather than diss them outright.

And a device with a decent camera (although quite inferior to the iPhone 4’s in terms of response curve), usable (if flaky) ActiveSync and a Mobile AP mode that allowed me to get online with my iPad “tethered” to it via Wi-Fi clearly outweighed that loathing and bias, especially considering that when I chose my company phone I had no firm notion of when (if ever) I would get a new iPhone again - Providence has been kind to me in that regard in terms of timings (if not regarding budget, alas), but I went for the Wave full expecting to use it for a year or more.

Bada is, in a word, weird, and not just as a moniker. Samsung has long been known in the industry for launching handsets with just about any operating system (they did Symbian, Windows Mobile and older proprietary stuff, to which they recently added Android, LiMo and Bada)

So it’s not unsurprising that older (and arguably wiser) commenters in the industry who think beyond the “ooh, shiny” stage have questioned their commitment to Bada on a number of levels, to say the least.

And speaking of commitment, if you want to develop native apps for Bada, my (quite honest) advice is to simply skip it.

No matter what their stated goals regarding the market penetration in the mid-range handset segment, and how pretty the developer site looks, the SDK is Windows-only (which is unfathomably odd for what is essentially an embedded Linux system), and Samsung themselves are churning out Android devices by the bucketload - and, more to the point, Android devices are now sliding down into the mid-range segment, which will eventually turn Bada into a niche in more ways than one.

And quite honestly, it probably ought to remain as such.

That said, the Wave is pretty well built (the metal casing was one of the reasons I went for it and a marked difference from the Galaxy S, which has a tendency to crack the back cover), has a decent 5 megapixel camera (good enough for me to take more than a few shots), charges through a (mercifully standard) micro-USB port, and has a decent and snappy touch screen with the usual complement of useless widgets.

It also sported a (somewhat usable) Facebook app and a (mostly annoying and limited) Twitter app that leverage Samsung’s dubiously useful Social Hub aggregator (yet another shoddy take on the unified address book meme that swept through the less Internet-savvy portions of the mobile industry over the past couple of years), a hideous mapping application, Samsung’s rather anemic take on an app shop, and a few other doodads.

On the whole, software-wise, it was unremarkable - it does have high points like the draggable notification bar, which is lifted straight from the Android playbook, but on the whole it was mostly utilitarian, and sometimes asinine in terms of usability.

For instance, one of my all-time less favorite Samsung usability issues, and one I’ve chased on a number of Samsung devices over the past two years, is their apparent incompetence when it comes to setting input methods across applications - time and again I started typing on their (otherwise quite decent) soft keyboard to find that since I was using a “new” app or a different dialog box inside the same app, I had to re-select the input method I was using - an unforgiving annoyance if you stray outside the built-in dictionary, and a hellish nuisance if you’re bi-lingual.

Right up there with that one was the way the SMS app is unfathomably stupid to the point of forcing you to quit it if you launch it from the notification bar (as you naturally would once you got a new SMS) in order to access more than the current conversation.

Another was the utterly asinine placement of the default soft key options throughout the entire phone. Basic usability rules for left-to-right writing languages state that you usually place options that move you forward in the UI flow on the right, and cancel/back options on the left - so you’d usually put “Back” on the left and “Add” on the right, right?

Not so with Samsung UI designers, who, faced with the prospect of having their UI look and feel too much like a carbon copy of the iPhone and Android’s (which it is, make no mistake), decided to be original (i.e., different) where it had the worst possible effect in usability, starting with the SIM PIN dialog - where OK is on the left and SOS on the right, unlike pretty much every touchscreen phone I ever used.

This utterly moronic design option means that I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve found myself stuck on the “are you sure you want to dial an emergency call?” dialog first thing in the morning (and yes, that also has the buttons reversed), or the number of times I finished typing an SMS only to abort it by mistake, because the “Send” button is on the left corner of the screen, whereas “Back” is on the right one - again, contrary to every other touchscreen phone I’ve used.

So if you value your sanity, I wouldn’t recommend a Bada phone - the best parts of the UI are lifted straight off other platforms, and the bad parts defy all rational explanation.

Still, there are good bits - the browser is a surprisingly good WebKit implementation with Flash (disabled by default, fortunately) that I could get to work with most iPhone-enabled sites, ActiveSync worked with multiple accounts (and calendars), the integrated address book is much better than the current Symbian one and feels like the Android default UI in many points (although I didn’t care much for the integrated activity tab that let you keep tab on each contact’s social proclivities on Twitter and Facebook), the camera and gallery apps (which Samsung unfortunately turned into a “standard” for all their phones on all their platforms) allow for some decent editing of photos (namely color tweaking, resizing, rotating and cropping) and, finally, the video recording quality is surprisingly good. Sadly, the sensor response is inferior to the iPhone 4’s, so color is a bit off, but I attest that you can record halfway decent HD video of your kids.

I am also reliably informed that it plays back DivX files and has a passable music player (both hampered by the measly 2GB on-board storage, which is soon taken over by mail, photos and social junk), but I honestly didn’t bother with either that or the purported DLNA support.

Since I loathed the Social Hub integration (it feels too intrusive) and found the e-mail client laughable to do more than check if there was something urgent to attend to, I soon focused on the single most interesting aspect of the device to me: Wi-Fi tethering.

Heavy data users will be glad to know that the Wave is the perfect phone to have in your pocket when you’re not actually using data (because it warms up considerably), but that once out of your pocket and with the Mobile AP option switched on it makes for a very decent replacement for a MiFi - it is in fact better than a MiFi because you don’t have to faff about with obscure indicators and setup pages, and I managed to get a pretty decent four hours’ use out of it - which is on par with the MiFi I had.

So it is the perfect companion for my Wi-Fi iPad when I’m outside the office, provided I don’t actually try to use it as I would an ordinary smartphone.

And yes, it does work decently as a phone, although (as you’d expect given the above) the UI for actually placing and taking calls defies any rational explanation if you’ve used any other touchscreen phone. It is also a pretty decent device for texting (except for the bugs I described above), since the keyboard, once properly configured, is very responsive indeed.

The bottom line? Stay clear of it if you’ve ever used an Android or iPhone, wait for it to be sold at discount if you want a decent, well-built phone that can sync your contacts with Gmail and do some basic social networking stuff, or - in my case - if you want a pocket router that can double as a utilitarian (if sometimes annoying) phone.

But the subtext is that I can’t wait for Apple to come to their senses and give us iPhone-iPad tethering.