You've got to hand it to Samsung, it's not afraid to run with unconventional ideas. Last year the company offered up the enormous Galaxy Note, a mobile that swerved dangerously into tablet territory, and this year we're treated to the Galaxy Beam -- a smart phone that contains a projector.
That's right, this mobile combines the excitement of mid-range Android action with a DIY lightshow you can project onto your bedroom wall. But before you get beside yourself with excitement at the prospect of Justin Bieber crooning you to sleep, be warned the Galaxy Beam ain't cheap.
You can bag the phone free on contract but you'll need to sign up for two years, paying a bare minimum of £26 a month. Or you'll have to shell out a frankly wallet-battering £410 to own it SIM-free. Not exactly mid-range prices then.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy Beam?
There's no doubt the Beam's projector is something of a gimmick but it's the sort that's going to seem insanely cool for kids of a certain age. If you're a teenager who can beg, borrow or earn enough cash from washing your parents' car every weekend -- for, like, ever -- to fund owning this phone, don't let me stop you.
It's not the best smart phone you can buy for this much money -- not even close. You're pocketing a middling Android experience while paying a premium for the pico projector stuck inside it. But who cares when you can have a booty-shaking Beyoncé projected half a metre high on your bedroom wall?
If, on the other hand, you're not whipped into a frenzy of excitement at the prospect of ripping down your bedroom posters and replacing them with YouTube clips, then the Galaxy Beam isn't the phone for you.
There are more slick and powerful 'droids up for grabs for this sort of cash -- such as Samsung's perennially popular Galaxy S2. Or you can trouser a perfectly capable mid-range 'droid sans projector, such as the Galaxy S Advance, without having to give up two years' worth of pocket money.
One more thing: this phone hasn't been designed with business folk in mind, so don't expect super-slick presentation software to let you beam your company's financials in front of the board. This is a phone firmly aimed at kids, not suits.
The Beam's projector is snuggled into the top of the device and it's triggered by a little button on the side of the phone. The first bit of good news is you can use the projector to beam anything the phone's display is showing -- it isn't app-specific. So YouTube videos, TV shows you've rented, clips of your cat doing cute stuff and your favourite games can all be projected onto light, clutter-free surfaces. Yay!
The other good news is that unlike serious projectors, the Beam doesn't use a big, breakable lamp, so there's no faffing around unscrewing and replacing bulbs. It's just a button press and off you go. To fire up the projector you can either long-press the physical button on the right-hand edge of the phone, or tap the Projector app that comes pre-loaded.
To focus the picture or control brightness, there's a simple slider interface. This menu automatically appears every time you summon the projector via the physical button, or can be accessed via the Focus and Rotation menu in the app. Here, you can also change the orientation of the picture by tapping a button to toggle between landscape and portrait view -- useful if you want to project a game in landscape orientation, say, while standing the phone up in portrait mode.
If you're hoping to beam YouTube videos on your wall, you'll have to contend with the phone's gyroscope, which means the app won't want to display a video in full-screen mode when the handset's standing on its short edge. Though there are, of course, ways around this such as using a screen locker or just placing the phone flat, rather than propping it up.
The projector app offers various projection modes, including a Quick Pad mode, which lets you beam whatever's on screen and overlay a pointer or scribble directly onto it. That could come in handy if you have to present your biology project in front of the class. The Visual Presenter mode might also be useful if you want to show off a specimen on the desk in front of you, as this mode throws up an image of whatever the phone's camera is pointing at.
Other options include an Ambience mode that lets you create a party atmosphere in your bedroom by projecting images, animations or video along with music of your choice (add headphones and you can have your own private silent disco). There's a neat Briefing mode that allows you to set a projection to accompany your alarm so it can beam stuff like your appointments for the day and the weather forecast onto the wall when you wake up. Meanwhile, a Torch mode will beam out a block of white, green, red or blue-coloured light -- to either see your way up the garden path or terrify your kid brother. Fun times.
The Beam's projector is not HD resolution. It's nHD -- meaning it throws out 640x360 pixels, with a brightness rating of 15 Lumens. To put this in context, it's possible to buy high-end home theatre HD projectors with a brightness rating of 2,000 Lumens. So the emphasis with Samsung's gizmo is very much on the 'pico' aspect of projecting. In short, don't expect amazing quality from the Beam's bulb.
It will happily project an image of sizeable proportions if you have a bare wall big enough to host it, plus a few clear metres of space so you can sit the projector far enough away to scale the picture up. Obviously, the bigger the image, the less clarity it'll have. Samsung reckons you can project an image with good clarity up to 1.27m wide with the projector sited 2m away from the wall.
In a darkened room, it's possible to have landscape images of more than 1m high dancing around on your wall but you wouldn't really want to watch a film blown up this big as it'll be pretty fuzzy. Indeed, even when considerably reducing the projection size, you'll have trouble making out moodily-lit scenes -- but hey, you're creating an atmosphere here, not trying to recreate the cinema. Cartoons and other brightly contrasting content works best, so think Toy Story not The Road.
Regardless of what you're beaming, the projector doesn't come into its own until after dark -- or until you shut yourself inside a windowless room. There's zero chance of seeing projections outdoors on a sunny day. Even if you want to use the projector indoors during the day you'll need to be able to create plenty of darkness. Flimsy floral curtains just won't cut it. For the best experience, clear out a space in the cupboard under the stairs and shut yourself in with the spiders.
When you've located a dark hidey hole, the best picture clarity is still achieved with a relatively short throw distance. I found that aligning the phone with around a metre between it and the wall gave a decent contrasty picture of around 60cm wide. The IMAX, this is not.
One aspect of the projector experience that's a particular let down is the phone's audio, which isn't amazing. You can, of course, plug in a decent set of headphones to enhance your movie night for one. Or, if you're hoping to get a bunch of mates around to watch a film on your bedroom wall, you'll definitely want to use decent speakers as the phone's tinny noise will soon grate and/or be drowned out.
If you're prone to motion sickness, you won't want to try holding the phone for the duration of a film. Resting or propping the Beam on a hard surface is the obvious way to avoid picture wobble and Samsung has included a plastic stand for this purpose.
If you're using the stand, the Beam's micro-USB port becomes inaccessible so you can't charge the handset. The stand does double as a battery charger though, so you can charge your spare inside it while you watch. If your phone runs out of juice, you can then just swap the batteries around and on you go.
Generating light, as your science teacher will tell you, requires energy so it follows that projecting a block of light onto your bedroom wall takes a sizeable toll on the Beam's battery. This explains why Samsung has put not one, but two batteries in the box -- and they're capacious 2,000mAh cells, no less.
The company says you should expect more than 3 hours of projection time per fully-charged battery. I tested battery longevity by switching the phone's Visual Presenter mode on in the morning to see how long a fully-charged battery could beam away for. The answer was a few minutes shy of 4 hours -- although the phone automatically switches the projector function off when the battery dips to around 10 per cent. The brightness level was set to max for this test.
If you're streaming a film over Wi-Fi -- so using audio too -- the Beam will probably gobble through a full tank of petrol even more quickly. So I'd budget for around 3 hours of projection-based fun per battery. If you keep charging the spare while you use the other, you'll be able to keep beaming away for hours and hours though.
If, on the other hand, you don't plan on using the projector very much, you should easily get a day's use out of the phone on a single charge -- possibly as much as a few days if you're not poking and prodding it too much, since 2,000mAh is a pretty big cell for a smart phone of this size and power. Factor in the second battery and, assuming you keep it with you at all times, you really shouldn't have to worry about running out of juice.
My colleague Luke gave the battery life on the Beam a more thorough test when he challenged it to project the entirety of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight without faltering. Hit play on the video below to see how it fared.
The built-in projector is obviously the Beam's headline feature, but what else does this blower have to offer? Well, the display is of the 4-inch variety, with a middling 480x800-pixel resolution -- giving you a pixel-per-inch count of 233. This means that if you're browsing a website such as CNET UK, you'll need to zoom in to read smaller text.
There's no sign of the AMOLED display technology Samsung's so fond of but the screen is still clear and colourful -- even if it's not super-vibrant. The touchscreen is responsive, as are the menu and back touch-keys at the base of the pane. Annoyingly though, these are invisible until you tap them, at which point they light up.
Push down really hard and the screen will flex and discolour but since the touchscreen is sensitive, you shouldn't need to apply much pressure.
Power and performance
The Beam has a 1GHz dual-core processor lodged at its core, which isn't exactly a weedy engine. But remember, you're shelling out a serious chunk of cash for this phone, so it's less power than you could pocket with higher-end mobiles.
For example, you could try and cram Samsung's whopping Galaxy Note in your trousers for the same SIM-free price -- and that packs a 5.3-inch screen and a dual-core 1.4GHz processor. Look beyond Androids and you could take home an Apple iPhone 4 -- a device that doesn't have a dual-core chip or a projector, but which does offer a slick experience.
What you get with the Beam is an adequate performer that's no showstopper. It will handle most apps fine, from social networking must-haves like Facebook and Twitter to the BBC's iPlayer app -- an essential for beaming your favourite TV shows straight to your wall. Games like Angry Birds and even graphically rich games such as Blood & Glory will run on it without problems, although you should expect some slowdowns with 3D games.
I ran GL Benchmark's Egypt Classic test of 3D graphics and the Beam returned a not-too-slovenly rate of 40 frames per second -- just pipping the performance of the Galaxy S Advance. In Quadrant's CPU and graphics benchmark, it managed an above-mid table 2,698, while the Antutu test returned a score of 5,172, cementing its credentials as a solid if unspectacular 'droid.
I found the Beam's browsing performance to be pretty good. Expect short waits while you scroll around full-fat desktop sites, rather than pages that are optimised for mobiles. But overall, it's fast and responsive. Best of all, it's largely free of the sluggish foot-dragging that dogs so many Android phones.
Apps are quick to fire up and fairly nippy to download, although you may have to wait minutes when downloading larger apps. Flipping through photos in the gallery is also pretty slick, with only a slight wait for shots to fully render.
Software stability was generally good on the Beam but the camera and projector did quit a few times without asking nicely first.
Call quality is fine -- it's not especially clear but I had no trouble hearing or being heard. I also didn't experience any dropped calls when using the phone.
The rear speaker is okay and free of distortion but audio quality isn't going to ape your dad's surround sound system. It doesn't go especially loud either, so for a serious movie night, you'll want to find some speakers or plug in decent cans.
You get a healthy 8GB of on-board storage, which you can expand using a microSD card if that's not enough space for all your photos, videos and suchlike. Samsung has located the SD card slot on the side edge of the phone, so you don't have to remove the back to get at it.
Design and build
The big difference with the Beam is it's chunkier than most of its siblings, being both thicker (12.5mm) all the way along and having a bulge swelling out at the top to accommodate the projector. The back also feels (and smells) slightly rubberised, presumably to help sweaty palms hold it steady.
The biggest visual design splash Samsung has bestowed upon the Beam is a bright yellow plastic stripe running all the way around its edge. This gives it a sporty look and marks it out as a phone designed for younger phone owners.
Included in the Beam's box is a small plastic stand so you can prop the phone up without having to hold it, while you watch Bieber's Believe. As mentioned above, the stand also doubles as a spare battery charger, so you can be refuelling one battery while you're burning through the first.
Considering the Beam contains more kit than the average smart phone, it's relatively light to hold. At 145g, it is noticeably heavier than average, but not so much as to be a pocket drag.
Build quality feels solid although there is some creak in the sides if you squeeze the handset. The projector lens is quite deeply embedded inside the phone -- and it doesn't look flimsily constructed -- but I'd still worry about owning the Beam if you're the sort of person who's always dropping your phone.
Android Gingerbread and apps
The Galaxy Beam runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, rather than newer versions of the operating system such as 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or the very latest edition, 4.1 Jelly Bean. Is that a big deal? Well, considering how much you're shelling out to bag this blower, it's a shame it's not running at least ICS.
Gingerbread is still a capable and powerful OS, giving you access to Google's Play store and the many thousands of apps therein. Its interface of multiple home screens that can be filled with apps and widgets is easy to use -- even if it doesn't exactly feel fresh. But not having ICS does mean you miss out on Google's excellent Chrome for Android browser, which is a shame. You also don't yet get new Android features that arrived in ICS such as Face Unlock and full device encryption.
Samsung has said it will be updating the Beam to Ice Cream Sandwich but hasn't yet given a date, so if you're really hungry for the latest version of Android, you're better off bagging a phone that comes with ICS from the get go.
If you're willing to over-pay for a pretty standard smart phone to pocket a pico projector, then you probably won't be fussed it's only sporting Android Gingerbread. There are quite a lot of phones packing ICS now though, so be aware you're paying over the odds for an out-of-date OS.
The Beam has the usual suite of Samsung apps pre-loaded, along with the projector app that lets you choose what you're beaming onto your bedroom wall. Other apps include Samsung's Music Hub for buying tunes, its Social Hub for pooling multiple social network updates and messages, and a Task Manager app that lets you view and close active apps. There's also a voice recorder, a memo app and an FM radio.
Around the back of the Beam is a 5-megapixel snapper. The phone also sports a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video calls and/or checking your fringe is still looking Bieberish enough.
The rear lens is sited closer to the middle of the phone than a lot of camera phone lenses, but that's because Samsung has had to avoid the projector bulge occupying the top of the Beam. Next to the lens, you get a single LED flash to help you snap away in the dark.
The Beam's camera is a very middle-of-the-road affair, with colours looking distinctly washed-out and details more often hazy than crisp.
When you're snapping in dingier conditions, expect your photos to look muddy and murky (unless you drench them in flash). Even in strong light, results aren't that crisp. I also found the camera had a tendency to produce lens flare, while the focus is quite fiddly -- often jumping out at the last minute, leaving shots blurred.
The phone isn't great at dealing with variable light levels either, displaying a tendency to over-expose bright areas.
As a basic point-and-shoot, the Beam isn't awful but it's certainly nothing special considering how much you're paying for it. There are far better camera phones up for grabs, so if you're a budding photographer, you'll want to look elsewhere.
The phone shoots video at up to 720p resolution. Again, results are pretty average, with daylight footage coming off the lens with a hazy look and audio sounding muddy and lacking clarity. It's fine if you just want to record clips for YouTube or make funny home movies to show off via the Beam's projector.
As a smart phone, the Samsung Galaxy Beam is a mid-table performer, running a rather stale version of Android. But that's missing the point of the Beam, which is all about the built-in pico projector. If you want a mobile that can double as a film projector-cum-mood-light, to bring the party to your bedroom, then this is the smart phone for you.
It isn't cheap -- hells bells, it's not! It's crazy expensive for a mid-range 'droid so you're absolutely paying a premium to get that little light bulb. But hey, it's your (parents') money.
If you're not fussed about having a pocket projector, there's no reason to buy the Beam. There are more powerful 'droids up for grabs for the same or less cash. Or you can save a lot of money on a cheaper phone and still get a 'droid with much the same performance.
Additional writing and reviewing by Luke Westaway.