Curry or pizza? Touchscreen or keyboard? Thanks to the Samsung Tocco Ultra, at least one of our eternal dilemmas has now been solved. It's the first mobile to combine a touchscreen with a normal alphanumeric phone keypad -- a great combo for soft-keyboard haters who want to upgrade to a touchscreen. With a fabulously bright AMOLED screen, an 8-megapixel camera, speedy HSDPA Web browsing and built-in GPS, the Tocco Ultra won't disappoint the most demanding user.
The Tocco Ultra is available for free on a £35-per-month contract with Orange, T-Mobile or O2, or from £350 on a pay-as-you-go deal with O2.
The Tocco Ultra is clad in dark grey and red -- a brave choice that we think succeeds. It's mostly grey when closed, with a brushed look on the front and the A-Team-van racing stripe that characterises some of Samsung's other 2009 handsets, like the Lucido. Sliding open the handset reveals a candy-red keyboard and camera that look positively delicious.
The handset feels very thin at only 12.7mm, especially considering that it packs in an alphanumeric keypad, touchscreen and 8-megapixel camera. In fact, we found it almost too thin: if you touch the screen while sliding the phone open, you'll inadvertently open apps, but it's hard to grip the wafer-thin sides instead. We think the phone's elegant looks are worth this minor inconvenience, however.
All things bright and
The Tocco Ultra sports a 71mm (2.8-inch) AMOLED screen, which ups the awesome level by being as bright and thin as an OLED screen while consuming less power. The screen looks fantastic, with good contrast, dark blacks and rich colours. Its anti-reflection coating and brightness mean that it's easy to read even in sunlight.
The AMOLED screen promises to improve battery life, and we found that the Tocco Ultra stayed perky despite its wealth of power-hungry features. Its battery life is rated at 4 hours of talk time and 350 hours of standby, and we found that the Tocco Ultra easily lasted through a full day of heavy use without needing to be charged.
Typing your blues
Samsung says the Tocco Ultra is the first handset to combine a touchscreen with a three-by-four-key alphanumeric keypad. We think this combination is genius. The physical keypad is especially useful when you want to do something simple, like dial a call. An alphanumeric keyboard is smaller than a Qwerty one, so the phone can be smaller, and, unless you're into typing long emails, it should suffice.
The keypad itself has four rows of keys, which are almost flat. Despite not being separated by much space, they're large enough so that they're easy to press, and they passed our sausage-finger test.
The alphanumeric soft keypad appears when the slider is closed, so you don't have to open the phone to type. We found it responsive, with reasonably-sized keys. We found the keypad user interface took some getting used to though, with function keys changing frequently based on the context. Also, the backspace key is only available on the soft keypad, even when the phone's open. Normally this is fine, but, when we were entering text in the Web browser, the on-screen options weren't available, so we couldn't delete. We had to double tap on the text field to open the soft keypad, which was frustrating.
Where the widgets are
The Tocco Ultra's touchscreen is responsive, but it could be even snappier. When compared with the most responsive handsets, like the iPhone, it felt slightly sluggish, although it compared well against touchscreens like that of the LG Arena KM900.
The Tocco Ultra uses Samsung's TouchWiz UI. Its crown jewel is a customisable home screen that uses widgets to display photos, media-player controls or upcoming events, for example. You can drag the widgets onto the home screen from a dock along the side, which slides open and shut with a touch. It's all very flashy and customisable, but we found it could be fiddly. We often ended up dragging widgets around the screen instead of activating them, for example. Also, at times, we found it hard to touch the smaller icons in the UI accurately.
Also, the UI isn't the most intuitive we've tried. For example, along with a call and cancel button, the front of the handset sports a diamond-shaped back button. All it does is go back a step in the UI, but its shape and position mean that we were endlessly tempted to try to use it as a four-way navigation button. Over time, we'd probably get accustomed to it, but the Tocco Ultra isn't the easiest handset to use straight out of the box.
But, in general, we love the flexibility of the UI. Not only could we pick which widgets we wanted and place them where we liked, we could even move the operator logo on the home screen. We also like how menus with many options, like the settings menu, also have keyboard shortcuts -- handy if you're keyboard-orientated.
Light and bright
The Tocco Ultra sports an 8-megapixel camera and, although there's no xenon flash, it has two insanely bright LED photo lights. Our snapshots were bright and clear, with good white balance, although the automatic exposure was set slightly higher than we'd have liked.
The camera really shines in low-light situations. We found the LED photo lights illuminated the scene well, but we had to be careful to avoid reflections off shiny surfaces. In these situations, shutter lag proved an issue -- there was a delay of about 2 seconds between pressing the shutter button and taking the photo. In bright light, we detected hardly any shutter delay.
The camera lens comes out when you slide the phone open, so you can't take pictures when the phone's closed. Because of this, the Tocco Ultra is long and thin when taking snaps, which we initially found odd, although it's easy to adapt to. You can also geotag your snaps with their locations, thanks to the built-in GPS.
Get yourself connected
As well as GPS, the Tocco Ultra has 7.2Mbps HSDPA for speedy Web browsing, although it lacks Wi-Fi. Built-in Google Maps takes advantage of the phone's connectivity but, without multitouch support, we had to use menus to zoom in on maps or Web pages.
Thanks to the phone's media player, we certainly didn't get bored. It supports Xvid and DivX video, and MP3 audio, alongside plenty of other formats. There's even an FM radio to round it all off.
In fact, the Tocco Ultra made us feel like Samsung had thought of everything. The box includes a microSD card adaptor, so you can plug the phone's tiny memory card into a card reader and transfer files. There's also a headphone adaptor so you can use your own cans with the handset's proprietary headphone jack, although it will add about a metre to the length of the cord, which could mean sudden death on the treadmill.
Samsung's synchronisation software is shockingly good, despite the fact that it contains some slightly dodgy English -- its name, for example, is Samsung New PC Studio, which sounds like it was written by the Babel Fish translator. We rarely have a good word to say about most manufacturers' sync software, but Samsung's is powerful and well-designed.
We're not sure that Samsung needed to reinvent the wheel by creating such an innovative user interface, but at least the company did a good job of it and included clear video help. We found transferring music and videos easy, thanks to drag-and-drop support, and the software helpfully converts file formats on the fly. Unfortunately, there's no support for Macs.
The Samsung Tocco Ultra is an innovative take on the touchscreen-phone mania that's sweeping the nation, combining a pokeable screen with a traditional phone keyboard. But this is no novelty mobile: Samsung has packed a huge wealth of features into a slim and sexy handset, including an 8-megapixel camera, GPS and HSDPA, all topped off with a luscious AMOLED screen.
With so much going on, we found the Tocco Ultra's user interface slightly fiddly, and it isn't the easiest phone to use. But we're willing to learn for a phone with this much power and the good looks to match.
Edited by Charles Kloet