Collaborating with a high-end fashion label may be a smart way to add some brand cachet, but Samsung’s teamwork with Giorgio Armani on its first joint labelled handset is more than just a style icon-endorsed trophy mobile.

The Giorgio Armani Samsung SGH-P520 phone is a small, super-slim and compact handset. And it’s consummately stylish. Utilising Samsung’s new Croix UI touch operating system, there’s no numberpad or Qwerty keypad on this model – just a few discreet control buttons. All revolves around its 2.6-inch display, a 262K-colour QVGA (240x320 pixels) screen that takes up most of the front panel.

Its couture credentials and touchscreen design bring it into direct comparison with the Prada Phone by LG, released last year. As with any touchscreen device post-iPhone, the Apple design is another obvious reference point.

As with LG’s Prada Phone, and the iPhone, the Giorgio Armani Samsung phone isn’t a 3G-enabled device. Wi-Fi isn’t included either, limiting its data connectivity to GPRS and EDGE speeds.

Its feature set is a familiarly robust Samsung mid-range offering, with a 3-megapixel camera, music player, a full web browser, microSD card support, and a spread of other organiser and entertainment applications.

Handling

Luxury branding is reflected in the sophisticated styling of the Giorgio Armani phone. It arrives in luxury packaging too, with some stylish in-box accessories, including a leather cover, cloth holder and pouch for earphones and leads – labelled with the Giorgio Armani logo, naturally.

The phone itself is just 10.5mm thin, measuring a pocket-friendly 87.5 (h) x 54.5(w) mm and 85g. The subtle finish on the aluminium and stainless steel casing gives it a minimalist look and feel, with only two keys –call and end buttons – on the front panel, below the Giorgio Armani branding.

In standby, there’s some rather funky wallpaper onscreen to match the design mood. The Croix touchscreen user interface is engaged by dabbing the screen with your finger rather than with a stylus or fingernail. 

Haptic feedback – small vibrations when the screen is pressed - ensures you’re aware if your control selection has hit the mark. A side Hold button enables you to lock the screen off when it’s in your pocket.

From switch-on there’s a large calendar at the bottom of the screen that can literally be swiped away to be replaced by a clock, or removed completely by changing the settings.

Three small touch icons are ranged across the top of the display, for switching to or from silent mode, pulling up the phone’s virtual numberpad, and for accessing the phone’s main menu system. Another glowing square in the centre of the display engages a further 5-option shortcuts menu for quick access to key features.

The virtual numberpad is quick and easy to use, with relatively large number keys. Tap in a phone number and hit the Call button, and you’re done. Pressed in standby, the Call button usefully calls up recently used numbers, whether incoming or outgoing, to make dialling easier.

Access the main menu, and there’s a grid of 12 function options symbols. Simply tapping these takes you into their respective sub-menus. The Croix UI is represented by a moving cross pattern that highlights your menu choice, while there are virtual softkey icons on the bottom of the display.

The sub-menu system from here onwards is quite similar in many respects to that used on other recent Samsung mobiles, with options being listed onscreen often numbered, even though there are no number keys with which to select them. 

Usually five are displayed onscreen at a time, meaning that to get to others you have to scroll down the page. A scroll bar on the side indicates how far you have to go. Finger swiping is required to move up or down.

Finger movement control is a long way from the slick smoothness of the Apple iPhone’s Multi-Touch technology. The display isn’t as responsive, and it takes a little getting used to flicking through the scroll bars; these move a limited amount for each stroke, and while you can brush down lists, it doesn’t accelerate with finger speed. The screen space isn’t huge, so again it takes some getting used to being precise with your digit tapping and avoiding errant button selection.

So the Croix menu system is functional and more evolutionary than revolutionary for Samsung in operational terms. Existing conventions have been adapted for the touchscreen interface rather than the system developed from scratch to optimise touch technology.

This is most apparent in the awkward way text messaging has been executed. The small size of the phone means that a large numberpad fit for finger prodding takes up most of the screen. But this means limited room to see text as you’re typing it.

With T9 predictive text engaged, you can see one line only (two without T9), which disappears stage left as you continue to type. To see typed copy you have to flick back through with your finger, which is fiddly.

Unless you save text by pressing OK, an accidental mis-strike of the Back button (directly under the Symbol key) will lose it all. So too will a too long press of the C (clear button) – something you may accidentally do if the cursor doesn’t respond quickly enough.

It’s fiddly, and simply not fluid or forgiving enough for slight finger pressing slips. User-friendliness appears to be a casualty of the touchscreen system, as Samsung phones are usually spot-on with texting.

This spills over into the phone’s email facility too, which uses the same text input method – making longer messages particularly taxing.

Features

The touchscreen is important for making camera adjustments too. A dedicated side button switches it on, and the phone flips into landscape mode. A series of four touch icons down the right hand side can be used to alter settings options. 

As well as switching on or of the phone’s flash and timer, you can adjust a limited amount of settings such as white balance, ISO level, exposure metering, picture quality and so on. You can do multi-shot bursts too, and colour effects and frames for pics.

The 3-megapixel camera here may be numerically superior to many on pixel count, but its performance doesn’t standout as particularly impressive. You can get decent printable shots, with a nice colour balance in good lighting conditions. 

It can be difficult to achieve sharpness though with lower light shots, even with the built in LED flash. There’s no autofocus nor macro model for close ups either, so the camera is limited compared to something like the camera on the Samsung G800.

The video camera option can give you captured footage at 352x288 pixels maximum resolution, and looks decent played back full screen on the phone. But playback quality on a PC screen is quite average for a mid-tier mobile cameraphone.

One imaging related hassle we experienced with the Armani phone was a marked slowness in bringing up pictures stored on memory cards to view. It made browsing through pics frustratingly time-consuming.

The built in music player initially resembles the standard Samsung player interface, with familiar categories lined up in a list. When you choose a track though, it introduces some novel Croix user interaction. A cross onscreen moves from right to left, and you can drag the horizontal line up or down to control volume.

You can flick to skip through tracks too, and flick to get extra control options and album cover art and track details displayed. Standard forward/back/play/pause track controls might do similar work, at least Samsung has put some thought into making this a new, attractive element.

There’s 60MB of onboard user memory, plus a 1GB MicroSD Card is supplied in-box to load up on tracks. These can be synced with Windows Media Player 11 on a PC, loaded up using Samsung software provided or dragged on to the phone in mass storage mode.

Audio player performance is pretty good too. The earphones use a Samsung connector (the socket for charging and data connection) so you can’t easily plug in a pair of your favourite Sennheisers. The supplied pair do a decent, workmanlike job., and performance is perfectly satisfactory.

You can listen to tracks through a speaker on the phone but this is quite trebly and not the best way of reproducing tunes. However, you could also upgrade by using a set of Bluetooth wireless stereo headphones.

Full web browsing is possible using the phone’s Access NetFront Browser v3.4 software. Considering there’s no high-speed 3G connection, it works admirably efficiently in resolving pages, either in full standard webpage view or in a mobile phone optimised Smart-Fit layout.

Touch arrows under the web pages help you scroll across or down, while a Page Pilot feature enables you to take an overview of pages to zoom easily into required parts of a page.

The email application here can handle attachments, and there’s document viewing software inside for opening files sent or copied to the phone. Samsung has included a regular bundle of additional functions, including calendar, voice memo and memo notes functions, convertor, world clock and timer. One game, a moving pieces puzzle that requires touchscreen operation, is included too.

For voice calls, the Giorgio Armani Samsung phone delivers a satisfactory performance, although the ear speaker can become a bit harsh as volume is cranked up. Still it was reliable and consistent overall and perfectly acceptable.

With no 3G or Wi-Fi sapping battery power, the phone boasts expected battery life of up to 220 hours in standby mode or up to 6 hours talktime. The touchscreen doesn’t have to be a big drain, provided you keep its screen and power saver options on, to avoid unnecessary power drain. Obviously, if you play around with the screen or music player engaged, you’ll reduce battery performance.

Summary

Honed for the fashion-conscious phone buyer, the Giorgio Armani Samsung handset certainly delivers the required visual impact, looking the part of a sharply suited but subtly stylish mobile. Its elegant, smooth design isn’t quite carried over to the same extent in its touchscreen operation. Inevitably compared to the iPhone, the Samsung Croix user interface lags behind in terms of slickness of operation and ease of use.

Of course, no other mobile maker has yet come up with an Apple-challenging touch UI either. But screen responsiveness and processing of memory card content isn’t as fast as we’d like; and despite some novel Croix touches the UI isn’t as user-friendly as it could be – that tricky texting set-up in particular.

The camera could be better, but the main features onboard the Giorgio Armani Samsung phone give it a decent mid-tier functionality, similar to its Ultra series handsets.

The main draw of this phone will however be its highly attractive design and fashion house branding, which for many will be the deciding factor beyond any usability concerns.