updated 03:10 pm EDT, Sun August 19, 2007
Samsung m620 Review
When Sprint unveiled the Samsung UpStage this spring and lowered prices at its direct-download music store, both it and Samsung clearly hoped to take a bite out of the iPod, iTunes, and (unintentionally) the iPhone by dedicating a whole surface of the cellphone to media controls. Apple hasn't lost sleep, but it was clear that music was a much more serious concern for carriers besides AT&T. Now, the Canadian provider Telus has made its own attempt at replicating the buzz surrounding the UpStage with its own version, simply titled the m620. Does the combination of the dual-sided media controls with Telus' music subscriptions and XM radio stations help the device in the light of its main competition?
Initial experiences and what's in the box
Although its packing isn't exceptional, the m620 is evidence that Samsung (and to some degree, Telus) understands where its priorities are for the initial setup. Aside from the (potentially necessary) manuals, getting the phone ready to use is relatively trivial. Everything is organized and the emphasis is on using the handset as soon as possible, rather than unwrapping cables.
A prime example of the phone's mixed blessings stems from the pack-in equipment. Besides the necessary charger and stereo earbuds, one of the most ingenious inclusions we've seen yet for a phone is what Sprint has called the battery wallet. In addition to providing a secure, simulated leather protector for the phone when it's in your pocket, the wallet has a built-in lithium-ion battery that extends the life of the phone for up to 6.3 hours of calls, which largely proved accurate in our tests. However, Telus hasn't changed the bundled storage options and still provides the same anemic 64MB microSD card as its American counterpart: the storage is useful for getting started and for those mainly capturing photos, but pales even when compared to other music phones, many of which now come with 256MB or more. And while the included SD card adapter is helpful for loading content in and out, using the phone for its intended music function will virtually demand Samsung's proprietary mini USB cable (about $20 US) so that adding songs to the m620 from a computer doesn't always involve the extra hassle of swapping out and then loading up a memory card.
The bundled earbuds themselves sound good for pack-in earbuds, but are no replacement for higher-end audio equipment. Sadly, the latter isn't an option as Samsung insists on using a proprietary connector for its headphones. Whether this is due to space reasons in an already thin phone or an attempt to drive sales of a $25 CDN adapter cable is difficult to tell, but it seems to be an unneeded hassle on what's supposed to be a simple music phone.
Calling interface and call quality
If there could be one role the m620 excels in, it's placing calls. Moving the media controls to the reverse side has solved the frequent issues with undersized keypads on candybar-shaped phones, which often have to shrink the controls to fit a large-enough display on the front. All buttons on the front are large enough that most users won't tap the wrong number or cancel an action by mistake. Samsung also has an edge in giving callers as much control as they want over phone functions. It's possible to manage calls and SMS text messages entirely from the phone side of the device, which is ideal for quickly punching out information from the keypad. We found browsing large contact lists and reading text messages easier than on many phones with the tall screen on the back, however, and it's useful to have the options for both fast typing and fast reading without a much larger device.
More importantly, owners who consider the Internet and media playback tools a useful feature may be better served by the m620 (or the UpStage) than the iPhone and also many other music-focused phones. No matter how elegant Apple's interface may be, the primary reason most people buy cellphones -- to place calls -- will likely always be quicker on a handset like Samsung's. The design is much simpler to use for this purpose than any flip-phone or slider and is arguably easier to use than many of its similarly-shaped counterparts.
In our experience, the quality and reception for voice lived up to the expectations set out by the physical controls. Both incoming and outgoing quality were good in normal use, though in one conversation the other caller described the voice as "clipped." Reception throughout our Ottawa test area was very solid in most areas, even in an apartment building and in a moving vehicle. Telus' coverage isn't significantly wider than for Rogers or other competitors, however, and we found that the signal dropped off roughly in the same area as we left the city for a day trip.
Media playback, Telus Mobile Music, and Telus Mobile Radio
As much as the phone side shows promise, the situation quickly begins to unravel when dealing with the trademark media jukebox features. Control on the media side of the phone revolves around a two-piece, touch-sensitive pad that's used both for directional navigation and for opening shortcut menus on the phone. In theory, this should work more effectively for browsing music, and in some cases there will be few complaints. But prolonged use will quickly prove irritating. We often found that scrolling quickly by using Samsung's recommended horizontal or vertical swiping motions was fruitless and would rarely kick in the continuous scroll feature that justifies the touchpad in the first place. Eventually, it became easier just to treat the controller as a four-way directional pad, which itself was prone to accidental key presses and typically made navigation slower than necessary.
And in what may be the ultimate irony, the m620 not only doesn't support circular scrolling motions like the iPod's click wheel but even warns users about this specific limitation of the phone as part of its on-screen tutorial. It's as though the company's software engineers already knew that iPod users would be disappointed and wanted to set expectations appropriately low before it was too late.
Actually using the media player is, if anything, proof of just why devices like the iPhone are so important; Samsung's implementation simply isn't designed for the same kind of responsiveness and logical controls you would expect of a music player. Just loading the music program typically takes several seconds, and many controls are either artificially limited or buried within menus; shuffling your songs is hidden in a menu in the "all songs" section, for example. Bringing up the menu in a playlist or other section gives a very different set of options, frequently turning advanced playback into guesswork.
The signature flip option for the phone also dampens any expectations of being able to multitask. If you need to flip to the phone side of the device or want to do anything more than listen to or watch content, the media player has to quit entirely, losing your play position and forcing you to reload the program once again.
Telus itself manages to redeem the phone somewhat through its own download store, Telus Mobile Music. Unlike the Sprint store's strictly a-la-carte options, the Canadian provider lets you pay $20 per month ($25 for a "SPARK" data bundle) to download freely. Our experience with the pack curiously showed some tracks as still requiring a $2 download fee, but for the most part the service helped partially overcome the limits of the 64MB memory card and was a much more attractive option than Sprint's store: if you don't have room for a song, you can just delete it to download it again later. Tracks aren't especially high-quality at 1MB each, but they sound reasonably good on the included earbuds and allow you to fit a fairly large catalog of songs on any given card.
We do wish that Telus hadn't set Mobile Music to automatically play songs as they download, however, as sometimes listeners just want to queue up songs for later. It would also be more practical if Telus allowed full album downloads rather than insisting on downloading tracks per song, though this is unlikely to change until more phones are likely to hold enough memory to support a large volume of full-length LPs.
The other custom feature, Telus Mobile Radio, also helped ameliorate our impressions of the phone. It can be swapped in as a substitute for the music store in the $25 SPARK bundle (or added separately for $15) and currently lets you stream 22 different stations from XM Satellite Radio. Telus' selection is a far cry from the 150 channels on Sprint, but arguably the selection is more meaningful. Sprint's claim is largely padded by local radio stations; Telus' options typically focus on some of the higher-profile satellite channels that would be otherwise impossible to hear without a satellite tuner, such as Opie & Anthony's "The Virus" or Snoop Dogg's "The Rhyme." Some users will undoubtedly be disappointed by the selection, but aside from periodic drops in the connection we found XM a nice alternative when preloaded music ran out.
Internet access, Bluetooth, and the camera
Despite the tall screen, there's no doubt that the Samsung phone still provides the "baby Internet" found on most phones. Most sites are almost completely stripped of images and other useful features. Aside from the music features, we would only ever want to use the phone online for text-based services, like checking e-mail or quick status updates on Facebook Mobile.
Bluetooth fares much better, though it has its own restrictions. Although synchronizing contacts will be difficult -- and potentially impossible for Mac users -- most recent computers should pair with the m620 and can browse its built-in memory, though not its microSD card. We were able to shuttle files to and from a Mac without much difficulty as long as we took care to grant permission on both sides. We also appreciated the option of stereo Bluetooth to eliminate the clutter of most earbuds.
There were virtually no surprises in using the 1.3-megapixel camera. Aside from the ability to take self-portraits, which is rare on most candybar phones, the m620's performance was strictly average for a cameraphone and typically produced a "glow" around bright objects in a given scene and produced visible noise in many scenes. The absence of flash also rules out nighttime photos or videos, and in photo mode it's hard to take rapid-fire shots. Consider the camera a tool for capturing events as they happen, but not much more.
Conclusions and the wait for the iPhone
How you approach the m620 or its American brother the UpStage is often as two-sided as the phone itself. When using the phone portion, it was easy to be pleased by the controls and the option of getting a larger view. If we were customers buying the device strictly for its call-making ability and weren't overly concerned about cost, the m620 would be an easy recommendation.
But Samsung and Telus alike market it as a music phone, and it's precisely in this area where the m620 stumbles. No one should have to fight both the hardware controls and the software interface simply to play tracks in a different order or to scroll through a list quickly; there also simply isn't enough storage by default to carry more than a handful of entertainment. Upgrading to 2GB is an option, but it adds to the price and will only be enough to truly satisfy subscribers downloading of their songs from Telus Mobile Music, where 2GB would equate to roughly 2000 songs.
Telus does, at least, improve the phone experience whenever it can. The freedom a subscription gives to download a song on impulse is very welcome. Not everyone will share the same appreciation for the XM-based Mobile Radio service, but it too helps round out the phone's features. For most, subscribing to both features would be impractical at $35 total per month on top of voice service, but $20 per month for the store is more practical than buying albums on a regular basis.
Any Canadian thinking about purchasing the m620 should also consider timing. While Rogers has admitted that it's lagging in talks with Apple, the fact remains that the iPhone is most likely coming to Rogers within the next year. Not everyone should wait; if you prefer unlimited music downloads, Internet radio, or suspect the iPhone will be too costly in the long run, the m620 is certainly the better choice. It's also better if size is still a primary concern, since it fits more snugly in most pockets while still providing an hour more of calling time when the wallet is attached.
When faced with a price tag of $180 CDN with a three-year contract or $350 without, however, is an iPhone that much more of a leap? We're not so sure. A 2GB microSD card will currently add $70 to the Samsung phone's price tag, and using the phone for your own music will still demand an SD card reader on your computer or a special cable to transfer songs. For many, the leap from a low-cost handset used just for calling would seem almost as risky with an m620 as it would to premium phones, like the future iPhone for Rogers or a more capable present-day Telus phone like the BlackBerry 8830. Both of those latter options promise a better home for your own music than the Samsung phone and, for the right money, can do a lot more than the Samsung ever could for video, web browsing, or most text messaging. There's a definite sweet spot for the m620 and UpStage, but for many its dual-sided nature will feel like it's worth only half the price.