Samsung Freeform 5 review: Responsive QWERTY, outdated feature phone

There's a range of resolutions for each mode, plus various shooting options, brightness and white balance levels, and effects. There's a night mode, an optional grid, and a self timer, too.

I really like that Samsung gave the portrait-only camera autofocus, and that does make a noticeable difference in photo quality. Unfortunately, it can't save the flashless shooter's images from looking dull, flat, and soft around the edges. Colors just don't pop. These photos are just fine for attaching to photo IDs and MMS, but aren't as suited to uploading to a social network or keeping as a lifelong memory.

CNET editor Jaymar Cabebe looks fairly clear in this Freeform 5 shot, but the image lacks punch and finer detail. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can upload pics to Facebook, as well as send over MMS, Bluetooth, or to a service called Online Album.

Video is similarly muted and low-res, and much jerkier than the smooth flow we see in today's top phones. There's 1GB of internal storage, but if you invest in a microSD card, you can get up to 32GB more.

Exposure is fairly even in this studio shot, even though grays are a little darker. Josh Miller/CNET

CNET's smartphone image gallery is a good touch point for comparison.

Call quality
The Freeform 5 (CDMA: 850/1900) wasn't the worst cell phone I've ever heard, but it did bring with it some notable flaws that could deter prospective buyers. I should note that I tested it in San Francisco using U.S. Cellular's roaming network, and using the phone within the regional carrier's stronghold could correct some issues. Other ticks might very well be tied to the phone itself.

In my audio calls, audio sounded strong at half the possible volume. It was a little choppy with a subtle high whine and consistent stuttering, a rata-tat sound. My chief calling partner's voice sounded mostly human and natural, but lightly strained, and lacking one layer of warmth and vocal roundness.

Despite those hiccups, I was able to carry on a long conversation with a customer service agent, and was able to navigate the automated call-bot that answers phones.

On his end, my test partner said I sounded quite loud, though a little distorted. He heard some consistent white noise, "a frying sound."

Samsung Freeform 5 call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone wasn't the best when I tested by holding the phone at hip level. Volume dropped so precipitously in my indoor test, I had to immediately crank it up to full to get the phone loud enough. With no reserves left, I'd expect it would be almost impossible to carry on a conversation outside or anywhere louder. On top of volume problems, the Freeform 5's audio echoed and was fuzzy, with a harsh edge.

Plummeted volume also affected my caller, who did say that the line was at least clear. My voice, however, came across a little muffled and tinny, he said.

Performance
Navigation speeds, battery life, and data exchange on the Freeform 5 are exactly what you'd expect for this kind of phone: terrible by top standards when it comes to data, strong on battery life, and mediocre on internal clock speed.

A simpler device, the Freeform 5 won't get faster than 3G (EVDO) speeds, but in the carrier's roaming network, I was slammed with a lot of much pokier 1XRT speeds that would cause URLs to spin for over a minute until I gave up and tried again later.

The WAP version of sites, like Reddit, will load up in under 10 seconds, even over slower speeds, but it's the sublinks to longer stories you have to worry about. Expect them to come out as basic text, stripped of graphics.

Internal speeds are totally fine; this phone booted up in about 20 seconds, which is even faster than some smartphones. The camera app did take a few seconds to load, but then again, they all do. Shot-to-shot time gets bungled up by the fact that you have to save a photo before moving on.

The Freeform 5 has a rated talk time of 6 hours and claims up to 14.6 days of standby time on its 1,000mAh battery. During our battery drain test, it lasted 6.45 hours. FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 1.1 watt per kilogram.

Buy it or skip it?
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a feature phone, and for heavy texters with smaller hands, the Freeform 5's responsive, compact QWERTY keyboard is a fairly good one, as far as the button layout goes.

However, Samsung and U.S. Cellular do customers no favors with a proprietary software design that was common five years ago. I believe that the user deserves a bump in resolution, a preloaded Facebook app, more pleasing graphics, and yes, even spell check. Samsung isn't the only offender in this, but a shared culpability with other phone-makers doesn't make the Freeform 5 any more lovable.

This is a phone you get because it fills a need, and isn't the worst choice possible. However, shoppers for this type of handset should also check out U.S. Cellular's similar Freeform 4 for $39.99, and Pantech Verse for $49.99. The Pantech Jest 2 QWERTY slider is also free on Verizon with a two-year contract, and the Motorola Theory costs $30 all in at Boost Mobile.

None of these phones is a shoe-in for your hard-earned bucks, but if price is your guide, you do have other options.

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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Where to Buy

Samsung Freeform 5 (U.S. Cellular)

Part Number: SCH-R480BKAUSC Released: Jun. 28, 2013

MSRP: $159.99

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Jun. 28, 2013
  • Technology CDMA2000 1X
  • Service Provider U. S. Cellular
  • Weight 3.32 oz
  • Diagonal Size 2.4 in
  • Sensor Resolution 3 pixels
About The Author

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.