Editors' note: On January 20, 2009, we made additional updates after testing the phone's calendar-syncing feature. On October 1, 2009, we lowered the rating of this product from 8.0 to 7.6 in the wake of the release of the Instinct HD.
Over the last year, the collective response from most cell phone manufacturers to the iPhone has been rather muted. But now Samsung is trying a different tactic. Its new Samsung Instinct (SPH-M800) for Sprint is the first cell phone we've seen that throws some direct competition Apple's way. We still dismiss the whole idea of an "iPhone killer" as ridiculous, but comparisons here are inevitable and Sprint is doing nothing to silence them.
Though the Instinct and the iPhone look about the same, and they rely heavily on touch screens with unique interfaces, there are some important feature distinctions. The Instinct offers its own brand of visual voice mail and it bests the first incarnation of the iPhone by offering 3G (EV-DO Rev. A) network compatibility, integrated GPS, and work e-mail support, just to name a few. The new iPhone 3G will be more evenly matched, but even the Instinct gets points for its multimedia messaging, voice dialing and video recording. In the important areas of usability and performance, however, the Instinct struggled on a few fronts. The Web browser wasn't quite as easy to use as we had hoped, the camera lacked editing features, and the Instinct's call and video quality were variable. However, even with those caveats, the Instinct remains a powerful, innovative cell phone with a loaded feature set and an appealing design. The Instinct is $129 with a mail-in rebate and a two-year "Simply Everything" plan. Simply Everything plans start at $70 per month.
By all accounts, the Instinct has an eye-catching, though not unique, design. The predominately touch-screen device sports a thin candy-bar shape that measures a portable 4.57 inches by 2.17 inches by 0.49 inch. That makes it a bit taller and fatter than the iPhone but also thinner when measured across its front face. Samsung aficionados will also notice a resemblance to the Samsung SGH-F490, which is the GSM version of the Instinct. At 4.4 ounces, the Instinct has a sturdy feel in the hand and offers a solid construction. We also liked the simple color scheme of silver and basic black.
The Instinct's touch screen dominates its real estate. With support for 262,000 colors and a 432,240-pixel resolution, the display is positively gorgeous. Colors popped, graphics were vibrant, and text was crisp. Indeed, it's one of the better displays we've seen in a while. You're offered a fair number of personalization options; you can't change the menu or texting font, but you can adjust the brightness and the backlighting time. It's worth noting that when the display goes dark, it also locks automatically.
Yet, as rich as the display is, we had a minor complaint. At 3.1 inches, it's almost half an inch smaller than the iPhone's display. That may not sound like a huge difference, but the display can look rather cramped when you're browsing the Web or viewing videos. We suppose you'd get used to eventually, and we recognize that it's an improvement over the Samsung Glyde's smaller touch screen, but it's a point we couldn't let pass.
The Instinct's simple menu interface is easy to use and attractive. At the bottom of the display are icons for the four menus (Favs, Main, Fun, and Web). The four-page menu design is an interesting and effective arrangement. The Favs menu (aka Favorites) is user-programmable so you can stock it with your most preferred functions. The Main menu is reserved for messaging, organizer, and GPS features; the Fun menu holds games, multimedia options, and the camera; and the Web menu shows a selection of browser shortcuts. All menus feature bright icons to represent the various features, but only the Fun and Web menus allows for any customization. The secondary menus are intuitive as well. For example, we had no problems determining how to start a new text message or move items around in a list.
The Instinct's touch screen offers haptic tactile feedback. It's a nice feature as it lets you know for sure that you're choosing a menu option. You can turn the vibration off but you can't change its length or intensity. For the most part, the touch interface is intuitive and easy to use, but we had a couple of observations. Though some options in the settings menu can be turned on and off by sliding a bar back and forth with your finger, other options require you to tap each side of the bar. Certainly, we prefer the former option. Scrolling through long lists or messages was a pleasure, however. Similar to the iPhone, we just had to swipe our finger up and down.
On the other hand, the Instinct doesn't suffer from the usability drawbacks that we saw on the Glyde. We rarely had to tap menu selections twice to register our choice. Also, the display recognized our selections when we touched around its edges. You can adjust the display calibration and its touch sensitivity.
Below the display are three small touch controls. There's a back button, a home key, and a calling control. Unfortunately, these keys were a bit tricky to use. On a few occasions we had to press a control twice (the Back button especially) for it to register our choice. Also, the vibrating feedback here is barely noticeable. Pressing the Home control normally will take you automatically to the Favs menu, while selecting the calling control replaces the menu icons at the bottom of the display with shortcuts for the speed dialer, your contacts menu, the recent calls list, and the dialpad.
The latter choice opens a standard numeric keypad with a large green talk button. The individual numbers are large, and we like that there's a dedicated Save key for storing new phone numbers. The save key sits just below the dialpad, next to a Pause control and a shortcut for the visual voice-mail feature. Our only gripe was that the letters on the numeric keys are tiny; users with visual impairments should test this phone before buying.
After dialing your number, you have to press the green bar to place the call. That was a bit counterintuitive to us--we wanted to press the calling touch control below the display--but once we knew what to do, it wasn't a problem. When you're on a call, a secondary menu appears on the display with a few handy shortcuts for muting the sound, activating the speakerphone, accessing your contacts list or the main menu, and placing a three-way call. To end a call you have to slide the red bar to the right. It's a convenient arrangement as it minimizes the chance that you'll hang up on someone accidentally.
We were very glad to see that the Instinct's alphabetic keyboard defaults to landscape mode. As a result, we were able to hold the phone in two hands and type away with our thumbs. Onscreen controls include a return button, a space bar, dedicated period, comma, apostrophe keys, a back control, and a dedicated button for accessing a secondary keyboard with numbers and symbols. Overall, the keyboard is easy to use, but we had a few gripes. The individual buttons should be big enough for most people, but users with larger hands may find the arrangement cramped. Also, while you can magnify the text to see what you've written, you must minimize the keyboard to do so, which is rather counterproductive. The Instinct does not correct your spelling like the iPhone does.
Alternatively, you can enter text with a graffiti method. You will have to switch the display's orientation to portrait using the onscreen button--unlike the iPhone, the Instinct doesn't have an accelerometer. When using graffiti mode, the Instinct recognized most of our entries without any problem. The included stylus is a big help for writing in the small space allowed, but unfortunately the Instinct doesn't include a storage slot for the stylus for when you're on the go.
On the left side of the Instinct are a camera shutter, a voice activation control, and the microSD card slot. A power/display locking control and a 3.5mm headset jack (nice!) sit on the top of the phone, and the charger port and the volume rocker rest on the left spine. The camera lens and the self-portrait mirror sit on the back of the Instinct; it's a convenient spot for taking all types of photos.
The Instinct comes with a variety of accessories in the box. Besides the requisite charger and headset, you'll also find a USB cable, a software CD, and a carrying case. There's even an extra battery with a special case. You can power the extra battery with the same charger and keep it on hand when you need emergency power. That's a nice touch.
The Instinct phone book holds 600 contacts with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, a URL, and notes. All in all, that's a fairly small set of options for such a high-end phone. On the other hand, you can save callers to groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 27 polyphonic ringtones. That's a fair assortment, and we like the design of the settings menu, which allowed us to test one or as many tones as we'd like. The Instinct also offers a vibrate mode for when you need to keep it quiet.
The Instinct steps up the plate in a big way by offering its own version of visual voice mail. Similar to the iPhone, each message is displayed on your screen in list format along with the message sender's ID, the time received, and the length. You then can listen to messages in the order you choose. The service works just as it's intended.
Organizer features are plentiful and include text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, a notepad (you can use the keyboard or the graffiti method), a calculator, a unit converter, a tip calculator, an alarm clock, a timer, a stopwatch, and a world clock. Most of the organizer features are easy to use and we couldn't help but notice that the stopwatch and the timer look exactly as they do on the iPhone. On the downside, the calendar was a bit cramped and it doesn't offer a week view. Also, the world clock was rather buggy. Instead of typing in the city name, you have to select the exact location on the map and then touch your desired city in the highlighted area. It's a clunky and imprecise process; we kept getting Buenos Aires when we tried to touch the map near New York City. Also, you can only show four cities at one time.
Other features include full Bluetooth with a stereo profile, audible caller ID, a speakerphone, mobile syncing for stored contacts, and USB storage. Samsung included phone-as-modem support, but Sprint has not enabled the feature. The Instinct also offers an extensive voice-command feature that you can use to dial phone numbers or call contacts, address a text or multimedia message, and access information like traffic, sports, weather, or news. There's no speech-to-text support but the voice-command function does integrate with a nifty Microsoft Live Search. By speaking the name of a business or even the type of business (like "pizza"), it will use the phone's GPS connection to search your surrounding location for a match. You can then get a map and directions to the business, share it with a friend via a message, or call the location with one touch. In our tests it worked quite well. When we tried saying "Maya," we got not only a restaurant located a block away, but also a doctor in Palo Alto, Calif., with the name Maya. And when we tried saying "pizza," we got a long list of choices. This is one of the Instinct's better features.
Messaging options are plentiful and we were surprised at the clean and intuitive e-mail integration. Text messaging and multimedia messaging options are mostly standard but the Instinct goes a step further with its texting. Like the iPhone, it displays the full thread of a text conversation so you don't have to sort through individual messages. Instant messaging was not present, however. That's a disappointing omission on a phone of this caliber.
The Instinct does an excellent job with its e-mail features. It's not quite a smartphone, but it's far ahead of most other handsets on the market, including the first iPhone. You'll find integrated support for POP3 accounts for AOL, AIM, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail. We had only to enter our Yahoo account information and we were up and running in no time. You can keep multiple accounts open at once and the Instinct will let you know of new messages by showing a blue star on the Main menu icon. E-mail syncing was rather random. At times, new messages would show up in our in-box automatically, while other times we had to press the Refresh button. Either way, it's not a big deal. Just be aware that the Instinct e-mail application does limit you in a few ways. The Instinct's in-box can show a maximum of 100 messages, and you can't access individual folders inside your in-box. The latter quirk is particularly troublesome. Also, only messages sent from the phone will show in Instinct's sent box.
On the work side, you can connect directly to your e-mail if your company supports Outlook Web Access. We used this method, and again we had our e-mail in minutes. OWA mail is subject to the same limitations described above, but if you need work e-mail on the fly, it's a satisfying option. Fortunately, any e-mails sent from the phone will appear back on your office computer. If your company doesn't have OWA, you must use Sprint's Mobile Email client. Admittedly, that experience isn't as fluid as a smartphone with true Microsoft Exchange server support. You can read but not edit attachments many attachments including word documents and photos. What's more, you can send messages with attachments stored on your phone. The Instinct strips out any HTML in e-mails, but you can open Web pages by clicking on the links.