Camera phones have come a long way over the years, graduating from mediocre VGA lenses to higher-quality megapixel cameras. Though these devices will never replace your stand-alone digital camera, they are getting better, and now Verizon Wireless has scored the first 3.2-megapixel camera phone for the States: the Samsung SCH-A990. It comes with an autofocus feature, video-recording capabilities, and a cool swivel screen. This high-end mobile also has integrated Bluetooth, support for Verizon's 3G services, and excellent call quality. But it's not without problems. The phone was sometimes slow to perform multimedia functions in our tests and is marred by restrictions set forth by Verizon. Yet, for those who crave multimedia and the latest features on their phone, the SCH-A990 certainly fits the bill. Just be prepared for a little sticker shock. At $349.99, the SCH-A900 is on the pricey side, though certainly cheaper than the Nokia N80. The Samsung SCH-A990 is a phone of substance, but it's not weighed down by an overly bulky design. At 3.8 by 1.8 by 0.8 inches and 4.4 ounces, the A990 certainly isn't Razr-thin, but the flip phone feels solid in the hand and is very comfortable to hold against your ear. Plus, you get some distinct advantages with the larger size. First, you get a sizable 1.25-inch, (diagonal) external TFT OLED that shows the time and date, network strength, battery life, and photo caller ID (where available)--all in 65,000 colors. The view is even better inside where the 2.2-inch screen boasts 262,144 hues and a sharp 240x320-pixel resolution. Colors pop from images, and text is crisp and easy to read. But wait, there's a twist--literally. In its open position, you can twist the A990's display 180 degrees clockwise, then fold it down. This comes in quite handy when you want to use the mobile's functions (see below).
Below the screen, you'll find the phone's navigation controls. You get a four-way toggle with a center OK button; the up, down, left, and right are programmed to open the Web, the calendar, the Get Pix & Flix menu, and the Get It Now service, respectively. Surrounding the directional keypad are two soft keys, a camera activation button, a voice command control, a Clear button, and send and end/power keys. Overall, we found the controls easy to manipulate, but we had some problems with the OK button. Due to its small size, we pressed the Calendar button accidentally on a few occasions. The numerical dial pad, however, is quite spacious with large, tactile buttons that are adequately backlit for dialing in darker environments.
The Samsung SCH-A990 is a multimedia mobile, and there are signs all over the phone to reflect its entertaining side. On the left spine, are rewind, play/pause, and fast-forward keys for the music player, a headset jack and a Micro SD card slot. We should note that you can't plug the headset into the phone directly; rather it requires a separate adapter. Fortunately, that's included, but it's still an inconvenient step, in our opinion. Speakers are located on both sides of the phone.
The camera lens is on the back of the phone, and we like that it's protected by a sliding cover. There's also a small portrait mirror and a flash. The camera's controls sit on the right spine; you have a capture key and a zoom in/out rocker that adjusts the phone's volume. There's a speakerphone activation key in between these two buttons, which seems oddly out of place, but we appreciate it nonetheless. Finally, there's an unmarked key that opens the camera options menu, where you can adjust such things as quality, flash, and resolution.
As we mentioned earlier, you can swivel the screen a full 180 degrees, then fold it down so that the LCD faces out. (In fact, doing so automatically activates the camera.) This, coupled with the side camera keys, which are on top when the handset is held horizontally, mimics the look and feel of a stand-alone digital camera and makes for a natural feel when taking pictures. We had two minor complaints, however. First, it was a bit difficult to navigate the camera's different menus. While the Options button got us to the main menu, it wasn't clear which buttons scroll through the various settings and which button selects an option. For the record, the volume rocker does the scrolling and the capture key does the selecting. Second, since the camera lens is on the back instead of on the hinge (à la the ) of the phone, you can't take full advantage of the swivel screen by rotating it 90 degrees and using it as a viewfinder like a real camcorder.
Verizon packages the Samsung SCH-A990 with a handful of accessories, but we're a little confused by the choice of peripherals. For example, you get an AC adapter, a TV-out cable, a headset adapter, and a wrist strap, but if we had our choice, we'd much rather have (and get more use out of) earbuds than a TV-out cable. For now, you have to buy these as part of the Music Essentials Kit for $29.99, which also includes a USB cable and software. Other accessories available for purchase consist of a belt holster ($19.99) and Micro SD cards ($29.99 for 256MB; $49.99 for 512MB). The Samsung SCH-A990 is Verizon's flagship phone, and with good reason. For starters, it's the first phone in the United States to boast a 3.2-megapixel camera, trumping the recently lauded Nokia N80. It has an autofocus feature, zoom, and plenty of imaging options. You can choose from five picture modes (auto, portrait, landscape, micro, and night), three quality settings (economy, normal, and fine), and five resolutions (2,048x1,536, 1,600x1,200, 1,280x960, 1,024x768, and 800x600). You can adjust the brightness, white balance, color effects, and ISO settings. There's also a multishot mode and a self-timer, and you can change or turn off the shutter sound. Many of these options are also available to you in camcorder mode, although you get a choice of only two resolutions (320x240 and 176x144). You can capture up to an hour's worth of video with sound.