We tend to expect a lot from the design from a 3G cell phone. Rather than looking for a generic handset where 3G functionality is almost an afterthought, we expect elements like a rich display, stereo speakers, and external music controls, all of which strongly complement any multimedia prowess. Verizon's newest EV-DO phone, the Samsung SCH-U540, manages to nab a couple of these points but on the whole its dull design and uneven performance don't quite match its media-centric feature set. It's not a terrible phone to be sure, but Verizon offers better EV-DO handsets like the LG VX8300. The SCH-U540 is $99 with service, or you can find it cheaper online.
The SCH-U540 won't stand out in the cell phone crowd. Though it maintains a slim profile and comes in two colors (silver and blue), it borrows elements from previous other Samsung phones. From the outside, it bears a close resemblance to Cingular's Samsung Sync; both phones share external music controls with the same external display and camera lens. On the other hand, the SCH-U540 isn't quite as boxy, and we like the addition of the stereo speakers. At 3.8 inches by 2.0 inches by 0.6 inch, the SCH-U540 is slightly bigger than its predecessor, yet it's significantly lighter at 2.8 ounces. Though much of the phone is covered in plastic, it still manages a relatively comfortable feel in the hand, and the hinge seemed especially sturdy.
The external display is a tad small (1 inch and 96x96 pixels) but it manages to cram in all the essential information, including the time, the date, the signal strength, and the battery life. Also, since it supports 65,000 colors, it displays photo caller ID and you can use as a viewfinder for self-portraits. Unfortunately, the display goes completely dark when the backlighting is off but you can activate it again by pressing a side button. A covered headset jack, a camera shutter, and a dedicated speakerphone key sit on the right spine, while a volume rocker rests on the left spine.
Above the display is a camera lens, while the external music controls sit just below the screen. The controls are touch-sensitive but you can use a button below the volume rocker to lock them while playing your tunes. The stereo speakers sit on the lower end of the front flap, and the charger port rests on the bottom of the phone. The microSD card slot is located behind the battery cover but fortunately you don't have to remove the battery as well.
The SCH-U540's internal display is a decent size at just more than 2.2 inches diagonally (176x220 pixels). It supports 262,000 colors but it's not terribly vibrant, and it's difficult to see in direct light. The standard Verizon menus look a bit better due to a tweaked design but it's still not our favorite interface system as some features such as the camera are still too difficult to find. On the upside, you can change the backlight time, the brightness, the contrast, and the dialing font size and style.
The navigation array is quite spacious and shouldn't pose a problem to users with larger hands. A four-way toggle gives access to four user-defined functions, while a central OK button opens the main menu. There are also two soft keys, a dedicated camera button, a voice-dialing key, a clear control, and the Talk and End/power buttons. The keypad buttons are also quite large, and the backlit numbers on the keys should be big enough for most users. Similar to most thin phones, the keys are fast with the surface of the handset, with little separation between the individual buttons. That makes it hard to dial by feel, though we liked that the controls weren't too slick.
The SCH-U540 has a 500-contact phone book, with room in each entry for five phone numbers and two e-mail addresses. You can assign contacts to caller groups, pair them with a picture for photo caller ID, or assign them a ringtone. Only nine, 72-chord polyphonic tones are included, which is fewer then we'd like to see on a multimedia handset. Other features include a vibrate mode, voice commands and dialing, text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, a stop watch, a calculator, a world clock, an alarm clock, instant messaging and e-mail, a speakerphone, and a notepad.