Every once in a great while, a new cell phone comes along that has the potential to shove the industry toward a whole new path. Moto's StarTAC did much to usher in the flip-phone era, while the company's Razr helped spawn the new thin-phone revolution. But now it's Samsung's turn to be a trendsetter with its new Samsung UpStage SPH-M620 for Sprint. Though it's hardly the first quality music phone--Sony Ericsson and Nokia have had their share--its inventive, dual-sided design does more to combine cell phone and MP3 player ergonomics than any other music handset we've seen. The concept first saw light last year with the GSM Samsung Ultra Music, but Sprint is the first carrier to bring the form factor to the United States. And it's a good thing too, considering how uninspiring Sprint's handset lineup has been in the past year. As with anything new, the UpStage has its kinks, and it isn't for the gadget-phobic--there's a lot to get use to, not only with the controls and interface but also with the oddball UpStage name (we just don't get it). But if you approach it with an open mind and take the time to explore it fully, you should find a novel, functional cell phone with admirable performance on both the calling and music fronts. Again, it's not perfect, but it's a very positive step in a new direction. Indeed, it just makes us excited for the next-generation model. At $149 with a two-year service agreement, the UpStage has a very fair price, but you might be able to find it cheaper online.
With one side resembling a phone and the other side resembling an MP3 player, you may not know what to think of the Samsung UpStage when you first pick it up. Indeed, the dual-sided form factor throws you for a loop, but that's exactly what it's meant to do. As we'll get to shortly, each side has different uses, which can at times be confusing. But this split-personality approach gets big points for innovation. It's also quite the looker and should evoke oohs and aahs from even the most jaded gadget enthusiasts.
Samsung's current obsession with being thin clearly shows up the UpStage's design. At 1.73x4.07x0.37 inches, it's a little taller and wider than the iPod Nano and only slightly fatter than Samsung's razor-thin SGH-T519 Trace. It slips easily into a pocket or bag, and at 2.57 ounces, it won't weigh you down. The form factor was comfortable as well; the UpStage had a solid feel in the hand, and we didn't mind using it for long conversations. Of course it won't cradle your head like a flip phone, but that goes with the territory when you're using a candy bar handset.
The UpStage's "phone" side is pretty ordinary. The navigation array is typical Samsung--there's a square toggle with an OK button in the middle, two soft keys, a dedicated camera button, a Back control, and the traditional Talk and End/Power keys. The controls are mostly flush with the surface of the phone, but they have just the slightest bit of texture and a tactile "push" feeling when pressed. Our only complaint was that they're a tad small for larger fingers. Also, it's disappointing that the toggle doesn't offer shortcuts to favorite features. The keypad buttons are about the same: they're raised slightly above the surface of the phone with a tactile feel. We were able to dial by feel, and we liked the bright backlighting and large numbers. Also, the keypad is big enough for larger fingers.
The 65,000-color TFT display on the phone side also was a mixed bag. First off, it's tiny at just 1.4 inches diagonally (176x65 pixels). Normally we'd be up in arms about such a small screen, but we understand Samsung's motive--a bigger screen would have made for a bigger phone. It manages to cram in the date, the time, signal strength, battery life, and even photo caller ID, but the tiny dialing and message text may be too small for some users. Display options are also limited; you can change the backlight time and dialing font style only. It's worth noting as well that the display shows only four menu options: call history, contacts list, and options for entering and sending--but not reading--a text message. Though we understand that most applications would be difficult to use on the small display, we think Samsung could have given us a basic Settings menu at the very least. On the upside, you can use it to take self-portraits with the camera lens that sits just above.
While the UpStage's phone side is used for making calls, tapping text messages, and taking vanity shots, the music player side is used for just about all other functions. The majority of its real estate is taken up by the large, 2.1-inch (176x220 pixels) TFT display. With support for 262,000 colors, it's bright, vivid, and easy on the eyes. It's perfect for browsing through the complete set of user-friendly menus and for taking photos. Before you can take snaps, you must activate the camera using the aforementioned shortcut on the opposite side.
We admit we were skeptical of the UpStage's large, square touch pad, but the results exceeded our expectations. As with any touch pad, there's no tactile "push" to the control, so the lighter the touch, the better. You can adjust the sensitivity if you wish, but we didn't have any problems after a brief period of acclimation. On the other hand, it's worth noting that there tends to be a slight delay when using the commands. A tap to the top of the pad opens the main menu, while the lower-left and lower-right corners serve as Back and End keys respectively. When inside a menu, a tap in the up, down, right, and left directions will move the select icon in the corresponding direction, while the top-right and left corners function as soft keys. And when inside the music player, the sides of the pad double as rewind and fast-forward controls.
You also can swipe your finger in side-to-side and up-and-down motions to move around the menus. It's important to note that the touch pad does not support circular movement--if you try to do so, the select icon will jump madly around the menu--instead, you must complete vertical and horizontal swipes separately. Though this may sound cumbersome, the touch pad is actually quite easy to use once you understand how it works. A short swipe moves the select icon one menu choice, a long wipe moves it two choices, while a long swipe and a pause moves the icon continuously until you lift your finger. As with the tapping method, the finger-swiping will take some practice. It took us about an hour to master it completely, even after we took the handy tutorial. But once we got the hang of it, we thought it was quite user-friendly and intuitive. As we said earlier, keep an open mind and be patient. And in any case, it beats the LG Chocolate's touch controls, hands down.
In the middle of the touch pad is a large control that functions both as an OK button for selecting menu items and a play/pause control when the music player is open. Unlike the touch pad, the OK button is raised above the surface of the phone, and it has a tactile "push" feel when pressed.
As we've mentioned previously, the UpStage's split personality means certain applications can be used on only one side of the phone. And when one side is in use, the other side's display and controls are inactive--including the power key. While that's not a problem for a lot of things, it does mean you have to alternate between sides for some functions. For example, when searching for a song in the Sprint Music Store, you can navigate through the store only on the music player side. But if you want to search for a particular track, you'll have to flip the phone over, type in the name, then flip it back again to select the track you want. Though we understand that such a flip-flop motion is an inevitable consequence of the UpStage's design, the process can get tedious if done over and over again. And while you can use the touch pad to enter text, it involves too much scrolling to be really useful.
The flipping motion is done one of two ways: at times the phone prompts you to press a soft key, but you can also use the Flip button located on the right spine (when looking at the phone side). Either way, the opposite display and controls will activate for use. Just below the Flip button is the MicroSD card slot, while above it is a handy slider control for locking all exterior keys. A volume rocker and a reset button sit on the other spine, just above the charger port/headset jack (you can use one device at a time).
We have a big complaint with the UpStage's speaker situation. The only speaker rests on the phone side and is used to hear voice calls, music, and streaming video. While the lack of stereo speakers on a music phone is bad enough, the lack of a speaker on the UpStage's music player side means the audio output is pointed away from you if you're listening to music or watching videos without a headset. As a result, the sound quality is diminished, particularly if you try to rest the phone on a table. It's a bad design move on Samsung's part, and one that we hope it will correct In future UpStage models.
Another quirk of the UpStage is that the battery is not user-replaceable. Though that means you won't be able to replace a faulty battery yourself, Samsung and Sprint redeem themselves by including an extended battery in the box. What's more, this extra battery sits in an attractive wallet that protects the phone from scrapes and bruises. The outside of the wallet has a soft, leather-like feel that gives the phone a classy look--not that it needed much help. You can even keep the UpStage in the wallet for making calls, which is a comfortable arrangement.