Now that U.S. Cellular finally has taken notice of CNET, we've had the opportunity to review a range of the carrier's phones, from sweet multimedia handsets to models built for texting. The new Samsung Axle SCH-r311 falls into neither camp, but it's an acceptable phone for basic communication. Its design is simple and its features, while limited, are functional. Call quality wasn't perfect, but it should satisfy for most casual users. You can get it for a reasonable $49.95 with service.
Serious Samsung watchers should recognize the Axle right away. The phone shares its basic design with the Samsung Byline for MetroPCS. It adds a camera and a unique olive green hue, but it has the same simple lines, plastic skin, and smudge-prone mirrored face. The Axle is also the same size as the Byline (4.54 inches by 1.77 inches by 0.77 inch), but it's just slightly heavier (3.37 ounces vs. 3.25 inches).
The external display also supports 65,000 colors and measures an inch from corner to corner. Besides the date, time, battery life, and signal strength, it also shows photo caller ID and it functions as a viewfinder for the external display. You can change its contrast and the clock style, but no other options are customizable. The camera lens sits just above the display, a volume rocker rests on the left spine, and the right spine holds a camera shutter and the proprietary headset jack/charger port.
The internal display measures 1.9 inches and supports 262,000 colors. It's difficult to see in direct light, but it's relatively bright with vibrant colors. Graphics and photos don't look amazing, but they're fine for this caliber of phone. You can change the backlight time, the dialing font size, and the clock style. The easy-to-use menu interface is available in icon or list styles.
The Axle's navigation controls and keypad are well designed. Though they're almost completely flush, the individual buttons are large and have a comfortable feel. The navigation array consists of a square toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, a Clear control, and the talk and End/power buttons. We could scroll through menu and text and dial quickly with few issues. The toggle offers one-touch access to the ringer menu, the browser, the setting menu, and the photos folder. You can set one of the soft keys as an additional shortcut.
The Axle has a 500-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers and an e-mail address. You can save contacts to groups, and you can pair them with a photo and one of 14 polyphonic ringtones. Other essentials include text and multimedia messaging, a voice recorder, a calendar, a memo pad, an alarm clock, a world clock, a calculator, a stopwatch, a unit and currency converter, and a tip calculator. Yet, the Axle doesn't completely stop there. You'll also find Bluetooth and voice commands and dialing.
The VGA camera takes photos in three resolutions, from 640x480 pixels to 176x144 pixels. Other editing options include a night mode, a self-timer, three quality settings, four color tones, four white balance settings, series and divided shot modes, 29 frames, adjustable brightness, and three shutter sounds, plus a silent option. The Axle does not record video.
When finished taking photos, you can save them to the phone, upload them to an online album, and send them to friends via Bluetooth or a multimedia message. The Axle offers about 50MB of shared user-accessible memory. Photo quality is fine for a VGA camera. Colors are bright, but our shots were somewhat blurry.
You can personalize the Axle with a variety of color themes, banners, and wallpaper. More options are available from U.S. Cellular's EasyEdge Web portal. You'll also have to use the WAP browser to download games as none come on the phone. You can buy additional ringtones with the integrated Tone room application.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1,900) in San Francisco. Since we're outside U.S. Cellular's home network, we were roaming on Verizon Wireless. Call quality was quite decent overall; though the audio sounds just a tad harsh, the signal was strong and we didn't encounter any static or interference. The volume also gets quite loud, though the audio was somewhat distorted at the highest levels. It wasn't a huge problem, and it could be because we were roaming off U.S. Cellular's home network, but the call quality wasn't exceptional.
Callers said we sounded pretty good. They could tell we were using a cell phone and some of your friends reported the same audio distortion, but they also said that the minor issues didn't ruin their experience. Automated calling systems could understand us as long as we were in a quiet room. Speakerphone calls were enjoyable, surprisingly. We didn't hear any of the distortions encountered during regular voice calls, though we did have to speak close to the phone if we wanted to be heard on the other end. Also, it takes too many clicks to activate the speakerphone once you've placed a call.
The Samsung Axle has a rated battery life of 4 hours talk time. Our tests showed a talk time of 5 hours and 41 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Axle has a digital digital SAR of 1.06 watts per kilogram.