Samsung Freeform 5 review: Responsive QWERTY, outdated feature phone

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MSRP: $159.99

The Good The compact Samsung Freeform 5 has a responsive QWERTY keyboard and won't drain your bank account.

The Bad Low-end specs and half-baked features make the Freeform 5 outdated, even for a feature phone. Image quality is dull and flat.

The Bottom Line Consider buying the Samsung Freeform 5 if you really need a QWERTY feature phone, but rival handsets will get you about the same experience for less.

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6.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6

If a smartphone is more computer (or expense) than you need, a feature phone like the Samsung Freeform 5 is one alternative. The compact QWERTY is suitably simple, and at $69.99 with a U.S. Cellular service agreement, it's also easy on the paycheck and requires no monthly data plan.

Yet, buyer beware. This phone's slow 3G browsing speeds can frustrate, its cramped keyboard will flummox larger fingers, and the wan screen resolution and dull camera are serviceable, but not engaging. Treat the Freeform 5 as you would a flip phone you can also text on, and you'll come closer to enjoying it. I, myself, would shop around.

Design and build
Fifth in a long line of "Freeforms," this cookie-cutter version 5 sports a familiar shape with pleasingly compact handset proportions.

At 4.4 inches tall by 3.4 inches wide by 0.42-inch thick, the round, almost bubbly Freeform 5 feels substantial in the hand (it weighs 3.3 ounces), smooth on the ear, and great in the pocket. Glossy black finishes are typical Samsung. I haven't decided if the phone would look cheaper as is or with a matte treatment; I suppose I'd vote for something in between.

Samsung Freeform 5
The glossy, compact Samsung Freeform 5 slides into pockets. Josh Miller/CNET

Compared to today's touch screen-everything, the Freeform and its ilk go old-school with physical buttons guiding the navigation array. That D-pad, plus the soft keys, Back button, and speakerphone button all sit below the 5's 2.4 inch display.

When it comes to the viewing experience, the Freeform 5 does not impress. Its screen's QVGA, 320 x 240-pixel resolution looks unfocused and colors are dull, without gradients. Text appears smooshed down and soft around the edges, not crisp and fine. This is the same exact setup we've seen -- and accepted -- from feature phones in the past, only now display technology has far surpassed the Freeform 5.

Navigating the screen with the soft keys and D-pad was fine, but having to constantly unlock the screen was tiresome. You can set the screen to never dim, but that's just a good way to run down your battery. I'd like to see longer interval options.

If you don't like the looks, you can adjust the phone's wallpaper, your personal banner message, and the clock's format and color. Font size and backlight time for the keyboard and screen are both in your control, too, but you won't see deep customization that does things like change the pictorial menu to a grid, or choose from a library of typefaces.

Physical keyboard enthusiasts will appreciate what Samsung's done with the four-row QWERTY here, squeezing raised, rounded, and fully separated keys into a small space. Buttons are responsive, with the exception of the space bar, which lacked that reassuring click while typing longer messages. Because of its shrunken footprint, I was able to quickly tap out messages. On the flipside, this keyboard will unavoidably feel cramped for many people, even those with smaller hands.

A closer look at the feature phone's mini keyboard. Josh Miller/CNET

Although the Freeform 5's keyboard will respond when you tell it to, the software isn't very smart. It won't autocorrect misspelled words or insert a period when you double tap the space bar (there is a convenient period button just to the right, though). Some shared-function shortcut keys can turn the phone to vibrate, launch voice commands, and open your message inbox, for example.

As for external features, you'll find the volume rocker and microSD card slot on the left spine, the camera button on the right, a standard 3.5 millimeter headset jack up top, and a Micro-USB charging port on the bottom. The End Call button also serves as the phone's power toggle.

There's no front-facing camera, but the back of the phone houses a 3-megapixel camera module, no flash.

Features and apps
A 3G-capable phone, the Freeform 5 also has location assistance and Bluetooth 3.0, in addition to multimedia messaging. Higher-end features like Wi-Fi don't make it onto the device.

There are, however, voice commands (English and Spanish), Caller ID readout, a music player, and airplane mode. You'll also find a WAP a browser, a calculator, a calendar, an alarm clock, a stopwatch, a world clock, and a memo pad. The handset displays English menus by default, but you can also change the language to Spanish or Chinese.

The microSD card slot is positioned on the side for easy access. Josh Miller/CNET

U.S. Cellular supplies Tone Room for buying more ringtones to complement the 30 you can assign to your contacts (including silent). In that regard and others, the address book experience is typical, letting you assign a photo ID, caller group, address, phone numbers, a birthday, and notes. The address book is 1,000 contacts deep, so there's space for friends and family, and then some.

U.S. Cellular throws in some preloads like contact backup, a navigation app, the BlockBreaker game, and AccuWeather Premium. Many require a subscription.

For more games and apps, you can hop over to the EasyEdge storefront to download more, like the social networking app Social Scene for Facebook and Twitter, Bejeweled, and LEGO Batman. Just keep in mind, you need a strong 3G connection and some patience in order to get them.

Camera and video
I'm a big fan of phones that come with a physical camera shutter button like this one does. Press it and you'll trigger the 3-megapixel camera and camcorder.

This phone's 3-megapixel camera takes mediocre shots, but can upload them to Facebook. Josh Miller/CNET

There's a range of resolutions for each mode, plus various shooting options, brightness and white balance levels, and effects. There's a night mode, an optional grid, and a self timer, too.

I really like that Samsung gave the portrait-only camera autofocus, and that does make a noticeable difference in photo quality. Unfortunately, it can't save the flashless shooter's images from looking dull, flat, and soft around the edges. Colors just don't pop. These photos are just fine for attaching to photo IDs and MMS, but aren't as suited to uploading to a social network or keeping as a lifelong memory.

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