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Samsung Freeform 5 review: Responsive QWERTY, outdated feature phone

Physically, the Freeform 5 fits the non-smartphone QWERTY bill. Use the phone, though, and the overall experience falls flat.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

7 min read

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.

Samsung Freeform 5
6.0

Samsung Freeform 5

The Good

The compact <b>Samsung Freeform 5</b> 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Low-end specs and half-baked features make the Freeform 5 outdated, even for a feature phone.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.

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.

Samsung's QWERTY-equipped Freeform 5 (pictures)

See all photos

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.

CNET editor Jaymar Cabebe looks fairly clear in this Freeform 5 shot, but the image lacks punch and finer detail. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can upload pics to Facebook, as well as send over MMS, Bluetooth, or to a service called Online Album.

Video is similarly muted and low-res, and much jerkier than the smooth flow we see in today's top phones. There's 1GB of internal storage, but if you invest in a microSD card, you can get up to 32GB more.

Exposure is fairly even in this studio shot, even though grays are a little darker. Josh Miller/CNET

CNET's smartphone image gallery is a good touch point for comparison.

Call quality
The Freeform 5 (CDMA: 850/1900) wasn't the worst cell phone I've ever heard, but it did bring with it some notable flaws that could deter prospective buyers. I should note that I tested it in San Francisco using U.S. Cellular's roaming network, and using the phone within the regional carrier's stronghold could correct some issues. Other ticks might very well be tied to the phone itself.

In my audio calls, audio sounded strong at half the possible volume. It was a little choppy with a subtle high whine and consistent stuttering, a rata-tat sound. My chief calling partner's voice sounded mostly human and natural, but lightly strained, and lacking one layer of warmth and vocal roundness.

Despite those hiccups, I was able to carry on a long conversation with a customer service agent, and was able to navigate the automated call-bot that answers phones.

On his end, my test partner said I sounded quite loud, though a little distorted. He heard some consistent white noise, "a frying sound."

Samsung Freeform 5 call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone wasn't the best when I tested by holding the phone at hip level. Volume dropped so precipitously in my indoor test, I had to immediately crank it up to full to get the phone loud enough. With no reserves left, I'd expect it would be almost impossible to carry on a conversation outside or anywhere louder. On top of volume problems, the Freeform 5's audio echoed and was fuzzy, with a harsh edge.

Plummeted volume also affected my caller, who did say that the line was at least clear. My voice, however, came across a little muffled and tinny, he said.

Performance
Navigation speeds, battery life, and data exchange on the Freeform 5 are exactly what you'd expect for this kind of phone: terrible by top standards when it comes to data, strong on battery life, and mediocre on internal clock speed.

A simpler device, the Freeform 5 won't get faster than 3G (EVDO) speeds, but in the carrier's roaming network, I was slammed with a lot of much pokier 1XRT speeds that would cause URLs to spin for over a minute until I gave up and tried again later.

The WAP version of sites, like Reddit, will load up in under 10 seconds, even over slower speeds, but it's the sublinks to longer stories you have to worry about. Expect them to come out as basic text, stripped of graphics.

Internal speeds are totally fine; this phone booted up in about 20 seconds, which is even faster than some smartphones. The camera app did take a few seconds to load, but then again, they all do. Shot-to-shot time gets bungled up by the fact that you have to save a photo before moving on.

The Freeform 5 has a rated talk time of 6 hours and claims up to 14.6 days of standby time on its 1,000mAh battery. During our battery drain test, it lasted 6.45 hours. FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 1.1 watt per kilogram.

Buy it or skip it?
There's absolutely nothing wrong with a feature phone, and for heavy texters with smaller hands, the Freeform 5's responsive, compact QWERTY keyboard is a fairly good one, as far as the button layout goes.

However, Samsung and U.S. Cellular do customers no favors with a proprietary software design that was common five years ago. I believe that the user deserves a bump in resolution, a preloaded Facebook app, more pleasing graphics, and yes, even spell check. Samsung isn't the only offender in this, but a shared culpability with other phone-makers doesn't make the Freeform 5 any more lovable.

This is a phone you get because it fills a need, and isn't the worst choice possible. However, shoppers for this type of handset should also check out U.S. Cellular's similar Freeform 4 for $39.99, and Pantech Verse for $49.99. The Pantech Jest 2 QWERTY slider is also free on Verizon with a two-year contract, and the Motorola Theory costs $30 all in at Boost Mobile.

None of these phones is a shoe-in for your hard-earned bucks, but if price is your guide, you do have other options.

Samsung Freeform 5
6.0

Samsung Freeform 5

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 6Performance 6
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