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Samsung Instinct HD SPH-M850 (Sprint) review: Samsung Instinct HD SPH-M850 (Sprint)

Samsung Instinct HD SPH-M850 (Sprint)

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
13 min read


Samsung Instinct HD SPH-M850 (Sprint)

The Good

The Samsung Instinct HD offers a sleek design with an attractive user interface and a brilliant display. Its HD-capable camera is one of the best around, photo and video quality are sharp, and the loaded feature set includes Wi-Fi.

The Bad

The Samsung Instinct HD was sluggish at times, and call quality isn't the sharpest. The Opera 9.7 browser takes some getting used to, and the memory card slot is located behind the battery cover, which is inconvenient. It's also quite expensive.

The Bottom Line

The Samsung Instinct HD packs a lot of features and decent performance into an appealing design. But even with all it has to offer, we'd prefer to pay less and get a full smartphone.

Editors' note: We updated this review on October 6 and 13, 2009, to reflect further testing.

Sprint Nextel stole the CTIA show last year when it introduced the Samsung Instinct. There was a lot to like about the touch-screen phone, so we were hopeful that Samsung would build on its successes with subsequent models. To our initial delight, the Samsung Instinct S30 made the rounds at CTIA this year, but we quickly were disappointed that it offered only a slimmer design. Even worse, Samsung actually removed features found on the first model. Could it be that the S30 was all Sammy had to offer?

Luckily, the answer is no. As summer rolled into autumn, Sprint got a jump on the holiday season by unveiling the Instinct's long-awaited successor. The Instinct HD, aka the SPH-M850, is both an upgrade and an improvement. It offers a sleeker design, a brighter display, and more features. We're a bit ambivalent about the much-hyped "high-definition" support, but it remains a compelling multimedia phone that does a lot of things well. The price, however, is a tad galling: at $249 with a two-year Sprint Everything plan and a $100 mail-in rebate, the Instinct HD will cost you more than the HTC Hero, the excellent Google Android smartphone. Sure, the HD camera is nice, but we'd rather pay for real productivity than flashy multimedia.

The Instinct HD has a trim candy bar shape that's larger than both the original Instinct and the Instinct S30. The curves and smooth angles give it an appealing shape and we like the simple silver and black color scheme. What's more, we welcome the extra heft (4.63 inches by 2.29 inches by 0.5 inch; 4.01 ounces) as it gives the phone a solid and comfortable feel in the hand. The Instinct HD also travels well in a pocket or a bag.

The 3.2-inch display isn't any bigger than on the S30, but it supports more colors (16 million hues) and it has a richer resolution (480x320 pixels). You'll notice the upgrade immediately; the colors are bright and vibrant and graphics pop right off the screen. Though 3.2 inches is just on the cusp of what we consider the minimum size for a touch screen, the Instinct HD's display is very easy on the eyes. You can adjust the brightness and the backlight time, but the small text size can't be changed.

The touch interface was quick and responsive when selecting items. Scanning through long lists and using scroll bars was a tad sluggish, but nothing too bothersome. You can adjust the touch sensitivity and switch between a right- and a left-handed orientation. The vibrating feedback should be helpful for most users; you can change its intensity or deactivate it completely. The display also has a proximity sensor.

The menu interface is similar to the previous Instinct models. On the top level there are three menu pages ("Main," "Fun," and "My Stuff") where icons are arranged in a list or tile format according to their themes. The tile design is more visually appealing, but the list design offers more commands for each individual feature. For example, you can see thumbnails of your photos without opening the photo gallery. There's also a fourth page called "Faves" that you can populate with your chosen features. For more personalization you can delete menu choices and rearrange them

The "Web" menu offers choices for the browser, Microsoft Live Search, and various widgets (we'll list them in the Features section). Games, GPS, and customization options can be found in the "My Stuff" menu, multimedia and social media apps like Facebook and Twitter are in the "Fun" menu, and standard options like messaging and the organizer are in the "Main" menu page. It's an intuitive arrangement once you give it a go.

Just below the display are three touch controls: a Back key, a Home button, and a calling key. The Home button will take you back to the main screen and the calling key opens yet another menu with your phone book, your speed dial list, the recent calls menu, the visual voice mail feature, and the phone dialer. The latter features large alphanumeric touch controls and the ability to activate the speakerphone and access contacts right on the display.

The Instinct HD offers a full QWERTY keyboard with large buttons. The vertical keyboard is more spacious than you'd think, but we'd recommend against using it since the keys aren't arranged in the standard QWERTY format. You can switch between keyboards by tipping the phone (the Instinct HD has an accelerometer) or by pressing a touch control. You'll need to switch to a separate keyboard for symbols and numbers, but basic punctuation is surfaced with the alphabetic controls. You'll also find back and return touch controls and a giant space bar. If desired, you can hide the keyboard to show more of the writing area.

The power control rests on the top of the Instinct HD next to the 3.5mm headset jack (nice!). On the left spine you'll find the microSD port for the charger/USB cable, the TV out jack, and a camera shutter. The volume rocker and voice-dialing button are on the left spine. Though you can find the rocker when on a call, we'd prefer it to be just a bit larger. The single speaker sits on the rear of the handset below the camera lens, flash, and self-portrait mirror. Though most of the controls in a convenient place on the handset, the memory card slot is inconveniently located behind the battery cover.

The Instinct HD's 600-contact phone book is rather small, as far as touch-screen handsets go. Each name holds five phone number types, an e-mail address, an instant-message handle, a street address, a URL, and notes. You can organize callers into groups and pair them with a photo and one of 26 128-note polyphonic ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, a calculator, an alarm clock, a timer, a stopwatch, a world clock, a full duplex speakerphone, and a notepad. Fortunately, the calendar and world clock are easier to use than on the Instinct.

The Instinct HD isn't a smartphone, but you'll find a fair number of features beyond the basics. The handset offers full Bluetooth with a stereo profile, Sprint Navigation with Microsoft Live Search, PC syncing, Sprint visual voice mail, USB mass storage, speaker-independent voice commands, and instant messaging. And like the Samsung Jet, it also includes "gesture controls": you can mute an incoming call and snooze the alarm clock by placing the phone face down. We were also glad to see that Samsung added Wi-Fi to the Instinct HD.

Like its predecessors, the Instinct HD offers plenty of e-mail options. You can sync with POP3 accounts from AOL, AIM, Yahoo, and Gmail, and you can sync with work corporate e-mail accounts that use Outlook Web Access. The experience is very similar to that on the first two Instinct models (our Instinct review gives a full description). Since it does not have full exchange server support, it has its quirks, but it works fine for basic communication. If you've set up your work e-mail, you'll also be to sync your Outlook calendar and contacts. The same is not true for Outlook Notes, however.

The Opera 9.7 browser lets you view Web pages in their full HTML glory, but it will default to a mobile site if one is available. Compared with a normal WAP browser, Opera 9.7 is slick and pretty, but it's not without its faults. Sure, we get that Opera is trying to make mobile browsing easier to use, but the whole experience gets rather cluttered and redundant. For example, you can save Web pages as bookmarks and as "Speed Dial" pages. While both features do the same thing--give you quick access to your favorite sites--they differ in how they do it. We'll admit readily that the Web page thumbnails on the Speed Dial menu are more visually appealing than a simple list of URL bookmarks, but we don't see why you need both.

Opera 9.7 allows tabbed browsing, so you can keep multiple pages open at once. That's a nice feature, but the interface for swapping between pages is visually overwhelming on a 3.2-inch screen. You'll get used to it, but it takes some practice to understand how to use the browser intelligently. This is the first time that we had to read the relevant section in the phone's user manual. The browser does not support Flash Lite or the Opera Turbo feature.

The Instinct HD doesn't offer the browser panning that we saw on its original predecessor, but the touch interface was mostly fluid and responsive when scrolling through pages. Tapping links wasn't always accurate, though. You can zoom in by double tapping the screen, and we like that you can adjust the zoom percentage in the Settings menu. To zoom out, however, you must use the back touch control below the display (we'd prefer being able to double tap again). Other features on the browser are respectable. You can set home and launch pages, customize privacy settings (cookies, referrer logging, etc.), send a page to a friend, search on a page, and scan your browsing history. You also get a list of saved pages, but that appears to be just another method for saving chosen pages.

The Instinct HD's 5-megapixel camera is unique in the U.S. cell phone world, and Samsung and Sprint are pushing it as the handset's star attraction. In addition to the standard camera features, you can record videos in high definition (1,280x720). Since most cell phone cameras aren't worth their weight in plastic, we weren't sure at first if a cell phone was the best place for an HD camcorder. After some thought we figured that if Samsung could make it work in a compelling way, then there's no reason the phone shouldn't offer it.

If you want to view the video in high-def, you'll need to transfer the video to an HD-capable monitor. That's understandable, but we wish that Samsung included the required cable in the box rather than making it an optional accessory ($29). On the upside, it took just a few seconds to hook up the phone to an HDTV in the CNET Labs and play a test video. The quality was quite impressive, with a sharp picture and bright colors. Editing options aren't extensive and clips can be blown out in direct sunlight, but the Instinct HD does a remarkable job for what it offers. It may not compete with the best HD camcorders out there, but it doesn't have to.

Keep in mind that HD video will take up a large chunk of memory; Samsung wagers it to be about 30MB for every minute. Since the Instinct HD offers only 512MB of internal shared memory, frequent videographers will need a microSD card. You'll get a 4GB card in the box, but the phone can accommodate cards up to 32GB.

The Instinct HD's camera has a flash and a self-portrait mirror.

You also can record video in VGA (640x480) and QVGA (320x240) resolutions. Naturally, a lower resolution will take up less memory. When recording you can activate the flash as a light, change the exposure, and adjust options like the color tone, contrast, sharpness, white balance, saturation, and video quality. You also can set a self-timer. Videos for multimedia messages are capped at 6MB, which is between 40 seconds and 2 minutes long, depending on the resolution (HD videos cannot be sent over the air). In the normal mode you can record for as long as the available memory permits.

The still camera shoots photos in four resolutions (2,592x1,944 down to 640x480). After the stripped-down Instinct S30, we welcome the plentiful set of editing options. You'll find a self-timer, six color tones, three quality settings, spot metering, seven "scene" modes (night, portrait, etc.), five adjustable white-balance settings, 4x zoom, autofocus, face detection, and a macro mode. And like on the camcorder, you can change the ISO, saturation, brightness, contrast, and sharpness. The flash is quite bright; you can choose between an automatic and an "always on" setting.

We liked the Instinct HD's photo quality.

Photo quality was quite good. Colors were bright, details and faces were sharp, and there was no image noise. Non-HD video was better than we've seen on many camera phones. Very quick movements still are bit blurry, but our clips were remarkably clear and fee of distortion or pixelation. When finished with your standard shots and clips, you can send them to friend in an MMS or e-mail and save them to an online album. With photos you also can assign them to a contact or transfer them off the phone via Bluetooth, a memory card, or a USB cable. The photo/clip gallery is intuitive. You can move between shots with a finger swipe or you can play a slideshow.

As the Instinct HD is a 3G device, you can connect to Sprint TV, which includes live and on-demand programming from a wide variety of channels. You also can access the NFL Network and Sprint Movie. In all, it's an exhaustive selection of programming with much of it exclusive to Sprint. The touch-screen interface performs well, but, like with the original Instinct, it was disconcerting to use the phone's Back button to navigate through the video menus. Since you're using the phone in horizontal mode, the Back button is facing down.

The music player MP3 is relatively similar to that on the previous Instinct phones. You can access the Sprint Music Store for simultaneous downloads both to your PC and wirelessly to your phone. The player interface is nothing fancy. Though you get album art, the features are limited to repeat and shuffle modes, and you can't use MP3s as ringtones. The airplane mode turns off the phone's calling functions for listening to music while in-flight, and you can send the music player to the background while you're using other phone functions. When a call comes in, the music will pause automatically and will resume again after you hang up. Unfortunately, the Instinct HD doesn't offer an FM radio, but you can stream more channels from Sprint Exclusive Entertainment (SEE) Music and Sprint Radio.

The Instinct HD also offers a fair number of widgets for MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. We used the latter two and found them to be quick and easy to use. The Facebook app doesn't offer all the functionality of the Facebook iPhone app, but it's a step in the right direction. Similarly, the YouTube widget wasn't as clean as it could be, but it does the trick for brief video forays. You'll also find three demo games (Monopoly, Uno, and Brain Exercise) and widgets for Google Maps, Weather.com, CNN, ESPN, Fandango, Bloomberg, Nascar Sprint Mobile, and NFL Mobile Live. A shopping widget offers access to more apps for purchase

You can personalize the Instinct HD with a variety of color themes, screensavers, and wallpaper. Additional customization options and ringtones are available for download from Sprint.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) Samsung Instinct HD in San Francisco. Call quality was respectable, though we weren't overwhelmed. Volume was fine and the signal was strong, but there was some occasional audio interference. Most of the time there was a slight background hiss, and we also encountered slight static. We also noticed that voices sounded the slightest bit raspy.

On their end callers said we sounded fine. They could tell that we were using a cell phone, but they didn't share the problems that we encountered. Some of our friends said that the Instinct HD picked up a lot of background noise, and quite a few had trouble hearing us when we were speaking in a loud place. But even with those complaints, most callers were satisfied with the audio quality.

Speakerphone calls were fine, but not great. The volume does get loud, but the audio on our end was rather grainy. We had to sit close to the phone if we wanted to be heard on the other end. Bluetooth headset calls were satisfactory, but your experience will vary by headset. The handset is compatible with M4 and T3 hearing aids.

Thankfully, the Instinct HD shares the original Instinct's EV-DO rev. A support (we still can't understand why the S30 dropped back to Rev. 0). Data speeds were indeed zippy. We browsed through pages quickly, and graphics and applications took just a few seconds to download. Of course, Wi-Fi will offer an even better experience, but Sprint's 3G network is fine. We could even get strong EV-DO service in some buildings and when underground.

Streaming quality was some of the best we've seen on a cell phone. Clips downloaded swiftly and played without interruption. What's more, we're quite pleased that the frame size uses the entire display. The quality was also good; there was little pixelation and the sound matched the picture. Only a couple times did we see some distortion between scenes. Music downloads were very quick; it took just about 20 seconds to get a 3.7MB song. Music quality was fine over the external speaker, but nothing special. The volume is sufficiently loud, though our tunes lacked warmth. Look for a headset to offer the best experience.

Our biggest performance worry is that the phone is rather sluggish. Browsing through menus and opening some functions, like the browser, the Sprint TV menu, and the music player, could take up to a few seconds. The handset also froze for a few seconds on multiple occasions and it took time to back out of media features as well.

The Instinct HD has a rated battery life of 5.8 hours talk time. We got a talk time of 6 hours and 15 minutes in our tests. According to FCC radiation tests, the Instinct HD has a digital SAR of 1.16 watts per kilogram.


Samsung Instinct HD SPH-M850 (Sprint)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 7