Editors' note: On January 20, 2009, we made additional updates after testing the phone's calendar-syncing feature. On October 1, 2009, we lowered the rating of this product from 8.0 to 7.6 in the wake of the release of the Instinct HD.
Over the last year, the collective response from most cell phone manufacturers to the iPhone has been rather muted. But now Samsung is trying a different tactic. Its new Samsung Instinct (SPH-M800) for Sprint is the first cell phone we've seen that throws some direct competition Apple's way. We still dismiss the whole idea of an "iPhone killer" as ridiculous, but comparisons here are inevitable and Sprint is doing nothing to silence them.
Though the Instinct and the iPhone look about the same, and they rely heavily on touch screens with unique interfaces, there are some important feature distinctions. The Instinct offers its own brand of visual voice mail and it bests the first incarnation of the iPhone by offering 3G (EV-DO Rev. A) network compatibility, integrated GPS, and work e-mail support, just to name a few. The new iPhone 3G will be more evenly matched, but even the Instinct gets points for its multimedia messaging, voice dialing and video recording. In the important areas of usability and performance, however, the Instinct struggled on a few fronts. The Web browser wasn't quite as easy to use as we had hoped, the camera lacked editing features, and the Instinct's call and video quality were variable. However, even with those caveats, the Instinct remains a powerful, innovative cell phone with a loaded feature set and an appealing design. The Instinct is $129 with a mail-in rebate and a two-year "Simply Everything" plan. Simply Everything plans start at $70 per month.
By all accounts, the Instinct has an eye-catching, though not unique, design. The predominately touch-screen device sports a thin candy-bar shape that measures a portable 4.57 inches by 2.17 inches by 0.49 inch. That makes it a bit taller and fatter than the iPhone but also thinner when measured across its front face. Samsung aficionados will also notice a resemblance to the Samsung SGH-F490, which is the GSM version of the Instinct. At 4.4 ounces, the Instinct has a sturdy feel in the hand and offers a solid construction. We also liked the simple color scheme of silver and basic black.
The Instinct's touch screen dominates its real estate. With support for 262,000 colors and a 432,240-pixel resolution, the display is positively gorgeous. Colors popped, graphics were vibrant, and text was crisp. Indeed, it's one of the better displays we've seen in a while. You're offered a fair number of personalization options; you can't change the menu or texting font, but you can adjust the brightness and the backlighting time. It's worth noting that when the display goes dark, it also locks automatically.
Yet, as rich as the display is, we had a minor complaint. At 3.1 inches, it's almost half an inch smaller than the iPhone's display. That may not sound like a huge difference, but the display can look rather cramped when you're browsing the Web or viewing videos. We suppose you'd get used to eventually, and we recognize that it's an improvement over the Samsung Glyde's smaller touch screen, but it's a point we couldn't let pass.
The Instinct's simple menu interface is easy to use and attractive. At the bottom of the display are icons for the four menus (Favs, Main, Fun, and Web). The four-page menu design is an interesting and effective arrangement. The Favs menu (aka Favorites) is user-programmable so you can stock it with your most preferred functions. The Main menu is reserved for messaging, organizer, and GPS features; the Fun menu holds games, multimedia options, and the camera; and the Web menu shows a selection of browser shortcuts. All menus feature bright icons to represent the various features, but only the Fun and Web menus allows for any customization. The secondary menus are intuitive as well. For example, we had no problems determining how to start a new text message or move items around in a list.
The Instinct's touch screen offers haptic tactile feedback. It's a nice feature as it lets you know for sure that you're choosing a menu option. You can turn the vibration off but you can't change its length or intensity. For the most part, the touch interface is intuitive and easy to use, but we had a couple of observations. Though some options in the settings menu can be turned on and off by sliding a bar back and forth with your finger, other options require you to tap each side of the bar. Certainly, we prefer the former option. Scrolling through long lists or messages was a pleasure, however. Similar to the iPhone, we just had to swipe our finger up and down.
On the other hand, the Instinct doesn't suffer from the usability drawbacks that we saw on the Glyde. We rarely had to tap menu selections twice to register our choice. Also, the display recognized our selections when we touched around its edges. You can adjust the display calibration and its touch sensitivity.
Below the display are three small touch controls. There's a back button, a home key, and a calling control. Unfortunately, these keys were a bit tricky to use. On a few occasions we had to press a control twice (the Back button especially) for it to register our choice. Also, the vibrating feedback here is barely noticeable. Pressing the Home control normally will take you automatically to the Favs menu, while selecting the calling control replaces the menu icons at the bottom of the display with shortcuts for the speed dialer, your contacts menu, the recent calls list, and the dialpad.
The latter choice opens a standard numeric keypad with a large green talk button. The individual numbers are large, and we like that there's a dedicated Save key for storing new phone numbers. The save key sits just below the dialpad, next to a Pause control and a shortcut for the visual voice-mail feature. Our only gripe was that the letters on the numeric keys are tiny; users with visual impairments should test this phone before buying.
After dialing your number, you have to press the green bar to place the call. That was a bit counterintuitive to us--we wanted to press the calling touch control below the display--but once we knew what to do, it wasn't a problem. When you're on a call, a secondary menu appears on the display with a few handy shortcuts for muting the sound, activating the speakerphone, accessing your contacts list or the main menu, and placing a three-way call. To end a call you have to slide the red bar to the right. It's a convenient arrangement as it minimizes the chance that you'll hang up on someone accidentally.
We were very glad to see that the Instinct's alphabetic keyboard defaults to landscape mode. As a result, we were able to hold the phone in two hands and type away with our thumbs. Onscreen controls include a return button, a space bar, dedicated period, comma, apostrophe keys, a back control, and a dedicated button for accessing a secondary keyboard with numbers and symbols. Overall, the keyboard is easy to use, but we had a few gripes. The individual buttons should be big enough for most people, but users with larger hands may find the arrangement cramped. Also, while you can magnify the text to see what you've written, you must minimize the keyboard to do so, which is rather counterproductive. The Instinct does not correct your spelling like the iPhone does.
Alternatively, you can enter text with a graffiti method. You will have to switch the display's orientation to portrait using the onscreen button--unlike the iPhone, the Instinct doesn't have an accelerometer. When using graffiti mode, the Instinct recognized most of our entries without any problem. The included stylus is a big help for writing in the small space allowed, but unfortunately the Instinct doesn't include a storage slot for the stylus for when you're on the go.
On the left side of the Instinct are a camera shutter, a voice activation control, and the microSD card slot. A power/display locking control and a 3.5mm headset jack (nice!) sit on the top of the phone, and the charger port and the volume rocker rest on the left spine. The camera lens and the self-portrait mirror sit on the back of the Instinct; it's a convenient spot for taking all types of photos.
The Instinct comes with a variety of accessories in the box. Besides the requisite charger and headset, you'll also find a USB cable, a software CD, and a carrying case. There's even an extra battery with a special case. You can power the extra battery with the same charger and keep it on hand when you need emergency power. That's a nice touch.
The Instinct phone book holds 600 contacts with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, a URL, and notes. All in all, that's a fairly small set of options for such a high-end phone. On the other hand, you can save callers to groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 27 polyphonic ringtones. That's a fair assortment, and we like the design of the settings menu, which allowed us to test one or as many tones as we'd like. The Instinct also offers a vibrate mode for when you need to keep it quiet.
The Instinct steps up the plate in a big way by offering its own version of visual voice mail. Similar to the iPhone, each message is displayed on your screen in list format along with the message sender's ID, the time received, and the length. You then can listen to messages in the order you choose. The service works just as it's intended.
Organizer features are plentiful and include text and multimedia messaging, a calendar, a notepad (you can use the keyboard or the graffiti method), a calculator, a unit converter, a tip calculator, an alarm clock, a timer, a stopwatch, and a world clock. Most of the organizer features are easy to use and we couldn't help but notice that the stopwatch and the timer look exactly as they do on the iPhone. On the downside, the calendar was a bit cramped and it doesn't offer a week view. Also, the world clock was rather buggy. Instead of typing in the city name, you have to select the exact location on the map and then touch your desired city in the highlighted area. It's a clunky and imprecise process; we kept getting Buenos Aires when we tried to touch the map near New York City. Also, you can only show four cities at one time.
Other features include full Bluetooth with a stereo profile, audible caller ID, a speakerphone, mobile syncing for stored contacts, and USB storage. Samsung included phone-as-modem support, but Sprint has not enabled the feature. The Instinct also offers an extensive voice-command feature that you can use to dial phone numbers or call contacts, address a text or multimedia message, and access information like traffic, sports, weather, or news. There's no speech-to-text support but the voice-command function does integrate with a nifty Microsoft Live Search. By speaking the name of a business or even the type of business (like "pizza"), it will use the phone's GPS connection to search your surrounding location for a match. You can then get a map and directions to the business, share it with a friend via a message, or call the location with one touch. In our tests it worked quite well. When we tried saying "Maya," we got not only a restaurant located a block away, but also a doctor in Palo Alto, Calif., with the name Maya. And when we tried saying "pizza," we got a long list of choices. This is one of the Instinct's better features.
Messaging options are plentiful and we were surprised at the clean and intuitive e-mail integration. Text messaging and multimedia messaging options are mostly standard but the Instinct goes a step further with its texting. Like the iPhone, it displays the full thread of a text conversation so you don't have to sort through individual messages. Instant messaging was not present, however. That's a disappointing omission on a phone of this caliber.
The Instinct does an excellent job with its e-mail features. It's not quite a smartphone, but it's far ahead of most other handsets on the market, including the first iPhone. You'll find integrated support for POP3 accounts for AOL, AIM, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail. We had only to enter our Yahoo account information and we were up and running in no time. You can keep multiple accounts open at once and the Instinct will let you know of new messages by showing a blue star on the Main menu icon. E-mail syncing was rather random. At times, new messages would show up in our in-box automatically, while other times we had to press the Refresh button. Either way, it's not a big deal. Just be aware that the Instinct e-mail application does limit you in a few ways. The Instinct's in-box can show a maximum of 100 messages, and you can't access individual folders inside your in-box. The latter quirk is particularly troublesome. Also, only messages sent from the phone will show in Instinct's sent box.
On the work side, you can connect directly to your e-mail if your company supports Outlook Web Access. We used this method, and again we had our e-mail in minutes. OWA mail is subject to the same limitations described above, but if you need work e-mail on the fly, it's a satisfying option. Fortunately, any e-mails sent from the phone will appear back on your office computer. If your company doesn't have OWA, you must use Sprint's Mobile Email client. Admittedly, that experience isn't as fluid as a smartphone with true Microsoft Exchange server support. You can read but not edit attachments many attachments including word documents and photos. What's more, you can send messages with attachments stored on your phone. The Instinct strips out any HTML in e-mails, but you can open Web pages by clicking on the links.
Seven months after the Instinct's release, Sprint added calendar syncing for Microsoft Exchange Server 2000, 2003, and 2007 accounts and IBM Lotus Notes. We had to download three software updates, which took about 20 minutes, but the updates loaded without incident or a missed connection.
After installing the update and syncing the phone with our CNET OWA (Outlook Web Access) e-mail, a new "work calendar" update button appeared under the calendar menu. Pressing that button synced the Instinct and my Outlook calendar in just a few seconds. The data connection cut out on our first try, but the second attempt brought success. All of our current appointments then appeared under their appropriate days with the correct times, locations and descriptions. To get back to the calendar from the main menu, we could choose either the calendar or e-mail icons.
As Sprint promised, we were able to create a new appointment on the Instinct, which then synced back to our PC automatically. Also, we could get meeting reminders, accept or decline new appointments, and edit or delete current meetings right on the phone. Any edits made on the Instinct synced back to our PC in just a few seconds, but the reverse process took a bit longer. Despite that, it was a satisfying experience on the whole.
Still, there were a few quirks. If we made a change to one instance of a recurring meeting, it applied only to that specific meeting. We didn't have the option to apply it to every meeting in the series. What's more, we could get only daily and monthly views--weekly views were not a possibility.
The Instinct defaults to separate personal and work calendars, but you don't have to use them. There's nothing to stop you from entering all events, personal or otherwise, under your work calendar. In any case, that probably is your best bet, considering that since the syncing function doesn't support calendars through IMAP4, e-mail services like Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo are not supported.
The Instinct's Web browser excited us, but we came away with mixed impressions. On the upside, it is a full HTML browser so it will display Web pages in almost their full glory. It lacks support for Flash, but that's common on devices likes this. Alternatively, we liked that you can choose to see stripped-down mobile versions of pages instead. That's a great option for times when you're away from a fast 3G connection. What's more, inputting new URLs via the onscreen keyboard was easy. Yet at the end of the day, the browser's interface was disappointing. The actual pages are squashed into a small area of an already small display. That left us feeling rather cramped and we had to do a lot of scrolling to see the whole pages. You can drag the page by moving your finger, but the screen responded slowly with jerky movements. We had the same experience on the LG Voyager; in other words, it's like the iPhone but not quite as elegant. Alternately, the Instinct offers a unique Web-panning method for moving around a page. Just hold down the camera shutter (that will be on the top of the Instinct since the Web browser defaults to landscape mode) and move the phone up and down and from left to right. The Web page will move correspondingly, which allows you to sweep throughout the page. It's a neat idea but the concept is better than the reality. Though the movement was fluid, we found it difficult to control the speed. Too often, we zipped past something we were hoping to land on. Also, we didn't like how when you reached either side of a page, the panning reversed direction automatically. But wait, the Instinct offers yet another way to move around a page. Clicking on the "full screen view" will display the page in its entirety. You then can move a blue square around the toggle to select the area of the page you'd like to see. It works fairly well except that you can't read any text when the Web page is in full screen view. Oops.
Fortunately, we had few problems selecting links on a Web page. There were times where we had to press a selection twice but that's not uncommon on touch-screen phones. Yet we did notice that selected links weren't always highlighted when we touched them. That could be an issue if you're a busy browser or you're surfing a crowded page. The Instinct does include a load of handy shortcut buttons surrounding the browser window. Among other things you can search the Web page, open your favorites list, return to your home page, review your surfing history, and zoom in on a page. The latter option is a nice idea but it's not terribly effective as it only zooms in one degree. Indeed, we admit we've been spoiled by the iPhone's multitouch interface.
The Instinct's lack of Wi-Fi is quite a blow on such an Internet-friendly phone. Sure, Sprint's EV-DO connection will do the job most of the time, but there are times where 3G coverage isn't available. Also, even though the Instinct requires an unlimited Internet plan, it would be nice to be able to use your home network if you preferred to do so. It's all about customer choice.
Besides the main browser, the Instinct offers dedicated channels for weather, sports, news, and movies. The weather options works much like the iPhone's; just punch in your list of cities and you can see the forecast for each. But as an added bonus you also can see a radar map of U.S. locations. In the movie channel you can get area show times by entering in your ZIP code.
As previously mentioned, the Instinct supports full GPS. You can use the feature to use Sprint Navigation for spoken driving and visual turn-by-turn directions. You also can search for neighboring businesses as you would with the Live Search. Traffic information is available as well, including a neat 3D map option. Using the touch screen to pan through maps was easier than on the Web browser. The finger motion is more fluid and the response time is quick. Read our Sprint Navigation review for a full description.
As an EV-DO phone, the Instinct offers full support for Sprint's 3G services. You can connect to Sprint's Power Vision and Sprint TV, which include live and on-demand programming from a wide variety of channels such as CNN, E!, MTV Mobile, Discovery Mobile, ESPN, Logo Mobile, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon. You also can check out movie previews to help you select a flick. In all it's an exhaustive selection of programming with much of it exclusive to Sprint. You also can stream more than 150 channels from Sirius Radio and Sprint Radio. The touch-screen interface for the media player is intuitive and responsive. At first 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 Instinct's music player (MP3, AAC, AAC+, WMA formats) is relatively similar to that on Sprint's other music phones. You can access the Sprint Music Store for simultaneous downloads both to your PC and wirelessly to your phone. The music 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. As we said earlier, the Instinct uses a 3.5mm jack, so you'll be able use the headset that came in the box. 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. The Instinct also supports the Sprint Media Manager for syncing the phone with your PC.
The Instinct has a 2.0-megapixel camera, but we were surprised by its lack of options. You can't adjust the resolution, quality, brightness, or any of the other settings you'd find on any basic camera phone. We're not sure what Samsung was going for here. Perhaps they're trying to make the Instinct easy to use, but we were disappointed at the lack of options. Sure, those options don't always make a big difference in photo quality, but it's still nice to have them. As we said earlier there is a self-portrait mirror but the Instinct doesn't have a flash. However, we did like the handy photometer and the "fuzzy picture" warning when you're about to take a bad photo. Photo quality was decent, though not spectacular. Objects were distinct and colors were natural but there was too much light in most cases.
On the other hand, we liked the Instinct's photo-viewing feature. Similar to the iPhone, you can move between photos by swiping your finger across the screen. It makes for a fun experience and we like that fluid motion. Alternatively, you can view photos in a filmstrip mode. Shortcut options are plentiful as well. You can send your photos via Bluetooth, upload them to an online account, save them as a contact's photo ID, or zap them to a friend in a multimedia message. There's also a 2x digital zoom.
The camcorder lacks editing options but it takes clips with sound in two lengths. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds; otherwise, you can shoot according to the available memory. Camcorder lips were very sharp and we like that the video player can support files from your PC. Both photos and videos are saved directly to the microSD card for easy transfer off your phone. The Instinct can accommodate cards up to 8GB, which is a good thing since internal storage tops out at a paltry 32MB. More memory would a bonus.
You can personalize the Instinct with background images and alert tones. Additional options are available from Sprint via the wireless Web browser. Games and applications include demo versions of Bejeweled, Brain Challenge, Sudoku, Midnight Bowling, Million Dollar Poker, Nascar Sprint Cup, Scene It, and Pac-Man. You also get Sprint's NFL Mobile application. The full versions of games plus additional tiles are available for purchase. For further fun the Instinct offers direct access to MySpace Mobile and Photobucket.
We tested (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) the dual-band CDMA Samsung Instinct in San Francisco using Sprint's service. Call quality was fairly mixed, unfortunately. Though the volume level was fine, the clarity was not. Not only was the sound on our end rather harsh, but it could also be rather patchy at times. We wouldn't say it ruined our experience--far from it, in fact--but it was enough for us to take notice. We recognize that this is one of the first Instincts available, so it may be just this unit. After extended testing call quality improved a little, but not by much.
On their end, callers had no trouble hearing us but they could tell we were using a cell phone. They also reported patchy sound quality and they said that the phone picked up some background noise. It didn't ruin their experience, either, but the Instinct's call quality wasn't the best we've heard from a Sprint device. Similarly, speakerphone calls were loud but we encountered noticeable static. We had to speak close to the phone to be heard, but that is not uncommon. Automated calling systems could understand us if we were speaking in a quiet location.
The signal reception for voice calls was marginally erratic, but the GPS and EV-DO connection remained strong even when we were in a building. And as is the case with most Sprint phones, we could get a strong signal underground.
As it is the first Sprint device to support EV-DO Rev. A from birth, we were excited to see how zippy the Instinct's Web browser would perform. However, during our initial testing we didn't notice much of a difference between other Sprint devices. In fact, busy Web pages such as CNET.com took quite a few seconds to load. Sprint assures us, however, that the delays are related to network enhancements and not the device itself. On a couple of occasions, pages appeared incorrectly but this was fairly rare. Song downloads were quick, and it took about 30 seconds to download a 3.7MB track. Games downloads were very quick; in our tests it took just a few seconds for each title.
The phone's internal menus performed well. We moved between individual pages quickly with a delay of only a second on some pages. Overall, the navigation is a pleasant experience, and that's an improvement over the Voyager. Playing games with the touch screen involved a slight learning curve, but it was pleasant experience for most titles.
Multimedia performance was a mixed bag unfortunately. Music sounded fine for the most part. The single speaker has decent output but the sound is distorted at the highest levels. Video performance wasn't quite as good, however. The streaming videos take up only a small part of the Instinct's display and the quality is pixelated. Also, the sound was a bit off and the video couldn't support jerky movements. Live video was about the same, unfortunately.
The Samsung Instinct SPH-M800 has a rated battery life of 5.75 hours talk time. In our tests we got a little more than six hours of talk time. Don't forget that a backup battery comes in the box; it should provide an additional 5.75 hours. According to FCC radiation tests, the Instinct has a digital SAR rating of 1.46 watts per kilogram, which is on the high side.