Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
When T-Mobile first launched its HotSpot @Home service in June of 2007, only two phones could support it--the Nokia 6086 and the Samsung SGH-t409. Soon after, RIM released the BlackBerry Curve 8320, which became the third HotSpot @Home device. As the year winds to a close, T-Mobile has released its fourth HotSpot @Home handset, the Samsung Katalyst. Like all the others, the Katalyst is able to make calls via Wi-Fi and can automatically switch between GSM cellular airwaves and preconfigured wireless networks. Aside from that, the Katalyst is a pretty decent mid-tier phone, with a 1.3-megapixel camera, a music player, Bluetooth, and quad-band support. We did have a few design quibbles with the keypad, but aside from that, the Katalyst is a good choice if you wish to get a handset that supports the HotSpot @ Home service. The Samsung Katalyst is available for $79.99 with a $50 discount and a two-year service agreement.
Despite its cutting-edge name, the Katalyst doesn't really look too different from other Samsung sliders we've seen. Measuring 2 inches tall by 4 inches wide by 0.7 inch thick, it has an understated gray-and-chrome design, with slightly blocky corners and a soft curve along its sides. It weighs in at a relatively light 4.1 ounces, though it still has some heft when held in the hand. We can open the phone one-handed by pushing the bottom of the slider upward with our thumbs. There's a slight bump underneath the screen that you can use as a thumb grip when sliding the phone down. The sliding mechanism felt solid when opening and closing the phone, gliding smoothly up and down but still providing just enough resistance.
The Katalyst has a generous 2.1-inch, 262,000-color display that shows off graphics and images with plenty of color and detail. You can change the brightness, backlighting time, and the background color, font size, and font color of the dialing display. The Katalyst supports T-Mobile's MyFaves, so you'll also be presented with five contact thumbnails that you can scroll through on the main screen.
Underneath the display is a simple navigation array consisting of two soft keys, a four-way toggle, a middle OK key, and a Clear key that's flanked in between the Talk and End/Power keys. From the standby screen, the top and bottom toggle keys are also shortcuts to call records and the contacts list, while the left and right are for scrolling through your five MyFaves contacts. The keys feel a little slippery and flat, but there's enough textural difference between them that it wasn't too bad. Also, the keys felt easy to the touch, and yielded just enough to pressure.
The alphanumeric keypad is revealed when the phone is slid open. Like most slider handsets, the keypad is pretty flat to the phone's surface, though there are some minor bevels in between each row to help differentiate the keys. That said, the curved keypad provides little to no textural difference between each key, and we wouldn't recommend dialing by feel for this reason. Rounding out the phone's exterior, the volume rocker and headset jack sit on the left spine, a dedicated camera key is located on the right, plus the camera lens and speaker grille are placed on the back of the phone.
There's nothing terribly exciting about the features on the Samsung Katalyst, except for its compatibility with T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home. But before we get to that, let's start with the basics. The Katalyst has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, and a note (the SIM card holds about 250 additional contacts). You can save the contacts to caller groups, plus pair them with a photo for caller ID, as well as any of 21 polyphonic ring tones. As with most phones, the Katalyst also comes with several basic features that include vibrate mode, a speakerphone, text and multimedia messaging, an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, notes, a calculator, a tip calculator, world time, unit conversion, a timer, and a stopwatch. Additional functionality include voice command support, voice recording, Bluetooth, instant messaging, a wireless Web browser, and a synchronization feature that lets you sync your contacts with the T-Mobile servers so you can recover them in case you lose your phone.
The Samsung Katalyst also has a built-in Wi-Fi receiver, which is used with T-Mobile's HotSpot @Home service. For a nominal monthly fee, HotSpot @Home customers can use the Katalyst to connect to any wireless network to make, answer, and receive calls, just like a regular cell phone. Except all calls made within a wireless network will not be deducted from your plan's minutes, so you essentially get unlimited calling. Also, you're almost always guaranteed better signal reception when connected via a wireless network, which is great if you tend to have spotty cell service at home or at work. T-Mobile offers a special HotSpot @Home router that is optimized for voice transmission as well. To find out more about the HotSpot @Home service, you can read our review of the service.
Though it might not look it, the Katalyst also comes with a built-in music player, hidden in the Fun & Apps folder. The music player has a pretty simple interface, with two different visualization settings and the ability to play, pause, rewind, and fast-forward music tracks. It has only 5MB of built-in memory, which is pretty dismal, but it does come with a microSD card slot on the back. Unfortunately you'll have to remove the phone's battery in order to get to it. There are also no external music keys. So though the Katalyst can indeed play music, it's certainly not what we would call a real music phone.
The Katalyst also has a 1.3-megapixel camera, which can take photos at seven different resolutions (1,280x1,024; 1,024x768; 800x600; 640x480; 320x240; 160x120; and 128x96). Camera options are pretty advanced for a simple camera phone, and they include white-balance controls, metering exposure settings, ISO settings, multishot, a night mode, a self-timer, brightness, six color effects, and photo frames. You can also assign keys on the keypad to be shortcuts to different camera settings. Photo quality was pretty mediocre, with blurry and washed out images. The camera also has a camcorder option, which has two recording modes--a short one for multimedia messages, and for as long as available memory. Camcorder settings include two different sizes (176x144, and 128x96), audio toggle, white balance, timer, and color effects.
Personalization options of the Katalyst include a variety of wallpapers, skins, and alert tones that are included on the phone, plus you have the option to buy and download more via T-Mobile's T-Zones browser. The Katalyst comes with a few games, such as Forgotten Warrior, Midnight Casino, and a demo version of Brain Challenge. Again, more games can be purchased from T-Mobile if you wish.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Katalyst in San Francisco using the T-Mobile service as well as a variety of wireless networks, thanks to the T-Mobile HotSpot @Home service. Call quality was excellent and far exceeded our expectations. Callers often thought we were calling from a landline, especially when we were using the Wi-Fi to make the call. GSM call quality was pretty decent as well, with loud volume and clear and natural voices. The Samsung Katalyst's signal strength also improved considerably when it's connected to a wireless network. Speakerphone calls weren't as great, with slightly muffled and tinny call quality, but voices still came through just fine. We paired the Katalyst with the Plantronics Voyager 520 Bluetooth headset and made calls with it without a problem.
Music quality on the Katalyst was alright, but nothing too spectacular. It's good enough for a quick listen, but we wouldn't replace an MP3 player with it. The sound from the speakers is loud enough but it did sound a little lightweight and tinny. We definitely recommend using a headset instead for better bass effects.
The Katalyst has a rated battery life of five hours of talk time and a standby time of 10 days. According to FCC radiation tests, the Katalyst has a digital SAR rating of 0.662 watt per kilogram. The Katalyst has a rated battery life of five hours of talk time and a standby time of 10 days. Our tests revealed a talk time of 5 hours and 10 minutes.