Sprint's snazzy new slider phone boasts the first 2-megapixel camera in the United States and a host of multimedia goodies, but it's stuck on yesterday's data network. The Samsung MM-A800 will impress shutterbugs and A/V lovers with its big, beautiful display, its top-notch camera and video recorder, MP3 playback, streaming audio and video support, 3D gaming, and even a business card reader. But the bulky handset won't work on Sprint's newly arrived 3G network, which means you'll be stuck with the slower, 2.5G 1xRTT network, even as the carrier's speedy EV-DO service begins its nationwide rollout. Plus, the handset lacks Bluetooth and IR connectivity, not to mention a speakerphone. The MM-A800's whopping $500 (or $350 with a service plan) price tag is pretty stiff for a phone that's stuck in the slow lane--datawise, at least. At first glance, the silver Samsung MM-A800 looks like a thick, candy bar-style phone, albeit one with a massive display. Measuring 4 by 1.9 by 1 inches and tipping the scales at 4.3 ounces, this slick-looking handset isn't overly bulky, but it feels a bit heavy, considering its size.
The front of the phone is dominated by the magnificent 2-inch-plus display, which supports a bright and vivid 262,000 colors. It's great for viewing photos, but it's difficult to see in direct sunlight. Below the screen are navigation controls, which consist of a five-way toggle, two soft keys, and the Talk/End/Back buttons. The toggle and menus are easy to use, and you can set the toggle to act as a shortcut to four user-defined functions. Pushing on the thin rubber ridge below the display causes the phone to slide open with a smooth, spring-loaded action. When the screen is up, you can see the ample keypad. Dialing numbers, however, is a bit awkward, since the phone becomes a little top heavy when it's open--your thumb doesn't have much room to maneuver, which is a standard problem with slider-type phones. On the other hand, tapping the five-way navigation control isn't a problem.
Turn the handset around, and suddenly, the phone looks like an Instamatic camera, with a raised 1.5-inch circle to the right that houses the 5.2mm CCD lens (complete with sliding cover) and the LED flash, along with a pair of camera-style logos and beveled features to complete the effect. A dedicated shutter release sits on the left edge of the phone, perfectly positioned for your right index finger when you're holding the phone in the horizontal camera mode.
Besides the dedicated camera key, the phone has a volume up/down rocker on its left edge, flanked by a 2.5mm stereo headphone port and a slot for a mini TransFlash card. Meanwhile, the AC and PictBridge ports (direct-to-printer photo printing) sit on the bottom edge of the handset.The Samsung MM-A800 packs a mixed bag of features, including a 500-entry notebook with five numbers per entry; a vibrate mode; text and multimedia messaging; voice commands and dialing; three-way calling; photo caller ID; a one-minute voice memo recorder; a calendar with daily, weekly, and monthly views; a calculator; a world clock; a memo pad; a countdown timer; an alarm clock; and wireless Web via a WAP 2.0 browser. Not a bad selection, but a few key features are unaccounted for, including a speakerphone, Bluetooth or infrared connectivity (seemingly a no-brainer, considering the phone's advanced features and price), and wireless IM and e-mail; the last two are available as wireless Web links, but we were expecting actual applications with IM and POP/IMAP access. On the upside, the MM-A800 does have the first CDMA version of VoiceSignal's speech-to-text dictation system, which was born earlier this year in the Samsung SGH-P207 for Cingular. We tried the feature out here, and it worked about the same as on the P207.
The built-in camera, on the other hand, is fully loaded. This 2-megapixel gem is the first of its kind in the U.S. market, and its rich, vivid photos are the best we've seen for a camera phone. That said, the phone's 5.2mm CCD lens can't match the lenses of even the cheapest standalone cameras (see Performance). A bevy of picture modes is available, including Portrait, Scenic, Sports, Vivid, and Macro, as well as Monochrome, Sepia, Negative, Emboss, and Sketch color tones; a multishot mode for rapid-fire photos; a 10X zoom; a 5- to 10-second self-timer; picture frames such as Playroom, Star, Beans, and Stones (which, for a change, don't look entirely horrible); and white-balance and light-metering settings. The camera takes portraits when the slider phone is open, but for landscape shots, you need to slide the phone closed in order to take pictures at resolutions of 1 megapixel or more. Ready to print? Just attach the included phone-to-USB cable for direct printing on PictBridge-enabled photo printers. The camera also doubles as a video recorder, capturing 30-second clips in the QCIF videoconferencing format. Video quality was typical for a camera phone--that is, barely watchable, with jumpy frame rates, blocky images, and garbled sound. You can send your videos and images to buddies via MMS or e-mail, save them to the mobile's 53MB of internal memory, then transfer them to your PC with the mini TransFlash card. A 32MB card is included, but the slot accepts cards up to 512MB.
The Samsung MM-A800's camera is the first we've seen with a business card reader--a clever idea that suffers from iffy implementation. Here's how it works: you hold the business card you want stored about 5 or 6 inches from the camera lens and snap a photo, then the phone scans the card line by line and asks you to identify the contact name, work/cell/fax numbers, and e-mail address. Next, the phone reads the sections of the image you selected and transfers the data to a new contact entry. In our informal tests, we got the best results from cards that stack phone numbers and addresses in a single column, rather than putting them all on one line (in which case, we resorted to hiding the adjacent info with sheets of paper). Overall, we saw an accuracy rate of anywhere from 75 to 95 percent, depending on the card's typeface and general condition. Our biggest complaint is that the card reader won't grab company names, titles, or street addresses--you'll have to add them manually, which nearly defeats the purpose for anyone who needs serious contact management.
Similarly, the phone's media player is hit-and-miss. We liked the music player--it supports MP3 and unprotected AAC files, which you can transfer to the phone via the mini TransFlash card. It also boasts a trio of visualizations (none of which actually pulse to the music, but they look cool), repeat track/all modes, time elapsed/total time info, and fast-forward/reverse scan that actually lets you hear the music while you're scanning. The video player, on the other hand, is on the bare-bones side, with only a browser for streaming videos and a Stop control, which means there's no pause, fast-forward/reverse, or full-screen modes, as we've seen on other phones. Sprint offers a reasonably varied menu of videos, including Sprint TV (which has movie trailers; news updates from ABC, Fox, and NBC; cartoons; and short clips from the Discovery Channel, Fox Sports, and the Weather Channel), CNN, E Entertainment and Access Hollywood, AccuWeather and GoTV, cartoons from the Cartoon Network, and music news and streaming music channels from Music Choice. The various video channels will set you back about $5 to $7 a piece per month, but before you plunk down your cash, be aware that the video quality on this phone can't compare to that of 3G EV-DO phones using Verizon's V Cast service. That's because the MM-A800 supports only the slower 1xRTT network, which means the handset's streaming video quality will suffer (see Performance). While Sprint has just begun the nationwide rollout of its own EV-DO service to compete with Verizon, the MM-A800 doesn't support it, leaving you stuck in the slow lane.
The MM-A800 boasts the usual customization options, including including 20 polyphonic ring tones (which you can assign to individual contacts), as well as animations of falling leaves, snow, hearts, or clovers on the main menu. Additionally, you get changeable wallpaper and screensavers, with more available for download from Sprint; you can also use your own snapshot or video. Furthermore, the phone comes with game demos for Jamdat Solitaire, Ms. Pac-Man, and Tetris Deluxe, and it supports 3D graphics; 3D Field Golf and Brunswick Billiards were the only titles available at the time of this writing.Call quality on the Samsung MM-A800 (CDMA 800/1900; AMPS 800; 1xRTT) was good; in CNET Labs' tests in New York City, our callers said they could hear us loud and clear, and we had no trouble hearing our pals. We also tried the phone in our interference-heavy apartment--complete with competing Wi-Fi networks, a 32-inch TV set, and a pair of notebooks--and didn't run into any trouble.
We were mighty impressed with the MM-A800's image quality; the photos it took looked sharper than those taken by any other camera phone we've tested, mostly due to the camera's best-in-the-U.S. 2-megapixel resolution. We still noticed a slight haziness and loss of detail in our snapshots, though--a symptom of the camera's tiny, 5.2mm CCD lens, which simply can't match the lenses of standalone cameras. That said, the MM-A800's photos look superb for a camera phone's.
Streaming video quality on the MM-A800 is hampered by the phone's 2.5G 1xRTT support, which lacks the speed of 3G networks such as EV-DO (supported by Verizon's V Cast service) and UMTS. At about 1 inch diagonally, the clips we saw took up only a fraction of the screen and suffered from low frame rates that topped out at 15fps but sometimes were as slow as 2fps to 3fps, along with frequent buffering and even out-of-sync sound. Sprint has just begun rolling out its 3G EV-DO network in a handful of cities, but the MM-A800 doesn't support it.
For battery life, we just about met the rated talk time of 4 hours on a single charge. That's not great, but it's on a par with the life of other Sprint phones. According to the FCC, the Samsung MM-A800 has a digital SAR rating of 0.68 watts per kilogram and an analog SAR rating of 1.42 watts per kilogram.