Virgin Mobile, like most carriers these days, skews toward the smartphone, but it needs to keep options open for customers with more straightforward goals in mind. For them, the $50 Samsung Montage is a decent choice as a texting phone. It won't win any contest for brains, beauty, or brawn, but it's comfortable to hold and kind to the eye, and covers the basics for a sum that even the penny-pinching voice inside your head will like.
Design and OS
The Montage clearly belongs to Samsung's extended family of phones with slide-out QWERTY keyboards. It most resembles the Samsung Restore/M575; not for its squarer shape, its wider base, or its silvery dial pad and back cover, but for the general shape of the navigation array and for the two buttons on the left of the screen (when in portrait mode) that serve as soft keys when you flip the phone into landscape mode.
I'm a fan of the Montage's shape and feel -- solid in the hand, natural on the ear. Although the keyboard adds bulk, it's still small enough to drop into a handbag or slip into a back pocket. The device stands 4.4 inches tall, spans 2.1 inches across, and is 0.59 inch deep. Its 3.7 ounce weight seems on the heavier side for its size, but I don't personally mind.
A 1.4-inch screen is your portal to the Montage's inner workings. It sounds small, but takes up about half of the phone face, which is a good balance. The screen's 240x320-pixel (QVGA) resolution is standard and accepted, but that doesn't make the Virgin Mobile wallpaper adorning the phone's menu page look any less pixelated. On the whole, you'll navigate around without the resolution hindering the experience; in fact, few people may even notice.
What people will notice are some personalization features. There's also a power-saving mode you can turn on. You can adjust backlight time and wallpaper, plus the screensaver and font size. I couldn't rework the font type or change the red Virgin Mobile backdrop on all the menu screens.
Navigation was easy with the four-directional pad and its central Select button. From the outside in are the Send and End/Power buttons, and a pair of rocking buttons that share functionality with the soft keys up top and the Speakerphone and Back buttons on the bottom. Beneath Navigation Central is the dial pad with wide buttons. They're backlit and separated, but I'd like a little more definition between them, perhaps a more raised middle.
From the very first, I liked what I saw when sliding open the keyboard. There are four rows of keys that are spacious (but alas, flat) and a separate Function button that makes it easier to type in numbers and most symbols. I really like that some punctuation gets dedicated buttons, and even though I think the soft keys for landscape mode look bizarre, they were intuitive to use.
As I began typing, I noticed something that's been a complaint about several Samsung keyboards: the flatness of the keys slowed me down and made it hard to type by feel. Like the dial pad button on the phone face, these would benefit from a more bubbled middle and greater responsiveness. Samsung has also long stretched its spacebar button over three pressure points. Hit the spacebar in the wrong spot and you find your finger in an isolated valley that feels unnatural at best and doesn't immediately enter the space at worst.
All this said, I was able to type texts and URLs in volume, but there's room for improvement.
On to the externals: you'll find the Micro-USB charging port at the butt of the phone, with a volume rocker on the left, the 3.5mm headset jack up top, and two convenient buttons on the right spine. These are the camera shutter button, which activates the camera app and can also take a picture (along with the Select button), and the microSD card slot for external storage. The camera lens, by the way, is on the finely textured back cover.
The Montage is a calling and texting device first and foremost. There's Bluetooth 3.0 on here, and multimedia messaging support, but you won't see GPS, Wi-Fi, or e-mail. Adding and editing contacts is no sweat, though it is surprising that there's only room for 600 entries. You can add multiple phone numbers, an e-mail address and IM handle, a birth date, note, URL, and an address. There's also space for a job title, and you can customize with photo ID and with ringtones. If you don't fancy one of the 10 available ditties, you can download or sideload more. The Montage also lets you create calling groups.
You won't find a flood of apps on the Montage, but there are certainly enough here to manage your phone and lightly organize your life with. For instance, there's an account manager app from which you can check your balance and top up your minutes through the Web. You can also pop online to download more wallpapers, music, and the like. Or at least you can if your phone is supported. An error notice popped up to tell me that Virgin didn't have any content compatible with the Montage. I was, however, able to visit mobile-optimized Web sites like CNN and CNET, and there's Google-powered online search.
There's a media player, so long as you have a microSD card that's locked and loaded with tunes or clips. Samsung has packed the Montage with personal organizer tools like an alarm, a calendar, a calculator, a world clock, and a memo pad. You can also create a voice memo and bark out voice commands using Nuance's ubiquitous app.
On a good day, the most you can expect from a 2-megapixel camera with autofocus or flash is a nicely balanced outdoor photo. Unfortunately, my photos turned up more grainy than anything else. Inside, color balance was off, even for well-lit shots, and the background in the studio shot turned an unappetizing brown.
The camera's settings are fairly complete, though, if you're dedicated enough to adjust them. There are the usual shooting modes, which include panorama and night shot, and six white-balance modes that frankly seem like overkill on a camera of this caliber. Although 2 megapixels is the highest resolution, you can also drop down five steps to as low as 320x240 pixels. Smaller-size shots are just right for sending a photo message. You'll be able to adjust the self-timer and the brightness, pick the quality, and choose the shutter sound. Samsung left off color effects on this camera, which I think is just fine.
The camcorder mode has some similar presets, but also lets you limit the length and quality of your video to about 30 seconds for sending as a video message. Otherwise, you can capture video for up to an hour. Just heed my warning that video is very blocky and you need the right lighting to shoot clearly.
Unfortunately, I ran into a Bluetooth transfer error while trying to extract the photos to include in this review. After two pictures transferred perfectly, the third photo kept hanging halfway through the transfer before aborting.
I tested the single-band Samsung Montage (CDMA 1900) in San Francisco on Virgin Mobile's network. The first thing I can say is that volume was very good; I could hear calls clearly on several different audio levels. Voices were muffled, though, and I detected background fuzziness every time a caller spoke. In addition, voices cut in and out, disclosing distortion. When the caller fell silent, there wasn't any background noise. Add it together and callers sounded gauzy.
On his end, my main test caller said I also sounded muffled, a sign that the high frequencies are a little attenuated. Beyond that, I was both loud and clear, without any white noise getting in the way. I sounded better to his ears than he did to mine: he said the call was pleasant.
Samsung Montage call quality sample Listen now:
I tested the speakerphone by holding the phone at waist level. Volume was very strong without being too loud, and I felt that the echo, while there, was controlled. It never became too blaring or out of hand, but I did hear the same distortion and muffling as I did over standard mode.
There was some change on my test partner's end of the line when I switched into speakerphone mode. I was a little garbled, he said, and a little hard to understand. The phone also seemed to enhance the echo of the room, and wasn't his favorite for speaking.
Although the 480MHz Qualcomm QSC6155 processor isn't anything to write home about, the speed seemed appropriate for this type of phone. More noticeable was the 1,000mAh battery with a rated battery life of just 4 hours' talk time and a standby time of only 10.5 days. During out talk time test, it lasted 5.17 hours. If you're a heavy talker and texter, you'll need to charge your phone often.
The Montage also has 128MB RAM and 256MB ROM, not a lot for storing photos and pictures, so you'll want to rely on a microSD card for that. The Montage accepts up to 32GB in external storage.
The FCC stipulates that phones sold in the U.S. must emit fewer than 1.6 watts per kilogram. The Samsung Montage has a digital SAR of 1.09 watts per kilogram.
Taken in the context of Virgin Mobile's feature phone options, the Samsung Montage is an acceptable choice. Based on looks alone, I prefer its build to the Samsung M575's (which is why it also gets higher marks in that category), though the latter has a slightly larger battery for longer talk time, and the camera may be slightly better on the M575. However, I also personally prefer the Montage's keyboard, which makes the comparison a toss-up. I strongly recommend that Virgin customers looking at these two phones test them out in-store before buying.