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For a long time, Sprint Nextel has had a lock on rugged cell phones with push-to-talk capability, but with the new Samsung SGH-A837, AT&T is trying to get back in the game. The SGH-A837, aka the Rugby (presumably because it can take a lot of blows), is the first AT&T rugged PTT handset since the Motorola V365. Strong and sturdy with an outsized speaker, the Rugby very much plays the part. It also offers trendy features such as Bluetooth, a 1.3-megapixel camera, and a music player, but its performance didn't hit the highest marks. The Rugby is a bit pricey ($279); or you can get it for $179 with a two-year service agreement.
The Rugby's external display is about the size of a postage stamp, but it supports 65,000 colors. It shows all necessary information, including the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID. Though you can change the clock style and add a greeting, the short backlighting time is not adjustable. Above the display is the massive speaker for voice and PTT calls. It couldn't be in a more convenient location. The camera lens is right below the display; there's no flash or self-portrait mirror.
On the SGH-A837's left spine you'll find a volume rocker and the PTT button. They could be a tad bigger, but they're easy to find by feel. A dedicated speaker button and the charger port/headset jack sit on the right spine. The speaker button is great, but the combined jack is inconvenient. Not only does it require a headset (or an adapter) with a proprietary connection, but you can also only use one peripheral at a time.
Like Nextel's handsets, the Rugby is certified to military specifications for dust, shock, vibration, rain, humidity, solar radiation, and temperature extremes. Just keep in mind that the Rugby is not waterproof, just water resistant, so don't try taking it for a swim. The battery cover features a locking mechanism that keeps out dust and water. While that's a point in the SGH-A837's favor, you have to remove the battery to access the memory-card slot.
The internal display is a bit small (2 inches) for the phone's overall size, but with support for 262,000 colors is both bright and vibrant. Colors and graphics are sharp and text is readable. You can select one of two easy-to-use menu styles and you can adjust the brightness, the backlighting time, and the dialing-font, size, type, and color.
The Rugby's navigation array is spacious, but we wish it were a bit more tactile. Though the square toggle is covered in a textured material, all of the navigation controls are flush. As such, we had a few misdials at first. You'll also find an OK button in the toggle's center, two soft keys, a clear control, the Talk and End/power buttons, shortcuts for the GPS feature, and a user-programmable Favorites menu. You can program the toggle to give one-touch access to four user-defined features.
The keypad buttons on the Rugby are well-designed. They arrangement is spacious and the keys are tactile and separated from each other. We could dial and text quickly and dial by feel. The numbers on the keys are a bit small, but they have a bright backlighting.
The Rugby has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for six phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, two URLS, an instant-messaging handle, a nickname, a birthday, two street addresses, a company name, job title, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can assign callers to groups and pair them with one of 10 polyphonic ringtones. Alternatively, if you want to get more creative, you can use files for the phone's audio recorder as ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a tip calculator, a stopwatch, a currency and unit converter, an alarm clock, a world clock, a timer, a calendar, a task list, a notepad, and a calculator.
For more active users, the SGH-A837 offers a voice recorder, stereo Bluetooth, USB mass storage, PC syncing, support for AT&T's Video Share application, and GPS with support for AT&T's navigation service. And of course, the Rugby supports AT&T's PTT network for making walkie-talkie calls to other compatible AT&T phones. Messaging addicts will find instant messaging and Web-based POP3 e-mail support for a variety of providers. There's no syncing for IMAP4 e-mail, which is to be expected, but the lack of voice dialing is disappointing.
The Rugby supports AT&T's Cellular Video service, which offers tons of streaming-video content, and AT&T Mobile Music, which brings wireless song downloads through a variety of partners. The experience on the two applications is similar to that on other AT&T phones; both are minimalist in their designs, but the music player supports a wide variety of file formats and it offers useful features, such as album art, playlists, and shuffle and repeat modes. The Rugby also has a solid selection of music-related features, such as support for XM Radio Mobile, music videos, a Music ID application, a Billboard Mobile channel, and a community section with access to fan sites and downloads.
The Rugby's 1.3-megapixel camera takes pictures in three resolutions, from 1,280x960 down to 320x240, and it offers a choice of three quality settings. Other options include a self-timer; brightness and white-balance controls; mosaic, panorama, multishot, and night modes; 20 fun frames; three color tones; a 4x digital zoom (unusable at the highest resolution); and three shutter sounds. Photo quality was quite good. Colors were sharp and there was little-to-no image noise.
The camcorder records clips in a 176x144 resolution with sound and a limited set of editing options. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at about one minute, 15 seconds; or you can shoot for as long as the available memory will permit. The Rugby offers about 130MB of shared internal memory, which is pretty generous--but just the same we recommend using a microSD card. An onscreen meter tells you how much storage space is left.
You can personalize the Rugby with a variety of background colors, greetings, wallpapers, and alert tones. If you want more options, or additional ringtones, you can download them via the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. Other applications include a My Cast 5 Weather, Mobile banking, Yellowpages, MobiTV, and demo versions of Midnight Pool 3D, Ms Pac-Man and Tetris.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Rugby in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was good for the most part, though it was not without its faults. The volume was loud, but the audio was rather harsh. The earpiece had a slight echoed effect, so our callers' voices were slightly distorted. As such, many of our friends sounded like robots. Similarly, while there was no static interference, there was a minor background hum that is characteristic of the "GSM buzz."
On their end, callers said we sounded fine. They could tell we were using a cell phone, but by and large they didn't report any problems. One caller also mentioned the background hum, but he said it wasn't distracting. Speakerphone calls on the SGH-A837 were very loud and remarkably clear on both ends. The vibrating effect that we mentioned earlier was present here, too, but on the whole we were quite pleased. We also had few issues when using a Bluetooth headset or when calling automated systems.
Multimedia on the Rugby was just OK. Streaming videos took a few seconds to load and the picture quality was mediocre. Our clips never froze, but they were choppy and pixilated. Also, the 3G connection wavered in buildings. We were surprised that, given the phone's loud call volume, the volume for streaming clips was rather low. Music quality was a tad better, but here the volume was low, as well. Headphones will provide the best experience. The Web browser was slower than we'd like, even when using the 3G connection.
The Samsung Rugby SGH-A837 has a rated battery life of 5 hours talk time and 10.4 days standby time. The Rugby has a tested talk time of 5 hours 15 minutes. The promised talk time is a tad low for a GSM phone. According to FCC radiation tests, the Rugby has a digital SAR rating of 0.46 watts per kilogram.