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Samsung SCH-A790 (Verizon Wireless) review: Samsung SCH-A790 (Verizon Wireless)


Samsung SCH-A790 (Verizon Wireless)

The Good

CDMA and GSM world roaming; gorgeous internal and external color LCDs; solid camera; decent customization options; strong call quality and battery life.

The Bad

Expensive GSM roaming; no speakerphone, built-in e-mail access, or conference calling; comes with only a desktop charger.

The Bottom Line

Samsung's stylish world phone roams on both CDMA and GSM networks, but it's saddled with a hard-to-use keypad, and it lacks some key features.
Globe-trotting cell phone chatterers will get a kick out of Samsung's SCH-A790 for Verizon Wireless, the first cell phone in the United States to roam on both CDMA and GSM high-speed networks. The A790's sleek lines should also impress the jet-setter, and its built-in camera takes decent photos. Unfortunately, some key features--such as a speakerphone, conference calling, and native e-mail support--are missing, and our fingers had trouble with the overstyled keypad. With service promised in more than 100 countries, pond-hoppers will appreciate the A790's agility with international GSM networks, but domestic callers will be left wanting more. Priced at $350, the Samsung will impact your wallet, but a service plan should warrant a discount. The silver and black Samsung SCH-A790 is a study in cool. Decidedly understated, it has a flat, smooth face with few extremities, and the extendable antenna adds a minimal amount of bulk. Measuring 3.4 by 2.0 by 1.0 inches, it fits easily in a jeans pocket but feels a little heavy at 4.2 ounces. We especially like the shiny ebony face of the phone, which features the 65,000-color, external LCD. No bigger than a postage stamp, it shows the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID (where available). It's sufficiently bright, yet it's somewhat hard to see when the backlighting is off. We also liked the tiny LED light on the hinge that blinks for incoming calls, the understated Samsung logo, and the unobtrusive camera lens and flash.
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The A790 borders on big, but it's still easy to carry around.

Open the phone, and you'll find the vivid, 260,000-color internal screen. The 2.35-inch (diagonal) display looks gorgeous, and the text size is large, although it was difficult to see in direct sunlight. We were especially impressed with the animated menu, which shows a series of bubbles lined up in a colorful hallway; icons for each phone option are suspended in bubbles, and you click the five-way navigation control to move between the spheres. If you get tired of this elaborate and sometimes sluggish theme, you can always switch to a more traditional grid view. The main navigation keypad gets points for utility, but its design needs some work. A square four-way toggle has an OK button in its center, but both are much too small for bigger paws. Still, you get one-touch access to messaging, the Web browser, Verizon's Get It Now service, and one user-defined shortcut. There are also a dedicated camera button and two soft keys that activate the menu and open the phone book.

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Kooky keys: The A790's keypad was much too stylized for our tastes.

With silver horizontal bars in place of individual keys, as well as a black background, the A790's high-concept keypad certainly got our attention. Dialing numbers, though, was a tricky proposition, not only because the keys are small but also because two numbers share each button; when it comes to keys, boring and bigger are almost always better. Somewhat more sensible are the dedicated volume up/down keys on the left side of the phone and the one-touch camera button on the right side. We also liked the sliding cover for the headset jack on the mobile's top.

The Samsung SCH-A790 comes with a mixed bag of basic features. You get a 500-name phone book with room in each contact for seven phone numbers, an e-mail address, a Web site address, and notes. You also can assign contacts to caller groups or pair them with one of 30 polyphonic ring tones or a picture; images show up on the external display. Other standard features include a vibrate mode, a calendar, an alarm clock, text and multimedia messaging (in CDMA mode only), voice dialing and memos (again, CDMA only), a memo pad, a calculator, a WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser, a world clock, and a to-do list. Missing, though, are such essential features as a speakerphone, conference calling, and POP/IMAP e-mail access; we recommend skipping the clunky, barely usable POP client that's available for download. We would also like to have seen an infrared port or Bluetooth in a phone this pricey.

However, the A790 comes to the table with an ace up its sleeve: the ability to roam on CDMA and GSM networks. You can access both Verizon's U.S.-based network and Vodafone's high-speed networks in more than 100 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Web browsing is handled by Verizon's high-speed 1xRTT network. Switching between CDMA and GSM isn't a seamless process; to go from one mode to another, you must restart the phone, and some of the mobile's features won't work in GSM mode. For example, voice memos and commands are available in only CDMA mode, and text messaging is not available in all countries. Also, before you start phoning home from far-flung locales, save your pennies. Though the A790 comes with a SIM card for GSM, most calls made outside the United States cost $1.29 a minute, while in certain countries, such as the Maldives, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Latvia, the per-minute rate skyrockets to $2.49. But you're subject to long-distance charges as well. That means an additional 65 cents per minute for most countries, but it can range up to an astronomical $9.17 per minute if you ever visit Gabon. Sprint's version of the phone, the IP-A790, involves similar charges, but Sprint also makes you pay for the SIM card.

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Small stuff: The A790's lens and camera flash were hardly noticeable.

The A790's VGA camera boasts a flash and takes pictures in three resolutions: 160x120, 320x240, and 640x480. You can zoom in up to 4X in the 160x120-pixel mode, choose from a variety of color effects (including Black And White, Sepia, and Negative), use one of three quality settings, and adjust the brightness. And if you want to be even more creative, you can opt for one of four shutter sounds, as well as a silent option; alter the picture's rotation; or add one of three--somewhat cheesy--frames to your pictures, such as a white-picket fence, Christmas lights, cookies, and apples. About 3MB of RAM is set aside for photos, with the highest-resolution photos taking up about 80K of memory. Once you've snapped some photos, you can add them to the camera's gallery, use them as wallpaper for the external or internal LCD, or send them to your buddies via multimedia messaging. The photos we took looked fine for a camera phone, although the images were a tad fuzzy and washed-out for our taste.

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Picture this: The A790's photo quality was average for a camera phone.

The phone's customization features are relatively robust. In addition to being able to change the external and internal LCD wallpaper, you can choose from four different ringer profiles: Normal, Meeting, Drive, and Outdoor. You can't, however, alter the color themes of the phone's menus. More personalization options are available from Get It Now, along with ring tones and applications. No games were included in our review model, but you can always download BREW 1.0-enabled titles via Get It Now.

We tested the quad-band (CDMA 800/1900; GSM 900/1800) Samsung SCH-A790 world phone in New York City. We had no trouble hearing our friends, who reported that we sounded loud and clear. Calls also were satisfactory using the included headset.

Samsung promises 2.9 hours of talk time in CDMA mode and 3.5 hours when using GSM. We beat Samsung's CDMA talk time estimates by a wide margin, coming in at about 4.5 hours in our tests. GSM talk time was not tested. For standby time, we met the promised time of five days. For such a traveler-friendly phone, however, the A790 disappointingly comes with only a bulky desktop charger. According to the FCC, the A790 has a digital CDMA SAR rating of 1.47 watts per kilogram.


Samsung SCH-A790 (Verizon Wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8