Samsung continues to refine its 3G flip phone designs with the sleek, eye-catching SCH-A950 for Verizon Wireless. Complete with a 1.3-megapixel camera, a TransFlash expansion slot, Bluetooth, a speakerphone, and a quartet of music controls below the colorful display, the stylish SCH-A950 just might knock the Motorola E815 off its pedestal as our favorite Verizon V Cast phone--the bigger but flatter Razr V3c notwithstanding. At a reasonable $130 (or $80 with a two-year service plan), the Samsung SCH-A950 ranks as one of the most affordable 3G phones we've seen from a major carrier. That said, we're as annoyed as ever by Verizon's continued policy of limiting Bluetooth access to wireless headsets and forcing MP3s to be converted to WMA format for playback on the phone. With its silver curves and glossy red trim, the Samsung SCH-A950 is certainly a looker. On the sides, it has the same oval-shaped stereo speakers as Sprint's Samsung MM-A920, while the camera lens and 1.1-inch, 65,000-color screen on the outer flap also look familiar. The big change, however, is the addition of a large jog dial just below the external display that's surrounded by buttons for next, skip, play/pause, and stop. Pressing and holding the play button when the phone is closed launches the phone's music player, while the jog dial lets you scroll through playlists, scan forward or backward within a song, and select a track for playing--similar to "scrubbing" on an iPod. Although it was a handy feature overall, the phone's scrollwheel was a bit small for our thumb. At 3.4 by 1.9 by 1.0 inches and 4.6 ounces, the solidly built SCH-A950 is exactly as large and heavy as the Motorola E815, but it fit better in our jeans pocket, thanks to the welcome lack of an external antenna.
Opening the handset reveals the Samsung SCH-A950's vivid, 2-inch, 262,000-color LCD, which looks about as rich and detailed (but also as difficult to read in direct sunlight) as other internal displays in its class. While the screen itself looks sharp and colorful for photos and streaming videos, the handset still uses Verizon's standard tabbed user interface, which is static and staid compared with the vibrant, animated menus on phones from Sprint and Cingular. Also, we continue to be puzzled as to why folders for your music files and photos are buried within the menu for Verizon's Get It Now Internet service. You can change the backlighting time, the brightness, and the contrast but not the font size.
The Samsung SCH-A950's keypad is a mixed bag. We liked the big, four-way navigational keypad, which is flanked by a pair of soft keys and the Talk and End/power buttons, and we also appreciated the dedicated speakerphone key, which for once lets you activate the speakerphone before you're on a call. But our thumbs had trouble with the thin, beveled buttons on the numeric keypad; while the keys certainly look great, they'd be easier to press if they were bigger and flatter.
Besides the jog dial and the music controls on the front of the Samsung SCH-A950, there's a volume up/down rocker on the right side and a dedicated camera button on the left edge, just above the TransFlash card slot. On the bottom of the SCH-A950 is a port for the USB cable and the AC power cord, which is protected by a thin, easy-to-lose plastic cover that, for some reason, isn't attached to the phone itself.The Samsung SCH-A950 comes loaded with most of the features you'd expect from a 3G multimedia phone. Starting with the basics, you get a 500-name phone book, with room in each contact for five phone numbers and two e-mail addresses; caller groups; a calendar with week and month views; voice dialing and memos; picture caller ID; a vibrate mode; a speakerphone, which, as we noted, you can turn on before making a call; an alarm clock; text and multimedia messaging; a world clock; a calculator; and a TransFlash memory expansion slot, which is expandable up to 512MB, though you'll have to buy your own card. Although the handset comes with Bluetooth, it supports only wireless headsets; Verizon has (again) disabled Bluetooth file transfers, contact syncing, and the ability to tether the handset to your PC as a modem. What's more, since only music, pictures, and videos can be saved via the TransFlash card, you'll have to buy third-party syncing software if you want to transfer any other files.
Since it's an EV-DO-enabled handset, the Samsung SCH-A950 supports Verizon's $15-a-month, 3G V Cast service for streaming video, including clips from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MTV, E, ESPN, Fox Sports, and the Weather Channel. The SCH-A950 has the same, solid video player we've seen on other V Cast phones, including the ability to pause and scan forward and backward within a video clip, as well as expanding the video to full-screen mode, a feature still missing from Sprint Power Vision handsets.
The Samsung SCH-A950 also supports the V Cast Music store, which boasts upward of a million songs at $2 a pop (or $1 if purchased on a PC and transferred to the phone via USB). Although expensive, downloading tracks wirelessly is a nice touch. You can save them to the phone itself, but with 25MB, you're better off storing them on your TransFlash card. The onboard music player lets you pause and scan back and forth within a song using the jog dial on the front of the phone; in a nice touch, album art is displayed on both the internal and external displays. There's no equalizer for tweaking the sound of your music, however, and our tunes stuttered for a second or so when we opened or closed the flip. We wish the external jog dial let you scroll through individual tunes; as it stands, you can scroll only through playlists. Also, we're disappointed that you can't save downloaded music files as ring tones.
Want to transfer your own music to the Samsung SCH-A950? Using the included USB cable, you can sync the phone with your tunes using Windows Media Player 10 on your PC (sorry, Mac users), but with one important caveat: Any MP3s in your collection will need to be converted into WMA files--and lose audio quality in the process--before they're transferred to your phone. Verizon has taken a lot of heat for this limitation and rightfully so; however, we should point out that this restriction applies to all Verizon V Cast phones and not the SCH-A950 in particular.
The Samsung SCH-A950's built-in 1.3-megapixel camera includes all the requisite features, including an LED flash; a 10-image rapid-fire mode; resolutions ranging from 160x120 all the way up to 1,280x960; a 10X digital zoom at the camera's lowest-resolution setting; a 5- to 10-second self-timer; and several white-balance and color settings. It also has a pair of more advanced settings we don't typically see in a camera phone: ISO speed, ranging from auto to 100, 200, and 400, and metering (Average, Center, and Spot). The camera doubles as a camcorder, which will shoot all the video that fits in your available memory (no 10- or 30-second caps on the length of clips) and includes a self-timer (again, for 5- and 10-second settings), as well as white-balance and color tweaks. In our test shots, the camera's still quality was impressive, with rich color, decent detail, and little in the way of video noise, although our images couldn't compete with the snapshots we've seen from 2-megapixel camera phones. Meanwhile, our videos looked predictably murky and jittery, which is par for the course. When finished with your shots, you can remove them from your phone with the TransFlash card or send them in a multimedia message.
Customization options on the Samsung SCH-A950 are good if not great. You can switch out the wallpaper on the internal and external displays with one of nine preloaded pictures or photos from the camera; pair contacts with pictures and ring tones; tweak display and keypad backlighting settings; and choose from six display themes, including default, business, tropical, blue, green, and red. On the downside, you can't set ringer profiles (such as Outdoors or Meeting), and you get a measly six ring tones, five of which are polyphonic. We were hoping for more from a music-themed phone, so you'll have to shell out cash if you want any more and download them via the WAP 2 wireless Web browser. And as with most Verizon phones, there's support for BREW 2, but no games are included with the phone.We tested the dual-band, dual-mode Samsung SCH-A950 (CDMA 850/1900; EV-DO) in New York City on Verizon's network. The phone performed well during our calls; our buddies said we sounded like we were right next door, with no tunneling or echoes, while we heard our callers loud and clear. As expected, the speakerphone sounded loud and a bit tinny. We also tried the handset in the vicinity of a microwave oven, a 32-inch TV, a cordless phone, and a Wi-Fi network, and we didn't hear any obvious interference. We successfully paired the phone with the Plantronics Explorer 320 Bluetooth headset and enjoyed good clear quality, though the volume was somewhat low.
We were impressed by the Samsung SCH-A950's EV-DO performance; our Web browsing was speedy, and videos and full-length music tracks downloaded in about 30 to 40 seconds. We noticed some network slowdowns as the phone attempted to connect to the V Cast Music servers and while acquiring DRM licenses; once the actual downloads began, though, they were swift. Our videos streamed cleanly and rarely, if ever, paused for buffering; however, we experienced some occasional but distracting lip-sync problems.
As noted before, the Samsung SCH-A950's picture quality was slightly above average for a 1.3-megapixel camera phone, with decent detail, reasonably rich colors, and slight to no video noise, although our snapshots obviously paled in comparison with those taken with 2-megapixel camera phones.
Samsung claims about 3.5 hours of talk time and more than eight days of standby time on the SCH-A950. In our tests, we beat the rated talk time by an hour and the standby time by two days. According to FCC radiation tests, the Samsung SCH-A950 has a digital SAR rating of 1.47 watts per kilogram.