Below the screen, you'll find the phone's navigation controls. You get a four-way toggle with a center OK button; the up, down, left, and right are programmed to open the Web, the calendar, the Get Pix & Flix menu, and the Get It Now service, respectively. Surrounding the directional keypad are two soft keys, a camera activation button, a voice command control, a Clear button, and send and end/power keys. Overall, we found the controls easy to manipulate, but we had some problems with the OK button. Due to its small size, we pressed the Calendar button accidentally on a few occasions. The numerical dial pad, however, is quite spacious with large, tactile buttons that are adequately backlit for dialing in darker environments.
The Samsung SCH-A990 is a multimedia mobile, and there are signs all over the phone to reflect its entertaining side. On the left spine, are rewind, play/pause, and fast-forward keys for the music player, a headset jack and a Micro SD card slot. We should note that you can't plug the headset into the phone directly; rather it requires a separate adapter. Fortunately, that's included, but it's still an inconvenient step, in our opinion. Speakers are located on both sides of the phone.
The camera lens is on the back of the phone, and we like that it's protected by a sliding cover. There's also a small portrait mirror and a flash. The camera's controls sit on the right spine; you have a capture key and a zoom in/out rocker that adjusts the phone's volume. There's a speakerphone activation key in between these two buttons, which seems oddly out of place, but we appreciate it nonetheless. Finally, there's an unmarked key that opens the camera options menu, where you can adjust such things as quality, flash, and resolution.
As we mentioned earlier, you can swivel the screen a full 180 degrees, then fold it down so that the LCD faces out. (In fact, doing so automatically activates the camera.) This, coupled with the side camera keys, which are on top when the handset is held horizontally, mimics the look and feel of a stand-alone digital camera and makes for a natural feel when taking pictures. We had two minor complaints, however. First, it was a bit difficult to navigate the camera's different menus. While the Options button got us to the main menu, it wasn't clear which buttons scroll through the various settings and which button selects an option. For the record, the volume rocker does the scrolling and the capture key does the selecting. Second, since the camera lens is on the back instead of on the hinge (à la the ) of the phone, you can't take full advantage of the swivel screen by rotating it 90 degrees and using it as a viewfinder like a real camcorder.
Verizon packages the Samsung SCH-A990 with a handful of accessories, but we're a little confused by the choice of peripherals. For example, you get an AC adapter, a TV-out cable, a headset adapter, and a wrist strap, but if we had our choice, we'd much rather have (and get more use out of) earbuds than a TV-out cable. For now, you have to buy these as part of the Music Essentials Kit for $29.99, which also includes a USB cable and software. Other accessories available for purchase consist of a belt holster ($19.99) and Micro SD cards ($29.99 for 256MB; $49.99 for 512MB). The Samsung SCH-A990 is Verizon's flagship phone, and with good reason. For starters, it's the first phone in the United States to boast a 3.2-megapixel camera, trumping the recently lauded Nokia N80. It has an autofocus feature, zoom, and plenty of imaging options. You can choose from five picture modes (auto, portrait, landscape, micro, and night), three quality settings (economy, normal, and fine), and five resolutions (2,048x1,536, 1,600x1,200, 1,280x960, 1,024x768, and 800x600). You can adjust the brightness, white balance, color effects, and ISO settings. There's also a multishot mode and a self-timer, and you can change or turn off the shutter sound. Many of these options are also available to you in camcorder mode, although you get a choice of only two resolutions (320x240 and 176x144). You can capture up to an hour's worth of video with sound.
Once you're done shooting your masterpieces, you can save them to the phone's 72MB of internal memory (32MB is user-definable), set them as wallpaper, or upload them to Verizon's PIX online service, where you can send picture/video messages and share albums with family and friends. Alternatively, you can take advantage of the SCH-A990's TV-out capability to display photos on your TV, or you can send them to a Bluetooth-enabled printer right from your phone. The SCH-A990's image quality was one of the best we've seen to date from a camera phone. Subjects were defined clearly and colors popped; even the videos were fairly watchable, despite a bit of blurriness. We should note that there's a slight delay from when you press the capture button to when the camera actually takes the picture as the autofocus feature kicks into gear.
The EV-DO-capable SCH-A990 supports Verizon's 3G for streaming video content as well as the . V Cast offers news, sports, entertainment, and weather content from various providers, such as ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, ESPN, Fox Sports, Comedy Central, and the Weather Channel. Like other V Cast phones, the SCH-A990's video player can rewind and fast-forward through clips and has a full-screen mode. We watched a few videos from ESPN and MTV, and though the quality wasn't mind-blowing (see Performance for more), we enjoyed having the option.
For music fans, the V Cast Music store allows you to browse through its catalog of more than a million songs and download tracks to your phone wirelessly. However, it's pricey at $2 per song. If you can wait till you get home, you can purchase songs from your PC for a more reasonable $1, then transfer them to your phone. You can also transfer music from your own library using Windows Media Player 10, with one annoying stipulation; you have to convert any MP3 files to the WMA format. Another aggravation? You'll also need to purchase a USB cable since one isn't included, and we suggest you invest in a Micro SD card, as well, since these multimedia files tend to be memory hogs. The music player itself is pretty rudimentary; there are no options for tweaking the sound, but it displays album art and you can create playlists.
And let's not forget that behind all this multimedia talent, the SCH-A990 is still a phone. Its address book holds 500 names with room in each entry for five numbers, two e-mail addresses, and notes. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a group ID to each contact, as well as a photo or one of 12 ring tones. You also get a speakerphone, which you can turn on before making a call, a vibrate mode, voice dialing and commands, virtual business cards (VCards), and text and multimedia messaging. The SCH-A990 has integrated Bluetooth, but as is typical with Verizon, it doesn't support all OBEX profiles. You can use it for connecting to wireless headsets, Bluetooth printers, and dial-up networking. Other goodies include e-mail support, instant messaging, a calculator, an alarm clock, a stop watch, and a notepad.
You can customize the Samsung SCH-A990 with a number of wallpapers, themes, and sounds; in addition, you can change the backlighting time and font size. The phone supports BREW 3, but no games are included on the phone. Of course, you can always download titles, as well as other customization options, from the Web. Finally, if you're directionally challenged, you'll be happy to know the SCH-A990 supports Verizon's VZ Navigator GPS service. We tested the dual-band (CDMA 850/1900; Samsung SCH-A990 in San Francisco using Verizon's network, and call quality was great. We could hear our callers loud and clear, and our friends reported the same, adding that they couldn't even tell we were on a cell phone. Speakerphone quality was just as good, and we had no problems pairing the handset with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset.
Surfing the Web on the SCH-A990 was blazingly fast. Sites like CNET.com, ESPN.com, and nytimes.com loaded within seconds. Unfortunately, we didn't experience the same speed with the rest of the phone's functions. There was a noticeable lag when we launched the music player and skipped through tracks. Also, accessing the V Cast content was slow going, as it had to first get the content, then buffer the video. We also noticed on several occasions that the video and audio were out of sync. Music playback through the phone's speakers left much to be desired as songs sounded tinny, but audio quality improved when we plugged in Verizon's headset, though we must say, they were mighty uncomfortable.
The Samsung SCH-A990 is rated for 4.1 hours of talk time and up to 13 days of standby time. In our tests, we came in slightly under at 4 hours of talk time. According to FCC radiation tests, the SCH-A990 has a digital SAR rating of 1.09 watts per kilogram.