With cell phones like the LG Voyager VX10000 and the Samsung FlipShot SCH-U900 in its current lineup, Verizon Wireless has done some good work lately. But we realize that not every one of a carrier's handsets is going to be a solid winner. So while we may not like it, we accept the fact that we have to take the bad with the good. Verizon's newest V Cast phone, the Samsung SCH-U550, is one of those average devices. As the update to last year's Samsung SCH-U540, the SCH-U550 unfortunately exhibits most of the negative traits of its predecessor; its design is unimpressive, its controls and keypad are flush and difficult to use, and its call and media quality is only middling. The feature set is decent, and we like that Samsung added a stereo Bluetooth profile, but it just doesn't have the style or performance to back up its 3G capability. The SCH-U550 is $119 with a two-year contract, but you can get a cheaper price if you buy it online.
Beyond an atypical brown finish, the Samsung SCH-U550 doesn't offer anything new in cell phone design. In fact, it resembles quite a few Verizon Samsung phones that came before it, including the SCH-U540 and the SCH-U340. The result is a rather boring, uninspiring look. At 3.77x1.95x0.64 inches, it's about the same size as the SCH-U540 but it weighs a bit more at 3.35 ounces. The extra girth is hardly noticeable, however, and the phone remains easily portable. The flip mechanism feels solid enough, and the handset fits comfortably in your hand, but we didn't like the plastic battery cover. Not only does it feel rather flimsy, but it was also difficult to pry off.
The postage-stamp external display sits in the middle of a mirrored panel that is surrounded a by a silver ring. The panel attracts its share of fingerprints and smudges, but you can use it to check your teeth before a job interview. The display isn't full color, but it shows the standard date, time, and status information, and it supports photo caller ID. Only the contrast is adjustable, and the display goes completely blank when the backlighting is off.
Above the display is the camera lens. There's no flash or self-portrait mirror, but the latter isn't needed because you can use the external display to take those vanity shots. Below the display are dedicated touch controls for the music player. As long as the display is active, you can start the player by pressing and holding the play key. You can then use the skip and rewind keys to shuffle though your playlist. Though the controls don't provide tactile feedback, they remain user-friendly. Completing the exterior of the SCH-U550 are a volume rocker and a handset locking key on the left spine and a camera shutter and dedicated speakerphone button on the right spine. The charger jack rests on the phone's bottom end.
The SCH-U550's internal display measures 2.2 inches (176x220 pixels) and supports 262,000 colors. It's not quite as sharp as other Samsung displays with the same resolution, but it gets the job done for most uses. You can change the backlighting time as well as the dialing font size and style. Three menu designs are available, but each uses Verizon's convoluted organizational system.
Below the display is the SCH-U550's navigation array. A square toggle surrounds a central OK button, while the toggle in turn is surrounded by two soft keys, a voice dialing button, a camera shortcut, a Clear control and the Talk and End/power buttons. Though the buttons are a decent size, they're completely flush with the surface of the phone. As such, they're not tactile, and it is difficult to dial by feel. For shortcut purposes, the toggle gives one-touch access to four user-defined functions. The keypad buttons also are poorly designed. Not only are they flush, but they're also slippery with a cheap, plastic feel.
The Samsung SCH-U550 has a 500-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, and notes. You can organize contacts into caller groups and pair them with a photo or one of seven (72-chord) polyphonic ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calculator, a calendar, instant messaging, an alarm clock, a unit and currency converter, a voice recorder, a speakerphone, a stop watch, a world clock, and a notepad. On the higher end, you'll find stereo Bluetooth, voice commands and dialing, and e-mail.
With the SCH-U550's 1.3-megapixel camera, you can take pictures in five resolutions (1,280x960; 640x480; 320x240; 160x120; and 128x96). Other camera features include a night mode, brightness and white-balance controls, three quality settings, a metering exposure, adjustable ISO, a multishot mode, a self-timer, five color effects, and a digital zoom. There are also a selection of shutter and camera function sounds, or you can silence the phone completely. The camcorder records clips with sound and offers editing options similar to the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds; otherwise you can shoot for as long as the phone's available memory permits. Unfortunately, the photo quality is no better than the SCH-U540's. In other words, it's much too blurry for a megapixel camera. The handset comes with approximately 25MB (an additional 10MB over the SCH-U540) of internal shared memory, plus a MicroSD card slot.
As an EV-DO phone, the SCH-U540 supports the full range of Verizon's 3G services including the V Cast video service and the V Cast music store. The music player's interface is identical to those on other Verizon phones. You also have the option to purchase Verizon's GPS service, VZ Navigator.
You can personalize the SCH-U550 with a selection of wallpaper, display themes, and clock formats. More options are available from Verizon using the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser, where you also can get more ringtones. The SCH-U550 doesn't come with any games, but you can buy titles if you want them.
We tested the dual-band, dual-mode (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Samsung SCH-U550 in San Francisco using Verizon Wireless service. Call quality wasn't quite up to the usual Verizon standards. Though the volume output was relatively strong, voices sounded hollow, as they did on the SCH-U540. But unlike the SCH-U540, there was a bit of static on the line. On the upside, we had no trouble getting a signal.
Callers said we sounded fine, though they noticed some distortion as well. Also, they had trouble hearing us if we were talking in a place with a lot of background noise. It was the same story with automated calling systems--it was fine when we were inside but when we were outside we had more problems. Speakerphone calls were decent though voices were a tad tinny. On the other hand, the volume level was quite loud.
V Cast steaming video quality wasn't the best we've seen. The quality was pretty choppy with a lot of visible pixels, and the video couldn't handle quick movements very well. The sound quality was a bit better; voices tended to match the speakers' mouths, but the sound had a lot of bass at the higher levels. The same was true for the music quality. At the higher volumes, the audio from the SCH-U550's sole speaker was distorted. Also, the song download took a long time, even with a strong EV-DO connection.
The Samsung SCH-U550 has a rated battery life of 3.53 hours talk time and 8.33 days standby time. Our tests revealed a talk time of 3 hours and 57 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the SCH-U550 has a digital SAR rating rating of 1.39 watts per kilogram.