In its quest to be king of the cell phone world, Samsung is an equal-opportunity handset manufacturer. Sure, we've seen plenty of high-end smartphones like the Mesmerize, but Sammy also gives us enough simple models like the SGH-A197. Made for AT&T's prepaid GoPhone service, the A197 has a basic flip-phone design with minimal features. It's exceedingly simple to use, though we'd recommend it only for occasional users given its variable call quality, low internal memory, and plastic construction. It is inexpensive, at just $49.99 without a service contract, but we'd suggest the Samsung SGH-A187 as a better choice for a GoPhone.
Like Samsung's M360 and Gusto, the A197 doesn't call attention to itself. Indeed, the black color and clean lines give it a somewhat retro look. It's also compact (3.78 inches long by 1.85 inches wide by 0.75 inch deep) and lightweight (2.68 ounces) for easy portability.
On that note, however, we'd caution against subjecting the A197 to a lot of abuse. The plastic shell feels rather wispy in the hand and the hinge is a bit loose. It should be fine as long as you keep the phone in your pocket, a bag, or a glove compartment, but it's not a handset for the adventuresome or the danger-prone.
The monochrome external display is tiny, but proportional to the phone's size. It shows the date, time, battery life, and single strength. You can change the clock size and write a slogan. The camera lens sits above the external display. Given its VGA resolution, we weren't expecting a flash, though we were hoping for a way to take self-portraits. Completing the exterior are a volume rocker on the left spine and a Micro-USB headset jack/charger jack on the right spine. Of course, a combined port means you can use only one peripheral at a time.
The internal display measures 2 inches and supports 65,000 colors (160x128 pixels). It's sufficiently bright, but graphics and photos don't look great with the low resolution. You can change the backlight time, add a greeting message, and adjust the style and color of the standby screen font.
As mentioned, the A197 is an accessible and user-friendly phone. From the simple menu design to the spacious navigation array, you should have no trouble navigating through the phone's features and finding what you need. The circular toggle is slightly raised and marked with a silver ring; in standby mode it doubles as a shortcut to four user-defined features. Surrounding the toggle are two soft keys, a camera shutter, the Talk and End/Power buttons, a Clear key, and a shortcut control that will activate the AT&T Mobile Care feature. Our only complaint about the array is that in standby mode the OK button opens the Web browser and not the main menu.
Though they're slightly angled, the keypad buttons are flush. That wouldn't be a problem by itself, but the A197's buttons are slick and have a cheap plastic feel. We didn't have any real problems when dialing or texting, but it's not a keypad we'd want to use extensively. The keys are backlit, and the numbers on the keys aren't too small.
The A197 is built with communication in mind, so it comes with only the essential features. The phone book holds 450 contacts with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, and notes. You can save callers to groups and pair them with one of 10 polyphonic ringtones. Alternatively, you can record your own ringtones using the A197's voice recorder. The SIM card holds an additional 250 names and you can choose to send calls from specific phone numbers directly to voice mail.
Organizer features include a calendar, a memo pad, a calculator, a timer, a unit and currency converter, a stopwatch, an alarm clock, a world clock, and a tip calculator. The A197 also supports Bluetooth, text and multimedia messaging and a variety of POP3 e-mail services like Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail. Keep in mind that you'll be using a clunky Web-based interface for all e-mail access.
The VGA camera takes photos in four resolutions, from 640x480 down to 128x96. Other options include a self-timer, a brightness meter, a 4x zoom, four white-balance settings, seven color effects, spot metering, a night mode, and three shutter sounds. The A197 does not record video.
Photo quality is average for a VGA camera. Colors will be dull and you'll see a lot of image noise, but that's the nature of the VGA beast. The A197 comes with just 128MB of shared memory, which will limit you to about 14 images at the highest resolution.
The A197 comes with a My-Cast Weather app. Just keep in mind that data use will result in extra charges. You can get more applications through AT&T's App Center, but the A197 is too basic to be an app-friendly device. It also comes with demo versions of Tetris and Bejeweled. You'll need to download the full versions for extended play.
We tested the dual-band (GSM 850/1900) Samsung SGH-A197 in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was uneven in our experience. Though it was reliable most of the time, there were occasions where the audio cut out on our end and we heard a bit of static. Also, the volume level was much too low for most situations. As a dual-band phone, the SGH-A197 won't work outside of North America.
On their end, callers had a few complaints, as well. They could hear us fine if we were inside, but if we called from a noisy place, they had trouble hearing us clearly. Speakerphone calls were equally variable. We could communicate, but the audio was a tad distorted and the volume was too low.
Samsung SGH-A197 call quality sample Listen now:
The A197 has a rated battery life of 6 hours of talk time and 12.5 days of standby time. According to our tests, it has a talk time of 6 hours and 27 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the A197 has a digital SAR of 0.24 watts per kilogram.