Up until recently we thought that Nokia had a big machine that continually pumped out new cell phones. It was just that the company put out so many phones--and many of them looked so much alike--that we couldn't imagine how else they made so many models. But in the past couple months it appears Samsung either purchased Nokia's machine or made one of its own. The new Samsung SGH-A517 for AT&T is the fifth Samsung handset we've reviewed since September and quite a few more models from the company are on deck for the next few weeks. There's not much to distinguish the SGH-A517 from its Samsung counterparts; it has a flip-phone design that we've seen before and its feature set is solidly midrange. But it doesn't quite pass the test when it comes to call quality. Full price is $249, but you can get it for $49 with service.
Though it isn't an identical twin, the SGH-A517 copies some design elements from the Samsung's previous SGH-A717. They both have the same basic angular shape with the protruding lip at its bottom end. At 3.74 inches by 1.89 inches by 0.63 inch and 2.9 ounces, it's smaller than its predecessor, but it has a similar comfortable feel in the hand.
Yet that is where the comparisons between the two phones end, as the SGH-A517 shows its own on its front face. Behind a glossy black face that attracts fingerprints by the ton is a postage-stamp-size external display. It's a bit small for the phone's size, and we weren't thrilled that it's grayscale. Though it works very rudimentarily for the camera, it doesn't support photo caller ID. Also, the backlighting time, which can't be changed, is very short. We didn't like going to look for the time or date and seeing a blank screen instead. You can adjust the contrast or program the display with a slogan or a preloaded image (monochrome, of course).
The camera lens sits above the display while below are touch controls for the music player. Using the latter you can activate the player and manage tracks with the flip closed. The controls are about identical to the touch-sensitive buttons found on other Samsung phones (like the Gleam, for instance). They're easy to use, but, as we said earlier, the phone's glossy face is prone to fingerprints. The microSD card slot sits on the right spine while a volume rocker and a headset/charger jack sit on the left spine.
The interior display supports 262,000 colors and measures 1.4 inches (220x176 pixels). As a standard Samsung display it shows animations and graphics well. Colors looked bright and the simple menus are easy to use. The pop-up menus may depend on the user; we liked them but others might find them annoying. It's difficult to see in direct light but you can change the backlighting time and the font size and color.
The navigation controls below the display consist of a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, shortcuts to the music player and the camera, the Talk and End/Power controls, and a Clear button. Though you're given a lot of space for the controls, they are completely flat, so dialing by feel was a tad difficult. Also, we don't like that in standby mode the toggle in the middle opens the Web browser instead of the main menu. The keypad buttons are also flush, and just the tiniest bit slippery, but raised ridges between the individual columns give them some texture. They're backlighted, too, so we could dial in dim situations.
The SGH-A517 has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can organize callers into groups and pair them with a photo and one of 10 polyphonic ringtones. Essential features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a world clock, a calculator, a unit converter, a tip calculator, a stopwatch, an alarm clock, a timer, a notepad, and a calendar. Higher-end offerings include instant messaging, e-mail, a speakerphone, a voice recorder, and Bluetooth with an object exchange profile.
The 1.3-megapixel camera on the SGH-A517 can take pictures in seven resolutions (from 1,280x1,024 down to 176x144) and you can choose from three quality settings. Other features include brightness and white balance controls, exposure metering, multishot and mosaic shot modes, a self-timer, five color effects, 26 fun frames, and a 4x digital zoom. There are a few shutter and camera-function sounds, as well, but you can't silence the shutter completely. The camcorder takes clips in three resolutions (176x144, 160x120, and 128x96) with sound and a similar set of editing options. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at about 45 seconds; otherwise you can shoot for as long as the phone's available memory permits. Photo quality isn't the best; colors were fine, but some objects were blurry and the lighting was much too dark.
The SGH-A517 supports a music player that is compatible with the AT&T Music service. AT&T Music competes with the music services from Sprint and Verizon Wireless by offering a central application for downloading tunes to the music player and accessing related music content. We like that AT&T uses partners rather than operating its own stores, but at present you can't download music wirelessly. There's also support for MobiRadio and MobiTV, a Billboard Mobile channel, and a community section with access to fan sites. Unlike other AT&T music phones, there's no Music ID application, however. The music player interface is very basic; its features are limited to Shuffle and Repeat modes and playlists.
You can personalize the SGH-A517 with a variety of color themes, wallpapers, background colors and alert sounds. You can download more options, and additional ringtones, from AT&T using the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. The handset comes with demo versions of three Java (J2ME) games: Frogger, Jewel Quest, and Tetris. You'll have to buy the full versions for extended play. There's also a My Cast weather application for checking forecasts in your area.
We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung SGH-A517 world phone in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was above average but not spectacular. Though the volume level was loud and voices sounded natural, the signal wasn't always clear. We noticed some static and the reception faded in and out a couple of times. We wouldn't say it was a huge problem, but it was a noticeable issue nonetheless. On their end, callers said we sounded fine but they didn't love the call quality either. They could tell we were using a cell phone and they had trouble hearing us when we were in noisy environments. Speakerphone calls were a bit worse, unfortunately. The volume tended to be low and we had garbled reception on our end. Callers said they could hear us only when we stood close to the phone.
The SGH-A517 has a rated battery life of 3 hours talk time and 10.4 days standby time. In contrast, we managed to get a very impressive 10 hours and 25 minutes of talk time.