AT&T's new Samsung SGH-A717 has a lot in common with another AT&T cell phone, the Samsung SGH-A727. Not only did the two devices land at the carrier on the same day, but they also didn't strike any new ground in the design department. While the SGH-A727 bears a striking resemblance to three Samsung phones, including Alltel's SCH-R510, the SGH-A717 takes its style cues from Sprint's Samsung SPH-M610. The SGH-A717 sports the same thin flip phone shape and rotating camera lens and also inherits the tiny external display. Features are about the same too and the performance was reliable. At $349, it will put a serious crimp in your wallet if you pay full price, but service rebates should knock it down to a more affordable $149.
Though cell phone enthusiasts will notice immediately that the SGH-A717's slim profile closely resembles its Sprint cousin, they'll note some subtle design changes as well. While the SPH-M610 was almost tapered at its bottom end, the SGH-A717 is slightly more angular and has a protruding lip similar to the Motorola Razr. Also, the SGH-A717's external memory slot is conveniently located on the right spine rather then being stashed behind the battery.
One of our biggest complaints with the SPH-M610 was with its tiny external display; it was just too small to be useful. Unfortunately, the SGH-A717 offers no improvement. Yes, the display shows the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID, but text size is minuscule. As such, we advise users with vision impairments to test the phone before buying. The screen does support caller ID, but the small size and monochrome resolution means photo caller ID is not a possibility. None of the display's options are customizable, except that you can choose to keep the battery and signal strengths lit indefinitely.
Just above the display is a rotating camera lens that swivels 180 degrees to the rear of the phone. There's no flash, which is too bad, but when the phone is open, you can swivel the lens to take self-portraits. A volume rocker sits on the phone's left spine while the MicroSD card slot and the covered headset/charger jack sit on the right spine.
The internal display almost makes up for the external screen's shortcomings. The 2.25-inch display (320x240 pixels) supports a bright and vivid 262,000 colors. Yet the display attracts its share of smudges. When we pressed our finger against it, there was a visible mark for a few seconds. You can change the backlighting time, the brightness, and the dialing font size, style, and color.
The navigation controls consist of a five-way toggle, two soft keys, a dedicated music player control, a Clear button and the Talk and End/Power keys. There's also a "swap" button that activates a nifty pop-up menu with user-defined shortcuts. Speaking of which, the toggle can also be programmed to give one-touch access to other functions. Yet we didn't like that the center of the toggle activates the Web browser in the phone's standby mode, rather than opening the main menu. The navigation array is larger than the SGH-A727's, but the controls are flat and a bit slick. The keypad buttons are about the same. Though they're spacious, they're not very tactile and can be difficult to use by feel. On the other hand, the numbers on the keys are large and the backlighting is bright.
The SGH-A717 has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry to hold six phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, an instant-messaging handle, and notes. The SIM card holds an additional 250 names, while a MicroSD card can hold even more. 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 currency and unit converter, a tip calculator, a stopwatch, an alarm clock, a task list, a notepad, and a calendar. Higher-end offerings include instant messaging, a speakerphone, a voice recorder, and full Bluetooth with a stereo profile.
As a 3.5G HSDPA phone, the SGH-A717 supports the full range of broadband multimedia applications. AT&T Video brings a satisfying range of streaming-video clips from such networks as NBC, Comedy Central, ESPN, the Weather Channel, VH1, and CNN. There's a special channel for kids as well, with programming from the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, and Muppets Mobile. Premium entertainment is offered from HBO Mobile and Music Choice for an extra charge. For a full analysis of the offerings, see our AT&T Video review. MobiTV applications are integrated as well.
If you're more interested in listening to tunes, the Samsung SGH-A717 also supports the AT&T Music application. 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 stores, but at present you can't download music wirelessly. There's also a Music ID application, support for XM streaming radio, a Billboard Mobile application, and a community section with access to fan sites. The music player interface is beyond basic; its features are limited to Shuffle and Repeat modes and player visualizations.
We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1900/1900) SGH-A717 world phone in San Francisco. Call quality was better than that of the SGH-A727. We encountered none of the static or fading audio that we heard on the other phone, though voices tended to sound a tad raspy on occasion. The volume level was fine, however, and the SGH-A717 didn't pick up much wind noise. It's worth noting that the SGH-A717's speaker is slightly off-center, so the sweet spot is somewhat sensitive. Callers didn't report significant problems, and automated answering systems could understand us.
The SGH-A717's 3G connection was mostly dependable. When activating the Internet browser, the phone took about five seconds to connect, with individual Web pages loading even faster. The change from a 2.5G phone is noticeable and it makes for a pleasant mobile surfing experience, even with the limited WAP pages. Application downloads were almost instant and we were glad to see that unlike the Motorola Razr V3xx, the SGH-A717 didn't burden us with restrictions on third-party apps like Google Maps Mobile.
AT&T Video took about 10 seconds to start up, while the time needed to access individual channels varied widely. The video wasn't the best we've seen from the carrier; most clips had a fair amount of pixilation, and we had to stop more than once to rebuffer. MobiTV clips fared a bit better, but on the whole the SGH-A717 ranks behind the Razr V3xx in streaming-video quality.
Audio quality was mostly good. When viewing streaming video the voices matched the speakers' mouths and we enjoyed enough volume. Music from the media players was also decent, but we were unable to test the XM streaming music. With the Music ID service, our SGH-A717 was able to identify most any song we threw at it. Just keep in mind that each ID costs $0.99.
AT&T Music differs from Sprint and Verizon's music services in that it doesn't offer wireless downloads. Rather, you buy music over the air from Napster Mobile or Yahoo Music and the tracks are delivered to your PC for just $0.99. Even without the wireless downloads, it's a decent service, as the Napster and Yahoo partnerships offer a wide selection at an affordable price. Also, the connection speed to those music services was reliably speedy. Yet we can't stand that you need to shell out extra cash to sync music between your computer and your phone. Neither a USB cable nor a memory card is included with the SGH-A717. Is that customer-friendly? No.
The Samsung SGH-A717 has a rated battery life of 4 hours talk time and 10 days standby time. Our tests revealed a talk time of 3 hours and 57 minutes. According to the FCC, the SGH-A717 has a digital SAR rating of 0.58 watts per kilogram.