Editors' note: Portions of this review were taken from CNET's full review of the Muve Music service.
The Features rating was changed from 8 to 7, and the Design rating was changed from 7 to 6, on September 8, 2011, in light of our review of the Samsung Vitality.
What makes the 3G-capable Samsung Suede for Cricket Wireless such an interesting candy bar phone isn't its angular design or any hardware component. Instead, it's the music operating system inside called Muve Music (pronounced "move"), and the attached payment plan. A $55 monthly fee gets you unlimited access to music downloads, ringtones, ringback tones, and music identification, so long as your pay your bills. In addition, you also get the unlimited talk, text, e-mail, and Web browsing of Cricket's other monthly plans.
It's noteworthy that Muve Music, a first-of-its-kind offering, was Cricket's brainchild, not Samsung's. Seldom do we see such novel, big-picture ideas from carriers at all, never mind one cooked up by a regional prepaid operator known for its budget plans and phones. We were so impressed with the concept when we first saw it ahead of CES that we nominated it in a Best of CES category. Yet, after spending time with the Suede after Muve's launch, it's clear that the Muve Music software is a little out of tune, at least for now. For starters, the software company Cricket hired to build the OS needed more time to iron out kinks, which delayed the rollout. It's also slow, it's a little clunky, and it's currently available on only one handset.
Thanks to its angled silver trim and sharp chin point, the Samsung Suede looks like a wedge waiting to be hammered into soft ground. We're not at all seduced by the top-heavy look, but the design is otherwise benign, with a black face and back, and rounded edges. There's a neat, light-reflecting black-on-black design on the back cover that reminds us of a cross between Tetris and "The Matrix." The handset's dimensions--4.4 inches tall by 2.2 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick--make it a fairly petite phone without it being minute.
The Suede's 3-inch capacitive screen is small by most touch-screen standards, but it's about right for the phone's size. However, it makes menus small enough to cause a squint or a neck-crane, and the virtual keyboard is shrunken in portrait mode. The screen's 200x400-pixel resolution fits this type of phone, and looks appropriately sharp and bright indoors. Like most screens, it's dim and hard to see in direct sunlight.
The Suede's interface has a split personality. On one hand there's Cricket's unique Muve Music portal, which you access by pressing the music note button (more on this below). On the other, there's the tired TouchWiz 2.0 OS that handles the address book, the dialer, e-mail, applications, and everything else. This version of TouchWiz, if you're unfamiliar with it, has slide-out widget trays for transferring widgets on and off of three home screens. The entire look and feel are usable, but also slow and outdated, especially compared with more recent visual designs.
Below the screen are two touch-sensitive buttons for speakerphone and navigating back. There are also three hardware buttons, one each for Talk and End, and a larger central button embossed with a music note. This key is the gateway to the Muve Music experience.
The phone's right spine houses the camera shutter button and another button that doubles as a lock key and voice command trigger. Up top is the 3.5-millimeter headset jack, and on the left are the Micro-USB charging port and the volume rocker. On the back is the 3-megapixel camera with camcorder and beneath the back cover is the microSD card slot. It comes preinstalled with a 4GB card that devotes 3GB to Muve Music (up to 3,000 songs) and leaves you 1GB for your own devices. If that's not enough, you'll soon be able to purchase an 8GB version. The slot itself can handle up to 16GB of external memory, but if you use a standard microSD card, you won't be able to use Muve.
There are plenty of ways to describe Muve Music, but we think the best is as an unlimited music rental program. We say "rental," because the music comes from one source (it's approved by the major U.S. labels, by the way), it isn't transferable onto a computer or any other device, and you lose access if you stop paying your monthly bill. At no point do you ever truly "own" the songs.
When you enter Muve, you're greeted by a black backdrop that showcases five app icons. There's the My Music library of tunes, the Get Music download store, and the My DJ app, which aggregates genre-based playlists that you can download to the phone. There's also a version of Shazam's music identifier that's tailored to Muve, and the Get Social app for interacting with other users around your musical preferences. On a smaller navigation strip, you'll see an inbox for viewing "shouts" messages broadcast by other Muve Music users, and Help and Settings options (the settings control your Muve Music profile picture and sync settings).
Navigating the music portion of the OS is mostly straightforward, but there are rough edges. Not every arrow or button is clearly labeled, which leads to some trial and error. To exit the music mode, for example, you press the End button, and not the music key that you press to get in. You can press the music button to jump to the currently playing song from wherever you are, but we'd also like to see a Now Playing ticker in the software.
It takes too many clicks to get into a playlist, and it's difficult to edit or add to the playlist on the fly without interrupting the playback. It's almost too easy to delete songs from Muve as a whole, and to erase entire playlists without the phone asking for confirmation. Strangely, though, deleting individual tracks from a playlist is much more difficult.
None of this is helped by the Suede's relatively smaller display size, which makes onscreen controls tinier and harder to see and press. We wish that My DJ streamed songs over 3G in addition to downloading tracks. Muve's player also emits an annoying, metallic beep every time it moves on to a new song. A fade out would be much better, or at least the ability to turn the beep off.
The service itself, however, is immersive enough to push past the usability snags, particularly if you're part of Cricket's music-hungry clientele. The music libraries are well-stocked with hits and recommended tracks, and the My DJ portal helps grab tunes by a range of genres. Muve adds all the album art and automatically organizes tracks in your library. You can shuffle songs and view links from the player to some of the other Muve features. Also, you're able to create a ringtone or ringback tone from many songs, and the software lets you set the start point and duration before playing back a preview before you create the tone. Since tunes are all-inclusive, there's no penalty for experimentation or for aural gluttony.
Although Muve operates separately from the TouchWiz OS, incoming calls will pause the player and give you a chance to pick up where you left off (wait a few seconds for a dialog box to appear.)
Cricket also plans to add Web tools to its Muve Music Web site, so you can start manually adding tunes and transfer songs you already own from your computer to the Suede. This wasn't available at the time of the review.
Cricket is also working on a known issue in which Muve won't always work seamlessly outside of the 14 markets in which the Suede is currently available at the time of this review. Cricket hasn't announced plans to pair Muve with any other phones. While it's understandable for Cricket to gauge Muve Music's popularity before pushing out piles of compatible handsets, at the end of the day we wish Samsung had offered up a better flagship device to match such an interesting new service.
Muve Music is obviously the Suede's most compelling feature, but strip that away and you get a decent enough, if unremarkable, midrange feature phone. There's room for 2,000 friends (or frenemies) in the Suede's address book, with fields for multiple phone numbers and e-mail addresses. You can assign a photo ID, a calling group, and a customizable ringtone. Samsung provides 16 of its own plus a silent mode, but you can convert many of the Muve Music songs into ringtones, or sideload your own through a microSD card. Missing from the list are fields for a home address, notes, and a birthday reminder.
Essential features on the Suede include a calendar, a calculator, an alarm clock, a world clock, a notepad, and a stopwatch. There's also a tip calculator, a timer, and a unit converter. You'll find voice search as well, plus Bluetooth and an accelerometer. Cricket has installed a few of its own apps, as carriers often do. Fortunately, Cricket keeps it modest with a backup app, a My Account shortcut, and Cricket-branded e-mail to complement the handset's texting and multimedia messaging. Should you want for diversions, demos of Bubble Bash 2 and Guitar Rock Tour will get you started. You can shell out for the full versions or buy other games and apps from Cricket's online store.
Most feature phones are only so-so at browsing, and the Suede's Internet connection sure falls into that camp. Widgets help navigate to popular sites from the default Cricket home page (you can change this in the settings) and the browser also supports RSS feeds, bookmarks, and favorites. CNET's Web-optimized site loaded in 13 seconds. The New York Times' mobile site rendered in 7 seconds, but without any images.
The Suede's 3-megapixel camera was easy to use, thanks in large part to the two columns of touch-screen controls that frame the viewfinder. Pressing them quickly switches between camera and camcorder settings. On the camera, you can easily access four shooting modes, six resolutions (including a convenient preset to create a photo ID), brightness, night mode, and a timer. A separate settings menu conceals options for quality and white balance, plus effects. A convenience button transports you to the photo gallery to review past shots, and helpful onscreen buttons save, delete, or send photos immediately after you shoot. Photos were moderately sharp, and indoor photos captured colors moderately well without the benefit of a flash.
Camcorder settings were similar, except the resolution was lower than that of the camera--that's typical--and there's an equally common setting for restricting the video length for the sake of video messaging. Video quality was also pretty good for this type of camera. There was a little noise, sure, but colors remained strong and the playback was fairly smooth, without jerking or skipping. A 32GB-capable microSD card slot supplements the Suede's 135MB onboard memory.
We tested the 3G-capable Samsung Suede (CDMA 850/1900) in San Francisco using Cricket's roaming network. Call quality was clear and strong, with natural-sounding voices and robust volume levels. We experienced some mild breaking up and distortions during one call, and voice clarity was often slightly muffled, but not enough to impede conversation. On their end, callers agreed that volume and voices were substantial and that the connections were clear. They rated the call quality "good to very good."
Speakerphone also delivered, a pleasant surprise considering that most times this feature is hollow, tinny, and uncomfortable on the ears. Instead, the Suede produced a nicely loud, strong audio magnification devoid of the usual voice distortions. Our callers agreed that it was one of the most natural-sounding speakerphones we've heard.
Samsung Suede call quality sample Listen now:
Although it runs on an 800MHz processor, the Suede feels slow. It takes a moment to swap between the phone and music modes and there's a noticeable delay when typing, turning the phone, and performing other essential tasks.
The Suede has a rated battery life of 5 hours of talk time and 13.75 days of standby time. Our tests revealed a talk time of 5 hours and 36 minutes. FCC radiation tests measured a digital SAR of 0.94 watt per kilogram.
When all is said and done, the Samsung Suede with Muve Music delights and disappoints. The all-you-can-eat music plan is a bright idea, and a useful one. However, we still have a hard time looking past the Suede's cumbersome and outmoded TouchWiz 2.0 interface. What's more, we hope Cricket's software team will streamline the Muve Music OS to make it easier to use, expand the service to other handsets, and get its house in order so that all its supporting products and services are immediately available to the Suede's customers.
That said, Muve is a compelling service that's priced right and offers a full basket of features to its target audience, young audiophiles who may wind up using the phone as their primary source for tunes. At $55 per month, Muve Music is just $10 per month pricier than a regular unlimited plan. The handset itself costs $199 without a contract, but it's available for a limited time for $99 after in-store and mail-in rebates. The Suede is currently available in 14 of Cricket's markets, with more cities on the horizon.