After Sprint and Verizon Wireless introduced their music-downloading services in late 2005 and early 2006, we were left wondering when Cingular Wireless was going to make a musical move of its own. The carrier made a few feints in that direction this year, but it wasn't until earlier this month that Cingular finally launched Cingular Music and the Samsung Sync. Also called the Samsung SGH-A707, the Sync is more than just the initial handset to support Cingular Music; it also supports Cingular's 3.5G HSDPA network and offers a 2-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, a speakerphone, and an external memory slot. The design is attractive, though decidedly unflashy, and its performance is acceptable, despite some fuzzy calls. The Sync is available for a very reasonable $49 with service.
We'll be frank: the Samsung Sync flip phone isn't a trendsetter when it comes to design. It's not ugly by any means, but the black color is rather ordinary, and the form factor is a tad boxy. At 3.46x1.89x0.68 inches, it won't fit in a compact parking space, but it still slides easily into a bag and into smaller pockets. And though it's rather thin we love that the SGH-A707 isn't blindly chasing the now-tired craze for skinny phones. It's also a tad weighty (3.85 ounces), but in return you get a well-constructed handset that has a solid, comfortable feel in the hand. The hinge feels especially sturdy.
Though the external screen on the Sync is small (1 inch; 96x96 pixels) for the phone's overall size, the display shows just about all the information it should, including the date, the time, the signal strength, and the remaining battery life. It also displays photo caller ID and acts as a viewfinder for the camera lens, which is located right above the screen. Unfortunately, there's no flash to brighten up dim environments, and only the display's contrast is changeable. Below the display sits the touch-sensitive music controls, which allow you to play and pause music and fast-forward and rewind between tracks when the phone is closed. The controls were user-friendly and not overly sensitive--in fact, they required a firm touch. To start the player when the front flap is closed, you must press the silver bottom on the right spine, which also activates the camera and the ringer profile list. Above it is a very recessed Micro SD card slot (you'll need sharp nails to remove a card), while the headset/charger ports and a volume rocker rest on the left spine. Stereo speakers sit on either side of the front flap.
The Sync's internal display is huge at 2.24 inches (176x220 pixels), and it supports 262,000 colors. It's very easy on the eyes, offering vibrant, eye-popping colors and readable text. As with most Samsung displays, it's difficult to see in direct light, but you can change the brightness, the backlight time, and the font size, color, and type. We continue to enjoy Samsung's simpler menu structure--the pop-up secondary menus are particularly cool--and we had no trouble navigating through our various choices. Our one minor quibble is that the display shows fingerprints and smudges quite easily.
The SGH-A707's navigation array immediately below the display has its good and bad points. The keys are large and well-spaced, but we wish they had a more tactile feel. And, they're just about flat with the surface of the phone, so they tend to be slippery. Also, the "OK" button opens the Web browser in standby mode rather than opening the menus, an arrangement that we would consider to be more convenient. The four-way toggle doubles as a shortcut to four user-defined shortcuts while a handy secondary shortcut button sits just to the left of the toggle. There are also two soft keys, a dedicated button for launching the music player, the traditional Talk and End/Power buttons, and a clear key.
The Sync's backlit keypad buttons are similar to their navigation counterparts. Though they are large and well-spaced from each other, they are almost flat with the surface of the phone and rather slick. We didn't have any misdials but it wasn't easy to dial by feel.
Though the Sync's multimedia prowess is its star attraction, we'll get the basic offerings out the way first. The king-size phone book holds 1,000 contacts with room in each entry for six phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, two Web addresses, a nickname, a birth date, an Instant messaging handle, a company name, a job title, two street addresses and notes (the SIM cards holds an additional 250 names). You can save callers to groups, pair them with a photo, or assign them a ring tone for caller ID. It's worth noting thought that the Sync comes with just 10, 64-chord polyphonic tones, which is pretty low for such a multimedia phone. Other standard features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a voice memo recorder, an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, a notepad, a calculator, a currency-and-unit converter, a world clock, a timer, and a stopwatch. If you're tired of talking, the SGH-A707 also offers an integrated Oz e-mail client for Yahoo, Hotmail, and AOL accounts, and supports AOL, Yahoo and MSN instant messaging. Full Bluetooth with a stereo profile is onboard, and a speakerphone, USB connectivity and modem capability round out the higher-end options.
As an HSDPA phone, the Sync supports wireless broadband data speeds via Cingular's 3.5G network. Fortunately, the phone is backwards compatible with the carrier's slower (but still 3G) UMTS network, so you'll get zippy coverage in most urban areas. You can enjoy the standard streaming-video options available through the carrier's Cingular Video network, including various news, sports, weather, and entertainment programming. MobiRadio and MobiTV support is included, and the HSDPA support promises quick downloads of large files.
As previously mentioned, Cingular Music is the carrier's answer to the existing music download services from Sprint and Verizon. But instead of creating its own music store as its rivals had done, Cingular chose to partner with existing music services like Yahoo Music, Napster to Go and eMusic. Cingular Music subscribers buy music from those partners either on their PCs or their phones. On the surface that all sounds fine, but here's the important catch for the time being: songs purchased on the A707 will download only to the user's PC and not to the phone. To get your tracks into the phone, you'll have to transfer them with a USB cable. And while that's annoying in itself, neither a memory card nor a USB cable comes with the phone, so you must purchase them separately. We'd prefer Cingular include at least one accessory, even if they'd charge a few dollars more. Cingular says it will activate wireless music downloads in the near future, but until that time, it's a rather circuitous process to get tracks into your phone.
On the upside, Cingular Music's pricing scheme appears to be quite reasonable. If using Napster, subscribers pay the normal Napster-to-Go subscription fee of $14.95 per month. For phone purchases, a new service called Napster Mobile enables users to preview and buy songs from the phone for just $0.99, far cheaper than Sprint's maximum fee of $2.50 per track and Verizon's charge of $1.99. A Yahoo Music subscription costs $11.99 per month with no additional fees and eMusic offers specialized content for Cingular's Sony Ericsson Walkman phones, including the W810i or the W300i. For even more music fun, Cingular Music offers access to 25 XM Satellite radio channels for $8.99 per month, a song ID service to identify mystery tracks heard on the radio, access to Billboard Mobile for music news and show information, streaming music videos, and a community site for musical discussions via text or instant messaging.
The music-player interface is a bit generic and features a simple animated graphic with the track name, artist, and album on both the internal and external displays. We were hoping for album art as well, but it's perfectly serviceable for listening to tunes. Features were limited as well. Though you can create play lists and choose from shuffle and repeat modes, there's no equalizer. But of course, we love that the Sync supports a stereo Bluetooth profile. When playing music while the phone is closed, the external controls and display become inactive after a few seconds. Though this timing is unchangeable, a quick press of the button on the right spine will make them active again. Stay tuned for a closer investigation of Cingular Music and the A707's player.
The Sync has a high-quality, 2-megapixel camera that takes pictures in six resolutions from 1600x1200 down to 240x180. Other features were plentiful and included five quality settings, a night mode, a 2X zoom (not usable at the highest resolution), a multishot option with three speed choices, a mosaic shot mode, three color effects, 20 fun frames, a self-timer, a white balance setting, and three shutter sounds (there's no silent option). We enjoyed the wealth of camera shortcuts, but the camera had a bit of a lag when shifting between options. The camcorder shoots clips in two resolutions (176x144 and 128x96) with sound and editing options similar to the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 45 seconds; otherwise, you can shoot for as long as the available memory permits. The Sync comes with a healthy 50MB of shared memory for photos, videos, and downloads, but you'd be wise to invest in a MicroSD card. Photo quality was actually good; colors were sharp and lighting was good overall. Video quality was decent, showing less pixilation than we've seen on other camera phones.
You can personalize the Sync with a variety of wallpapers, background colors, greeting messages and alert sounds. If you're dissatisfied with the choices that come with the A707, you can always buy more options from Cingular. You can download more ring tones, and for even greater personalization, you can save clips of your favorite MP3 files as ring tones--nice. Gamers can choose from five demo titles (World Poker Tour, Platinum Sudoku, Diner Dash, Bowling 3D and Asphalt Urban GT 3D). Of course you'll need to buy the full versions for extended play.
We tested the quad-band Samsung Sync (GSM 800/900/1800/1900) in San Francisco. Call quality was fine but not exceptional. Though the audio was clear, and the volume level was loud, voices sounded harsh at times and almost robotic. There was also noticeable static at times, particularly when we were near electronic devices. On the other end, callers reported few problems, and we had no trouble being understood by automated voice-response systems. Speakerphone calls were loud, but there was some patchiness to the audio quality, and callers had trouble hearing us in noisy environments. Bluetooth headset calls were about the same--decent but not fantastic.
Streaming video quality on the Sync was satisfactory, and we had no problems getting strong HSDPA coverage. There was little pixilation and the phone didn't pause to rebuffer. Volume also was decent, though occasionally the sound didn't quite match the speaker's mouth. That's a minor point, however, and the Sync's large display was a treat to view. Music quality sounded pretty good, though volume could have been a bit higher. We'll report back soon with a more thorough assessment of the SGH-A707's music performance. At the time of this writing, we weren't able to test it with headphones, but it's worth noting that the Sync uses a proprietary, wired headset without an adaptor for higher-quality sound.
The Samsung Sync (SGH-A707) has a rated battery-life talk time of four hours and a promised standby time of 10 days. It has a tested talk time of three hours and 57 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Sync has a digital SAR rating of 0.236 watts per kilogram.