Simple flip phones like T-Mobile's Samsung t159 remain relevant for one primary purpose: placing and taking calls. Lacking the pomp of smartphones packed to the gills, they had better at least get call quality right. Thankfully, Samsung's $20, stripped-down t159 passes the audio test with flying colors.
Design and OS
There are flip phones with more sheen and style than the Samsung t159; in fact, almost all of them offer some graceful line or polished accent. Not so in the case of this stock phone. Its all-black form looks boring and cheap, the only interesting part is a fine-grain diamond pattern on the back panel. At least the finishes fit the $19.99 price tag. On the plus side, the t159's slim dimensions -- 3.8 inches tall by 1.9 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick -- fit it easily into pockets. At 2.9 ounces, it's also pretty light; a hair too light for my tastes.
A standard clamshell design puts a 1-inch external display out front for checking the time, and for viewing signal strength and alerts, like awaiting messages or missed calls, at a glance. Above the screen is a 1.3-megapixel camera lens with camcorder capability. Inside, the 1.8-inch screen is too small; it could easily stretch to 2 inches. Flipping open the phone instills confidence in the thick joint. The rubber stopper protecting the top of the phone isn't attractive, but it is effective.
Beneath the screen is a large navigation array that includes two soft keys, a Send and End/Power button, and a Clear button, all surrounding the four-directional toggle with central OK button.
The phone's volume rocker is on the left spine, and on the right you'll find the camera shutter button and the shared Micro-USB slot and headset jack. That means that you'll unfortunately need an adapter if you're planning to listen to music or messages from the t159 through a wired headset. There's no microSD card slot on the t159, which isn't necessarily a drawback for this type of entry-level device. Extra storage is always nice to have, but since the hardware design doesn't place a premium on photos or music, it's understandable why expandable memory didn't make the cut.
A proprietary operating system runs the t159 and unfortunately, its oversimplicity isn't easy on the eye. I know, I know, that sounds counterintuitive, but the default menu screen is plain white and the icons are a little simplistic. The 128x160-pixel QVGA resolution is poor, and it shows in larger lettering and in the icons. You can customize elements like the wallpaper, dialing display, and brightness and backlight times, but you can't change other graphical elements, or the font size.
Placing and receiving calls is the phone's principle function, and despite the unpolished interface, the address book gives you the space you need to store contact information, including multiple phone numbers, an e-mail address, a birthdate, a note, and even extra fields. You can also add a group ID, set a photo ID, and select from one of 18 ringtones. In addition, you can set the phone to silent mode, with vibration only.
Although the t159 is anything but a feature phone, it does do more than make calls. There's texting and multimedia messaging, assisted by predictive text modes. There's also Bluetooth support, and a personal organizer with the usual tools: a calendar, a calculator, an alarm, a to-do list, and a memo. There's a tip calculator as well, plus a world clock, a converter, a timer, and a stopwatch. An RSS reader and voice commands through Nuance are two extras. 3G connectivity helps the Web2Go browser load up content, but it isn't always easy reading on the 1.8-inch screen.
Support for T-Mobile's visual voice mail is a great addition for the t159, especially on a handset that centers on verbal contact. In addition, you can listen to music and play assorted games on the phone to kill time. More apps, wallpaper, and extras are waiting for you in the T-Mobile Mall shortcut.
It may not sound like much, but the Samsung t159's 1.3-megapixel camera/camcorder is a step up from previous phones in the "t" series. Pressing the physical button on the right spine launches the camera. Photos look tiny on the small screen, and are a little lackluster. Outdoors shots look more saturated than indoor pictures, and there's no flash, which means that the more natural light on hand, the better the result.
Samsung offers a fair amount of photo choices, including several shooting modes (single, continuous, and smile shot;) night mode; and three resolutions (1,280x690 pixels down to 320x240.) There are five white balance modes as well, five effects, and three focus options (spot, center-weighted, and matrix.) In addition, there's a self-timer option, and a settings menu. After taking a picture, you can save it to your online album, send to someone via Bluetooth or a picture message, or set it as your wallpaper or as a photo ID.
Some similar settings apply to the camcorder, but the resolution tops out at 320x240 and you can opt to limit the video length for MMS, usually about 30 seconds. Video quality is on the poorer side, but that's to be expected for the low resolution and for the inexpensive type of phone. You wouldn't buy a flip phone like this for the camera or video quality.
Samsung needed to nail call quality on a phone like this, and it does. Tests on the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz) Samsung t159 in San Francisco on T-Mobile's network yielded even results on a variety of calls. Volume was strong and voices were warm, though not quite crystal-clear. I could still tell I was speaking over a cell phone. I found no traces of distortion or any breaks or interruptions. Overall, I had few real complaints.
My testing companion said the t159 sounded "way better than just about any smartphone I can remember." Audio was loud and clear without noise or discernible distortion. He said I came across naturally, with little to no high-frequency clipping that he usually detects on other phones I review.
Samsung t159 call quality sample Listen now:
Speakerphone was also a pleasant surprise when I held the phone waist-high. Volume was pretty strong, though my caller sounded more distant. The line also remained clear. On his end, my test partner said I was slightly harder to understand, although he also heard me loud and clear without any breaks in the audio.
During our battery drain test, the t159 had a rated battery life of 5.72 hours on its 800mAh battery. Five hours may not seem as long-lived as other phones, but if you mostly use it for phone calls, it'll last longer on a single charge than some other multitasking handsets will. According to FCC radiation tests, the t159 has a digital SAR of 0.63 watt per kilogram.
Sometimes you just need a good, solid device for making calls, and the Samsung t159 is it. The humble flip phone doesn't offer much in the way of style, but it gets the calling basics right, and for the right price. (It also makes you wonder why every phone doesn't sound this good.) Although extra features like T-Mobile's visual voice mail and voice commands give the phone more verve, Samsung stopped short of some other helpful mainstays, like a separate headset jack, a larger, higher-resolution screen, and a more nuanced OS menu.