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Every once in a great while, a new cell phone comes along that has the potential to shove the industry toward a whole new path. Moto's StarTAC did much to usher in the flip-phone era, while the company's Razr helped spawn the new thin-phone revolution. But now it's Samsung's turn to be a trendsetter with its new Samsung UpStage SPH-M620 for Sprint. Though it's hardly the first quality music phone--Sony Ericsson and Nokia have had their share--its inventive, dual-sided design does more to combine cell phone and MP3 player ergonomics than any other music handset we've seen. The concept first saw light last year with the GSM Samsung Ultra Music, but Sprint is the first carrier to bring the form factor to the United States. And it's a good thing too, considering how uninspiring Sprint's handset lineup has been in the past year. As with anything new, the UpStage has its kinks, and it isn't for the gadget-phobic--there's a lot to get use to, not only with the controls and interface but also with the oddball UpStage name (we just don't get it). But if you approach it with an open mind and take the time to explore it fully, you should find a novel, functional cell phone with admirable performance on both the calling and music fronts. Again, it's not perfect, but it's a very positive step in a new direction. Indeed, it just makes us excited for the next-generation model. At $149 with a two-year service agreement, the UpStage has a very fair price, but you might be able to find it cheaper online.
With one side resembling a phone and the other side resembling an MP3 player, you may not know what to think of the Samsung UpStage when you first pick it up. Indeed, the dual-sided form factor throws you for a loop, but that's exactly what it's meant to do. As we'll get to shortly, each side has different uses, which can at times be confusing. But this split-personality approach gets big points for innovation. It's also quite the looker and should evoke oohs and aahs from even the most jaded gadget enthusiasts.
Samsung's current obsession with being thin clearly shows up the UpStage's design. At 1.73x4.07x0.37 inches, it's a little taller and wider than the iPod Nano and only slightly fatter than Samsung's razor-thin SGH-T519 Trace. It slips easily into a pocket or bag, and at 2.57 ounces, it won't weigh you down. The form factor was comfortable as well; the UpStage had a solid feel in the hand, and we didn't mind using it for long conversations. Of course it won't cradle your head like a flip phone, but that goes with the territory when you're using a candy bar handset.
The UpStage's "phone" side is pretty ordinary. The navigation array is typical Samsung--there's a square toggle with an OK button in the middle, two soft keys, a dedicated camera button, a Back control, and the traditional Talk and End/Power keys. The controls are mostly flush with the surface of the phone, but they have just the slightest bit of texture and a tactile "push" feeling when pressed. Our only complaint was that they're a tad small for larger fingers. Also, it's disappointing that the toggle doesn't offer shortcuts to favorite features. The keypad buttons are about the same: they're raised slightly above the surface of the phone with a tactile feel. We were able to dial by feel, and we liked the bright backlighting and large numbers. Also, the keypad is big enough for larger fingers.
The 65,000-color TFT display on the phone side also was a mixed bag. First off, it's tiny at just 1.4 inches diagonally (176x65 pixels). Normally we'd be up in arms about such a small screen, but we understand Samsung's motive--a bigger screen would have made for a bigger phone. It manages to cram in the date, the time, signal strength, battery life, and even photo caller ID, but the tiny dialing and message text may be too small for some users. Display options are also limited; you can change the backlight time and dialing font style only. It's worth noting as well that the display shows only four menu options: call history, contacts list, and options for entering and sending--but not reading--a text message. Though we understand that most applications would be difficult to use on the small display, we think Samsung could have given us a basic Settings menu at the very least. On the upside, you can use it to take self-portraits with the camera lens that sits just above.
While the UpStage's phone side is used for making calls, tapping text messages, and taking vanity shots, the music player side is used for just about all other functions. The majority of its real estate is taken up by the large, 2.1-inch (176x220 pixels) TFT display. With support for 262,000 colors, it's bright, vivid, and easy on the eyes. It's perfect for browsing through the complete set of user-friendly menus and for taking photos. Before you can take snaps, you must activate the camera using the aforementioned shortcut on the opposite side.
We admit we were skeptical of the UpStage's large, square touch pad, but the results exceeded our expectations. As with any touch pad, there's no tactile "push" to the control, so the lighter the touch, the better. You can adjust the sensitivity if you wish, but we didn't have any problems after a brief period of acclimation. On the other hand, it's worth noting that there tends to be a slight delay when using the commands. A tap to the top of the pad opens the main menu, while the lower-left and lower-right corners serve as Back and End keys respectively. When inside a menu, a tap in the up, down, right, and left directions will move the select icon in the corresponding direction, while the top-right and left corners function as soft keys. And when inside the music player, the sides of the pad double as rewind and fast-forward controls.
You also can swipe your finger in side-to-side and up-and-down motions to move around the menus. It's important to note that the touch pad does not support circular movement--if you try to do so, the select icon will jump madly around the menu--instead, you must complete vertical and horizontal swipes separately. Though this may sound cumbersome, the touch pad is actually quite easy to use once you understand how it works. A short swipe moves the select icon one menu choice, a long wipe moves it two choices, while a long swipe and a pause moves the icon continuously until you lift your finger. As with the tapping method, the finger-swiping will take some practice. It took us about an hour to master it completely, even after we took the handy tutorial. But once we got the hang of it, we thought it was quite user-friendly and intuitive. As we said earlier, keep an open mind and be patient. And in any case, it beats the LG Chocolate's touch controls, hands down.
In the middle of the touch pad is a large control that functions both as an OK button for selecting menu items and a play/pause control when the music player is open. Unlike the touch pad, the OK button is raised above the surface of the phone, and it has a tactile "push" feel when pressed.
As we've mentioned previously, the UpStage's split personality means certain applications can be used on only one side of the phone. And when one side is in use, the other side's display and controls are inactive--including the power key. While that's not a problem for a lot of things, it does mean you have to alternate between sides for some functions. For example, when searching for a song in the Sprint Music Store, you can navigate through the store only on the music player side. But if you want to search for a particular track, you'll have to flip the phone over, type in the name, then flip it back again to select the track you want. Though we understand that such a flip-flop motion is an inevitable consequence of the UpStage's design, the process can get tedious if done over and over again. And while you can use the touch pad to enter text, it involves too much scrolling to be really useful.
The flipping motion is done one of two ways: at times the phone prompts you to press a soft key, but you can also use the Flip button located on the right spine (when looking at the phone side). Either way, the opposite display and controls will activate for use. Just below the Flip button is the MicroSD card slot, while above it is a handy slider control for locking all exterior keys. A volume rocker and a reset button sit on the other spine, just above the charger port/headset jack (you can use one device at a time).
We have a big complaint with the UpStage's speaker situation. The only speaker rests on the phone side and is used to hear voice calls, music, and streaming video. While the lack of stereo speakers on a music phone is bad enough, the lack of a speaker on the UpStage's music player side means the audio output is pointed away from you if you're listening to music or watching videos without a headset. As a result, the sound quality is diminished, particularly if you try to rest the phone on a table. It's a bad design move on Samsung's part, and one that we hope it will correct In future UpStage models.
Another quirk of the UpStage is that the battery is not user-replaceable. Though that means you won't be able to replace a faulty battery yourself, Samsung and Sprint redeem themselves by including an extended battery in the box. What's more, this extra battery sits in an attractive wallet that protects the phone from scrapes and bruises. The outside of the wallet has a soft, leather-like feel that gives the phone a classy look--not that it needed much help. You can even keep the UpStage in the wallet for making calls, which is a comfortable arrangement.
The Samsung UpStage comes with a feature set that strongly complements its conversation-piece exterior. We'll address the basics first. The phone book is smaller than we expected, with a capacity of just 500 contacts. Each entry has room for five phone numbers, e-mail and Web addresses, notes, and a nickname. You can save callers to groups or pair them with a photo or one of 29 polyphonic ring tones.
Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a calculator, an alarm clock, a world clock, a memo pad, and a planner. And on the higher end, the UpStage offers voice commands and dialing, mass USB storage, instant messaging and e-mail, and a speakerphone. Bluetooth also is on board, and thankfully, the UpStage includes stereo and object exchange profiles. Indeed, we were able to transfer a photo onto the phone with no problem. The UpStage comes with 70MB of internal shared memory. That's a bit on the low side, but a 64MB MicroSD card also comes in the box. If you're going to be a heavy music user, the UpStage can accommodate 2GB cards.
Of course, the UpStage is all about music. Its offerings in that department are similar to Sprint's other music phones, but they're satisfying on the whole. You can access Sprint Music Store for simultaneous downloads both to your PC and wirelessly to your phone. Alternatively, you can use Sprint's Sync Manager software and the included USB cable to transfer songs already on your PC to the phone. The onboard digital music player is nothing too fancy. Though you get album art, the features are limited to repeat and shuffle modes and you can't use MP3s as ring tones. Hopefully, Sprint will improve the dull and somewhat plodding music interface soon.
The UpStage comes with an airplane mode for turning off the phone's calling functions while listening to music in flight. You can also minimize the music player in order to use applications while your tunes are playing. If you don't have a stereo Bluetooth headset, Samsung includes a 3.5mm headphone adapter in the box. It's doesn't actually include headphones too; rather, it's just a microphone and the proprietary connection for the UpStage.
As an EV-DO phone, the UpStage offers full support for Sprint's 3G services. You can connect to Sprint's Power Vision streaming video services for a variety of content, much of which is exclusive to Sprint. Included are Sprint TV, which offers movie previews and programming from channels such as CNN, VH1, ESPN, Comedy Central, and the Cartoon Network, as well as from the carrier's PowerView service, which offers additional shows and downloadable content. If radio is your thing, you also can stream tunes form Sirius Radio. Sprint Movies delivers full-length, pay-per-view movies straight to your phone, while mobile podcasts are available from Samsung on a broad range of topics. Furthermore, you get Sprint's On Demand service for access to a host of information such as news headlines, sports scores, and weather updates personalized for your zip code, In all, there's an impressive assortment of options.
The UpStage's 1.3-megapixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions, from 1,280x160 down to 176x220. Other camera features include three quality settings, brightness and white balance controls, a night mode, a self-timer, four color effects, 10 fun frames, a 5x zoom, and four shutter sounds as well as a silent mode. The camcorder records clips with sound and a selection of editing options similar to the still camera's. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds, or you can shoot for as long as the available memory will permit. For easy photo printing, the UpStage supports PictBridge technology for transferring images directly to a printer. In our tests, photo quality was good but not great. Colors were sharp and there was enough light, but unless we held the camera perfectly still, images tended to be a tad blurry.
You can personalize the UpStage with a variety of screen savers, clock styles, and sounds. If you don't get enough options on the phone, you can always buy more using the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. The UpStage comes with demo versions of five games: Midnight Bowling, Nightclub Empire, Pac-Man, Tetris, and World Series of Poker. Avid gamers will have to buy the full versions, but be warned that gameplay is somewhat difficult using the touch pad.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) Samsung UpStage in San Francisco using Sprint service. Call quality was admirable overall; voices sounded natural, and we had enough volume. On the reception side, there was little static or interference, and we had no trouble getting a signal. Though they could tell we were using a cell phone, callers reported no significant problems either, even when we were in noisy environments. Also, we had few troubles speaking to automated calling systems. Our only complaint was that the audio sounded somewhat harsh at times. It wasn't a huge deal, but the bass-heavy effect was noticeable in a few different calling situations. Speakerphone calls weren't always reliable. On our end the sound was fine, but callers couldn't quite hear us unless we were in quiet environments. On the other hand, we didn't have any problems with voice commands.
We successfully paired the UpStage with the Samsung SBH170 stereo Bluetooth headset. Call quality remained decent on both ends, though callers had slightly more trouble hearing us at times. We also used the headset to listen to music and were generally satisfied with the sound quality. There was slight bass-heavy effect to the sound, but that could be due to the headset. We also listened to music using the headset adapter and some generic 3.5mm earbuds and had the same experience. Without the headset, music quality wasn't quite as good due to the somewhat unimpressive output of the single exterior speaker.
On the whole, the UpStage's EV-DO connection was strong, even when were in buildings. Streaming video quality was on a par with that of other Samsung EV-DO phones, such as the Samsung SPH-M610. Few of the videos were pixilated and grainy, except when there were quick movements on the screen. There was also little choppiness, and only one video paused for rebuffering. The sound from the videos mostly matched the movement of the speakers' mouths, but it was too low and bass-heavy when we didn't use a headset.
The connection to the Sprint Music store took more than few minutes to load the first time around. It was much longer than we've encountered with other Sprint music phones, but once we were up and running the connection was pretty solid. Songs took a just few seconds to download from the Sprint Music store, and it took about a minute and a half to transfer 40MB of music from our PC--not bad at all. The Music Sync software was easy to use and loaded without a hitch, but the music player had a tendency to be somewhat sluggish at times. What's more, we also had a bit of trouble when we disconnected the Bluetooth headset in the middle of a paused song. When we restarted the song, the UpStage was unable to play songs downloaded from the PC. The error message didn't clear unless we turned off the phone and started it again. It happened only once, but it's a still a point of concern. At the time of this writing, Sprint said it was investigating the issue,
The UpStage has a rated battery life of 2.5 hours talk time. That's pretty low, but when using the extended battery, the promised talk time climbs to a more respectable 6.3 hours. In our tests we managed to beat the rated time for the internal battery by an extra half hour but we fell short of the promised time for the extended battery by coaxing just 5.5 hours on a single charge.
Music-only battery life is promised at 7 hours or as long as 16 hours with the extended battery. Yet we managed to pull much more juice from the UpStage in our tests. Using the internal battery, we managed 11.3 of music time while the extended battery gave us a full 27 hours for our tunes--impressive indeed. According to the FCC, the Samsung UpStage SPH-M620 has a digital SAR rating of 1.4 watts per kilogram, which is rather high.