The M56 certainly makes an impression. The silver-and-gray case sports a dark-gold keypad designed in an arresting hourglass shape. Teens might get a kick out of the design, but the small, oddly shaped keys are hard to use. Measuring 1.8 by 0.8 by 4.0 inches and weighing a mere three ounces, the phone easily fits in a pants pocket or a purse.
Boosting the M56's wow factor are four thin LEDs on the left and right sides, which can be set to flash when a particular call or a new message comes in, when the phone powers up or down, or for other events. Again, you wouldn't want the LEDs to flicker while you're in the middle of a meeting, but kids carousing on campus will appreciate the effect.
The M56 falters with its disappointing seven-line, 4,096-color display. The palate is washed out, and the graphics are decidedly low-res, especially when compared with the vivid images on the Samsung SGH-x105 and the Sony Ericsson T616. The animated top-level menus are serviceable, but we found scrolling through the other items frustrating, as you typically can see only one option in the list at a time.
The M56 delivers when it comes to features. The mobile includes SMS, MMS, wireless e-mail and Web access via GPRS networks, a 500-entry address book (including 250 names you can store on the SIM card), voice commands, 20-number voice dialing, five-way conference calling, a speakerphone, a stopwatch, a calendar, a currency converter, and a to-do list.
If you grow tired of sending messages to friends, you can play any of the three preloaded games: CubasisMobile, eXtreme, and JAMDAT Bowling. Looking for more? You can download additional Java (J2ME) games directly to the handset via AT&T's mLife service.
There are multiple ways to customize the M56. You can apply one of four color (copper, lead, tin, and bronze) themes to the menus or choose wallpaper and a screensaver from the collection of more than 30 images; you can even use images received via MMS. You can also designate specific ring tones for various calling groups, such as friends, family, and business. There are 17 polyphonic ring tones, and you can download more via mLife.
Budding shutterbugs can snap away with the optional IQP-500 QuickPic camera ($80). You can take images at resolutions of up to 640x480 pixels, then save and use the pictures as your wallpaper or send them to friends via MMS.
We tested the M56 (GSM 850/1900) in the New York metro area using AT&T Wireless service. Calls sounded loud and clear, and our callers couldn't tell we were talking on a cell phone. Placing calls via the built-in speakerphone was equally impressive.
Battery life was impressive as well. Siemens promises 200 minutes of talk time, which we surpassed by more than 2 hours. We also managed to eke out a little over six days of standby time. While that's still about 50 hours shy of the company's rating of 200 hours, it's still quite good.