Thursday, January 25, 2007

Phone Review: Samsung SGH-A707 (Cingular Sync)

I'm gonna take a little break from my Japan scan postings and write up a little review of my new Samsung SGH-A707, otherwise known as the "Cingular Sync". Cingular/AT&T has been making a big deal out of this phone of late, and for good reason - it's something of a holy grail phone in terms of features and performance, at least for the west. It's about as close as we'll probably come to one of these uber-cool NTT DoCoMo phones - well, minus the fancy styling. More on that in a minute.

A little early digression is probably warranted, because a lot of people really don't realize how far behind we are in the United States in terms of both cell phones and service. It all probably started with NTT's wildly popular i-Mode, which drove both sales of advanced handsets and data services. A bonafide culture was born that then spread all over Asia. Nowadays, it's almost difficult to find a phone with less than a QVGA (320x240) screen, most phones support 3G networks for speedy data service, many have niceties like TV tuners, 5MP (and up) cameras, and more. And the sheer variety of styles and colors they're available in is mind-boggling. Best of all, Asian networks are rock-solid - it's just expected that call quality will be as good as a land line. Seriously.

So it's been difficult for me to "upgrade" from my trusty (but rusty) old Sony Ericsson Z500A, because frankly, the phones available here have just not been very exciting and the networks (take your pick) so rickety that it's almost painful to throw any money at them. I knew that I wanted to stick with a clamshell, because if there's one thing I've learned from past experience, it's that you want to protect your screen (hello, iPhone?). I knew that I wanted 3G, because honestly, there have been times when I've really had to rely on data services, and it's just painful navigating the web with a 2G phone. (During both the 9/11 attacks and the Northeast blackout, cell phones were the only real way to get information.) I knew that I wanted a better screen than I had, more storage space for video and photos, and honestly, I really wanted a strap/lanyard loop. Having gone through two phones now without a lanyard loop, I was itching to regain that ability to personalize.

I thought about switching over to T-Mobile and going with the Motorola PEBL, which is nicely styled but does not offer any expandable storage and is not a 3G phone. Ditto for the standard RAZR. Korea's LG offers a 3G phone with Cingular but it lacks a lanyard loop (I was shocked by this) and also feels a bit flimsy. For a long time, I felt like I was stuck in no-man's land.

Enter Samsung with the SGH-A707. From the moment this phone was announced, I knew it was the one for me. It does literally everything I want. It is a 3G phone. It's a clamshell. It has a QVGA screen (a beautiful one at that). It has a lanyard loop. It has a slot for a MicroSD memory card. It has a built-in media player and a 2 megapixel camera. A bonus for me, it also has Bluetooth built in - I'm not one of those guys who walks around seemingly talking to himself through a wireless headset, but it does make PC syncing much easier. I was sold on this phone sight unseen. When I saw Amazon offering it for a penny straight up (before rebate!), I pulled the trigger.

I know, six paragraphs in and I still haven't gotten to the heart of the matter for some of you - how well does it work?

In short, very well. It's not without its subtle quirks and minor hiccups, but overall I am quite pleased.

What does it do so well? For one thing, it's fast. I mean lightning fast. Not just in data transfer either, though it's fast at that - provided you're on Cingular's 3G or "3G+" (HSDPA) network. But no, even the interface is fast. No lag, which is a problem I've had with every other phone I've ever used, all of which seem to have barely enough processing power to even turn themselves on. The A707 is just a pleasure to navigate around, especially if you're familiar with the Samsung interface - the A707 uses a prettier version of the same interface on all of the company's phones. And it may just be my perception, but the processing speed seems to extend to calls as well - whereas most phones seem to have a bit of a radio-like delay built in, this phone doesn't. Or at least it doesn't feel like it does.

The main screen on the A707 is gorgeous, and big. Coming from my old Z500A, the first time I opened up my new phone was almost a shock. It's like looking at a little high resolution laptop display.

The phone also has a front screen for basic info, though it's disappointingly low in quality compared to the main screen. Still, it gets the job done - but it's not something you'd want to show off to friends.

I've always thought reception and call quality issues are more a function of the network than the phone, and I still think that's mostly true. Cingular's network is, like all other networks in this country, pretty much crap. There are dead spots everywhere, including a big one that my house happens to sit right in the middle of. In the wrong spot in my house, I can hit zero bars of signal - and I'm 1 mile outside of the New York City limits. Still, I know it's not my imagination that reception is slightly better with this phone than my old Z500A. Whereas I used to have to be on the second floor of my house to have any hope of carrying on a conversation, I can now sit on my couch and talk relatively comfortably. I do still miss calls if I've got the phone in the kitchen (where I charge it), but at least parts of my house are now accessible to me. That's an improvement.

Along with the A707, Cingular has dropped the prices on their media/data plans to just $20 a month for unlimited service (on top of the regular voice plan). You need an unlimited plan to even access Cingular Video, which is streaming video over their 3G network (supported by a few phone models, including the A707). Unfortunately, I have not yet had the chance to try this out, as Cingular seems intent on screwing up my order whenever I try to add the Media Max bundle on my plan.

But I have transferred my own video over. The phone supports mpeg4, Windows Media, 3gp and several other formats, and it will play them in full screen landscape mode if you choose. Unfortunately, it seems that the video decoding is probably being done in software with a processor that's not quite up to the task, as there is some choppiness and video "tearing" during complex scenes encoded at high frame rates. I'm curious to see what Cingular's own video looks like, but I've had to compromise a bit with my own video encoding. The screen on the phone is beautiful, but you need to dial down your compression and frame rate settings a bit in encoding, so you're not quite utilizing all that the screen is capable of.

Connecting the phone to my PC was something of an adventure. Samsung and Cingular sell a "media kit" that includes a USB cable, which from what I understand works well (though it's overpriced at $39). I want nothing to do with cables, though, so I went out and bought a $20 Bluetooth adapter for my PC. This necessitates downloading the PC Studio software from Samsung's web site - it is not included with the phone. It also requires changing the sync option on the phone from Windows Media Player to PC Studio - something that, from what I can tell, is undocumented anywhere in the manual.

The result of this was much pulling of hair as phone and PC refused to pair up, or would pair but then refuse to transfer files. Eventually a posting on Cingular's user forums led me to a different version of PC Studio - the one linked from their A707 product page is not compatible with the phone! This may be fixed by the time you read this, but it's such an obvious and stupid mistake that it bears mentioning.

However, once I loaded up the correct version of PC Studio, I was up and syncing both contacts and media over Bluetooth without problems. PC Studio is actually a pretty powerful app for something given away as a free download. It'll manage all your media (though it wouldn't be my first choice to do it), it'll sync your contacts, email and whatever else from Outlook, it'll let you browse your phone's files and drag and drop, it'll even let you edit your media files, and encode them to different formats. Very, very few free applications will actually encode to mpeg4, as mpeg4 itself is not a free license. So this is a really nice bonus.

The web browser included with the phone is a full web browser, though the screen is still too small to view many sites properly. Sites like gmail, however, work just fine. (The phone also supports Flash, though I haven't actually tried to view a Flash-based site.) Gmail also has their own mobile app now, which I tried to download, but got a "java certificate mismatch" error. Hmmmm.

The phone has a 2 megapixel camera that's about on par with my first-ever digital camera that I purchased in 2000. In other words, it's not great... but it's at least useful, unlike previous generation phone cameras (see here for an example of what I mean). This is a picture of the Times Square area that I took with the A707, and keep in mind Blogger does recompress images a bit, so the quality's actually slightly better than this. Click through for the full-size version.

The phone's photo viewer is odd in that unlike the video player, it does not allow you to view full screen. You're always stuck with the interface cluttering things up. Ah well, there's probably a java app somewhere that I can download. (Provided I don't get a "certificate mismatch" again.)

Battery life is fair, though good for a powerful 3G phone. I do have to charge it a little more than I'd like - maybe twice a week, with moderate use - but this is a far cry from early 3G phones that were notoriously power hungry. One annoyance about all Samsung phones I've ever owned is that as soon as you lose one bar on your battery meter, you'd better head for a power outlet as soon as possible. Each bar of the meter is definitely not created equally. The last two go fast.

I should talk a little bit about the styling and feel before I close this review. While this is a phone made in Korea, it's made specifically for the US market. The A707 was originally only available in black, as is common in this country. In black, the phone looks pretty sleek, but basically unremarkable. It's neither too thin or too thick, too large or too small. You probably won't wow anybody with this phone until you open it up and show them that beautiful screen. The body is plastic made to look like metal; it's pretty convincing, though the material is quite slippery and also does not hide fingerprints at all. Samsung now offers this phone in red as well, which to my eyes is much more interesting, and almost really does look like an Asian phone. I'm a sucker for straight lines, though, and the somewhat bulbous, curvy look of a lot of American phones I think is a little strange in terms of design. The A707 does have a curved body, but it's very subtle. This is a classy looking phone, but it's not one that's likely to get noticed... for either positive or negative reasons.

Could the A707 be improved? Sure, but it's mostly in areas of spit and polish. This is a highly advanced phone for the American market, and at its price, it really can't be beat.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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