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Review: Samsung A900

Article Comments  66  

Mar 19, 2006, 11:34 PM   by Eric Lin

In-depth review of the razor-thin Samsung A900 for Sprint.
with Video Tour

Form

Is It Your Type 

While many businessmen (and women!) can't live without their Blackberries, there is definitely a population of suit-wearing, office-working professionals who prefer something more phone-like. The A900, with its simple, thin, black profile and familiar phone interface may be just the phone for those people - people for whom a simple keypad, clean interface and access to advanced features are important. While it is loaded with features, it is definitely a phone for those more likely to brag about them then use them. The A900's storage is too limited to take full advantage of Sprint's 3G services like their music store.

Body 

Body

People will inevitably compare it to the CDMA RAZR, and it is nearly the same size. However the A900 is slightly narrower and thicker, which allowed Samsung to add nicely rounded edges. This makes the A900 more comfortable to hold over long periods. No matter how you hold the A900 - open or closed - it feels good in your hand. The heft of the metal body gives the A900 a high quality feel, without being too weighty like larger metal-bodied phones.

The lid is shorter than the bottom half, and the ledge created by this difference in lengths makes a nice perch to insert your thumb and flip the phone open. The large radius of the rounded sides provide an additional deep crevice to slide your thumb into. The phone flips open with a confident snap around a solid-feeling hinge. The weight, solid feel of each half of the clamshell and silent, smooth hinge give the user a sense of quality and confidence.

Although the speaker and screen are flush with the top half's face, it is easy to place the phone speaker against your ear, because the rounded corners of the lid let you position the phone by feel.

Keypad

Borrowing directly from the RAZR, the A900 has a flat metal keypad - or nearly flat. There are two nearly imperceptible ridges on either side of the 5 "key" and indentations between each row of keys. Although it does not have as much tactile separation between keys as the RAZR, dialing or texting on the A900 is remarkably easy and fast. The surface for each key is large enough that even without physical indicators, the thumbs "knows" where to go and can move about the keypad quite confidently.

The softkeys and send / end buttons are positively huge - approximately twice the size of any numeric key. At least some of the real estate devoted to these keys should have been devoted to expanding the D-Pad. Although the D-Pad looks like a tiny scroll wheel, it is a traditional style navigation pad. The ring used to select a direction is quite narrow, and is sunk slightly beneath the keypad's surface, however the center select key is level with the rest of the keypad. The sunken D-Pad was already difficult to use because it offers so little space in which to choose a direction, and the raised select key in the center further decreases its usability, as you are more likely to hit select than whatever direction you want. Whenever possible we found ourselves using numeric shortcuts for navigation instead of the D-Pad to avoid frustration.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Three S's 

Screen

The A900 appears to use the same brilliant screen as the T809, which we reviewed earlier. As with the T809, this screen is still easy to read on the lowest brightness setting, even in direct sunlight. The colors are very rich and resolution is sharp. Sprint's menu icons are highly detailed, and this screen does them justice.

Signal

After installing the most recent software update, the A900 has performed admirably, holding a usable signal further into some dead zones than other Sprint handsets we've tested. However there are also times when the phone displays signal bars in dead zones, but cannot make calls or get online. It performed well in our underground vault test - making calls as well as sending and receiving text inside.

Sound

The default ringer volume on the A900 is rather deceptive. It is set at 4 out of 8, which is plenty loud for most indoor situations. Despite this acceptable volume, the phone is not that loud even when the ringer is set all the way up. Couple this with a rather weak vibrating alert, and you may miss a few calls when you're out in loud environments.

The earpiece volume is quite effective. The loudest setting can overpower the background noise of mass transit without much distortion. In less noisy environments the maximum volume is too loud. The speakerphone is also easy to hear in all but the noisiest environments. However access to it is hidden in the in-call menus.

Battery

With average use, the A900 gets about 2-3 days of battery life. This included calling, sending texts and using a number of the Power Vision services. With heavy use the battery rarely lasted 2 full days. Watching videos or playing music did not seem to impact battery life significantly, nor did sporadic Bluetooth use. The battery indicator will strike fear into the hearts of heavy users, as it seems to speed through the first two bars rather quickly, leaving just one precious bar of battery life. However, that last bar last about twice as long as the other two. As with most CDMA phones, the A900 exhibits an impressive standby time. If left untouched, the phone will stay alive for days.

Function

Menus 

The Samsung home screen is clear and easy to use. The two soft buttons are fixed to access favorites - a user configurable list of shortcuts, and contacts. Time and date are displayed just above the softbutton labels, and can be supplemented with much larger clocks in the center of the home screen.

Pressing the D-Pad select button opens the main menu. It is initially displayed in a 3 *4 grid pattern with each square on the grid mapped to the corresponding position on the keypad. As we mentioned before, because the D-Pad is difficult to use, these shortcuts are a lifesaver. The icons in this grid view are highly detailed - so much so that in a few cases it's difficult to understand what they represent without the labels beneath. Sprint and Samsung simply tried to pack too much graphic information into too few pixels. We still prefer the icon view to the list view, which forces you to scroll in order to access about half of the applications.

Most of the main menu choices bring up a secondary menu which is a tightly packed list of applications or functions each with a numeric shortcut. After a selection is made from this menu, navigation is done strictly from the D-Pad, back key and softkeys. Inside applications the left softkey or D-Pad select both function as the "ok" or next step button, the right softkey summons the options menu, and the back key goes back one step. The end key exits applications and returns you to the home screen.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Calls / Contacts 

Contact entries in the A900 hold just enough information. There is space for 4 phone numbers, one email address, a URL and a note. The contact card is also used to assign custom ringtone, caller group and picture for photo caller ID. When viewing a person's entry, all fields that have been filled out are displayed in a flat list, any fields left blank are hidden until you select edit from the options menu.

Making and answering calls and ending them worked as expected once the appropriate settings were made. By default the A900 did not answer or end calls by opening or closing the flip, however this can be fixed in the setting menu. When in a call, the left softbutton acts as a mute key, while the right brings up a menu with the rest of the options. Speakerphone is the first of these options, and cannot be activated except from within this menu.

Like many recent Samsung models, especially those for Sprint, the A900 features speaker-independent voice recognition. It worked remarkably well, even in difficult situations. Although it does not affect the performance at all, the software reads back the names dialed using such strange pronunciation that we often had to double check the screen to be sure the right contact was being called.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Messaging 

The A900 includes shortcuts to create text, picture or audio messages in the favorites menu. New message dialogs force you to address the message first, either from your phone book, or with a manually entered number or email address. Once this step is complete, you can type in a full screen text box. T9 is very fast, keeping up with as fast as we could text using the A900's flat keypad.

Despite the speed of T9 on this phone, it is still one of the A900's weaknesses. The T9 dictionary comes pre-loaded with many SMS abbreviations but cannot be customized with your own. Worse, the T9 text entry does not allow you to go back and choose a different word after you have hit the space key when entering text. Thus if you are texting without looking and want to go back to change a word when T9 defaulted to the wrong one, you'll have to scroll back and erase the word, re-enter it and then switch to the proper choice instead of just scrolling back, selecting the word and finding the right choice. Finally the punctuation available while hitting the 1 key using T9 is limited. If you want to use the question mark, exclamation point or many other very common symbols, you'll have to exit T9 and use the symbol entry mode.

Even though the A900 can send MMS directly from the handset, Sprint requires you to register a picture mail account before allowing you to create an MMS. Once registered with the system, creating and sending picture messages is a straightforward process. Pictures sent to email addresses are sent at full resolution, not resized, which is a nice for Flickr users.

The A900 also offers a special handwriting picture message option. You can draw or write something on a piece of paper, the use the handwriting message mode to take a picture of it. This will create a high contrast black and white image of the text.

New text messages are shown in a "missed events" dialog - a list of all missed calls, new messages and other notifications. If you dismiss the events dialog without reading new messages, a message indicator is displayed in the status bar, as with other handsets. The problem with the A900 is that the message indicator for voicemail is exactly the same as for new messages. If there are new SMS waiting for you, you may never know that there's also a new voicemail. There is no entry in the events list for new voicemail, and if you have voicemail because you did not have phone service, there will not even be a missed call entry to help you guess that a new voicemail is waiting.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Extras

Camera 

There is a small button on the side of the A900's flip to activate the camera. Using this button is by far the fastest method to start the camera, and yet it takes almost 3 seconds to launch, which is longer than most other handsets take. When first launched, the camera displays a full screen viewfinder with an upside down image. This issue is a small gripe with all Samsung handsets that have rotating cameras. A quick tap of the volume rocker will flip the image right side up.

The full-screen viewfinder makes excellent use of the large, bright screen. However it is not that useful for actually framing pictures if you compose your shots at all. The full-screen mode is oriented vertically while the camera is set horizontal. So to see the full image that the camera will capture, the camera needs to be set to wide screen, which place large black bars above and below the image in the viewfinder.

The A900 may feel solid in the hand, but apparently it is not easy to hold still. Either that or the camera shutter stays open longer than normal. Most pictures we took came out blurry unless we held the phone still with both hands or they were taken in very bright light. And when pictures were taken in bright light, the contrast was too high to get a usable picture. We were disappointed at the small number of usable snapshots we got from this cameraphone.

The camera application offers the normal set of options - resolution, quality, color effects, as well as adjustment of flash, white balance and brightness. The one impressive feature is the ability to choose from a number of shutter sounds as well as completely silence the shutter.

Video

The video recorder can take either a short clip limited to Sprint's MMS message size or a long clip limited only by the available memory. Clips can only be recorded at QCIF (176 *144) regardless of which option you choose. Video recording features all the same options and color effects as the still camera. Motion on the clips is smooth and the sound is good, but the low resolution unfortunately gives the A900's videos a much lower quality feel.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Gallery

The gallery application is more frustrating than the pictures it contains. When launching the gallery, you have to wait for the application to draw a screen's worth of thumbnails before you can do anything. The phone does not store thumbnails after they are created the first time. In fact, the phone never stores the thumbnails. If you scroll off a screen, you have to wait for the next 9 thumbnails to be drawn, and if you scroll back, you'll have to wait again. Each thumbnail takes about a second to draw.

Once the thumbnails are drawn you can select one or more photos and choose to send them, upload them to a Sprint gallery or even print them over Bluetooth. The ability to select multiple items at once is one of the gallery's few saving graces.

If you choose to view a single photo ("expand", in this application's parlance), you can do the same operations and nothing else. There is no zoom, slideshow or editing of the picture - even from this "expanded" view.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Pictures and Videos 

The A900 camera scored a respectable 20/50 on the vision test. Colors are very accurate in a variety of lighting conditions, a feat which not many other phones have matched. However the A900 does not perform well in very bright conditions, over-exposing the image until it is just a large white blob with some very dark shadows. It is very difficult to hold the A900 steady while taking a picture (or movie). Most the pictures here were taken using two hands to steady the phone.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

(v)
QuickTime format
File size: 190 KB

Browse / Customize 

Browsing

Like all Sprint phones, the A900 allows direct access to any WAP site in addition to the Sprint homepage. Text is clear and easy to read, and even complex WAP pages are drawn accurately. There are three text sizes - the browser defaults to the smallest, which is still large enough to read easily. EV-DO's high data speed and the browser's sharp, accurate results make web access one of the most pleasurable experiences on this phone.

Should you want your news delivered in channels as opposed to browsing and clicking, the A900 also includes "On Demand," an application that delivers the latest in news and sports as well as maps and movie times without constant online access.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Customization

The home screen can be customized with wallpapers either from a default list, from the photo albums, or downloaded from Sprint. It can also be customized with an additional clock or calendar. There are also a variety of clocks one can choose for the external display. The main menu can be customized with two "themes" that highlight the selected item either in silver-blue or bright blue. The only other customization available on the A900 is the size and color of the font that dialed numbers are displayed in.

The default ringers are a rather pleasant, albeit predictable, set of polyphonic tones, ranging from the space age to the ring of a traditional phone. Sprint has an extensive store of music ringtones from which you can purchase something more modern, though purchase is the wrong word. Ringtones only last for 90 days, so you actually rent, not buy, them.

You cannot customize the A900 with your own files. There is no way to transfer pictures or mp3s from a computer to the phone. The phone rejects mp3s and jpegs sent over Bluetooth, and does not allow users to add files to the phone when connected via USB.

File Management

Imagine the shock when we opened the "My Content" application from the main menu and saw only 11 MB of available memory. In a rather confusing move, the A900 divides the memory into two separate portions, managed from within two separate places. 11 MB is devoted to customization content downloaded from Sprint's store. The rest of the available memory is dedicated to music downloads, pictures and video, which is managed from the photo albums and media player applications.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Other 

Clock

The A900 offers the choice of four digital and four analog clock faces for the external display. Each is high contrast and maximizes use of the space, making it easy to tell the time with just a quick press of the volume rocker to turn the screen on. The small digital readout and choice of large clocks for the home screen make the A900 a useful watch even if the flip is open.

Bluetooth

The A900 supports both headset and handsfree Bluetooth headsets. It also supports Object Exchange, although this is limited. The A900 will accept VCARDs to add contacts, however it will not accept files such as pictures or music clips. The gallery application has a menu entry to send pictures using Bluetooth, however despite various efforts and software updates, we were unable to get this feature to work.

 

Click a thumbnail above for a larger view.

Java

The A900 managed a repectable 2309 on JBenchmark's MIDP 1.0 test and 133 on their 2.0 test. These scores are an improvement over Sprint's high-end lineup from last quarter, however they are still behind many high-end GSM handsets.

Extras

The A900 comes with the typical array of tools and extras. The alarm clock allows you to schedule three separate alarms with a a variety of repeat options. It does not work if the phone is powered off. The phone also includes an easy to use calculator, datebook and voice memo and memo pad.

Like all Power Vision EV-DO phones, the A900 offers access to the Sprint Music store. It comes with a stereo headset and playback control buttons are accessible beneath the external display. The music store is easy to use and playback from the phone is equally easy. Unlike ringtones, when you buy a song (for the same price) from the music store, you own it for good. However purchased songs cannot be used as ringtones.

Video 

A quick video tour of the A900:

Full video page on YouTube.

Wrap-up 

The A900 fills a niche for Sprint. There is a demand for elegant, good looking phones with advanced features. The A900 packs all of Sprint's most advanced features into a good looking, and popularly styled body. It is not necessarily the most advanced or highest power handset, but it is plenty capable for most users - especially business users who are more interested in voice calls and data features than music playback or a good camera. But even professionals who just make calls will still experience one limitation using the A900 - its short battery life will have them plugging recharging more often than they're used to.

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Comments

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Subject Author Date
messaging review is wrong busaturbo Mar 29, 2007, 2:16 PM
A900 for Verizon? unsilentmajority Mar 20, 2006, 12:42 PM
  • no, but by eric Lin   Mar 20, 2006, 1:07 PM
MP3/AAC Over Bluetooth Possible tuolumne Mar 20, 2006, 3:30 PM
how can use mp3 song as a ringtone Szadek Apr 11, 2006, 4:02 PM
what about macs? soph Jun 20, 2006, 9:14 PM
Battery Life MRodPA Mar 20, 2006, 2:10 AM
cant send mms to metropcs Sucorra May 29, 2006, 6:49 PM
Any way to add contact information via a computer connection curly1wny Apr 27, 2006, 11:40 PM
text messages & pictures now showing up correct tonyl Mar 27, 2006, 12:58 PM
COOL VIDEO gunny Mar 23, 2006, 7:07 PM
Play MP3's WITHOUT Sprint Music Store? alaxxiong Mar 26, 2006, 11:35 PM
you can transfer pics and music files mp3 formatted mrchuckbadazz Apr 2, 2006, 5:39 AM
Incorrect information about T9 pndapupy Apr 1, 2006, 4:01 PM
what format is ringtones? Arkboyndallas Apr 1, 2006, 2:21 PM
You can put jpegs on the phone Etix Mar 20, 2006, 10:50 AM
Incorrect information on ringtones EightyFive04 Mar 21, 2006, 1:00 PM
900 battery cover... Rhowdy17 Mar 23, 2006, 6:19 PM
MP3's? iatangan Mar 20, 2006, 5:28 PM
 
 
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