The new mobile TV phone for the AT&T service comes with lots of next-generation features, and it's easy to use
O.K., so maybe this is not the most cool-looking cell phone out there. The Samsung Access, introduced in May by AT&T (T), looks deceptively typical: a screen set above a navigation wheel and a large-font dial pad.
But as compared with most smartphones, the Access is unusually simple to use—so easy it's almost homey. And homey is good. With handset makers scrambling to mimic the famed Apple (AAPL) iPhone, many phones out there now sport touch screens that don't work very well; others try to do fancy footwork with menus that end up confusing you to death. This phone, $200 with a two-year commitment and rebate, is straightforward.
And yet, the Access does a ton of cool stuff that most phones cannot: Equipped with a dedicated TV button and a 2.3-inch color display, it's one of the first phones from AT&T that features a new live TV service launched by the carrier earlier this year. The phone also lets you make video calls with other video-enabled phones on AT&T's network. It has an excellent 2-megapixel camera. You can listen to and download music, check Web-based e-mail and browse the Internet. It's just the sort of multifunction device a nonbusiness user might want to use on the go. It's the everything bagel.
In fact, it says quite a bit that my biggest gripe was that the phone didn't come preloaded with enough applications. I generally like to use a maps application for directions and a quick-and-easy local search engine such as Yahoo! (YHOO) OneSearch. But this was easily remedied: You can buy a subscription to MapQuest Mobile through AT&T or download Google Maps using the phone's browser. But annoyingly, although the phone has a built-in GPS satellite receiver to determine your location, AT&T hasn't enabled it for access by any applications. That means you'll have to input addresses manually for where you are and where you're going, to get directions.
I also wished Samsung had put a better mobile TV antenna into the device. I conducted an experiment: One day, I carried around Access and another new AT&T phone, the LG Vu, and tried to watch AT&T Mobile TV on both at the same time. Turns out, the LG phone catches the TV signal in places where the Access can't. Video quality on the Vu was also often superior. (AT&T Mobile TV, delivered over a separate wireless network operated by Qualcomm (QCOM), features seven channels from broadcasters such as NBC and Fox for $15 a month.)
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Access also doesn't come prepackaged with a USB cord, which you'll need to load songs from either your computer or the Napster (NAPS) music service that AT&T offers. That said, songs can be loaded directly onto the phone via AT&T's wireless network if you sign up for eMusic, a somewhat pricey service offering an eclectic mix ranging from indie bands to Frank Sinatra.
The music player's Community feature lets you join a favorite musician's club. When I signed up for Nelly's club, I could watch the singer's video slide shows, buy his music, get alerts on when his new album would be coming out, and get text messages, purportedly directly from Nelly. There's even an option to "call Nelly"; my call didn't go through, though. Maybe Nelly is avoiding my calls.
The phone's messaging applications let you check e-mail and instant messages using the leading Web-based services from the likes of Yahoo, AOL (TWX), Google (GOOG), and MSN (MSFT). I loved the e-mail application's notification feature: Even after I logged out, my phone notified me whenever I got a new e-mail message. At AT&T, an unlimited data plan for Web browsing costs $15 a month, though you pay extra for instant and text messaging.
Bottom line: If you are a no-nonsense person looking for a phone that's practical and fun, this one may be for you.