A Phone that Just Lacks Popcorn
By Steve Rosenbush
It's been said that no one would want to watch TV or movie clips on a tiny cell phone screen that's roughly the size of a Frosted Mini-Wheat. Well, let me set the record straight. After days of granular market research, I have found at least one person who's willing and eager to make room for the micro-screen: me.
I surfed the Web, watched TV, listened to music, and even made a phone call or two with the fabulous Samsung 920, a new phone geared toward Sprint's (S) higher-speed digital network. While the phone isn't perfect, it makes watching TV on the tiny screen more than just a novelty. It really works.
JACK OF ALL TRADES.
The A920, the second subject of BusinessWeek Online's series of reviews of high-end handheld communication devices (see BW Online, 1/26/06, "RIM's Sweet New Blackberry"), is a smallish flip phone that's 3.7 inches long, 1.9 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. It weighs just less than 4 ounces, making it easy to slip into a pocket or a bag.
It has two screens, including a small one on the front that displays the time, incoming calls, music tracks, and the like. The front cover also features a five-way navigational tool and a lens for the digital camera. When you open the phone, you're greeted with a bright and clear screen, an alphanumeric keypad, a second five-way navigational device, and several more buttons.
The phone has a list price of $299.99. After a $150 instant rebate, and a special online discount of $20, it can be purchased for $129.99 on the Sprint Web site at www.sprint.com. A similar, sleeker phone that appears to be targeted at the Motorola (MOT) RAZR can be purchased online for $179.99, after discounts.
The A920 is an appealing device. It feels solid, and the cover opens and closes with a crisp feel, the way a well-made car door slams into place. The midnight blue plastic case feels indestructible.
And the stereo speakers mounted on the left and right sides of the case sound good enough to turn heads. It's the first thing that my friends noticed about this phone; it sounds unexpectedly good. Add a good pair of headphones, and it rivals the quality of any MP3 player I've tested.
The A920 also gets points for a few simple phone-like features. There's a volume control on the side. That might sound like an obvious idea, but not every phone has one. This idea, simple as it may be, puts this phone in class with the terrific Palm (PALM) Treo 650 (see BW Online, 4/29/05, "The Treo Grande"). Equally useful, and even more original, is the button on the right side that automatically boots up the camera. That makes it easy to take pictures without opening the flip phone, let alone scrolling through menus.
The features are exceptional. The Sprint TV service has access to news, weather, music videos, movie clips, short underground films, and even full-length features. I tested a subscription to CNN (TWX), which costs $4.95 a month, and found it truly watchable. The herky-jerky movements of earlier experiments in video for mobile phone service were replaced with crisp and clear playback, and the sound was excellent. I also subscribed to mFlix for $5.95 a month. It features original underground films. And I subscribed to Mspot movies, which features full-length Hollywood movies and short clips. It costs $6.95 a month.
The selection at the Sprint music store is pretty good, too. It's powered by Groove Mobile, which distributes lots of new music, including the latest from Public Enemy (see BW Online, 11/23/05, "Public Enemy's New Wireless Order"). Songs cost $2.50 plus tax. That's a lot more than the price of a song from a regular online store, which usually charges 99 cents or less. But the download includes two versions: one for your phone and one that can be transferred to a computer and moved to an MP3 player.
I was able to use the phone and all the features without looking at the owner's manual. The interface still could be a little easier to use, though. It can take four or five clicks to find a song or TV channel. When I tried to call up my music play list, I was sent to the Sprint music store first. That's a little too clever, if you ask me. Please, just show me my list of songs. If I feel like shopping for more, I will.
Another complaint: The battery is more than adequate for making calls, but once you start listening to music or watching video, it runs down rather quickly.
All in all, this is a great phone. It isn't quite perfect. It won't replace Apple's (AAPL) iPod as a music player (see BW Online, 6/15/05, "iTunes: Still the Sweetest Song"). But as a tiny multimedia player, it demands to be taken quite seriously, offering a level of quality that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. That's no small feat.