Reviewed May 20, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Poor Samsung: they release their first MediaFLO TV phone for AT&T and it's eclipsed by the sexy, touch screen LG Vu (really the lust-inducing LG Prada with a TV tuner and an AT&T logo). The Access and Vu are currently the only broadcast TV phones in AT&T's line, and AT&T started that service at the beginning of May 2008 in 58 metro regions in the US. But what if you don't want a touch screen device... say you're the kind of guy or gal who says "give me a normal keypad"? What if the $300 Vu is too pricey for you but you want your TV? The $199 Access will save you enough bucks to pay for almost 7 months of TV at $15/month.
Unlike the Vu, the Samsung Access looks, acts and feels like a standard candybar phone. It bears a physical resemblance to the Samsung BlackJack II, but the Access isn't a smartphone and forgoes the QWERTY keyboard. It's a stand-up feature phone with 3G HSDPA, CV support, Bluetooth and a 1.3 megapixel camera. Clearly its appeal is broadcast TV, which you can't get on some of AT&T's sexier and higher-spec phones in the same price range like the Moto Z9 and V9.
The Access is slim, light at 3.46 ounces and attractive in a business-like way. The large number pad and controls surrounding the d-pad are shiny while the back and sides have a soft-touch black finish that keeps the phone securely in hand. The phone attracts some finger oil, but manages to stay good-looking without constant wiping unlike some phones (we're thinking of you, LG Vu). Our only complaint is that the number pad is a bit too reflective and is hard to see at some angles and in direct sunlight. The number pad is completely flat, so there's no tactile guidance other than two tiny nibs on each side of the 5 key. The numbers are large and easy (but not too easy) to press and we found it easy to dial and text as long as we looked at the phone while doing so.
There's a volume rocker on the left along with a combined charger/stereo headset port. This is Samsung's usual blade style connector and a stereo wired headset with inline mic is in the box (thank you AT&T!). The SDHC-friendly microSD card slot is under a door on the right side of the phone. The camera button and a shortcut launcher (games, music player, MEdia NET web browser, messaging, calls) are also on the right and the power button is the call end button. The SIM card slot lives under the battery door on the back and the cover is just right: not too hard to remove but it stays firmly in place.
The Access' call to fame is its support for AT&T's newly introduced broadcast TV service, powered by Qualcomm's MediaFLO service. This is true digital broadcast TV over the old UHF channel 55 in the 700MHz band and it does not require or use a data connection of any kind. This means you need not subscribe to a data plan or be in a 3G coverage area to watch TV. You must however be in one of the 58 US metro regions covered by MediaFLO TV, and these cities include Dallas/fort Worth, Seattle, NYC, LA, Las Vegas, Orlando and more. You can check AT&T's TV coverage map to see if you're covered.
This is the same Qualcomm MediaFLO technology Verizon first introduced in the spring of 2007 and Qualcomm handles the behind-the-scenes operations, though you'll pay AT&T on your monthly bill. The $15/month service includes 10 channels including 2 AT&T exclusives: CNN and the Sony Pictures channel which shows movies. Other channels include FOX, Comedy Central, ESPN, Nickelodeon and MTV. This is 24/7 broadcast TV, and like regular TV it's not on-demand: you catch the show when it's on. Some shows are repeated so you'll get a second chance to watch them, though. And yes, there are commercials, though fewer than on regular TV.
The TV program grid.
How does TV look? Great if you're in a good coverage area. It's much better than anything you've seen streamed over CV (AT&T's streaming media service). No blocky-choppy, out of sync video here. But if you're at the edge of coverage things aren't so pretty and the video will drop frames and look blocky. In our two story house in a Dallas suburb, TV worked but we experienced drop-outs and blockiness, especially on the 1st floor. The LG Vu, thanks to its extendable antenna, managed a good, sharp picture with no drops. In downtown Dallas and downtown Seattle, the Samsung did fine though, with a very sharp, clear picture and smooth frame rates. TV plays back full screen with no bars since the display has the same 4:3 TV aspect ratio as broadcast TV (the widescreen LG Vu has bars on the sides). The TV grid looks similar to something you'd see with cable or dish TV on a home set.
Phone, Reception and Data
TV's nice but the Access better do a good job with calls. The Samsung is a quad band GSM world phone that works on the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands for GSM and EDGE. It has HSDPA 3.5G on the US 850/1900MHz bands for fast data and CV (Cellular Video streaming media). AT&T charges $15/month for unlimited data, and that includes a good deal of CV streaming content like news, weather and more (some content comes at a fee, like HBO Mobile). The phone can act as a wireless high speed modem via Bluetooth DUN, and AT&T charges extra for that pleasure, as do all US carriers. The Access has good reception that's not quite as good as the top Nokia phones or the Motorola Z9, but it beats the LG Vu and some other feature phones on AT&T.
Incoming call quality and volume are very good, but outgoing call quality has one fault: there's no DSP whatsoever according to our call recipients' keen ears. This means that background noise is transmitted to your call recipient. Running water in a sink (and we're talking a moderate stream, not a blast) sounded like wet veggies dropped into a vat of hot oil- a deafening, ongoing sizzle. A TV playing in the background sotto voce competed for our listener's attention. If you often make calls from noisy locations like busy streets or malls, plan on using the wired headset or a Bluetooth headset with a DSP. Happily, the Jawbone, whose claim to fame is noise reduction, worked well with the Access and cured the problem, though incoming voice wasn't the clearest (this is a complaint we have with the Jawbone and many phones). The Plantronics Explorer 330 sounded lovely on both ends: loud, clear and all but wind noise were acceptably filtered. Range was also good, averaging 15 to 20 feet. For music lovers, the Access supports stereo over Bluetooth via A2DP and sound quality was good with the Samsung SBH500 and Nokia BH-503 stereo headsets.
The phone supports all common call features including call waiting, conference calling, speakerphone (quite clear and loud), speed dial (8 numbers plus 1 which is assigned to voicemail), but there's no voice dialing. The address book can hold 1,000 records with fields for first and last name, email addresses, IM address, group, caller photo ID, ringtone and notes. For those of you using AT&T's VideoShare one-way video calling, the Access A827 supports it.
Fun and Games
The Samsung Access' music player handles most common formats including WMA, MP3, unprotected AAC and M4A iTunes format. The player sounds good through the rear-firing stereo speakers and much better through a stereo headset. AT&T includes a wired stereo headset in the box, and you can use Bluetooth stereo headsets with the phone. The music player has an equalizer, shuffle, loop and can sort by artist, album and song title, playlist as well as genre. It can play in the background while you're surfing the web or using other applications and you can store quite a lot of tunes on an 8 gig microSD card (the highest capacity card the phone supports according to Samsung). When running in the background, the current song title and player controls appear on screen indicating that you should hit the d-pad right or left to skip a track or press the center button to pause playback. Playback automatically pauses when a call comes in.
Gaming on the Samsung Access is a joy: excellent speed, bright screen and very good stereo sound via the included headset. We tested a good number of games including Asphalt 3: Street Rules 3D (Gameloft) and Diner Dash (Glu), all games ran very well on the phone.
It's hard to get excited by a 1.3 megapixel camera these days. The Access takes decent photos given the lowest common denominator resolution, but you won't be running to print them (even though the phone supports Bluetooth printing profile). The camera's features include multi-shot mode (up to 9 shots), self timer and brightness adjustment. Outdoor shots look sharp and colors look balanced. The photos have good amount of detail though some shots have too much contrast. Indoor shots look decent and have some noise (there's no flash to help matters). Some shots look over sharpened, but that’s not a bad thing as it helps objects stand out. The Samsung Access can take photos in 1280 x 960, 640 x 480 and 320 x 240 resolutions.
The camera can shoot video with audio in MMS length or longer (limited by available storage on internal memory or a microSD card). Video resolution is 176 x 144 at 15fps, and it looks decent-- good enough to catch a special (well-lit) moment but nothing worthy of YouTube.
The Samsung Access has average battery life by HSDPA phone standards. Claimed talk time is 4 hours and that's accurate according to our tests. Samsung doesn't state the battery capacity in mAh, but it's the same battery as the Samsung Ace which is 1300 mAh. That's a pretty good capacity battery for a slim, non-smartphone and it helps the Access last through an hour of TV along with 30 minutes of calls, some IM action and 30 minutes of CV streaming with power to spare.
If broadcast mobile digital TV has you all hot and bothered, the Samsung Access isn't a bad place to start. Especially if you prefer a traditional phone design and a lower price tag. The LG Vu is sexier and more fun, but if touch screens aren't your thing, the fascination ends there. The Access has better 3G reception than the Vu, but the Vu wins on outgoing call quality and camera. Both receive a sharp and beautiful TV picture in strong mobile TV coverage areas (which have nothing to do with phone or 3G reception), but the Vu's dorky antenna is better if you're in a suburban location that suffers TV jitters and wobbles on the Access. Likely most folks will pick up this phone for the TV feature since other AT&T phones at the same price point or lower offer more features or hotter looks (Moto Z9, LG Shine, Nokia N75 and Samsung's own BlackJack II).
Pro: Has TV tuner (if that's your thing). Sharp, bright display, great built-in speakers are perfect for TV and other multimedia. Access NetFront browser is one of the best on feature phones and can handle HTML web sites. Large, easy to use buttons and d-pad-- the Samsung has good ergonomics.
Con: Outgoing call quality issues with background noise transmitted to call recipient. Lack of TV antenna reduces potential TV viewing area. No voice dialing.
Price: $199.99 with 2-year contract after mail-in rebate. $449.99 without contract.
TFT color LCD. Screen size diagonally: 2.2". Resolution: 320 x 240, supports both portrait and landscape modes.
Battery:1300 mAh. Claimed talk time: up to 4 hours. Claimed standby time: up to 16 days.
Performance:100 MB internal memory for storing music and photos. Phone book can store 1000 entries.
Size:4.49 x 2.28 x 0.47 inches. Weight: 3.46 ounces.
Phone:GSM quad band with EDGE. 3.5G HSDPA on the US 850/1900MHz bands.
Camera: 1.3 megapixel with up to 8x digital zoom. Still image resolutions: 1280 x 960, 640 x 480, 320 x 240. Video length limited by available storage on internal memory or microSD card. Video format: 3GP, 176 x 144 resolution. Supports AT&T VideoShare one-way video conferencing.
Audio:64-Note Polyphonic ringtones and MP3 music tones. MP3 player onboard to play MP3, AAC, M4A and WMA files. Can record voice memo. Supports vibrating alert.
Networking:Bluetooth v2.0 with A2DP, BPP, DUN, FTP, Hands-Free, Headset, OPP, SIM Access and Serial Port Profiles.
Software:PIM tools include Contacts, Calendar, Calculator, Tip Calculator, World Time, Alarm, Timer, Stopwatch, Converter, Tasks and Notes. CV (Cellular Video), music player, MusicID (subscription fee required), XM Radio (subscription fee required), Access NetFront 3.4 web browser (HTML and WAP), messaging, IM client for Yahoo, AIM and MSN, Mobile Email app for select email accounts only, basic file browser and viewer for sounds, ringtones and images.
microSD card slot supporting SDHC and cards up to 8 gigs capacity.
In the Box:The Samsung Access with standard battery, wired stereo headset, AC charger and printed manual and guide.