We've covered the hyper-marketed Samsung Instinct since Sprint first announced it in April at the CTIA trade show. The Instinct will be available June 20th, but we received our review unit in advance of the release date. Sprint has been pitching the Instinct hard with TV commercials, movie theater spots and of course on their web site. Pitting the Instinct vs. the iPhone, Sprint has reminded us that the Instinct has key features that the 1st generation iPhone lacks including the ability to send MMS pictures and video, GPS, a removable battery, streaming TV content over EVDO and voice dialing. Yes, 'tis true the Instinct has all these and so far, they've worked extremely well for us. Cool. However, Apple has narrowed the gap somewhat by announcing the second generation iPhone with 3.5G HSDPA and a GPS on June 9th, 2008.
Beyond that, there's more to being an iPhone killer than filling in the missing features. The iPhone has an incredibly cool and easy to use interface that brings "fun" to the phone. Likewise, the recently released touch screen LG Vu on AT&T brings some of that fun to the phone experience-- it's very easy and intuitive, and it has broadcast TV, which adds a special something. The Instinct is by no means hard to use-- in fact, Sprint and Samsung worked hard to make it easy to use because they understand therein lies some of the iPhone's power. The Instinct even has a "Fun" tab. But it takes more than a label on a tab to make something fun and pleasurable to use.
The Samsung Instinct is pleasant to use and we particularly like the Favs tab where you can put your most used applications, web pages and even TV or radio stations as shortcuts. The touch screen with haptic vibration feedback generally works well- it's responsive and accurate. Not as good as the iPhone's, and there's no multi-touch but it's worlds better than the Samsung Glyde for Verizon we recently reviewed, and on par with the LG Voyager (Verizon's fall 2007 attempt at an iPhone killer). The 3.1" screen is huge by phone standards and is fairly bright, though not as color-saturated as the iPhone or Vu.
The interface with its tabs reminds us of the Samsung Glyde, LG Voyager and LG Vu, and in terms of form and function, we'd say the Instinct is more aptly a Voyager competitor than an iPhone competitor. In fact, the fierce comparisons with the iPhone may hurt the Instinct because the iPhone is an impossibly tough adversary with a unique user interface. The Instinct is no iPhone (duh) and while it's generally easy to use, it hasn't found that holy grail of near-perfect usability combined with the iPhone's fun factor.
Sprint will sell the Instinct with a mandatory $69.99 "Everything 450" plan which is Sprint's Simply Everything plan with 450 minutes of talk time rather than unlimited voice. This gets you Sprint's GPS Navigation service, unlimited data, Sprint Music Premier with approximately 50 commercial free radio channels and Sprint TV Premier with approximately 25 TV channels that are served over the data connection (not broadcast TV over the air). If you need more minutes you can go for a higher Simply Everything plan, likely the $99 plan with unlimited voice since the "Everything 900" minute plan isn't a bargain at $89. So the cheapest Sprint plan is $10 more per month than the cheapest 1st generation iPhone plan, but you do get lots of streaming media content and the GPS service. Both AT&T and Sprint's plan include 450 anytime minutes and unlimited data. AT&T's raised the price for the 3G iPhone data plan, making it $69.99 as well, and we're not sure if any navigation service is included.
The combined power/screen lock button and headset jack are up top.
Sprint TV has been enhanced on the Instinct and fills up a large portion of the 240 x 432 pixel display in landscape orientation. Video quality is variable, from fairly sharp and in-sync to blocky, balky, and seriously out of sync, even with 1 bar short of a full signal. Generally, the stronger the signal, the better the video quality on the Instinct, but we found it hard to get a full strength signal unless we were outdoors and the Instinct's display is nearly impossible to view outdoors. You can see a clip of Sprint TV in action(1 bar short of a full EVDO signal), including the channel selection touch interface below:
Design and Ergonomics
Like the LG Voyager, the Instinct is large and isn't a lightweight at 4.4 ounces. It's not too wide to be comfy in hand, even for a woman though and we really like the black soft-touch finish on the back, making it one of the few touch screen feature phones that isn't too darned slippery to hold. The Instinct is attractive and looks more chic and high-ticket than the Voyager but not as good as the glass, metal and chrome iPhone.
The entire front surface is covered with highly reflective clear plastic that shows fingerprints and creates glare. The screen is quite hard to see outdoors but looks good indoors as long as you avoid windows and overhead lights which bring out the glare. Fingerprint smudges increase the glare, so keep this baby polished. Three touch controls live below the display: the back button, home button and what looks like a call end key but is actually a phone functions keys: it brings up the phone-related applications at any time with a press. The buttons aren't really buttons, they're touch-sensitive controls and they require a much harder press than the display. The display itself requires a firm touch compared to the iPhone, Palm OS Treo smartphones and Windows Mobile PDA phones. However, you need not beat on it, as we sometimes felt we had to do with the Glyde and it's easier to adjust to the required pressure than the HTC Touch Diamond which requires more finesse.
Like the iPhone and HTC TouchFLO Windows Mobile Pro phones, you can swipe to move through photos and lists, but this isn't a multi-touch display so there's none of the iPhone's pinch. Swiping, tapping and scrolling work well enough, though occasionally we found ourselves accidentally selecting an item in a list we didn't want when finger-scrolling.
The screen automatically locks after a set period of time (you can set the timeout). Unlocking the screen is annoying-- first you must press the power button to wake up the phone, then you must press and hold the power button until the device unlocks. If you don't hold it down long enough the screen turns off again but if you hold it too long the phone doesn't power off, thankfully. We're thrilled that the screen doesn't turn off during a phone call so you can use the on-screen keypad, speaker controls and etc., though this takes a toll on battery life. To hang up a call, you must slide the red end call button on screen; just tapping it doesn't work. To dial a number, select the keypad from the 4-tabbed phone application (the tabs are Speed Dial, Contacts, History and Dialer), tap out your numbers on the large keypad then hit the green window near the top that shows the numbers you've tapped in so far. Kinda weird-- when you first open the dialer that green window says "TALK" with a phone icon beside it; just the kind of thing you'd figure you should press to start the call. Once it shows numbers instead, it's a bit unintuitive.
On the sides, the Instinct has dedicated keys for voice command, the camera and volume (yay!). There's also a Samsung blade-style connector socket for charging/syncing/headphones and an SDHC microSD card slot under a rubber door. Sprint includes both a stereo earbud headset and a 2 gig starter card: very nice! In fact they also include a stylus (though there's no silo on the phone to stash it), a second battery with external charger and a slip case. Good stuff.
The UI and On-screen Keyboard
A picture tells a thousand words, so we'll show you a video of the 4 tab UI rather than describe it. I will say that the UI is very responsive, accurate when it comes to touch and fairly fast. Most everything we wanted on a high end phone is here, except a file manager.
When entering data, in most cases the phone presents you with a landscape keyboard, though sometimes it's portrait orientation. In most but not all cases, you can tap an on-screen button to switch orientations. As you'd guess, the landscape keyboard is easier to type on since the virtual keys are larger, but neither is hard to use as long as you're sitting still (riding in bumpy train or car gets a little hairy). Occasionally, you'll run into a data entry event that is inconsistent. When we first launched the Navigation application it wanted us to register with first name, last name and email address. The first and last name fields got a landscape keyboard and the email address field got a portrait orientation keyboard with no option to switch.
Landscape keyboard above and portrait to the right.
But wait, there's more! The Instinct also sports handwriting recognition, a relative rarity outside of PDA phones. The phone comes with a stylus in the box, though there's no place to store it in the phone and you can use it or any PDA stylus to enter text via print or cursive. This works passably if you're right handed and poorly if you're a lefty with nasty scrawl like me. The phone uses dictionary lookup to figure out the word you wrote. NB: make sure to put a space between your works using a left to right stroke, otherwise the phone will assume everything is one word, baffling the dictionary. Our advice? Leave the stylus in the box and stick with the on-screen keyboard. Handwriting recognition is offered only in portrait mode (likely because your hand would tend to touch the screen in landscape mode, confusing the recognizer).
Like the iPhone, most application settings live in the Settings application rather than as menu items or buttons in the application. These include web browser preferences, Speech to Action prefs, volume, display, Bluetooth, Mobile Sync and ringers.
Features: Lots of 'em!
Remember when a phone was just a phone? Forget those memories. The Samsung Instinct is a music player, streaming radio player, streaming video player, web browser, email machine, GPS and handheld gaming device. And unlike your spouse, you can tell it what to do. The music player is similar to Sprint's other high end feature phones, with touch support added. It can play most popular music formats including MP3, AAC (unprotected iTunes format) and WMA. You can buy songs from Sprint's music store using the phone, copy songs to the microSD card using a card reader or use the included Sprint Music Manager software under Windows (sorry Mac users, no software for you). The phone supports MTP 2.0 in mass storage mode-- good! Sound quality through the speaker is good, and sound quality through the included stereo earbud headset is very good. We tested the Instinct's A2DP Bluetooth stereo support with the Samsung SHB500 and it sounded great, but was a bit shy on the bass compared to some of the best music phones.
The Navigation application's map view showing all the theaters in our area. Tap on one to see the detail screen with options to call, map, save or drive to.
Games are designed to work with the Instinct's touch screen. Generally this means you'll see a virtual d-pad below the game and that's how you control movement. This works decently, though not as well as the virtual d-pad/arrow keys on the LG Vu, nor as well as a hardware d-pad. You can see a video of Pac-Man in action here. Some games, like Bejeweled, don't use the virtual d-pad and you'll use your finger to touch and move the jewels. The Instinct comes with a selection of game demos, and you can actually remove the ones you don't want, which is rare for a US carrier phone. There are a few additional titles available for download and purchase, and likely the number will increase in the coming months.
Pac-Man on the Samsung Instinct.
The GPS software is Sprint's usual TeleNav service, and it's included in the mandatory Everything plan. TeleNav does an excellent job of routing and navigation, complete with voice prompts, traffic tracking and re-routing. The speakerphone is loud enough for a sedan but you'll want to keep the phone close if you drive a noisy sports car or truck. The large screen is excellent for map viewing, and all menu and item selections work well via the touch screen. But don't expect to use this for GPS-ing on foot outdoors since the screen is impossible to see. It does fine in car though, as long as you keep it out of direct sunlight. The GPS gets a signal quickly and accurately tracked our location.
Phone Features, Speech to Action and Internet
Here's where the Instinct gets to shine compared to the original iPhone. It has excellent voice quality (the iPhone's is just OK), a moderately loud and clear speakerphone and voice dialing. We were very pleased with the Samsung Instinct's voice quality for both incoming and outgoing voice, particularly incoming voice. The phone is loud and clear with wide frequency response: high voices are crisp and deep voices retain their bass. Outgoing voice is good, though a tad clipped, so we can't call it excellent. Signal strength overall was good, though the signal bars are very jumpy going from 5 to none and up to 4 in the space of 2 seconds (phone not moved, skies clear, no solar flares raging). Since actual data and voice quality are stable, we suspect this is a software issue with the signal display or a network issue and not an actual reception issue. For example we downloaded local movie listings while the signal bars went from 4 to 0, yet data transfer didn't stop and was in fact speedy.
The phone has Voice Signal's excellent voice command software that works both with the dedicated voice command key on the phone's right side and via Bluetooth headsets. We tested it with the Plantronics Explorer 330, Samsung SBH500 stereo headset, Nokia BH-902 and the JawBone II, all of which worked well with voice dialing and commands. Voice Signal's "Speech to Action" feature also handles launching applications, sending text messages and using the included Windows Live Search to find nearby stuff-- say "search", then "pizza" once Live Search is open, and the application uses the GPS to find pizza joints nearby. If you've used Live Search on Windows Mobile, this is the same good stuff.
Like the iPhone, the Samsung Instinct has Visual Voicemail, which means you'll see a list of messages with the caller's name (if they're in your address book) or phone number. Tap on one to hear the voicemail message. The service wasn't up and running when we wrote this review, however so we couldn't test it.
The address book can hold up to 600 records with entries for name (first and last are one field), phone numbers (home, work, mobile, pager and "others"), email, physical address, URL, memo and ringtone. To get to contacts, you have to tap the phone button and select the contacts tab; there is no contacts icon in the "Main" applications tab and you can't add a contact's number to the favorites screen (though you can of course add them to the speed dial screen). The phone can sync contacts with Outlook in Windows using the included software, but not other Outlook data. It also supports Exchange and can sync email and contacts but not calendar items. If you use a Mac, get ready to send vCards over Bluetooth because there's no syncing software.
The Teleca BREW web browser is a mixed bag. The browser handles full HTML sites, so you're not limited to WAP. But it's a bit slow to render HTML sites, despite the EVDO Rev. A high speed data service. The browser is quick at zooming using the dedicated zoom key (labeled 1x to start, and not to be confused with the slower 1xRTT data service). Pages start out at 1x or normal view and tapping the button switches between 2x view (handy when you need to touch a link) and 1/2x for a semi-page overview mode with greeked text. There's a button for page overview with a rectangular selection box a la Nokia's Safari-based S60 smartphone browser, a mobile/standard layout button and a search button that uses MSN web search. A button that has an eye icon similar to the CBS logo hides the right side buttons but not the left side buttons (go figure). You can scroll a page by dragging it with your finger and select links by tapping on them. We'll thrilled that the Instinct supports DUN, putting that fast Rev. A data connection to use as a wireless high speed modem for a notebook (Sprint charges extra for this service).
The web browser.
The email application handles all types of email accounts and isn't limited to certain email services like the LG Vu. It has a wizard that helps you add accounts and it supports Exchange only via OWA (Outlook web access) or Sprint's desktop redirector service. The threaded SMS application is lovely but there's no IM (Instant Messaging) program which is a shame.
The Samsung Instinct has a 2 megapixel camera with a fixed focus lens. There's a self portrait mirror but no flash. The camera uses the entire screen as the viewfinder and there are very few settings-- a cue Samsung shouldn't have taken from the iPhone. The phone takes images at max resolution, 1600 x 1200, and resizes them down if you send them as MMS (Picture Mail). There are no settings for white balance, effects or anything else. Likewise the camcorder has no settings other than a button to switch between MMS length (2 minutes or less) or for saving locally (length limited by available storage).
Photos are typical of 2 megapixel camera phones with a fixed focus lens. Colors are fairly accurate with just a hint of blue-green cast, contrast is a bit too high (not unusual for camera phones) and sharpening is well done, with photos neither looking too harsh nor blurry. There's relatively little white-out by phone standards and indoor shots are slightly better than average with low noise and good saturation.
The Instinct can shoot QVGA 320 x 240 video at 15 fps in 3g2 format. Video is decent and again average for a 2 megapixel camera phone but the 8 kHz mono audio sounds unusually bad. We do like the included image viewer which supports gestures for moving from photo to photo and has an iTunes/iPhone-like Cover Flow option to sift through photos. The image viewer has a Bluetooth button on-screen that you'll use to send a photo via Bluetooth to a PC or Bluetooth printer-- very good!
Not good. A large haptic touch screen is hard on battery life as is EVDO and the GPS. That's why Sprint and Samsung give you two 1,000 mAh Lithium Ion batteries and an external charger for the spare battery in the box. In fact, here at MobileTechReview, we know something's up with battery life every time Samsung puts 2 batteries in the box. Expect to charge this phone's battery (at least one of them) nightly, and carry the spare if you use the GPS, Sprint TV and talk much.
Sprint did one thing right and one thing wrong. Wrong: they went after the iPhone tooth and nail in marketing the Instinct, and that leads to disappointment because so far, nothing else is nearly like the iPhone. Right: they and Samsung came up with a very good phone in its own right. It's certainly no iPhone, but that's not a bad thing altogether. It might not have the near-perfect and transparent UI that makes you forget you're using a phone, but the Instinct is fun, generally easy to use and it has lots of features the first generation iPhone lacks. We love the rich feature set including the GPS, streaming media players, Live Search, Bluetooth stereo support, an SDHC expansion slot and lots more. If you're a Sprint customer looking for a high end phone, this is definitely a great choice. The Instinct is one of the most interesting, capable and fun phones Sprint has ever offered.
Pro: Has pretty much every feature except WiFi-- since that's a rare feature outside of smartphones and since it has EVDO Rev. A we'll excuse that. Most of these features actually work well. Phone voice quality is very good. The GPS works very well as does the included navigation service, Sprint TV is fun, though we wish it were a little sharper and we like Speech to Action which even works over Bluetooth. The haptic touch screen is reliable and pleasant to use.
Con: Battery life is short. Signal meter is wonky. Screen isn't viewable outdoors in direct sunlight and attracts fingerprints like crazy. No IM client. Web browser could be better.
Price: $129 with a 2 year contract on the Everything 450 (higher Everything plan also acceptable)
x 2.17 x 0.49 inches. Weight: 4.4 ounces.
Phone:CDMA dual band digital 800/1900MHz with EVDO Rev. A for data.
Camera:2.0 MP with fixed focus lens and self-portrait mirror. Can shoot still photos and video. Max photo resolution: 1600 x 1200. Video has 2 modes: MMS of limited length and unlimited at QVGA 320 x 240, 15 fps, mono 8 kHz in 3g2 format.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Music player included supporting MP3, AAC, WMA. Supports MTP 2.0, WMDRM and Sprint Media Manager for Windows. Has Sprint Music and Sprint TV.