The Samsung Access is the second phone from AT&T to offer support for the carrier’s silky-smooth Mobile TV service, and it’s great for catching shows on the go. We especially like this phone’s large and sharp display. However, at $199, the Access doesn’t offer much else in the way of cutting-edge features to justify the high price. Unless you’re willing to fork over 15 bucks a month for TV, look elsewhere.
The matte black Samsung Access looks strikingly similar to the BlackJack II, and its dimensions, 4.5 x 2.3 x 0.5 inches, are nearly identical, but it has a standard alpha-numeric keyboard instead of the full QWERTY that the BlackJack II has. The Access’ 2.3-inch screen is comfortably large, bright, and colorful. Its keyboard, call buttons, and soft menu buttons have a reflective surface, and the rest of the unit is matte black. Under the display is a quick-launch button for the TV service, two soft buttons, and a Back button. Below those controls is a Call and End button, and between them, a round four-direction menu button with a Select button in the middle. On the left, you’ll find a power port, which doubles as a headphone jack, and volume controls. From top to bottom on the right side you’ll find a microSD slot for adding extra storage and buttons for the camera and the task manager.
Just because a phone isn’t a smart phone doesn’t mean it can’t have a full QWERTY keypad. We’re left wondering why Samsung decided to put in an alpha-numeric keyboard on a device with plenty of room for the same keyboard found on the BlackJack and BlackJack II. But we appreciate the space that the alphanumeric keyboard has, and the softness of each key-press makes it a decent keyboard overall.
The Samsung Access has a similar interface to most of AT&T’s other multimedia phones. Inside the main menu are icons for TV & Video, Media Net, My Stuff, Address Book, Settings, AT&T Music, Recent Calls, Messaging, and AT&T Mail. Two soft keys, Menu and Options/Back remain on-screen at all times.
E-mail and Messaging
The Access comes with AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger preloaded, and we appreciated the ability to chat with our AIM friends on the go. The Access also has a host of preset e-mail providers, and you simply need to enter in your username and password to log in. Onboard e-mail clients include AIM, AOL, BellSouth, Comcast, Earthlink, Juno, MindSpring, NetZero, Windows Live Mail, and Yahoo Mail. Unfortunately, you can’t add your own IMAP or POP account.
The Mobile TV service was stellar in New York City, one of the 58 markets in which it’s currently available. Others include Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and San Diego (type in your ZIP code at www.wireless.att.com to see if you’re covered). The service will set you back an additional $15 a month for access to its 11 stations, which include CBS Mobile, CNN Mobile Live, Comedy Central, ESPN Mobile TV, FOX Mobile TV, MTV, NBC 2Go, NBC News 2Go, Nickelodeon, and a Sony movie channel called PIX. There’s an eleventh channel called CNCRT, which broadcasts music concerts, but it’s only available through June. You can also opt for a $13 news station package, which includes four of the news channels listed above, but it’s worth dropping the extra $2 to get all of the channels. When you first start the TV feature, it takes a few seconds for the full picture to load. But we loved watching The Colbert Report in bed and ESPN in the back of a cab with the phone’s crisp speakers. The picture was bright and sharp, and it didn’t require any buffering time or have pixelated scenes. We could also easily read the ticker during an NBA playoff game on ESPN.
Notwithstanding that it has a smaller screen and lacks the landscape view of the LG Vu, the TV experience on the Access was just as impressive.
We were pleasantly surprised by the loud and crisp performance of the built-in speaker on the rear of the Access. When we played Lupe Fiasco’s “Paris, Tokyo,” the sound was comparable in quality to what we expect from a budget laptop. We appreciated the ability to listen to MP3s directly off our sideloaded microSD Card, and you can multitask while you’re listening, too: pause or skip songs directly from the home screen using the omnidirectional pad. Music sounded decent over the included headset, but we wish the Access used a 3.5mm jack instead of Samsung’s proprietary one.
You won’t find many over-the-air download options, but you can use Napster to purchase songs that you can play back on your computer. It’s best for grabbing a song on the go that you know you’ll want in your library later, but we wish we could download the tracks right to our handset. Like the LG Vu, there’s a musicID application on the phone that you can use to identify tracks to purchase. Like many AT&T phones, the Access also supports over-the-air XM Radio streaming, but you’ll want to make sure you have an unlimited data plan and the $8.99 monthly XM Radio Mobile subscription. XM quality was mediocre in suburban Pennsylvania, where music continually skipped, even with a 3G connection.
We were able to browse the Web quickly with the Access. CNN’s mobile Web site loaded in just 10 seconds over AT&T’s HSDPA network, while NYTimes.com loaded in 15 seconds. In New York City, and in parts of eastern Pennsylvania, we were able to load both sites a few seconds faster.
If you want to view full Web pages instead of just mobile ones, we suggest downloading the free Opera Mini Web browser. We appreciated the ability to watch YouTube clips at m.youtube.com without a hitch. Each video buffered in about 5 seconds, and playback was acceptable.
The 1.3-megapixel camera took shots that looked great on the phone itself (fine for creating wallpapers on the handset or for sending to friends via MMS. However, you’ll want to rely on a much better camera for printing pics or even posting them to your favorite social networking site; indoor shots were washed out and blurry. The camera doesn’t have a flash, either.
The 176 x 144-pixel camcorder is even worse. While it’s active, it looks like you’re trying to record video through a small stamp-size window. Playback on the device was just okay; even on its small screen, we noticed pixelation. Worse, after taking a photo or video clip, the phone doesn’t give you the option to send it via e-mail. You need to enter the e-mail portal manually first, which is tedious.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Call quality on the Access was acceptable but not stellar. Compared with the AT&T BlackBerry Curve 8310 ($99), our calls from NYC with a full signal sounded a bit watery to us, although our callers said we sounded clear. We were able to hear every word and never experienced a dropped call, but the clarity could be better.
During one of our battery cycles, we made 2 hours’ worth of phone calls, and watched an entire NBA playoff game as well as an episode of South Park. The next morning, the battery meter still displayed two out of three bars. Mobile TV watching didn’t drain the battery as fast as we thought it would, which makes the Access the perfect entertainment companion for bus or train rides: When commuting to major cities, you’ll have enough juice to watch TV and enough power to listen to your favorite tunes in between, browse the Web, and send messages.
The Access is a fun phone, but it’s certainly not for everyone. At $199, it’s $100 cheaper than the touchscreen LG Vu, the only other phone that offers AT&T’s Mobile TV service. On the other hand, $199 is pretty expensive given that Verizon’s V CAST Mobile TV phones start at $99 (although they’re not nearly as sexy). Nevertheless, the Access’ fast Web-surfing speeds and great TV playback (if you’re in one of the 58 markets) make it a high-end phone worth considering.