No, the Samsung Instinct is not an iPhone killer. So what is it? It’s easily the best touchscreen phone available on Sprint, and it’s packed with more features than both AT&T’s LG Vu and Verizon’s Samsung Glyde. Priced at $199 with a two-year contract and $100 mail-in rebate, the Instinct sports a cool customizable user interface, a superior touch keyboard, and compelling voice recognition. Although the Web browser leaves much to be desired, Samsung and Sprint have delivered a very good phone, GPS navigator, and mobile entertainment center all rolled into one.
The Instinct is certainly one of the more attractive touchscreen phones we’ve tested. The front of the Instinct has a smoke gray hue, and is reflective enough to see your face when the screen is dark. The rear of the unit is made of smooth plastic and is matte black in color. It measures 4.5 x 2.1 x 0.4 inches and weighs just 4.4 ounces, making the Instinct slightly larger than the LG Vu and weighing 1.2 ounces more. It’s marginally narrower than the iPhone but is the same length as Apple’s device and feels equally comfortable.
While the Instinct has more buttons along its sides than the iPhone, each has a useful purpose. The volume controls on the left side are within thumb reach, along with Samsung’s proprietary transfer cable and charging port. The top of the Instinct has a small metal Power and Lock button, as well as a conveniently placed 3.5mm headphone jack. Along the right side of the unit you’ll find a microSD Card slot, a voice-command button, and the camera quick-launch button. The front of the phone has just three haptic touch buttons: Return, Home, and a Call button, represented by a telephone icon. These glow white when the phone is on.
We noticed that the phone’s plastic screen is very susceptible to scratches. After having the phone in our pocket for a weekend, there were noticeable scuffs and minuscule scratches on the display. The iPhone’s glass display is more durable.
Touchscreen and UI
When we turned on the Instinct for the first time, our unit took us through a minute-long setup process and then left us on the Favs screen. The 3.1-inch 432 x 240 pixel haptic touchscreen display is bright and colorful. Four tabbed icons run along the bottom of the screen: Favs, Main, Fun, and Web. Each tab has its own menu of application launch icons. On the Favs screen, you can add your favorite and most-used applications and activities, from specific Sprint TV stations to Web pages or an e-mail launch shortcut. We appreciated the ability to customize what we wanted on the home screen right away.
The Main tab has shortcuts to your calculator, calendar, clock, e-mail, messaging, navigation, notes, settings, and voicemail. The next tab, Fun, brings up a list of shortcuts to the Camera, Games/Apps, Music, My Photos, TV/Video/Radio, Shopping, and +Add. You can use +Add to create a new icon that will send your pictures to Photobucket, MySpace, or your Sprint album stored on Sprint’s Web site.
The final tab, Web, gives you access to the Web browser, Live Search, Weather, News, Sports, Movies, your account information, and two optional destinations: Marine Forecast for checking the surf and weather at the shore, or Entertainment News for keeping up to date on the latest celebrity high jinks.
The Instinct’s user interface is smooth. It loaded menus and icons quickly in a smooth left-to-right or right-to-left motion. The animations aren’t as fun or entertaining as the iPhone’s UI, but they add to the Instinct’s appeal. Scrolling through lists is much easier and more fluid than any other haptic resistive touchscreen we’ve used before. The phone responds much more like the iPhone does, and you can quickly flip through lists of songs or down through long news articles without having to make too many finger swipes. Whenever you’re away from the phone’s home screen—inside another application, for example—you can navigate right back to it almost immediately by pressing the Home button.
Using the Web
The Samsung Instinct’s browser uses eight icons along the side of each page that act as option buttons for zooming, panning, switching between mobile and standard view, hiding the address bar, search, home, favorites, and history. We tried to test its Ajax support by visiting www.netvibes.com, but it didn’t work; the page just didn’t load completely. Flash sites like www.pandora.com also aren’t fully supported and they may never be; the site returns a message stating the fact.
NYTimes.com loaded in 8 seconds, which is pretty speedy, thanks to the Instinct’s support of Sprint’s EV-DO Rev. A network. However, page formatting isn’t as good as on the iPhone. The Instinct defaults to the mobile version of Web sites, and although you can zoom in and out between 1/2X and 3X, there’s no support for pinching or pulling to zoom easily as there is on Apple’s device.
One small icon that looks like a phone lets you toggle between the mobile version of the Web site you’re viewing and the standard version, but we saw no difference on the New York Times Web page, and the URL remained http://mobile.nytimes.com. When we visited CNN.com, we saw the full version of the Web site, and when we toggled to mobile view, http://m.cnn.com loaded.
Panning is easy, and we appreciated the finger-swiping scroll action to navigate quickly from the top of the page to the bottom. If you want to click a link, the best way to do so is to press down and hold your finger, which highlights the link. If it’s not the link you’re looking for, let go and try again. If it is, push harder, and the link will navigate. On our tests, the Instinct was able to select the right link in most cases, but the overall surfing experience paled in comparison to that of the iPhone’s desktoplike browser.
Adding New Applications
We attempted installing the Opera Mini browser; though it isn’t optimized for the Instinct, it worked when we launched it the first time. But it froze during subsequent launches, so it’s not a reliable solution. Another application, Gmail for Java phones, worked fine (not that you’d need it). Applications that are specific to the Instinct are available under the Games/Apps section, and you can install or buy them directly from that area. Our favorite was a Gameloft demo called Brain Challenge; the full version costs $5.95. When you’re ready to uninstall an application, just hold the icon down for a second, and when it starts buzzing, drag it up to the top corner of the screen into the trash bin. This technique can also be used to organize your favorites.
E-Mail and Messaging
We were able to set up a Gmail account in less than a minute. We appreciated the easy-to-use e-mail interface; the phone buzzes and shows a star next to the inbox when new e-mails arrive. There’s also support for AOL Mail, AIM Mail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Work, which can be either Outlook Web Access e-mail or another account. You’ll need to install Sprint’s Mobile E-Mail software on your computer to set up an account that’s not one of the aforementioned services.
The touch keyboard was surprisingly easy to use, and we think it’s one of the better virtual keyboards among the resistive touchscreen phones. It’s superior to what you’ll find on the LG Vu and the Voyager, and it’s a definite iPhone contender. The Instinct was very responsive and fairly accurate, and we like that misspelled words are automatically highlighted in red. Although we’re accustomed to using on-screen keyboards, most Instinct buyers should be able to pick up this layout quickly.
There’s a small key directly below the Delete key that minimizes the keyboard, and we found its positioning to be quite frustrating. Since the delete key runs along the top border of the device, it’s very easy to hit the key just below it accidentally, minimize the keyboard, and find yourself confused and staring blankly at the device, wondering what just happened.
When you send an MMS or video message, you can add a 10-second voice recording, which is a unique feature. We appreciate that SMS messages are threaded, so we can view older messages and new ones as a dialogued conversation. We were able to send off a small 5-second video clip of cars whizzing by and honking in New York City to our e-mail address in about 10 seconds, which is a good indicator of the phone’s EV-DO Rev. A uplink speeds.
The Instinct features a 2-megapixel camera and a camcorder, but you can’t send videos more than 2 minutes long or larger than 6MB in size over the air. Our recorded video of cars whizzing by in Manhattan was blurry and washed out, and the audio sounded watery, so don’t plan on recording important events with it. Our pictures were crisp and clear, though.
Voice Commands and Live Search with Speech
The Live Search feature on the Instinct is something that Sprint has been touting for a while now. To activate it, press and hold the Voice Command key and the phone will ask you to say a command. Commands include “Call name or number,” “Send text to name or number,” “Send picture to name or number,” and “Go to Traffic, Weather, News, Sports, Movies, or Search.”
The phone only recognized our commands about half of the time, which was frustrating. The first time we asked for “Sushi,” it returned results for “a cheap.” You really have to hold the phone right up to your mouth and say what you want. On the other hand, the Instinct easily recognized our instruction to “Call Christie,” and immediately dialed her number.
What’s more fun is the ability to use voice commands for live search. When we instructed the phone to “Go to Search,” it launched a new menu where you can say things such as “Pizza.” The phone takes about 10 seconds to perform a search, which is on a par with less powerful applications like Yahoo oneSearch with Voice for BlackBerry. The restaurant that we searched for—one that most phones fail to find—came up on the Instinct. Once we clicked on the name of the restaurant from the list of returned results, the Instinct gave us the restaurant’s phone number and provided us with a map and directions to the eatery from our current location. We also had the option to save the info right to the address book or share the info with a friend via text or e-mail message. We haven’t seen such accurate and easy-to-use search results on a phone before.
Multimedia and TV
The Instinct is packed with multimedia functionality, and its 3.5mm headphone jack lets you use any headset you want. The handset can access both Sprint’s built-in Music Store and Sprint TV’s streaming videos and television content. The Music store’s interface was clearly designed specifically for the Instinct. The menus are divided into horizontal bars, each a menu option such as genre, category, song name, etc, and you can scroll through the long lists with the swipe of a finger.
The Instinct’s fast EV-DO Rev. A speeds really shine here: We were able to download 311’s “Down” in just 16 seconds. The music player doesn’t have a beautiful album art interface like the iPhone, but when a song is playing, a large graphic of the album’s cover art is displayed, along with the regular Skip and Play controls. Above the album art are buttons to shuffle songs or repeat the track currently playing. Unlike some other Sprint phones like the Curve 8330, the Instinct lets you listen to music while performing other tasks on the device.
Sprint TV offers a host of channels, including live broadcasts and small On Demand clips. Live stations include ABC Mobile, ABC News Now, CNN Mobile Live, the Disney Channel, E!, Fox Sports, MTV Mobile, and the NFL Network, among others. When we clicked CNN Mobile Live, we had to wait 30 seconds for the show to start playing. When it did, the audio was crisp and loud, but the picture was not as pleasant as AT&T’s Mobile TV. It was pixilated, a bit laggy, and every so often the picture froze for about a second, even though voices were still audible. Sprint said Sprint TV would begin to use Rev. A connectivity “in the next few days” during our first hands on, and that performance would improve, but after four more days of testing, we had yet to see any increase in TV performance even after the upgrades were completed.
Sprint Navigation is powered by TeleNav, and we really enjoyed the interface on the Instinct. You can choose from an initial menu to find directions, search for local points of interest (including gas stations, restaurants, and ATMs), view maps and traffic, or share your location with friends. The voice-guided directions were dead on, giving us a route from one spot in Manhattan to our offices, but it didn’t reroute us when we purposely walked a block off course. We’ll be updating this review with in-car test results.
Decent Call Quality
During our testing of the Instinct’s call quality, callers told us we sounded a bit muffled and fuzzy. Voice quality on our end was clear, and we had no complaints. Over a weekend of usage, other callers reported the same complaint about hearing some minor fuzziness on the line. However, from both ends, the calls were clearer than the original iPhone.
The Instinct is the first touchscreen phone since the iPhone to provide visual voicemail. The interface is similar to the iPhone’s in that the device displays a list of voicemails that have been left on the phone. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see or listen to much more than the demo recording: Sprint said the software wasn’t available yet for our review unit but that it would be available shortly as an over-the-air update.
Battery Life and Extras
The Instinct offers great standby battery life: Over a span of two days making casual phone calls and checking the news and our e-mail frequently, the battery indicator barely budged. However, when we streamed music, made more phone calls, and watched movies, the battery drained within 4 hours. The Instinct comes prepackaged with a host of accessories, including a 2GB microSD card, a USB cable, charging cord, leather sheath, stylus, and extra battery pack. Most phones include a USB cable, and sometimes a headset and carrying case. We rarely see phones packaged with an extra battery.
The Samsung Instinct is a very good touchscreen phone, and friends and family were impressed by its performance and design. The iPhone 3G boasts a superior Web browsing experience, Wi-Fi, and a more durable glass multi-touch display, and both it and the first-generation model will soon be able to access an entire store of applications. Nevertheless, Sprint customers looking for a multimedia phone with all the trimmings will be happy with the Instinct’s haptic feedback, robust GPS navigation and local search, zippy music store, and unique voice recognition.