The Samsung U550 may look like a regular clamshell, but it's packed with features, and at $49 it will be attractive to both parents and teens looking for a basic flip phone that doesn't skimp on usability. Kids will love the ability to access Verizon Wireless' music and video services. Meanwhile, parents will like the phone's Chaperone Child feature, which will alert them if kids wander outside a proscribed area (school or camp, for example), and its budget pricing.
Design and Interface
The U550 is comfortable to hold in your hand and has a nice balance of size and weight. Measuring 3.8 x 1.9 x 0.7 inches and weighing 3.4 ounces, it's small enough to stow away and light enough to forget it's there. Its lid sports a reflective blue framing the display, and the rest of the body is silver with black accents. Aside from a small screen that displays the time, battery status, and connection, the face of the phone features three capacitive-touch music control buttons, so you can access your music library without opening the phone. Each glows red when pressed, and you can lock them with a switch on the side of the phone, should you decide that you don't want music playing in your pocket. Conveniently, the screen also shows song information and album art, too.
Inside the clamshell is a 2.1-inch display that is both bright and colorful, and the resolution (220 x 176 pixels) is just high enough that icons look smooth. Below the display is a generously sized keypad and five-way navigation pad. We prefer the Sony Ericsson Z750a's keyboard over the Samsung U550's, but the latter's was still easy to type on nonetheless. All the buttons are large and offered nice feedback, although the navigation controls felt a little cramped, and at times we'd hit the wrong key. The phone has volume controls and a lock button along the left side, a camera quick-launch button, speakerphone button, and a 2.5mm headphone jack on the right side.
Stodgy User Interface
One of the few things weighing the U550 down is its use of the Verizon Wireless menu system. This system has been nearly unchanged for years and is fairly inflexible in its functionality; for example, it doesn't offer a Favorites menu like the Sanyo Katana LX does, or a unique media playback interface like the Sony Ericsson Z750a has (modeled after the PSP and PS3 interface). Nonetheless, after spending about five minutes with the U550, we got used to the menu structure and can access most of what you'd like in short order.
The Samsung U550 supports Verizon Wireless' VZ Navigator version 4.1.2 software, which uses the phone's assisted-GPS capabilities. The software is easy for beginners to pick up and provides turn-by-turn spoken directions as well as traffic conditions to the user. The service costs $9.99 per month, or $2.99 per day if you'd like to use it during a quick road trip. We downloaded the software in 30 seconds from the Tools on the Go menu.
VZ Navigator worked well and was fairly intuitive to use. The phone locked onto a satellite signal in less than a minute, accurately mapped a route between two points, and was able to correct the route when we took a wrong turn. Inside a building, it placed us about a block off course, but outdoors it was much more accurate and could serve as an in-car replacement if you blast the U550's speaker.
Are the Kids Alright?
Parents who give their children a U550 can use the phone to keep tabs on them by activating the phone's free Chaperone Child feature in-store or online. It will allow them to set a perimeter inside of which their child is free to roam and will alert the parent via text message if the kid leaves the predesignated area. Parents using this feature can go online and locate the phone--and presumably their child--on a map.
E-mail and Messaging
The U550 supports AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo Messenger mobile IM accounts. We signed into our AIM buddy list easily, but as with the Sanyo Kantana LX, we could view only friends on our Mobile Buddies list (created in our PC's AIM software) and not the entire account.
The phone supports AOL Mail, MSN Hotmail, Verizon.net, and Yahoo Mail accounts. However, the interface is entirely Web-based, so you won't be notified of new messages; you'll have to manually open the account each time you want to read your mail. We signed into our Yahoo account to find a crudely formatted Web page inbox that had advertisements for ringtones on it, which we didn't appreciate.
Because it has an EV-DO radio inside, accessing the mobile Web is a breeze on the U550. If you don't have a data plan, you can surf the Web for $1 per day or $5 a month. The U550 supports WAP 2.0 sites, and browsing speeds are nice and swift. Powered by Verizon Wireless' 3G EV-DO network, CNN.com loaded in 4.2 seconds, and NYTimes.com took 6.3 seconds. We didn't appreciate that we had to launch a separate page every time we wanted to enter a new URL, though.
With the phone open, you can press a dedicated camera key to launch the U550's 1.3-megapixel shooter. The pictures were decent but not crystal clear; they're good for sharing via MMS but not for prints. You can store pictures and music on a microSD Card, which unfortunately sits behind the battery hatch. We found the easiest way to get pictures to our computer was by sending them off to our e-mail address.
The V CAST Music and Video experience on the U550 is similar to other Verizon phones. Thankfully, the Samsung U550 is one of Verizon Wireless' handsets that supports the Rhapsody music store as well, so for every $1.99 song you download over the air you'll get a DRM-free copy on your computer as well. Using V CAST Video, a 1:57 ESPN video buffered and began playing in less than 6 seconds, and we saw only very minor choppiness over our EV-DO connection.
The U550 has a 2.5mm jack instead of the more standard 3.5mm port, and the phone doesn't come with its own pair of headphones. We recommend going wireless with a stereo Bluetooth headset. We listened to John Mayer's live recording of "Free Fallin'" and heard a good balance between the guitar strums and vocals. We do wish the volume were slightly louder, however.
Call quality on the U550 was relatively strong. During some tests, other callers sounded a bit muffled. We experienced no dropped calls, though, and both parties had little trouble understanding one another, even when we were just off of Manhattan's busy and traffic-filled streets.
The battery is rated for 3.5 hours of talk time, and 8.3 days on standby. On our tests we were able to make phone calls, surf the Web, and listen to music over a period of 2 hours before we saw a single bar drop. The phone will be sufficient for weekend trips, but we recommend bringing a charger along if you plan on using the U550 as your primary music device as well.
Samsung U550 Verdict
All in all, we're pleased with the Samsung U550, especially given its affordable $49 price tag and laundry list of features that parents and kids will both appreciate. The U550 isn't for those trying to make a fashion statement by any means, but it holds its own by offering a variety of content and good call quality.