Mobile : Expert Review: a580 Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung SPH-A580 is a simple cell phone with easy-to-use controls, analog roaming, and a new wireless backup feature. Also, it has admirable call quality overall.

THE BAD: The Samsung SPH-A580 has a tiny external display and suffers from patchy speakerphone quality.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung SPH-A580 offers Sprint customers a simple, serviceable cell phone for making calls, and it hides a new surprise.

From the start, the Samsung SPH-A580 looks like your basic cell phone, and in many ways, it is. You'll find a speakerphone, but there's no camera, multimedia messaging, or any of the fancy offerings that carriers are fond of touting. But sometimes looks can be deceiving. Though the SPH-A580 is primarily a phone for making calls, you'll also find a new and interesting Sprint feature: wireless backup, which offers SPH-A580 owners an opportunity to, well, wirelessly back up their contacts to Sprint's Web site. Though the SPH-A580 is a tad expensive if you pay full price ($179), service rebates should knock it down to less than $100. And better yet, by purchasing it online, you could eliminate the price tag altogether.

Given Samsung's long history of pumping out silver flip phones, the SPH-A580's design is ho-hum. There's no external antenna, it's relatively compact (3.6 by 1.8 by 0.9 inches; 3.4 ounces), and it feels solid in hand. We like the blue border that continues to the phone's rear face and the prominent speaker above the external display. Speaking of which, however, the external screen is not impressive. Tiny (96×32 pixels) and rectangular–no bigger than the display on the Sanyo VI-2300–it supports only 4-color, grayscale resolution. It shows the time, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID (where available) but not the date. Immediately above the screen is a tiny service light that blinks during calls, but you can turn it off.

The Samsung SPH-A580 has a simple, compact design.

Inside the phone is the satisfying main display. Measuring 1.75 inches diagonally, it supports 65,000 colors (128×160 pixels) and is sufficiently bright and vibrant. You can change the contrast, the backlighting, the brightness, and the font size and color; as expected, it's impossible to view in direct light. Below the display are the amply sized and tactile navigation controls. A four-way toggle surrounds a menu/OK button, and it doubles as a shortcut to four user-defined functions. Below it are two soft keys, a Back button, the Talk and End/power keys, and a dedicated speakerphone control–nice.

The keypad buttons have an appealing design. They're large for a phone this size, and there's spaced well enough apart. Dialing by feel and in the dark is easy too, as the buttons are raised above the surface of the phone and brightly backlit. The individual numerals are also quite large. On the left spine are a large volume rocker and a covered headset jack. On the right spine, you'll find a voice-command/dial control, while the charger port is on the bottom.

The SPH-A580 supports a basic feature set, but the speakerphone and the voice-dialing features are welcome, and we always appreciate being able to activate the speakerphone before you make a call. The phone holds only 300 contacts, but each entry stores six phone numbers, an e-mail address, a Web address, and a birthday. You can assign callers to groups and pair them with one of 9 monophonic ring tones or 20 polyphonic ring tones. You can also pair contacts with a picture, but you'll have to download them from Sprint since there's no camera or multimedia messaging. In any case, the images don't show up on the external display, so why bother?

Other features include a vibrate mode, text messaging, a WAP 2.0 wireless browser, a scheduler, a task list, a countdown timer, one-minute voice recordings, a memo pad, an alarm clock, a calculator, a world clock, POP3 e-mail, and instant messaging (AOL, MSN, and Yahoo). As previously mentioned, the SPH-A580 is the first phone to support Sprint's new wireless backup service. Each time you edit and save your phone book, your contacts will be saved to Sprint's Web site. If you ever lose your phone, buy a new handset, or erase your phone book by mistake, you can go to Sprint's site and edit your contacts. It will then send them to your new mobile. This is a nifty feature, but irritatingly, Sprint charges $2 a month to use it. Also, it's not clear how many other Sprint phones will support wireless backup.

You can personalize the SPH-A580 with a variety of screensavers, menu styles, alert sounds, and key tones, as well as a greeting. If you want more options or ring tones, you'll have to buy them from Sprint. For entertainment, there a few trial offerings from Sprint's Power Vision service, including MobiTV and a sale alert from Overstock.com. Keep in mind, though, that any Web browsing will be poky on a 1xRTT browser. You also get demo versions of three Java (J2ME) games: Tetris, World Poker, and Midnight Pool. If you want full titles, you'll have to buy them.

We tested the dual-band, trimode (CDMA 800/1900; AMPS 800) Samsung SPH-A580 in San Francisco using Sprint's service. Audio quality was serviceable; it was obvious to callers we were using a cell phone, but we heard each other clearly most of the time. Volume on our end was loud and more than sufficient, and we encountered little signal interference. We had more trouble in noisy and windy environments, and speakerphone calls weren't exceptional. The sound quality was patchy, with an echoing effect.

The SPH-A580 has a rated talk time battery life of 3.5 hours. In our tests, we fell short of that rating by a half hour. According to FCC radiation tests, the Samsung SPH-A580 has a digital SAR rating of 0.67 watt per kilogram.

Overall, the Samsung APH-A580 is a quality cell phone for those who just want to make calls. The wireless backup is an interesting touch, and though the speakerphone quality isn't the best, we can live with its shortcomings.

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