Mobile : Expert Review: a657 Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung SGH-A657 offers a sturdy, durable design. The feature set includes GPS, push-to-talk, and 3G.

THE BAD: The Samsung SGH-A657's promised talk time is rather short and there's no voice dialing. Also, its streaming video quality is poor.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung SGH-A657 has a rugged design with a respectable feature set. Call quality is great, but streaming video quality is unimpressive.

The market for rugged phones remains relatively small, but it shows no signs of waning. For a long time Sprint and Nextel had a monopoly on sturdy designs–Sprint with Sanyo models and Nextel with Motorola handsets–but other carriers have begun to catch up. Last fall, AT&T offered its second rugged phone, the Samsung Rugby, and now it adds yet another with the Samsung SGH-A657. Built like a brick, and shaped like one too, the SGH-A657 looks as if it could take quite a few blows. It's not fashion-forward, but its hard shell and rubber sidings should appeal to the danger seeking and the danger-prone. Features are respectable–there's no camera, but you get 3G, push-to-talk, Bluetooth, and GPS. It's available through AT&T's business channel for $129 with service.

The SGH-A657 won't win any beauty contests, but it's perfectly OK with not entering them in the first place. This phone's built to withstand the elements and protect its working parts from any bumps and bruises. It may not be quite as burly as the Motorola i365, but it certainly makes a respectable showing on the front. It is certified to military specifications for moisture, dust, shock, vibration, and the like. We splashed some water on it to no effect (it's not fully waterproof, so it won't survive a full dunking) and we dropped it onto a concrete floor without a scratch.

The phone has a plastic shell, but it's covered in a very thin rubber material that gives it a sturdy and weighty feel in the hand. Rubber sidings protect the corners, but they also run up and down both spines. They have a ribbed pattern, which you can grip easily. Even with all the protection, the SGH-A657 isn't terribly bulky. It measures 4.53 inches tall by 2.05 inches wide by 0.77 inch thick and weighs 4.34 ounces

The two-inch display is quite sharp. With support for 262,000 colors (220×176-pixel resolution), it's bright and easy on the eyes. Colors are vibrant and graphics are sharp. The menu interface is available in two styles–list or icon–but both are intuitive (the submenus are particularly easy to use). You can change the backlighting time and the dialing font type, size, and color.

The square navigation toggle is tactile, and its silver color distinguishes it from the rest of the navigation array. We had no issues using the toggle to navigate through the menus. The central OK button has a nice squishy feel, but we wish that in standby mode it opened the main menu instead of starting the Web browser. Other navigation controls include two soft keys, which are a bit narrow, a GPS shortcut, a back button, and the Talk and End/power keys.

The keypad buttons also are raised above the surface of the phone. Texting and dialing was a breeze with the keys giving off an audible click when pressed. They also have a bright backlighting for dialing in the dark.

The SGH-A657's battery cover has a locking mechanism.

On its left spine are a volume rocker and a bright orange push-to-talk button. On its right spine, you'll find a flashlight button and the charger port/headset jack. Unfortunately, both are proprietary, which means your choices for peripherals will be limited. Samsung is getting better about including a standard Micro-USB charger connection, but it has a way to go. On the upside, however, the remaining control opens a nifty onscreen shortcut menu.

The SGH-A657 has a bright flashlight on its top end.

A small flashlight sits on the top of the phone next to the looped antenna. It's quite bright for its size, so it should be useful if you lose your keys or can't find the door in a dark room. The battery cover uses a locking mechanism so it should stay secure under most conditions. You must remove the battery and cover to access the memory card slot. Normally we'd complain about such an arrangement, but we'll let it pass here since the SGH-A657's design is all about durability.

The SGH-A657 has a hefty 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for six phone numbers, an e-mail address, an instant messaging handle, and notes. Of course, you can save callers to groups and pair them with a photo and one of 10 (72-chord) polyphonic ringtones. The SIM card holds an additional 250 names.

Basic features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, call timers, an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, a notepad, a calculator, a unit and currency converter, a tip calculator, a world clock, a timer, and a stopwatch. You'll also find stereo Bluetooth, USB syncing and mass storage, a voice recorder, instant messaging, access to AT&T's PTT network and support for the carrier's AT&T Navigator GPS service. On the downside, e-mail is limited to Web-based POP3 access, and there's no voice dialing.

The SGH-A657 supports AT&T's Cellular Video service, which offers tons of streaming-video content, and AT&T Mobile Music, which brings wireless song downloads through a variety of partners. The experience on the two applications is similar to that on other AT&T phones; both are minimalist in their designs, but the music player supports a wide variety of file formats and it offers useful features, such as album art, playlists, and shuffle, and repeat modes.

For audiophiles, the handset also has a solid selection of music-related features, such as support for XM Radio Mobile, a Music ID application, a Billboard Mobile channel, music videos, and a community section with access to fan sites and downloads. We especially welcome the application that lets you create your own ringtones and save music tracks as ringtones. You can personalize the SGH-A657 with a variety of themes, background colors, wallpaper, and a greeting message. More options and additional ringtones are available from AT&T using its wireless Web browser. The phone offers demo versions of thee games–Midnight Pool 3D, Tetris, and World Poker Tour Hold Em 2–you'll have to buy the full versions for extended play.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung SGH-A657 world phone in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was more than respectable. We enjoyed clear conversation with a strong signal. There was little static and no interference from other electronic devices. Volume was softer than we'd like, but voices sounded natural, and the phone didn't pick up excessive background noise.

On their end, callers said we sounded fine. They could tell that we were using a cell phone, but that's hardly unusual. Most of our friends also reported the soft volume, but it should be fine unless you're in an excessively noisy place. We had a similar experience with automated calling systems–we were understood as long as we were inside.

Speakerphone calls were quite good. The volume was much louder than with standard calls, and the audio was clear. Callers could hear us even when we were a few feet from the phone.

Unfortunately, streaming video was mostly poor. The display size is just too small and the images suffered from excessive pixelation and choppy motion. What's more, the audio wasn't always in sync, and videos paused to buffer. They only bright spot was the videos loaded quickly thanks to the strong 3G (UMTS; HSDPA 850/1900) connection.

Music quality was a bit better. The external speaker has a strong output, though the audio lacked range. Headphones will provide the best experience.

The SGH-A657 has a rated battery life of three hours take time, which is rather low for a GSM phone. Promised standby time is 10.5 days. In our tests, the SGH-A657 has 4 hours and 1 minute of talk time. According to FCC radiation tests, the SGH-QA657 has a digital SARof 0.682 watt per kilogram.

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