Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Highnote™ Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung Highnote has a unique and easy-to-use design and a decent feature set. Call quality was good, and it performs well as a music phone.

THE BAD: The Samsung Highnote has little internal memory. Streaming video quality was mixed, and some of the navigation controls have a learning curve.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung Highnote offers a unique design, a varied selection of features, and decent call quality. It's also one of the better Sprint music phones that we've seen.

Sprint pretty much owned the fall CTIA show last month. The carrier introduced a gallery of new phones at the event, one of which was the Samsung Highnote. Also called the SPH-M630, the Highnote is music phone that replaces the Samsung Upstage and the LG Muziq. It offers all the usual highlights of a Sprint music phone with an eye-catching slider design and a new menu interface. Call and music performance were satisfying, but the streaming video was patchy at times. You can get it for $99 with service and a $50 rebate.

The Highnote offers a sharp slider design in red or blue. Though you may think it looks pretty ordinary at first, a closer look will show some unique elements that succeed in being both appealing and easy to use. Like other slider phones, the face of the Highnote moves to expose the numeric keypad. The mechanism is sturdy; we could open it with one hand, but it didn't feel too loose. Yet, the Highnote also moves in another direction–by sliding it downward, you'll expose the well-placed stereo speakers. At 4 inches by 1.9 inches by 0.6 inch, the Highnote casts a slim profile but retains a solid and comfortable feeling in the hand. And at 3.5 ounces, it won't weigh you down.

Slide down the Highnote to expose the speaker and shortcuts to the multimedia features.

The 2-inch display supports 262,000 colors (220×176-pixel resolution). It is bright and vibrant with sharp colors, graphics, and defined text. You can change the brightness, the backlighting time, and the dialing font size. The standard Samsung menus on Sprint phones are simple and intuitive, but the Highnote also shows Sprint's One Click interface.

With One Click, you can personalize a shortcut bar that sits at the bottom of your screen when the phone is standby mode. The bar consists of a number "tiles" that give one-touch access to any of the phone's features. One of the tiles is a default shortcut for main menu, but you can select anywhere from 4 to 14 additional tiles. It's a convenient application, particularly given the level of customization–one of the tiles can be a user-programmable menu for even more shortcuts. And if that's not enough content, you also can add "bubbles" to the home screen that will constantly update with various topics including news, finance and sports headlines and your daily horoscope.

The Highnote's navigation array certainly is worth a look. Inside a raised silver ring is a nifty, easy-to-use scroll wheel that allows for easy menu navigation. Unlike Sprint's Samsung Upstage, LG Muziq, and LG Fuziq, all of which just teased us with something that just looked like a scroll wheel, you can actually spin the Highnote's wheel in a full circle. What's more, you also can use it as a toggle by pressing in the traditional up, down, left, and right directions. A raised and convenient OK button sits in the middle of the scroll wheel. Overall, it's an ergonomic and comfortable experience.

The silver ring surrounding the toggle isn't quite what it seems, either. It actually comprises four controls: a clear button, two soft keys and the Talk and End/power keys. Yet, we had mixed feelings about these controls. Though we like their tactile feel, the individual buttons are thin and the whole arrangement seems a tad cramped. Also, the soft keys sit so far below the display that there's somewhat of a visual discrepancy between the buttons and the corresponding commands on the screen. Finally, the text on the controls is tiny.

The Highnote's keypad is flush, which is not unusual for a slider phone, but the keys remain relatively tactile. Also, the keypad's overall spacious design is welcome. Indeed, when dialing or texting, we had no issues. The numbers and text on the keys are of a standard size, but users with visual impairments should give the phone a test drive first. The backlighting is a tad dim, but the keys make up for it by showing the same color as the phone's exterior (the red version has red keys and vice versa). Though they're set too close against the bottom of the slider, the top row of keys shows some useful shortcuts. There's a speakerphone control that you can use to initiate calls from your recent calls list. A "Text" key opens your messaging menu while a button with a car icon activates the hands-free mode for driving.

On the right spine there's a 3.5mm headset jack (nice), a volume rocker, the microSD card slot, and a handset locking switch. On the left, you'll find camera shutter, a music player shortcut, and a micro USB slot. The latter accommodates USB cables and the charger. The camera lens sits on the phone's backside.

The Highnote has a 600-contact phone book with room in each entry for six phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, an instant messaging handle, a URL, and notes. You can save callers to groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 20 polyphonic ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, an alarm clock, a calculator, a calendar, a memo pad, a world clock, a voice memo recorder, and a tip calculator.

Additional options are plentiful. There's stereo Bluetooth speaker-independent voice dialing, USB mass storage, PC syncing, an application manager, voice messaging, instant messaging, and Web-based POP3 e-mail. You'll also find the application, Sprint's Family Locater and the carrier's contact backup service.

As an EV-DO phone, the Highnote can connect to Sprint's Power Vision for Sprint TV, which includes live and on-demand programming from a variety of sports, entertainment, and news channels. You also get Sprint Movies, a selection of premium channels, and more than 150 channels from Sprint Radio. The TV interface is similar to that on other Sprint TV phones, which is to say that it is intuitive.

When you open the Highnote to expose the speaker, shortcuts for games, the music player, and the TV application appear on the display. It's a convenient way to access the player which otherwise resembles that on other Sprint music phones. You can access the Sprint Music Store for wireless download to your phone, or you can transfer music from a PC using a USB cable. Features are limited to playlists, repeat, and shuffle modes, and you can't use MP3s as ringtones. There is an airplane mode, however, and you can send the music player to the background while you're using other phone functions. When a call comes in, the music will pause automatically and will resume again after you hang up.

The Highnote's camera lacks a flash and a self-portrait mirror.

The 2-megapixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions and three quality settings. Other options include brightness and white balance controls, spot metering, a night mode, five color tones, a self-timer, multishot and divided shot options, 10 fun frames, a 4x zoom and four shutter sounds, and a silent option. Unfortunately, there's no flash or self-portrait mirror. The camcorder records video clips with sound in three quality settings. Other editing options are similar to the still camera if a bit slimmed down. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds; otherwise, you can shoot for as long as the available memory permits. The Highnote offers just 24MB of user-accessible memory. That's a rather small amount for a multimedia, phone so we suggest that you use a memory card for more space.

The Highnote had satisfying photo quality.

Photo quality is pretty good–colors were bright and there was little image noise. Our test image was bright, but keep in mind that you'll need adequate light since there's no flash. Videos were fine, but nothing spectacular. Most clips were grainy with jerky movement, but that's about what we'd expect from a cell phone camcorder. When finished taking photos you can transfer them a computer or printer via Sprint's PictBridge service, send them in a multimedia message, or store them in an online album. Sprint also offers the capability to send your photos to participating FujiFilm retailers to be printed.

You can personalize the Highnote with a selection of wallpaper and alert tones. You can download more options, and additional ringtones, with the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. The Highnote doesn't offer much in the way of games–just demo versions of Puzzle Quest, Warlords and Street Fighter II–but you get the full versions form Sprint. You also get trial versions of three applications: Pandora, Sprint Social Zone, and Nascar Sprint Cup Mobile.

We tested the dual-band, dual-mode (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Samsung Highnote in San Francisco using Sprint service. Call quality was enjoyable overall. Voices sounded natural, and we had enough volume. Also, the signal was strong and free of static or interference. Our only complaint was that the audio sounded a bit hollow at times. It wasn't a big deal, though.

On their end, callers said we sounded fine. They could tell we were using a cell phone, but that's a typical experience. On the upside, they said the volume was loud, and they had no trouble hearing us. But on the downside, a few of our friends mentioned a slight echo. Automated calling systems had no trouble understanding us if we were in a quiet room.

Speakerphone calls were fine, and we like that you can start the speakerphone during a call by sliding the phone down. The volume was loud, and the audio was mostly clear. Occasionally we heard a bit of interference, but it wasn't a big problem. Bluetooth headset calls were satisfactory.

The Samsung Highnote has a mixed record as a multimedia phone. Streaming video clips showed some pixelation at times and small details were a little blurry. The display size also is a little smaller than we'd prefer, but that can't be helped. Audio was quite good–the audio was loud and the voices matched the action on the screen.

Music quality was better then we've encountered on many Sprint music phones. The speaker has great output and the audio, while lacking range, was clear. Music tracks downloaded quickly in just less than a minute, and the EV-DO connection was strong overall.

The Highnote has a rated battery life of 5.6 hours talk time. It has a tested talk time of 4 hours and 50 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Highnote has a digital SAR of 1.45 watts per kilogram.

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