Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Impression™ Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung Impression has a brilliant touch screen, a roomy keyboard, and an intuitive design. It offers a functional midrange feature set and admirable multimedia performance and call quality.

THE BAD: The Samsung Impression has a proprietary headset jack, the camera lacks a flash, and keyboard shortcuts are few. Also, it lacks voice dialing and the promised battery life is rather short.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung Impression isn't perfect, but it ranks high on our list as a messaging and multimedia phone.

Messaging phones were big news at CTIA 2009 and AT&T's Samsung Impression, aka the Samsung SGH-A877, quickly emerged as one of the most talked-about handsets at the show. With a brilliant display, a solid multimedia feature set, and a spacious keyboard, it offers just about everything you'd want from a messaging handset. And even though we didn't test the call quality at CTIA, which turned out to pretty good, we did name it as our best phone of the show. We had a couple of complaints, but on the whole it's one of the best AT&T phones we've seen in a while. The Impression is $399 if you pay full price or $199 with service and a mail-in rebate.

From the outside, the Samsung Impression resembles the LG Xenon. It has a similar shape and the keyboard feels about the same. We were glad it wasn't another recycled design of the Samsung Rant. But when compared with the Xenon, the Impression makes a better go at it. The display is larger and more vibrant and the controls are more comfortable. It's also a bit bigger (4.48 inches long by 2.28 inches wide by 0.61 inch deep) and heavier (5.3 ounces), but the Impression has a sturdy, ergonomic feel in the hand. The dark blue color scheme almost looks black, and we like the curved edges; together they give the phone an eye-catching appeal.

The Impression's touch screen is undoubtedly the highlight. As an active-matrix organic light-emitting diode display, it is a sight to behold with its brilliant colors, bright graphics, and sharp animations. At 3.25 inches, it's just over the minimum size that we require from a touch-screen phone, but it offers plenty of room for most functions. The display is responsive and we welcome the tactile feedback. You can change the calibration and the intensity of the feedback.

On the bottom of the display are three touch controls for the phone dialer, the contacts menu, and the main menu. The interface for the phone dialer features large numbers and a shortcut for the contacts menu. You can also use the standard 10-button keypad to tap out text messages, but we're not sure why you'd want to.

The icon-based menu interface is intuitive and easy to use; we had no issues finding what we wanted in the submenus. And thanks to the "power search" feature, you can thumb through a long list of contacts using the first letter of each entry. Other display options you can adjust include the brightness, font type, and the backlight time.

The Impression offers Samsung's TouchWiz interface, which we've seen on several of the company's phones over the past few months. As we've said before, Touch Wiz has its good points and its bad points. Though we like the collapsible navigation bar and its shortcut widgets, we wish it offered more customization. Sure, you can move the widgets around at will, but you can't create new widgets beyond the ones that come on the phone.

Below the display are three physical controls: the Talk, End/power, and Clear keys. Though they're flat with the surface of the phone, they remain spacious and tactile. Other exterior controls consist of a display-locking key and a camera shutter on the right spine, and a volume rocker and a shortcut control on the right spine. Pressing the latter will open onscreen shortcuts for the phone dialer, the messaging menu, the Web browser, the music player, and the games menu.

On the top of the phone is the combination headset jack/charger port. Though it's conveniently located, the jack is proprietary so you can only use your own headset with an adapter (not good). Also, you can use only one peripheral at a time. The camera lens and speaker are on the back side of the phone and the memory card slot rests behind the battery cover. Fortunately, you don't need to remove the battery to access it.

We like the Impression's roomy keyboard. When the display is open, the TouchWiz applications have a landscape orientation.

Slide the display to the right to expose the physical keyboard. At 4 inches across, the keyboard is one of the most spacious we've ever seen on a cell phone. What's more, even though the keys are flush, they remain tactile and easy to press and find. We were off and texting pretty quickly and we made few mistakes. Our only complaints were that the space bar is a tad small and that shortcut controls are few. Besides a dedicated key for the messaging application, you'll just shift and function keys and arrow navigation controls for scrolling through menus. Numbers and symbols are surfaced directly on the keyboard, though they share buttons with letters. The keyboard is brightly backlit for texting in the dark and it offers plenty of space on either side.

If you don't want to use the physical keyboard, the Impression also offers a virtual onscreen keyboard and a handwriting recognition tool. Both are fine for occasional use, but we prefer the physical keyboard for heavy texting situations. You can use the T9 predictive texting application in the virtual keyboard, which is helpful since it's almost too small to use two hands.

Opening the keyboard will change the display's orientation in standby mode or when you're in the main menu. The wallpaper doesn't flip, which is slightly disconcerting, but the widgets on the TouchWiz bar change their orientation. Also, we like that you can view the menu in landscape mode. The Impression's accelerometer works in certain applications only. By rotating the phone, you can switch between the virtual keypad and keyboard and you can flip the orientation of the photo gallery and Web browser.

The Impression offers a solid set of midrange multimedia features, but we'll start with the basics first. The phone book holds a hefty 2,000 contracts, with room in each entry for four phone numbers, an e-mail address, a URL, a company name and job title, a birthday, a nickname, a street address, and notes. You can save callers to groups and pair them with a photo, a message, and one of 11 (72-chord) polyphonic ringtones. You can save an additional 250 names to the SIM card.

Basic features include a vibrate mode, an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, a memo pad, a calculator, a world clock, a timer, a currency and unit converter, a speakerphone and a stopwatch. You'll also find a voice recorder, stereo Bluetooth, PC syncing, USB mass storage, a file manager, and GPS with support for AT&T Navigator. Voice dialing is a disappointing omission.

As expected, the Impression is a messaging machine, supporting text and multimedia messaging and instant messaging. Yet, the handset falls a bit short when it comes to e-mail. While AT&T Mobile E-mail does offers access to AOL, AIM, Yahoo, Hotmail, and Bell South accounts, it's a clunky Web-based application. We much prefer a dedicated e-mail that would sit directly on the handset (as on the iPhone or the Samsung Instinct) with true syncing. We're also disappointed that the Impression can't access IMAP4 accounts.

The camera lacks a flash, which is disappointing for a 3-megapixel shooter.

The 3-megapixel camera takes pictures in five resolutions, from three megapixels down to 400×220. Other editing options include four quality settings, five "scene" selections (like night and landscape), exposure metering, four color effects, adjustable brightness and white balance tools, a self-timer, 20 fun frames, a multishot mode, a smile shot feature (the camera snaps a picture when it detects a smile), and a mosaic shot mode. The camera interface is easy to use with many options surfaced on the viewfinder.

The camcorder shoots clips in two resolutions (320×240 and 176×144), while offering a similar set of editing options. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at about one minute, but you can shoot for much longer in normal mode. The Impression has 190MB of user-accessible shared memory, but you can use a memory card for more space.

The Impression has great photo quality.

Photo quality was pretty good, with bright colors and little image noise. We also had enough light despite the phone's lack of a flash. We should note, however, that vanity shots will be tricky with a self-portrait mirror. Videos are fine, but not exceptional–definitely not beyond normal camera phone quality. The photo gallery application is a mixed bag: we liked that you can cycle between different photos by swiping your finger across the display or by tipping the phone to either side, but we didn't like that you don't always get an MMS option when viewing individual photos.

As a 3G (UMTS) phone, the Impression offers the full set of AT&T's wireless broadband multimedia services. You'll find Cellular Video (streaming-video content) and AT&T Mobile Music (wireless song downloads through partners). The experience with 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 (MP3, AAC, eAAC+, and WMA) and it offers useful features, such as album art, playlists, shuffle and repeat modes, and an airplane mode.

The Impression 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 saving music tracks as ringtones.

The full HTML browser isn't quite like the iPhone's Safari browser, but it exceeded our expectations. Scrolling around Web pages was pretty smooth, thanks to the responsive touch screen. We didn't experience the usual jerky motion when dragging our finger across the display. As mentioned earlier, the display's orientation will rotate automatically when using the Web browser, but it's rather annoying that your bookmarks list works only in portrait mode. That means that you must rotate the phone back and forth. The magnifying glass tool isn't our favorite method for zooming in on Web pages–we prefer Apple's pinching motion–but it works well enough.

You can personalize the Impression with a variety of wallpapers, sounds, and a greeting message. You can buy more options and additional ringtones from AT&T with the Web browser. You also get a number of subscription-based applications, including Mobile Baking, Yellowpages Mobile, MobiTV, MobiDJ, The Weather Channel, and Where 2.1. For gaming, the Impression comes with demo versions of five titles: Ms. Pac-man, Diner Dash 2, JuiceCaster, Midnight Pool2, and Monopoly. The quirkiest application is Tumbling Dice, which will come in handy if you forget real dice.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Impression world phone in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was quite good under almost all conditions. The audio was clear and free of static and we encountered no interference from other electronic devices. Voices sounded natural and we had enough volume to hear in even noisy environments. Our only issue was an occasional background noise, but it was a satisfactory experience on the whole.

On their end, callers said we sounded great. A few couldn't even tell that we were using a cell phone. Some had a bit of trouble hearing us if we were in a noisy place, but that's not uncommon for any cell phone. We also had few issues when speaking to automated-calling systems.

Speakerphone calls were fine for the most part. The volume was very loud and we could stray a bit from the phone and still be heard on the other end. Voice quality was a bit distorted on our side, but not enough to be worrisome.

The Impression is compatible with 850 and 1900 UMTS 3G bands. We'd like support for 3.5G HSDPA bands, as well, but we can let it pass. On the whole, the phone performed well in data tests. The Web browser was pretty zippy and downloads took just a few seconds.

Cellular Video quality was quite good. Videos kicked in relatively quickly and the quality was free of heavy pixelation. The sound was also in sync and quick movements looked pretty good. We also were pleased that the frame size used the entire display. Too often that's not the case. We had to pause once to buffer, but videos didn't freeze.

Sound quality over the external speaker was fine, but not nothing spectacular. The audio lacked warmth and most tunes sounded tinny. Headphones will provide the best experience.

The Impression has a rated battery life of just three hours talk time, which is rather low for a GSM phone. The promised standby time is 10.4 days. However, our tests showed a talk time of 7 hours and 53 minutes on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Impression has a digital SAR rating of 0.27 watts per kilogram.

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