Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Propel™ Pro Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung Propel Pro offers a full QWERTY keyboard with a number of e-mail solutions. The Windows Mobile smartphone also has 3G support, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS. Call quality was good, and we were impressed with the picture quality of the camera.

THE BAD: The smartphone is bulky compared with other messaging phones, and the keyboard is slightly cramped. Samsung uses a proprietary jack for headphones and AC adapters.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung Propel Pro is a capable Windows Mobile device, but its bulky design makes it less appealing than AT&T’s other messaging smartphones.

The hot trend at CTIA 2009 was messaging phones, and one of the models to debut at the show was the Samsung Propel Pro for AT&T. It looks similar to Samsung Propel, with a slider form factor and full QWERTY keyboard, but the Pro is designed more for business users and adds Windows Mobile 6.1 along with a toned-down look that’s more appropriate for the board room. The smartphone delivers good call quality and is packed with a broad range of wireless connections and e-mail capabilities. However, like its nonsmartphone counterpart, we had problems with the design. The Propel Pro is bulky and thick, and when compared with other sleek QWERTY smartphones like the Samsung Epix and Nokia E71x, it loses some of its appeal. However, if you’re a fan of slider phones and need one to handle your business, the Propel Pro can do that for you. The Samsung Propel Pro will be available from AT&T starting April 14 for $149.99 with a two-year contract.

The Samsung Propel Pro captures your attention for a couple of reasons, the first of which is its shiny exterior. The smoky mirrored chassis is definitely eye-catching and tones down the Samsung Propel’s playful image with a classic and corporate-appropriate look. However, the shiny surface gets dirty pretty quickly, as it holds many fingerprints and smudges; we had to constantly wipe the screen. Also, the back of the handset can feel slick, almost greasy. All these issues sap the smartphone of some of its initial allure.

The Samsung Propel Pro is slightly bulky.

The second reason you take notice of the Propel Pro is because of the slider phone’s squat, squarish shape. Though we’ve seen more handsets come in this shape, including the LG Lotus and Verizon Wireless Blitz, it’s still uncommon; and to our recollection, it’s the first smartphone we’ve seen with this design. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however; it’s just different. In all, the Propel Pro measures 3.9 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick, and weighs 4.8 ounces, so it’s quite a bulky handset. The smartphone feels wide when held in the hand and you might want to put this into your coat pocket, since it’s not going to easily slip into the pocket of your pants.

On front, there is a 2.5-inch, 65,000-color TFT nontouch display with a 320×320 pixel resolution. It could stand to be a little bigger and there’s certainly room, but overall, we found it sharp and easy to read. Like most cell phone screens, the Propel Pro’s tends to wash out a bit in bright sunlight. You can customize the Home screen with various layouts, color schemes, and background images. We particularly like the sliding panel layout since it provides easy access to your information and applications right from the Home screen.

Without a touch screen, the controls beneath the display will be your main way to navigate the phone. You get two soft keys, Talk and End buttons, a Home shortcut, a back button, and a navigation joystick. The controls are fairly easy to use, with the exception of the joystick. It doesn’t provide the most precise method for scrolling and selecting menu items. For example, on several occasions, we inadvertently moved the joystick when we were simply trying to press down to select something. It gets easier with more time, but still, it doesn’t offer you complete control like a traditional directional keypad or trackball.

Below the display, you'll find some navigation controls. We weren't huge fans of the joystick since it wasn't very precise.

To access the full QWERTY keyboard, simply push the screen up. The sliding motion is smooth and the screen securely locks into place. The Propel Pro’s keyboard is slightly different from the regular Samsung Propel. The buttons are rectangular instead of oval shaped and there’s no spacing between the keys, making it slightly cramped and troublesome for users with larger thumbs. The spacebar was particularly problematic, since it’s so short; we’d have preferred it slightly longer (and it looks like there was space to do so). On the positive side, the buttons weren’t stiff to press as they were on the Samung BlackJack II, so that reduced some typing errors.

The Propel Pro's full QWERTY keyboard features good-size buttons that are easy to press. However, the layout is a bit cramped.

On the left side, there’s a power button, a volume rocker, and a microSD expansion slot; and on the right spine, you’ll find a camera activation/capture button and Samsung’s pesky proprietary power/headset jack. We really hope Samsung considers switching to a more standard Mini- or Micro-USB port and a 3.5mm headphone jack in the future, since having to use Samsung-specific accessories is quite annoying and restricting. Finally, the camera is built into the back of the front cover, so you need to slide open the phone in order to use it.

The Samsung Propel Pro comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

While not drastically different from other Windows Mobile smartphones, the Samsung Propel Pro does ramp up the offerings of the Samsung Propel with the addition of Windows Mobile 6.1 Standard Edition–bringing with it document viewing and editing via the Microsoft Office Mobile Suite and Outlook synchronization courtesy of Microsoft’s Direct Push Technology. The Propel Pro offers other e-mail solutions as well, including AT&T’s Xpress Mail and continued support for POP3 and IMAP accounts. In addition, the smartphone comes preloaded with three instant-messaging clients: AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo.

Other personal-information management tools include a PDF viewer, an RSS reader, a task list, voice notes, alarm and world clocks, a unit converter, a stopwatch, and more. You can, of course, download more applications to the smartphone, and there are plenty of titles available for the Windows Mobile operating system. AT&T includes some extras on the device, including MobiTV, My-Cast Weather, eBay, Mobile Banking, and WikiMobile; for more, check out Download.com. For storage, the Propel Pro has 126MB RAM/256MB ROM, but for any personal or media files, we’d recommend sideloading them on a microSD card. The smartphone’s expansion slot can accept up to 8GB cards.

On the left side, there is a microSD expansion slot that can accept 8GB cards.

Switching to the voice features, the Samsung Propel Pro offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, speed dialing, three-way calling, conference calling, voice commands, and text and multimedia messaging. We should note that the smartphone does support threaded text messages. You can also make video calls via AT&T’s Video Share service, though the recipient will also have to have a Video Share-compatible phone and you’ll have to sign up for the service, which starts at $4.99 per month.

The contacts list is pretty standard, with room in each entry for multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, IM handles, notes, and more. The address book is limited by available memory only (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts). For caller ID, you can assign a contact a picture, a group ID, or a custom ringtones.

The Propel Pro is Bluetooth 2.0 capable, so you can pair the handset with mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets and hands-free kits. There’s also support for Bluetooth peripherals (keyboards, printers, and so forth), and wireless file transfers. You can also use the smartphone as a wireless modem for your laptop.

That’s too bad, since the smartphone is a tri-band UMTS/HSDPA (850/1900/2100MHz). The 3.5G support brings data speeds that are more comparable to a broadband-like connection, but remember that there are multiple factors that affect 3G speeds, such as where you live and how many people are on the network at one time, so results may vary. The tri-band support means you’ll be able to access 3G networks while abroad, as well. As an alternative, the Propel Pro also has integrated Wi-Fi, so you don’t always have to rely on AT&T’s network. Just be sure to turn off all unnecessary radios to preserve battery life.

The Epix also features GPS/A-GPS. While you can get maps and text-based, turn-by-turn driving directions with a free app like Google Maps for Mobile, for real-time tracking, data, and voice-guided directions, you’ll need to use location-based service. Conveniently, AT&T offers its own version of TeleNav Navigator, which offers traffic data and location recorders in addition to voice-guided instructions. Currently, AT&T Navigator is free for the first 30 days, but afterwards, you will be charged $9.99 per month unless you cancel the feature.

If you’re looking for a little bit of fun, the Samsung Propel Pro can provide that, too. In addition to the standard Windows Media Player, you can enjoy streaming music and video via AT&T Music and AT&T Video. These add-on services enable you to access content, such as streaming XM satellite radio, music videos, MusicID for identifying song titles and artist, and video programming from CNN, ESPN, and NBC, among other channels.

The Samsung Propel Pro is equipped with a 3-megapixel camera/camcorder with autofocus.

The Propel Pro also features a 3-megapixel camera with video-recording capabilities and autofocus. For still shots, you get a choice of various shooting modes, scenes, resolutions, and image qualities, as well as white balance and ISO controls. In camcorder mode, available settings include two resolutions, three quality settings, white balance, effects, and a couple of others.

We were impressed by the sharp images and good color.

Picture quality was quite impressive. We were a little wary, since there was some shutter lag so we feared that photos might come out blurry. However, we were pleasantly surprised when we saw the end product. The image was nice and sharp, and, for once, colors didn’t look completely washed out or too orange or yellow like they do on some other smartphones. Video quality was also good, with minimal blurriness or pixilation.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900)/tri-band UMTS/HSDPA Samsung Propel Pro in San Francisco using AT&T service and call quality was good. The audio was clear on our end, though just slightly hollow sounding. Still, we were able to carry on conversations without interruption and our friends also reported positive results. Speakerphone quality was also satisfactory. In most cases, volume was loud enough even in relatively noisy environments, but there was some occasional crackling. We were able to pair the Propel Pro with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

Armed with a 528MHz processor, the Propel Pro is generally responsive. We didn’t experience any major delays or system crashes during our review period, though we did see our share of the spinning wheel while waiting for a program to launch.

Our review unit had no problem finding and connecting to our Wi-Fi network. Using AT&T’s 3G network, it took about one minute for CNET’s site to fully load on Internet Explorer Mobile. CNN Mobile came up in 16 seconds, while ESPN Mobile took 18 seconds. We watched a couple of video streams from AT&T Video, and it wasn’t pretty. The stream was often interrupted and the picture was very pixilated and blurry. It simply wasn’t worth it. Fortunately, we had better luck with WMV clips from our personal library, as picture and audio played seamlessly. We were also impressed by the rich sound of the phone’s speakers when playing back music.

To test the smartphone’s GPS, we used AT&T Navigator and plotted a course from the Marina district of San Francisco to CNET’s downtown headquarters. The Propel was able to find our location immediately and did a fairly decent job of tracking our position throughout the drive, though it occasionally lagged behind by about half a block. While the directions were accurate, we encountered some problems with route recalculations. They were often slow and by the time it came up with new directions, it had to play catch up, and sometimes got confused with street names.

The Samsung Propel Pro’s 1440mAh lithium ion battery has a rated talk time of 6.5 hours and up to 12 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, we were able to get an impressive 10 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Propel Pro has a digital SAR rating of 0.473 watt per kilogram.

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