Mobile : Expert Review: u520 Metro PCS Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung SCH-u520 offers an attractive new user interface. It also has a worthy set of features including Bluetooth, a megapixel camera, and a microSD card slot.

THE BAD: The Samsung SCH-u520 has slick buttons and controls, and its voice quality is variable. It also has poor battery life.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Though there are better choices for a midrange phone, the Samsung SCH-u520 is remarkable and offers the innovative Celltop application.

Though it's far from the largest carrier in the United States, Alltel is not shy when it comes to promoting new technologies. It was the first U.S. carrier to introduce the Fastap-enabled LG AX490, and now with its new Samsung SCH-u520, Alltel unveils a completely new cell phone interface. Celltop allows users to organize information on the phone's display without having to search through multiple menus to find it. Though it's not quite perfect, Celltop earns points for originality and certainly is a solid step toward making cell phones easier to use. On the practical side, the SCH-u520's design is unexceptional and the call quality was uneven, but the phone offers some nice features such as a 1.3-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, a speakerphone, and a microSD card slot. You can get the phone for a reasonable $59 with service.

Samsung loves its slim phones and though the SCH-u520 isn't the skinniest model we've seen, it certainly makes a nod in that direction. At 1.92×3.74×1.0 inches and 2.96 ounces, it's small enough to be carried around easily while maintaining a comfortable feel in the hand. The basic black color scheme and simple lines are unassuming, which make it a good choice for anyone who favors plain styling. The flip mechanism seems mostly solid but the plastic face did feel a tad cheap.

The postage stamp (176×16 pixels) external display packs in all the necessary information including the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and caller ID. And since it's color, it supports photo caller ID, and you also can use it as a camera viewfinder. You can change the contrast but not the font size. Unfortunately, it's also a fingerprint magnet. Below the display are dedicated keys for the music player–a nice and surprising touch for this caliber of phone–while below them are the stereo speakers (another nice touch). The camera lens sits above the display with a flash for minimal light in dim situations.

The SCH-u520 features dedicated music buttons.

Other exterior features were few. A volume rocker sits on the left spine while a small camera shutter/speakerphone button sits on the right spine. While we usually like a speakerphone button, we weren't so satisfied here. Since you must press the left side of the key once for the speakerphone and the right side of the key for the camera, it can be a bit tricky if you have big fingers. What's more, since a longer press activated the video camera, it can get even more confusing the first few times you use it. Also on the left spine are a covered headset jack and a microSD card slot. The charger port is in its usual location on the bottom of the phone.

Inside the phone is the main 262,000-color display. At 2 inches diagonally (176×220 pixels), it's bright and vivid and displays graphics and pictures well. Like most Samsung displays, it disappears in direct light but it's quite serviceable overall. You can change the backlighting time, the brightness, and the font size and style. Alltel's menus, which are available in two styles, are functional and easy to use. Of course the new Celltop feature is the main news here, but we'll discuss that below.

Due to the SCH-u520's slim stature, the navigation controls are flat with the surface of the phone. Though this arrangement is now quite common, we continue to prefer controls that are more tactile and not so slippery. On the upside, the array is large so even users with bigger hands should have no trouble. A four-way toggle surrounds a central OK button that's also used to open the menu when the phone is in standby mode. As for shortcuts, the toggle gives one-touch access to the phone book, the Web browser, Alltel's application menu, and the memory card storage. There also are two soft keys, a clear button, and the talk and end/power controls. The keypad buttons weren't the easiest to use as they're also flush with the phone and rather slick. On the other hand, they have bright backlighting for easy dialing in the dark.

The Samsung SCH-u520 offers all the usual features you'd expect on a midtier phone. The phone book holds 5,000 contacts with room in each entry for five phone numbers and two e-mail addresses. You can save contacts to groups and pair them with a photo or one of 15 polyphonic ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a speakerphone, a memo pad, a calendar, an alarm clock, a world clock, a calculator, a stop watch, a unit converter, and a tip calculator. On the higher end, there are also voice commands, Bluetooth, PC syncing, and e-mail support.

It goes without saying that the most notable feature of the SCH-u520 is the new Celltop application. Celltop consists of interactive, changeable windows or "cells" on the phone's display that provide shortcuts to a variety of features, including your call log and message in-box. The idea is to let you scan such information without having to sort through multiple menus. Each cell, which takes up half of the display, sits on top of the phone's existing applications. Besides your call log and message in-box, eight other cells are available, including weather (customizable by city); news reports; stock quotes; your ringtones folder; and scores for basketball, football, and baseball. Rodeo is the quirkiest cell of them all, but there may just be a market for this one.

The result is mostly effective though it's worth noting that Celltop doesn't just appear on the SCH-u520's display when you turn it on. Instead, you must actually open the application and wait for it to load. While it takes just a couple clicks and a few seconds, it's not quite as time-saving as Alltel might have you think. Yet once it is open, it does provide a lot of useful information at your fingertips. You can scroll easily through the available cells, and the interface is intuitive and attractive. We were able to load San Francisco weather and a few stock quotes and liked that you could jump straight to your message in-box by selecting the corresponding cell. On the other hand, each cell needs to reload once you scroll back to it, which takes more time. Also, every time you refresh a cell, Alltel charges you for one minute of air time. This applies even to your call log and message in-box.

You can personalize Celltop by choosing which cells you want on your phone, the order in which they appear, and their color. What's more, open-source fans will be pleased that Celltop is open to the developer community for new and unique cells.

The SCH-u520's camera comes with a flash.

The SCH-u520's 1.3 meagpixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions (1,280×960, 640×480, 320×240, and 96×96) and comes with a generous assortment of editing options. You can adjust the white balance and the brightness, choose from five color effects and select one of three shutter sounds (there's also a silent option). Other features include spot metering, three quality settings, a self timer, and modes for multi, series, and divided shots. There's also an 8x zoom but it's unusable at the highest resolution. Photo quality was a bit below average for a megapixel camera. Colors looked decent but objects looked fuzzy and lacked distinct outlines. Also, while the camera menu interface is easy to use, the white text can be hard to discern if you're pointing the camera at a bright light.

The SCH-u520 has average photo quality.

The camcorder takes clips with sound and offers a set of editing options similar to the still camera. Videos meant for multimedia messages are capped at 15 seconds; otherwise you can shoot for as long as the available memory permits. And speaking of which, you get a respectable 65MB of shared internal memory, and you can add more using a microSD card (not included).

The SCH-u520 comes with a basic digital music player for your audio needs. Though it offers just the simplest features and sports a minimalist interface, it's perfectly serviceable for shorts stints. And there's an airplane mode for turning off the phone's calling feature during air travel. On the downside, it's bothersome that it will only play tracks from the microSD card. Other multimedia features include Alltel's Axcess TV and support for XM Satellite Radio.

You can personalize the SCH-u520 with a variety of wallpapers, screensavers, color themes, and clock styles. You can write a personalized banner as well. More options are available for download via the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. Unfortunately, no integrated games are included on the phone–not even demo versions.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Samsung SC-U520 in San Francisco using Alltel's service. Call quality was decent but not quite exceptional. Though we could hear callers plainly and there was enough volume, voices had a slight echoed effect and at times sounded a bit metallic as well. Callers reported a similar issue and could tell we were using a cell phone. They said the volume level was fine, however. We had more trouble in noisy situations, such as walking down the street, but that's not unusual with a phone of this caliber. Voice response systems could understand us most of the time.

Speakerphone calls were about the same but they sounded less muffled than on other speakerphones we've tried. Bluetooth calls were about average as well. We'd recommend using a wired headset for music as tunes over the phone's speakers were too tinny. We give Samsung points for stereo speakers but wish they offered a stereo Bluetooth profile as well.

The SCH-u520 has a rated battery life of 3.6 hours talk time and 10.4 days standby time. We only managed to eke out a disappointing 2 hours of talk time in our tests. According to FCC radiation tests, the SCH-u520 has a digital SAR rating of 1.17 watts per kilogram.

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