Mobile : Expert Review: m520 Alltel Cell Phone

THE GOOD: The Samsung SPH-M520 has a decent set of features, a bright display, easy-to-use control interface and satisfying performance.

THE BAD: The Samsung SPH-M20 had sluggish camera menus, and it picked up some background noise during calls. Also it uses a proprietary headset jack.

THE BOTTOM LINE: It doesn't offer anything new, but the Samsung SPH-M520 is one of the better Sprint Power Vision phones we've seen.

When we first saw the photos of Sprint's new Samsung SPH-M520, we have to admit that we shook our heads in bewilderment. For a while now, we've been asking Samsung to give us something completely new, and as yet another slim slider phone in silver, the SPH-M520 definitely wasn't it. Yet on closer inspection, the SPH-M520 does offer us something just a bit new…indeed it is the first Sprint Power Vision phone in a slider design. No, that's not a lot, but at this point we'll take what we can get. But the SPH-M520 isn't a bad device. It offers refined navigation controls and keypad buttons, a bright display, and decent performance. You can get it for $249 or $49 with a two-year contract.

The SPH-M520 has a design that we've seen many times before from Samsung. In case you haven't noticed, we're growing a little tired of the thin slider phone trend. However, since Samsung keeps pumping them out, we might be in the minority. At 4.01 inches by 2.04 inches by 0.5 inch and 2.75 ounces the SPH-M520 is neither too big nor too small; it slips easily into a pocket and it won't weigh you down. The slider mechanism is sturdy enough but we could still open and close the phone with one hand.

The SPH-M520's 262,000-color display measures a generous 2.1 inches (176×220 pixels). Like many Samsung displays, it's bright and colorful and shows just about everything well. You can change the brightness, the backlighting time, and the dialing font size and color. The basic menu interface is easy to use but Samsung added a new layer to the standby screen. There you will find shortcut icons to seven functions: the main menu, the On Demand content, Sprint TV, the Sprint Music Store, e-mail, GPS, and a menu for checking your Sprint account balance. You can cycle though the options while pressing the navigation toggle and make your selection with the OK key. It's a convenient arrangement but you can turn it off and use the traditional toggle shortcuts instead.

The navigation controls are well-designed and are much better than many slider phones. The square toggle is large and is raised above the surface of the SPH-M520. We had no problem thumbing through the menus and selecting options using the tactile OK button. Surrounding the toggle are two soft keys, a dedicated speakerphone button (nice), a Back key and the Talk and End/power controls. The keypad buttons are also released and are neatly separated form each other. Quick texters shouldn't have a problem. Finishing the exterior of the phone are a volume rocker and the charger port/headset jack on the left spine and a camera shutter key and the microSD card slot on the right spine.

The SPH-M520 has a 500-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, a Web address, a nickname, and notes. You can save contacts to groups and pair them with a photo and one of 19 (72-chord) polyphonic ringtones for caller ID. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a file manager, a speakerphone, a calendar, a scheduler, a voice recorder, an alarm clock, a memo pad, a calculator, a countdown timer, a task list and a world clock. You'll also find stereo Bluetooth, USB mass storage, GPS support with Telenav access, voice dialing and commands, wireless backup for your contacts, modem capability, e-mail and instant messaging and PC syncing. The SPH-M520 also offers audible caller ID that will route through to a Bluetooth headset.

The SPH-M520 offers a self-portrait mirror but no flash.

The 1.3-megapixel camera takes pictures in four resolutions (1.3-megapixel, high, medium, and low) and three quality settings. Other options include a self timer, five fun frames, five color tones, brightness and white balance controls, a night mode, a 2x zoom and four shutter sounds (plus a silent option). The camcorder shoots clips with sound and a set of editing options similar to the still camera. Clips for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds in length; otherwise you can shoot for as long as the available memory permits. When finished with your work you can save them to the phone or use Sprint's PictBridge service for sending photos directly to a PC via a USB cable. The SPH-M520's internal memory is small at 16MB, but you can use the microSD card slot for more storage. A 64MB card comes in the box, but the phone will accommodate cards up to 4GB. The camera menus are easy to use but we noticed that they were a bit sluggish. On the other hand, photo quality was sharp.

The Samsung SPH-M520 had admirable photo quality.

As an EV-DO phone, the SPH-M520 offers full support for Sprint's 3G services. You can connect to Sprint's Power Vision, which includes Sprint TV, movie previews, and programming from channels such as ABC News, MTV Mobile, ESPN, Logo Mobile, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon. You also can stream tunes from Sirius Radio and access Sprint's On Demand service for a range of information that includes news headlines, sports scores, and weather updates personalized for your ZIP code.

The SPH-M520's music player is similar to that on Sprint's other music phones. You can access the Sprint Music Store for simultaneous downloads both to your PC and wirelessly to your phone. The music player interface is nothing too fancy. Though you get album art, the features are limited to repeat and shuffle modes, and you can't use MP3s as ringtones. The airplane mode turns off the phone's calling functions for listening to music while in flight. Unfortunately, the SPH-M20 uses a proprietary connection for headsets. Though you can use your own headset with the included adapter, it only accommodates a 2.5mm jack (we would prefer a 3.5mm jack). On the upside, 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.

You can personalize the SPH-M520 with several of clock styles, themes, and screen savers. If you want additional options beyond what comes on the phone, you can download them from Sprint using the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. Gamers get demo versions of Madden NFL 08, Midnight Pool, Pac-Man/Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris and World Series of Poker; you'll have to buy the full versions of extended play. The phone also comes with a free trial for The Weather Channel 4.0.

We tested the dualband, dualmode (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Samsung SPH-M520 in San Francisco using Sprint service. Call quality was decent on the whole with good clarity and volume. We encountered no static or interference, and we had no problems making a connection. However, the phone did seem to pick up a fair amount of background noise. When we were speaking in noisy environments we had to ask our friends to repeat themselves on a few occasions. The same was true for automated calling systems. If we were in a quiet place, it was fine, but otherwise we had to repeat ourselves.

On their end callers were satisfied, though they reported the same background noise problem. It didn't distract from our overall experience, but it was there just the same. Speakerphone quality was pretty nice. The clarity on our end was satisfying, and callers could understand is as long as we were inside.

Streaming TV quality was pleasing as well. There was minimal distortion or choppiness, and it handled swift movements cleanly. The sound wasn't bad, either, and voices matched the speaker's mouth. However, the sole speaker doesn't have a lot of output, so don't expect a lot of power when you're using the music player. Even when you turn the volume to the highest level, the sound becomes rather distorted. Using a headset will provide the best experience.

The EV-DO connection was pretty strong throughout our testing, even when we were in the interior of large buildings. Web browsing was zippy, and we downloaded a song from the Sprint Music Store in just a few seconds.

The SPH-M520 has a rated battery life of 3.5 hours talk time. According to FCC radiation tests, the Samsung SPH-M520 has a digital SAR rating of 0.761 watt per kilogram.

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