THE GOOD: The Samsung Smiley has a functional midrange feature set and respectable call quality.
THE BAD: The Samsung Smiley's keyboard is a tad cramped and offers few shortcut keys. Some messaging options require use of the Web browser.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you don't mind the small keyboard and can get past the cringe-inducing name, T-Mobile's Samsung Smiley is an easy-to-use messaging phone.
You can always count on Samsung do it two things: bury us in new cell phone reviews, and occasionally announce handsets with rather silly names. On that last point, the Innov8, the TwoStep, and the Sunburst are prime examples, and don't get CNET's copy editors started on that whole "Messager" thing. But leave it to Samsung to continue to outdo itself, for just when we thought we've heard it all, the company unveiled a new phone name that launched us into new realms of the ridiculous.
Now our sources tell that one Samsung employee is charged with naming its phones. That's more than believable from a huge multinational firm, but as Nicole Lee put it, apparently that person has run out of words. Samsung named its SGH-T359 the Samsung :). That's right, it used an emoticon normally reserved for instant messages and text-happy teens. We were appalled when we first heard the news last month and remain so today. In fact, we find it so absurd that we're going to call it the Samsung "Smiley" in this review. That will show 'em.
Names aside, the Smiley is a comfortable and functional texting phone for T-Mobile. It has a respectable midrange feature set and it offers decent performance. And best of all, it will cost you just $19.99 with a two-year contract.
From the outside, the Smiley closely resembles the Samsung Strive. It doesn't come in multiple colors, but it has a similar slider phone design and at 3.9 inches long by 2.3 inches wide by 0.6 inch deep, it's about the same size. At 4 ounces, the Smiley is just the slightest bit heavier than its predecessor, but it still feels a little wispy in the hand thanks to its plastic shell. Despite the durability concerns, it's a reasonably attractive phone and we're thrilled that Samsung didn't stamp the exterior with an emoticon.
The Smiley's 2.6-inch TFT display shows 262,000 colors in a 320×240-pixel resolution. Sure, it can't compare with the fancy displays on the latest smartphones, but it's more than suitable on a midrange texting handset. Its colors, graphics, and photos are bright, though the screen is largely unreadable in direct light. The menu interface is typical Samsung, which is to say it's easy to use. The display's personalization options include brightness, backlighting time, and wallpaper.
Below the display is the navigation array. It feels rather cramped, but we suppose users with smaller hands may not have the same problem. There's a square four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, the Talk and End/power control, a back button, and a shortcut for the messaging feature. Most of they keys are flat, though the toggle is raised. We'd prefer, however, that the OK button takes you to the menu from standby mode. Right now it doesn't do anything.
Slide up the Smiley to show the combined numeric keypad and messaging keyboard. Like on the Stride, the keys are small and squashed together. There are only four rows of keys so most buttons serve a dual purpose (numbers and letters, or symbols and letters). On the whole, it's a pretty standard arrangement, though we'd prefer more shortcut controls. A combined "www" and ".com" key will save you some time and, naturally, there's a dedicated emoticon button. All right, Samsung, that is pretty clever.
Remaining exterior features include a volume rocker and the microSD card slot on the left spine. The Smiley gets a point for not hiding the latter behind the battery. Over on the right spine you'll find a camera shutter and Micro-USB headset and charger jack. We welcome the standard charger connection, though that will mean you'll need an adapter to use a 2.5mm or 3.5mm wired headset. The camera lens and self-portrait mirror are on the rear side of the front slider; you'll need to have the phone open to take a photo.
The Smiley's phone book holds a healthy 1,000 contacts with room in each entry for multiple phone number types, a nickname, an e-mail address, a URL, an instant-messaging handle, a birthday, notes, and a street address. As you'd expect, you can save callers to groups and pair them with a photo and one of 21, 72-chord polyphonic ringtones.
Other essentials include a calculator, a notepad, an alarm clock, a task list, a tip calculator, a world clock, a unit and currency converter, a timer, and a stopwatch. More-demanding users can take advantage of the stereo Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, RSS reader, voice memo recorder, and USB mass storage. The Smiley also offers assisted GPS with support for Google Maps and TeleNav turn-by-turn directions.
Given its full keyboard, the Smiley has plenty of messaging options. Beyond the standard text and multimedia messaging you also get instant messaging and even support for Outlook Exchange e-mail. Remember that all messaging options will result in data charges and the latter two options require a Web-based interface. And if you prefer social media, Samsung's Social Buzz option offers access to Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.
The 1.3-megapixel camera takes pictures in three resolutions and three quality settings. Other settings include a night mode, four color effects, an adjustable brightness tool, four white-balance modes, a self-timer, 20 fun frames, and modes for multishots, panoramas, and mosaics. With the additional Smile mode, the camera should snap a photo when it detects that a subject is smiling. The Smiley also has a 2x digital zoom, but you can't use it with the largest photo resolution. Photo quality was fine, but nothing special.
The camcorder shoots clips in just one resolution (176×144 pixels), but it offers a set of editing options similar to the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at about 1 minute, 30 seconds, but you can shoot for much longer in Normal mode. For storage, the Strive has 50MB of user-accessible shared memory. That's rather low, but you can use a microSD card up to 16GB for more storage.
A basic music player rounds out the Smiley's features. The interface is simple, but you get a couple of options like an equalizer, visualizations, and playlists. As for apps, the handset offers access to YouTube and a selection of demo games including Where's Waldo, Pac-Man, Guitar Hero 5, Bubble Bash 2, and Bejewled. You can download more options with the wireless Web browser.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1,800/1,900MHz) phone in San Francisco using T-Mobile service. Call quality was quite satisfactory on all fronts. The volume was loud, the audio clarity was sharp, and our friends' voices sounded natural. The phone picked up a nominal amount of background noise on our end, but that was the extent of our concerns.
Callers also were pleased with what they heard. Though they could tell that we were using a cell phone, and some reported background noise as well, we heard few other complaints. Speakerphone calls also were agreeable, with just a bit of audio distortion at the loudest volume levels. Automated calling systems could understand us without any problems, as long as we were close to the phone.
The Smiley has a rated battery life of 5.5 hours talk time and 12.5 days standby time. It has a tested talk time of 5 hours and 2 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Smiley has a digital SAR of 0.43 watt per kilogram.