What’s Not Good: “Full HTML” Web browser is disappointing; No IM support; No calendar synching; No support for user-created ringtones or background images on menu screens; No phone as modem support on mandatory Simply Everything plan
Bottom Line: Sprint’s new flagship media phone is a very good device, even if I wish they’d skipped the whole “Instinct vs iPhone” marketing campaign. The Web browser needs work and mobile IM addicts will be left in the cold by Instinct, but otherwise Instinct offers solid support across a huge variety of features and excellent implementation of GPS-based navigation and voice activated commands in particular. Though plans start at a hefty $70/mo, if you use the unlimited data, navigation, and Sprint TV it’s actually a good value. And you can’t beat the $129 price tag.
Make/Model: Samsung Instinct (M800)
Network: CDMA 850 / 1900
Data: 1x EV-DO Rev. A (3G)
Size: 116 x 55 x 12.4 mm
Weight: 128 g
Form Factor: Candybar with Full Touchscreen
Display: 3.2” Color LCD, 240 x 432 resolution, 262,000 Colors
Memory: 32 MB built-in, microSD card slot, 2GB memory card included
Notable Features: GPS with navigation; Support for Sprint Music Store, Sprint TV, Streaming music services; Voice control system; First Sprint EV-DO Rev. A device for consumers
IntroductionSprint put a ton of resources into building up the hype for their self-proclaimed “iPhone Killer,” the Samsung Instinct. Built off of the F490 hardware platform, Sprint and Samsung created a custom operating system from the ground up to make this touchscreen handset as feature packed and user friendly as possible. Sprint then unleashed a slew of ads and viral videos setting up a full-on battle between Instinct and Apple’s iPhone.
Is Instinct an iPhone Killer? Not really, but it does offer lots of things the Apple phone doesn’t. More importantly, is Instinct a worthy touch-based media powerhouse and the best all-around device Sprint’s ever offered? Yes. Instinct’s definitely got its flaws and a few of its features aren’t as good as they should be, but overall it’s definitely look a long look if you’re a Sprint subscriber in search of some serious media functionality and/or a little flash in your pocket.
And now that they’ve gone and priced it at $129 on contract? No wonder that one week after Instinct hit Sprint store shelves shortages are being reported all over the place.
Design & FeaturesInstinct does, in fact, look a little like an iPhone with its full touchscreen and rectangular candybar body. A little longer, narrower, and thicker than iPhone, Instinct is eye-catching and plain all at once, with its reflective silver faceplate and darker, soft-grip sides and back panel. Instinct is made of plastic and feels pretty solid and well-balanced in hand. After a few weeks of using my review unit it’s got one small scratch on the bottom of the front panel but no other battle scars or damage of any sort.
Samsung supplanted Instinct’s 3.15” touch display with three touch-sensitive controls — Back, Home, and Phone — lined up in a row just below the screen. I liked the ability to instantly get to phone mode from anywhere in the device’s many menus, and the back button also proved quite handy as I got to know Instinct. I also liked the hardware lock/power key and 3.5mm audio jack, both of which are mounted on the top panel of the phone.
The phone’s display is great to look at and pretty good to the touch. With a 240 x 432 resolution capable of 262K colors, the widescreen looked excellent whether its display menus, still images or video. I have to say that the screen was just a bit cramped for Web browsing, though, especially given the iPhone comparisons that Sprint invited with their marketing tactics.
Instinct is so chock full of features that it’s hard to list them all. The operating system is built around easy, customizable access to the device’s myriad applications. As such, there’s no background image or “skin” to be set on any of the menu screens (you can choose your own wallpaper for the locked-mode screensaver), and you can’t change the system font. What you can do, though, is customize three of the four menu screens with shortcuts to the applications, Web bookmarks, contacts, and playlists you use most. It’s a very utilitarian approach to customization, and while I did miss the personal touch of a background image on my menu screens, I also really liked the one-touch access to so many different features and services.
Okay, so on to those features and services. There’s full navigation with turn-by-turn directions and location-based searching that’s all powered by an onboard GPS chip. There’s a media player that can play audio or video from an SD card, via various streaming services, or take you to the Sprint Music Store so you can buy new tunes by the track. There’s Sprint TV and Sprint Radio support (the latter is streaming audio, not FM radio). There’s a 2MP camera with video capture. There’s Email and Web browsing, and SMS/MMS messaging, if no Mobile IM. There are vertical and horizontal on-screen QWERTY boards and a handwriting recognition mode. And there’s a great voice command system that ties a lot of it together, letting you press a side-panel button and say things like, “Call Don,” or “Go to Search ... Pizza” in order to get the device to do your bidding.
Usability & PerformanceGenerally speaking, Instinct performed quite well during testing in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California. Voice quality was a little spotty here and there but, on the whole, pretty clear and strong. The dialing procedure itself was just the slightest bit odd, as after keying in the number I had to press a green bar above the keypad instead of some kind of “Send” button below the keypad as I was expecting. Not a big deal, but sort of strange.
I also had a few issues with the handset not recognizing when I’d unplugged headphones - even though I’d pulled the plug, Instinct would continue to route audio through the output jack, meaning that I couldn’t hear anything. Plugging the ‘phones back in and unplugging them again remedied the situation. That said, audio quality through the headphones was quite good, and when I plugged a set of higher quality earbuds in to listen to music, the results were on par with a stand-alone audio player.
Using Instincts’ many non-phone features was easy. For what the user interface might lack in the way of “Use your own images, ringtones, and fonts,” pizazz, it shines in terms of providing clear, easy to follow organization of everything you’ll want to do with the device. The touchscreen itself is one of the best I’ve tried this side of iPhone. Scrolling and clicking on Instinct is easier and more consistent than on the Samsung Glyde (VZW) or LG Vu (AT&T), two other recent touchscreen media phones. Typing on the virtual keyboards was pretty good - the haptic feedback worked well, and while the vertical QWERTY board was kind of useless to me, both the horizontal QWERTY and the vertically oriented T9 layouts were great. And the display itself, as I mentioned, is excellent. Sprint TV was a little blocky and stuttery due to issues with the service itself, but watching MPEG-4 videos sideloaded onto a memory card was great, as was looking at digital images using Instinct’s photo viewer.
While the media functionality on Instinct isn’t as slick or attractive as those found on iPhone, they were pretty solid. The music and video players work, though the included 2GB memory card slows down noticeably when I loaded it with a few big video clips and 100+ photos (upgrading to a high speed memory card should help if you plan to keep a lot of photos on your Instinct). Sprint TV and Sprint Radio also offer a wide variety of streaming media options fronted by an easy to follow user interface. Though I found the overall experience of AT&T’s Mobile TV service on Vu just a bit better than Sprint TV on Instinct, I still enjoyed checking in on live ESPN and mobile versions of Comedy Central, MTV, and the like. I was also able to download purchased tracks from the Sprint Music Store thanks to Instinct’s support for EV-DO Rev. A, (Instinct is Sprint’s first consumer device to support this faster version of EV-DO).
Instinct’s stand-out feature is its GPS-based navigation system and the Voice Command system that can be used to access it. I’m not enough of an expert on stand-alone GPS units to say whether or not Instinct can replace that Garmin or Tom Tom sitting on your car’s dashboard. But I can tell you that Instinct’s nav capabilities are great. The handset’s large display makes it easy to follow graphical routes and step-by-step text directions, and the phone also reads directions aloud using a synthesized voice. GPS accuracy was quite good, and the software is tied into Live Search (powered by MSN), which makes it quick and easy to find food, movies, and other services/events near your current location. Though I should point out that maps were kind of slow to render and redraw after zooming, the overall navigation package on Instinct was excellent during my testing.
But Instinct’s browser is a step above your standard-issue WAP browser, and its Email client is a step above your average mobile Email client. There’s no support for HTML mail, but URLs embedded in Email messages are clickable, which is nice. Main screen icons for Email (as well as voicemail) show a numerical count of new unread messages, and there’s a wizard for easy connection to popular Email services as well as custom POP/IMAP accounts. Speaking of messages, text and picture messages are displayed as threaded conversations, and Instinct also features Visual Voicemail, which is straightforward, easy to use, and quite nice.
ConclusionI could go on and on and still forget something. Instinct does a lot, and it does most of it quite well. Since Sprint is virtually begging for the comparison, I’ll put it this way: Instinct does more than iPhone does, but iPhone looks better doing it. Instinct lacks iPhone’s overall polish, smoothness, and horsepower, and it’s Web browser can’t compete with Apple’s Safari (Apple put a serious processor and integrated flash memory in their handset, and it shows). But Instinct also offers nearly every feature under the cellular sun, runs on a faster data network, and has a few neat tricks up its sleeve - like that voice command and live search system.
But enough with the comparisons. Taken on its own merits, Instinct is a very good device and definitely one of the best media-centric handsets currently available on a US carrier. I’d like to see a more robust Web browser (Opera mini for Instinct could be killer), Mobile IM, and the ability for Instinct users to use purchased songs as ringtones on the device - though that last request may be impossible thanks to licensing agreements - but otherwise there’s not much that this phone doesn’t do. Call quality issues popped up a few times, and I don’t think I ever experienced the full speed of EV-DO Rev. A during Web browsing, but I think that’s basically the end of my complaint list. Oh, wait, where’s the flash for the camera?
Okay, seriously, that’s it for the complaints. Instinct’s a solid, solid media phone and a great option for Sprint customers. This is the flashy, feature-rich phone that Sprint users have been waiting for, and by and large it delivers. $129 is a bargain for a device of this quality, and $70/month for unlimited data, messaging, Sprint TV, and GPS along with 450 minutes (or $100 for unlimited minutes) isn’t a bad deal by today’s standards, though there’s no less expensive option for anyone not interested in all of the extras.
No one phone is going to be all things to all people, and Instinct enters a field of touchscreen media phones now crowded by the likes of the iPhone, LG Vu, LG Dare, and forthcoming BlackBerry Thunder ... and that’s not counting unlocked GSM phones suitable for use on AT&T and T-Mobile. Instinct will hold its own against any of the current generation of media phones; whether or not it’s the one for you, only you can decide. But it’s certainly worth a serious look.