I might be dating myself here, but do you remember those Reese's Peanut Butter Cups ads that hawked chocolate peanut butter cups under the slogan, "Two great tastes that taste great together"? Every time I used the Samsung UpStage over the past few weeks I thought of that slogan. Combining a phone on one side and a music player on the other, this inventive candybar phone seeks to answer the question, "What if I glued my iPod nano to the back of my cell phone? Huh? Would that be cool?"
Reese's succeeded in merging chocolate and peanut butter into a sweet hunk of candy goodness. Samsung and Sprint didn't fare quite so well with the UpStage. While the design is eye-catching and the device itself a thing of beauty, in practice the UpStage is more frustrating than innovative. For basic calling and listening to music, UpStage works pretty well. But for more advanced functions - of which the handset boasts many - the user is required to flip the phone back and forth far more than is reasonable to ask of a consumer. The display on UpStage's phone side is too small to use for texting or scrolling through contacts, and the controls on the music side are too limited to use for entering data (such as text messages or contact info). As such, the UpStage winds up a very pretty device that's ultimately more satisfying to hold and look at than it is to use.
On the plus side, UpStage is one of the cooler mobile phones you're going to find on today's market, let alone under the corporate flag of a U.S. carrier. For the sake of comparison, UpStage is just a bit larger than an iPod nano, measuring 103 x 44 x 9 mm and weighing a scant 73g, the handset is a marvel of modern technology. It all but disappears when tucked away in a shirt, jacket, or pants pocket. Much as a Reese's cup is made of two distinct flavors that merge together, UpStage is comprised of two distinct sides joined by software and a "Flip" button on the side.
The music side of the device is dominated by a 2.1" LCD screen capable of displaying 262,000 colors at a resolution of 176 x 220 pixels. I was actually a bit surprised to learn that this isn't a full QVGA (320 x 240) display - text, images, and video rendered bright and bold in both portrait and landscape modes. Beneath the display is a square shaped navigation pad. The center of the square is a play/pause button, and that's bordered by a touch-sensitive strip marked with Menu, Rewind, Fast Forward, Back, and End icons. The touch controls actually serve purposes beyond their labels, depending on what menu is on the screen above. For instance, the top left and right corners of the pad often function as soft keys corresponding to choices at the bottom of the display. The entire touch pad can also be used to scroll through menus by either tapping or sliding a finger to move the on screen cursor left, right, up, or down. Sliding and holding a finger on the pad activates repeated scrolling much like pressing and holding a key on a computer keyboard.
I found the touch controls to be a bit erratic, but actually less so than other touch sensitive phones I've tried (LG's Chocolate comes to mind as a notorious offender in this regard). After a bit of acclimation, I was able to touch, tap, and slide my way around UpStage's menus with relative ease. Still, the touch pad's cool factor was a bit offset by the fact that it's just not as responsive as good old fashioned buttons.
Flipping the handset over to the phone side, we find a small display above a large array of dialing and navigation buttons. This display is a 1.4" LCD affair that produces 175 x 65 pixels across 65,000 colors. When dialing, numbers are big, bright, and colorful on this screen. When entering alphanumerical information such as contact info, an SMS message or Web URL, well, the display feels pretty small.
The buttons beneath the display are arranged in the standard cell phone format: navigation pad with dialing layout below. A four-way directional pad with select button is flanked by twin soft keys and dedicated buttons for camera, Back, Call, and End. Below these are the expected 12 dialing keys, which are roomy and provide good tactile feedback. The phone's speaker and microphone are also located on this side, at the top and bottom edges respectively, and the camera sensor is also at the top of this side.
Along one side panel of UpStage is a sliding lock switch, Flip button, and plastic capped microSD memory card slot. The other side panel houses a rocker switch to control volume along with a recessed Reset button and a plastic capped headphone/charger port. The phone is finished in a nice matte black with silver chrome trim - it looks hip and classy, unlike some of Samsung's chrome-finished slider phones of recent memory.
The phone comes packaged with an external "battery wallet." This leather-bound case contains an extra battery meant to offset both the power drain of listening to music (and watching video) on the handset, and the battery limitations caused by UpStage's slim profile. UpStage snaps into the center of the open-ended wallet, and the wallet can then be flipped open from either side to access whichever side of the phone you want to get to. The wallet is nicely designed, though a sharp seam did rub my cheek the wrong way once or twice during use. One detail of note: No battery cover was mentioned because there is none. UpStage's battery is not user replaceable, which is both unusual and potentially unfortunate.
For such a small phone, UpStage is loaded to the hilt with features. Its main calling card, of course, is music. UpStage can play music sideloaded from a computer via Bluetooth, USB, or memory card, or songs purchased and downloaded direct from Sprint's Music Store. Upon introducing UpStage at CTIA in March 2007, Sprint also dropped the price of tracks from their store to 99 cents each. Your dollar gets you a low-quality version of the track that downloads via EV-DO to the phone in a minute or two, and also a high-quality version of the same song that you can access via Sprint's Web site from a computer. That's a pretty good deal, I have to say, and I wonder if Apple will follow suit once their iPhone ships later this year. Note that the 99-cent per song fee does not include data charges or monthly Power Vision subscription fees.
UpStage is also compatible with Sprint's Power Vision network, including Sprint TV and Sprint's streaming music services, including Sirius Sattelite Radio, VH1, and MTV. I experienced mixed results watching Sprint TV video clips: watching from the back seat of a car headed north from the San Francisco Bay Area was an exercise in futility, as the video was blocky and play back stopped, started, and sputtered. Watching clips a week or so later from my home in Oakland was an entirely different story - after a quick buffering period, playback started right up and was smooth, with synched audio. Watching short comedy clips widescreen mode was fun, but you're not likely to spend more than a few minutes at a time watching TV on a 2" screen.
Beyond that, UpStage comes with a few bundled games and a fairly standard suite of personal information management applications. Everything's a dual-edged sword on this handset - games look good on the big display, but they're hard to control using the touch pad. Similarly, the calendar app is a pleasure to view but adding or amending entries requires flipping back and forth between the phone's two side. Flipping UpStage means pressing the side-mounted Flip button and then actually flipping the device over. If you get this phone, you'll get used to the concept in a hurry.
UpStage also supports multi-tasking to a limited extent - generally speaking, you can keep listening to music while you do other things. This is a nice touch - while UpStage isn't a smartphone, playing music in the background is a feature generally limited to smarter-than-average handsets.
UpStage features a pretty standard 1.3 megapixel camera mounted on the phone side of the handset. What's nice is that the phone's larger screen works as a viewfinder for camera, and photos can be snapped in widescreen mode. Pictures taken in good light came out a bit better than average for a 1.3 mp camera phone, with good color saturation and sharp detail. Photos can be used as wallpapers and photo caller IDs, or attached to MMS messages. Pics can also be transferred to a computer or printer via USB, Bluetooth, or memory card.
The camcorder can shoot 3g2 format video with sound at 176x144 resolution and 15 frames per second. Clips can go as long as you want, provided you have sufficient memory available in the phone or on a memory card; videos designated for MMS messages are capped at 512KB. Camera phone videos came out fairly well, considering the limitations on resolution and frames per second.
UpStage's two displays do their jobs quite well, despite the inherent design flaws that led to frustration with not being able to access all features from either display. The main display, a 2.1" LCD screen capable of displaying 262,000 colors at a resolution of 176 x 220 pixels, is bright and vivid, and made for easy viewing of menus, messages, images, and photos. UpStage uses Samsung's newer user interface, a modern design that's heavier on icons and lighter on pop-up sub menus than older of the company's phones. The menus are, of course, customized with Sprint-only options and content, but generally retain a clean, easy to use feel.
The secondary display, on the phone side of UpStage, is a 1.4" LCD limited to 175 x 65 pixels and 65,000 colors. While the display itself is bold and colorful, the problem is that its too small for many of the input-related tasks associated with the phone side of the handset. Composing messages, entering Web URLs and contact information - all of this is much more easily accomplished via the phone side's dialing keypad than the music side's touch pad (you can enter data on the music side, but it requires an amazing amount of scrolling). Unfortunately, the phone side's display can only show a few lines of information at a time. As such, it's really difficult to read or write a long text message, or scroll through a long contacts list using this display.
I tested the dual-band CDMA UpStage on Sprint's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. Voice quality through the internal earpiece was generally quite good. With a few exceptions, I was able to hear people I was talking to, and they me. The speakerphone worked well, and voice dialing via Bluetooth headset was a treat. While I don't expect much from music playback through a cellphone's built-in speaker, UpStage's speaker is positioned on the phone (non-music) side of the handset. As such, it projected sound away from me when I was using it to listen to music. That's not such a good thing for a device being pushed as the next great music phone.
Bluetooth support includes stereo over Bluetooth. I had no trouble pairing a Bluetooth earpiece with the phone, and voice quality with the earpiece was good. One excellent feature on UpStage is the Bluetooth caller ID: When listening to music, if a call comes in the software will first pause the music and then announce the caller's name through the earpiece. Very cool.
Music playback on UpStage was generally quite good, with plenty of volume. Some tracks felt a bit bass-heavy at times, but nothing too out of the ordinary for a music phone. The included 3.5mm stereo adapter allows the use of your favorite headphones with UpStage, and while I generally complain about music phones that don't feature 3.5mm jacks built right into the handset, given UpStage's ultra-slim profile I guess I'll lay off this time.
Messaging on UpStage is a challenge, to say the least, given the display/controls limitations already described. If you use your phone regularly for texting or email, this is not the handset for you. Composing messages on the music side is possible, but you're not going tolerate all of the scrolling that's involved. Composing messages on the phone side isn't harder than it is on any other phone, it's just that you can only see three lines of text at a time.
UpStage also supports SMS and MMS messaging and AOL, Yahoo!, and ICQ instant messaging. Photos and Videos can be attached to MMS messages with relative ease, as can short audio clips. The internal display can show up to 16 lines of text at a time, which makes for easy reading of incoming SMS and MMS messages.
Sprint's "Power Vision" EV-DO network provides 3G data speeds across their nationwide network. Connection speeds during my tests in the San Francisco Bay Area were quite good, as evidenced by reliably speedy downloads of songs from the Sprint Music Store.
The WAP browser on UpStage is fine for mobile optimized Web sites, though the need to flip the phone to enter URLs and other information makes this a less than ideal handset for anything more than the occasional foray online. Sprint did bundle the excellent OnDemand application with UpStage, however, and it proved a far easier way to get quick news, sports, weather, and entertainment updates.
As previously mentioned, Sprint's music store offers 99-cent over the air downloads along with a free, higher-quality download of the same track from their Website (for use on your computer or mp3 player). While the Sprint Music Store doesn't offer quite the selection or interface niceties of iTunes or some of the other big online music vendors, I was impressed with it, and it's selection is rowing.
A dual-band CDMA phone, UpStage supports the 850/1900 bands and 1xEV-DO r0 data transfer. The phone is locked and so may only be used on Sprint's wireless network.
Bluetooth is supported on the UpStage, including object exchange and audio device support. The phone paired easily with mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets and worked well for voice calling and stereo music playback. Audio caller ID, voice dialing, and voice commands are supported over Bluetooth. UpStage can also be tethered to a computer via USB or Bluetooth for use as a data modem.
UpStage features 53MB of built-in memory and a microSD slot for expansion via removable memory cards. A 64MB microSD card is included in the retail packaging, and cards up to 2GB in size are supported.
Samsung and Sprint took a chance with UpStage, hoping to push the envelope when it comes to designing the ultimate convergence device. Part phone, part music and media player, UpStage is certainly an eye-catching device with some great attributes. It's overall look and feel is excellent, it's lightweight and thin and yet loaded with features. Unfortunately, the dual-sided design wound up being better in theory than in practice. While the idea of devoting an entire side of UpStage - complete with a big widescreen display and touch-sensitive controls - to media, and the entire other side - complete with a dedicated display and roomy buttons - to phone functions might sound great, it just doesn't work that well.
If you don't send text messages and don't mind scrolling through your contacts on a display limited to three lines, UpStage might just satisfy your need for an ultra-thin, ultra-chic phone that can (sorta) do it all. Pair UpStage with a 2GB memory card and stereo Bluetooth headphones, and you've got yourself an iPod-nano sized music player with a phone built in. Just don't plan to use all of those extra features - messaging, Internet, calendar, SprintTV, and so on - very often unless you really, really like flipping your phone over and over. And over and over.