Why is it that CDMA networks and handsets in Australia don’t really get the spotlight it deserves? To simply put it, what the CDMA network has to offer is just basic connectivity that all mobile phones are capable of. Handsets currently available for the CDMA are actually quite sufficiently featured - but that is about to change…
The Samsung SCH-A561 brings CDMA users a list of generous feature offerings that no CDMA phone in Australia has ever seen before. This is partly due to the fact that Telstra has their CDMA2000 1X network operational and the launching of a new mobile service to debut on the A561.
So what if its GSM predecessor, the SGH-T100, looks exactly the same as it does. Most importantly, what’s offered under the bonnet matters most - and the A561 is certainly much more superior when you consider its list of features.
The A561 boasts a few “firsts” for CDMA handsets available in Australia. Some of the new features include a 4096-colour LCD screen for the displaying of high-res graphics used by menus and games, a 40-chord polyphonic speaker for ringing and message tones, and support for the BREW application platform which makes managing and using external (downloaded) applications a breeze!
Don’t let the A561’s physical appearance fool you into thinking that it’s just the good old SGH-T100 GSM model in CDMA form. What we have here is something much more powerful, and is certainly worth considering if you are after the latest of technologies!
While the SGH-T100 GSM model may no longer be available, many people could mistakenly identify the A561 as being just that. Even though I did find the SGH-T100’s clamshell look to be quite invigorating when it was first released, I personally think that having the A561 in exactly the same footprint is just not all that great of an idea.
Anyway, let’s leave that aside for the time being… :)
Similar to the SGH-T100, the A561’s clamshell form factor and its sizing is generally good for most people when it’s either open or closed. For me, the phone fits quite well into the palm of my hands either when I’m carrying it around with me or during phone conversations. It’s also important to note that the angle of the A561’s clamshell - when opened - should allow the phone to rest comfortably on the face during use (this particular quality can be consistently found on most other Samsung clamshell-based models).
“So how does one spot an A561 from a SGH-T100?” Well, I would be lying if I said that there were no differences.
On the outside, the first thing that I realised when first laying my hands on the A561 is the difference in the paintwork. A slightly more grainy finish can be felt when I rubbed my fingers over the exterior of the phone, which isn’t as easily realised when simply looking at the two phones side-by-side. Also, I noticed that the external antenna on the A561 takes on a lighter tone of grey than the one found on the SGH-T100, and can be physically extended should the network reception becomes poor.
With the clamshell opened, I noticed slight alterations to the keypad and specific functions (mentioned more in the “user interface and display” sub-section of this review). The most noticeable change is the replacement of the traditional “i” button (one-touch Mobile Internet access) in the middle of the 4-way navigation key with the “Telstra Mobile Loop” logo instead (since this phone was specifically designed for use on Telstra’s CDMA2000 1X network only).
Lastly, there was one major design change on the A561 which brings it in line with most other more-recent Samsung models. This was the moving of the polyphonic ringer/speaker from the outside and onto the inside of the clamshell instead. When looking at both the A561 and SGH-T100 side-by-side, you will notice there are two extra mini-openings above the earpiece on the A561 and the removal of the opening that can be found on the SGH-T100’s top-front clamshell (if you had a SGH-T100 in your pocket, there is a good chance that the ringtone sounds will be muffled or muted- which is why this design adjustment was applied).
But for those who still appreciate the “virtually similar” look, the A561 should not disappoint when considering what the phone really has to offer feature-wise.
User Interface & display
The crux of the A561’s user interface is very similar to the one used on the SGH-T100. But with the addition of a new menu style called “camera” (which should be set by default when the phone comes out of the box), browsing the A561’s menus is nothing but simple! Using the alternate menu style “nature” provided a similar user interface that was used on the SGH-T100.
Although the A561 shares the same 4096-colour TFT LCD as the SGH-T100, Samsung has changed the base font (or the typeface of the letters) used on this CDMA model to something that’s better-looking and which is easier on the eyes. This same font is used throughout all core phone functions, from menu displays and text in dialogs right down to the SMS message display and composition screens.
And where user input is concerned, the A561’s keypad layout is physically the same as that of the one used on the SGH-T100, while there are some variations in the specific key assignments. These include the removal of the two soft keys and replaced with the “menu” and “OK/messages” options instead, replacement of the “i” button with the “Telstra Mobile Loop” logo which directly activates the service when depressed, and the addition of a voice dial activation feature shared with the “star” (*) button.
Samsung didn’t forget about the soft keys - they’ve just placed them somewhere else. On the A561, the left and right soft keys are co-located with the left and right buttons of the 4-way navigational key respectively. Although it may be a bit confusing in the beginning to get accustomed to this particular setup (especially people who have used the SGH-T100 previously and will autonomously press the other two buttons instead), one should get used to it pretty quickly after a period of use.
However, I personally believe that the soft keys should have stayed where they were (like how it is on the SGH-T100). For any phone, a 4-way key should only be used for the most obvious purpose - and not “multi-multi-purpose” like what is on the A561.
Making and receiving calls
The A561 offers very similar capabilities as the SGH-T100 when it comes to voice calls. For example, calls can be made through either the earpiece (that is, traditionally holding the phone up against the ear) or via the included ear microphone accessory. So far, Samsung has yet to introduce a clamshell-based model that supports the handsfree speakerphone facility.
If you’re a fan of using voice dialling (or voice tags), the A561 has made some advances in this department from the days of the SGH-T100 - including vast improvements in the ability to recognise your voice better! Where it was only possible to initiate voice dial by opening the clamshell or through the phone’s voice dialling menu, the A561 gives an additional two options but dropping one (via menu).
In all instances, a user can do voice dialling by pressing down on the star (*) button from the main standby screen, which also shows a related icon/silhouette on the button itself. But under the voice dialling activation settings, you can also have this feature activate automatically each time the clamshell is opened (similar to what’s available on the SGH-T100) or when the ear microphone button is depressed. This gives the user greater choice and makes voice dialling much more practical than before (I have always been frustrated with how voice dialling can be done on most Samsung phones, and I welcome this new adaptation with open arms!)
On the subject of voice functions, the A561 adopted all of what’s available on the SGH-T100 with the exception of voice. But in reality, I believe that most people would simply go for dialling with voice and simply leave it at that.
Ringtones-wise, the A561 gets an upgraded polyphonic ringer. Instead of the 16-chords available on the SGH-T100, the A561 is capable of playing the richer 40-chord polyphonic ringing tones. Immediately when you play one or two of these 40-chord tones on the A561 you will notice the difference - they are slightly louder and the support for an increased number of instruments played simultaneously provided a fuller ringtone experience.
And should you not be there to listen to your favourite tones being played, you can set the A561 to answer your calls automatically with the “voice answer” function. Up to four minutes of recordings can be saved, where the memory is shared with the “voice memo” function. This feature is similar to the “Answerphone” function found on Samsung’s SGH-N620 GSM model.
Natively, on the handset itself, the A561 is capable of reading and writing text (or SMS) messages that are received and sent respectively between different mobile phone users. Test messages of up to 160 characters each can be composed and sent to other users of compatible mobile networks.
However, text messaging capabilities on this particular handset is somewhat limited when compared to GSM-based handsets, which is typically the case for virtually all other CDMA handsets currently available. But thankfully, the A531 does come with predictive text input (T9), which has become a requirement for many users who have taken upon this great input-based alternative.
Under the “Telstra Mobile Loop” menu, it is possible to also send and receive multimedia messages between compatible phones and to Internet e-mail addresses as well. This will require the use of the multimedia messaging application that is available from the “MobileShop” feature on Mobile Loop. However, predictive text input is not available to this application given this feature is a non-native phone application.
If you’re looking for good build quality in a phone, then you can be rest assured to know that Samsung makes some of the best handsets out there on the market - which, of course, includes the A561.
However, when I compared it with the SGH-T100, I did find that the newer (A561) model was a tiny bit better in terms of rigidity - especially in the clamshell hinge area, where the top cover would no longer budge when closed (there was slight movement in the SGH-T100 that I have here). But this is probably to be expected since the A561 is a second-time-round production of the same mould or shape, and that experience would have led to subsequent improvements.
The A561 comes with two standard batteries that should keep the phone running for up to 2-3 days standby on average use and approximately 2-3 hours talking time. An external battery charger device makes having more than one single battery a feasible option.
If you (or a friend) has a T100 that they may not be using anymore, you can actually use those batteries on the A561 should you need more than the two that came with the box. But you will find that the sizes of the batteries will differ and not have a 100% perfect fit.