Telstra’s new Next G network was launched early last month to much fanfare in Australia. Operating on the 850 MHz band, the same band as its CDMA network, the Next G network is a 3G W-CDMA (or UMTS) network with HSDPA packet data technology for downloads faster than a regular 3G network is capable of.
Next G launched with five devices, and one of them is the subject of this review, the Samsung SGH-A701 (or A701 for short). This handset has the highest specifications out of the five Next G launch handsets (barring the smartphone PDA), and it’s easy to see why – it comes equipped with a large QVGA LCD, two megapixel camera, microSD memory card slot (with support for 2GB cards), Bluetooth with music streaming and a document viewer. All of these features are packed into a slim profile, lightweight handset.
For our world-wide readers, the A701 is in fact available outside Australia, albeit with slightly different naming. If you’re in the USA, you’ll find Cingular is about to offer the ‘Samsung SYNC’ A707, which is in-fact the same phone (although with dual-band W-CDMA 850/1900 MHz support – the A701 only supports 850 MHz). In the rest of the world it’s called the Z560 and the main difference is that the W-CDMA 850/1900 MHz bands are substituted for the 2100 MHz band, which almost all other 3G networks throughout the world (including Hutchison 3, Optus and Vodafone here in Australia) transmit on. There are also a few hardware differences.
Ok, let’s get started with the review!
The A701 is Telstra’s new ‘hero’ handset for its Next G network – it has the highest specifications in the five phone range since launch (with the exception of the smartphone PDA), although more phones will obviously follow. The abundance of features don’t mean the A701 is a big handset, in fact far from it – it’s a compact, stylish phone, with a typical Samsung black finish.
In terms of hardware features, the A701 is equipped with a 2.3 inch (5.8cm) QVGA LCD, two megapixel CMOS camera with 4x digital zoom, HSDPA 1.8Mbps data support, Bluetooth, two stereo speakers and a microSD memory card slot. In addition the software package is good too, with a music player supporting MP3, AAC and WMA; document viewer for Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, as well as Adobe PDFs; ACCESS’s NetFront web browser and typical organiser functions such as calendar, world clock and alarms.
The A701 is a clamshell characterised by its slim, compact profile and its black paint. This seems to be a trait typical of all Samsung handsets these days. The slimness and compactness is a great feature, don’t get me wrong, but it would be nice if we were offered more than one colour choice for the phone (mind you, all manufacturers are guilty of only selling phones in one colour, not just Samsung). Covers are not interchangeable, although the antenna is built into the phone and doesn’t stick out the top. The handset measures 98.3 x 51.5 x 17.3mm and weighs 93 grams. Remember when 3G phones were huge and weighed a tonne? At that size and weight the A701 beats some GSM handsets for the featherweight compact crown. Well done Samsung.
Now let’s take a closer look. On the front of the phone you have a one inch colour screen for displaying the phone’s status, clock and whether you have any missed calls or messages. Beneath this are three touch-sensitive music keys (rewind, play/pause and fast forward) which only work when the screen is lit. Above the screen is the tiny two megapixel camera. On the phone’s left side is the combination charger/headset/data cable socket, using Samsung’s new compact connector, while beneath it is the volume rocker switch and the left speaker. On the right-hand side is the microSD card slot and a camera shutter/start button, while the right speaker sits at the end of the flip. The top and bottom of the phone are bare and clean, as is the back of the phone apart from the Samsung logo and the URL of its website. Removing the battery cover from here, one finds the 1100mAh battery, while above it is the SIM card socket. You need to remove the battery to be able to slide out the SIM card.
The phone springs open to reveal the large 2.3 inch colour LCD and the similarly large keypad. Samsung’s keypad layout is simple – the five way directional pad is flanked with two soft keys above it, video call and shortcut keys to its side and send, clear and end keys below it. Further below is the 12 button number pad. The buttons click in satisfyingly when pushed and are comfortable to use. An internal VGA camera sits on the flip’s hinge.
User interface & display
The main display of the A701 is one of the better ones found in phones today. It’s a 2.3 inch (5.8cm) LCD with support for 262,144 colours and with 240 x 320 pixels of resolution – what is affectionately termed as QVGA resolution. It’s a bright, vivid screen with good contrast ratio – pictures appear with colours resembling what they look like in real life. Brightness can be adjusted – a good thing as the default brightness setting is awfully bright in indoor situations, although it’s not bright enough to fight direct sunlight hitting the flip. The screen can be viewed in such sunlight outdoors, albeit barely.
On the other side of the flip sits a square-shaped, one inch sub screen with 96 x 96 pixel resolution and support for 65,536 colours. Being a passive matrix STN screen its response isn’t as good as the main one, but it’s more than adequate for its function of indicating the phone’s status. It shows the clock, signal strength and remaining battery life, and can do so on top of a customisable background if desired.
The typical Samsung user interface is utilised in the A701, and it’s one of the best out of all phones in the market. It’s fast and responsive in most situations, although it slows down in a few menus such as the profile settings page. It’s also consistent (menu options are where you expect to find them, not in some obscure place), while number shortcuts make for quick access through them. There’s a shortcut button on the keypad that opens a menu, allowing you to make a call, access messaging and access the internet – what Samsung seems to believe are the three most used functions of the phone. Unfortunately, this menu can’t be customised, but the three functions provided can be used without closing what you’re already doing – the function will be minimised and you can return to it later.
On the standby screen, the left and right soft-keys bring up the main menu and Telstra’s BigPond portal respectively. The arrow buttons are shortcuts to frequently used functions such as SMS composition and the calendar. All four arrow buttons can be customised in the settings menu. The centre key, rather than loading up the main menu, actually brings up the My Place menu, which lists specialised links to areas of BigPond’s content services or loads up related programs installed in the phone, such as the BigPond Music Player.
One of the things missing that I would have liked to see is themes support, or at least some way of skinning the interface. Other Samsungs have had them before, but the A701 seems to miss out here. Even if they were just preset themes, being able to change the look of the user interface is always fun.
The main menu uses the typical grid icon layout, with 12 icons grouped into three per row, with four rows. I would have liked to see text labels on each icon – not all of us are able to figure out the function from the graphic. Another complaint is the text size used in the menus – for me it’s too big. I’m sure some people would like it even bigger due to poor eyesight, so perhaps a size adjustment in the display settings would be a good idea. The menu bar at the bottom is awfully big too and could be shrunk to reclaim more screen space. These are all fairly insignificant problems of course, but they are areas where Samsung can make small improvements.
As it stands, six lines of menu options are displayed at once. Moving to the mail composition screen, five lines of text can be displayed when composing SMS, and a poor three lines for MMS and email. The screen ought to convert to a specialised text entry screen, rather than using the small text boxes Samsung provides. More on mail composition in the messaging section below.
If English isn’t your preference, you can choose from an amazing 17 other European languages to display menus and type text – apart from English, there’s German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, Norwegian, Polish, Finnish, Danish, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Croatian.
Making and receiving calls
Despite the abundance of extra features, a phone isn’t a phone if it can’t do its core function correctly – make calls. Remember, the A701 is a phone designed specifically for Telstra’s UMTS 850 MHz network, and this is what it was mainly tested on. I ran a few calls on its GSM 900 MHz network as well, but the only difference between it and the UMTS 850 MHz network was the reduced call quality – UMTS networks typically use better voice codecs than GSM ones.
In any case, the A701 managed excellent call quality for all the calls I made, and I did not encounter one black spot in the course of testing. Telstra must have made sure the Next G network was consistent in all the areas it covers, because I just couldn’t get a call to drop out due to my own circumstances. Using the phone’s own speaker and microphone, volume can be set to reasonably loud levels and was adequate for me. There’s also a speakerphone function, although after selecting it, the phone annoyingly confirms if you want to enable it or not. Thankfully, you can turn it on while a call is dialling and it’s enabled through the confirm key rather than some obscurely located menu option, so despite the confirmation prompt, it’s quick and painless to turn it on. Speakerphone quality was good and I didn’t have trouble making calls through it.
If you prefer a headset of some sort, you can choose from the included stereo earphones or a Bluetooth wireless headset. The included stereo earphones were good quality and are the typical clip-to-the-shirt variety. I didn’t have any problem using these earphones. My Bluetooth Motorola HS801 also paired seamlessly with the A701 and made calls through it without a hitch.
Moving on to the phone book, the A701 can store up to 1000 contacts with a variety of fields available per contact, including multiple numbers, email addresses, a caller group, webpage and company description information. You can also set both a voice call and messaging ringtones for the contact, and a picture for caller ID. There’s a speed dial function for access frequently-used contacts from the standby screen by holding the number key down for more than a second (although 1 is reserved for voicemail access).
Ringtone-wise Samsung includes a variety of interesting polyphonic ringtones using the MMF/SMAF format, but no digital music ringtones (such as MP3s). There’s support for MP3 tones however, so you can use your own songs for ringtones if you choose to. Personally, polyphonic tones are just fine for me and the included ones sound great through the 64 tone polyphonic synthesiser. Ringtones can be set in the profile menu to ring at full volume or gradually increase over time.
With the A701 you have access to SMS, MMS and POP3/IMAP4 email messaging.
SMS support is as you’d expect it to be in any phone. As mentioned earlier, the composition screen shows up to only five lines of text. The big font will be appreciated by some, but a setting to adjust font size would be nice. The A701 can link together 12 messages for a total of 1836 characters. Thankfully, the phone’s processing speed is consistent regardless of how many characters you enter on screen – even with 1000 characters it’s as fast as when it started. The only things you can insert into SMS messages are text based attachments – web links, templates and contact information only. 200 SMS messages can be stored in the phone’s internal memory.
MMS support is broken down into two categories – ‘MMS Message’ and ‘File Server’. They both use the MMS standard for messaging to send multimedia content (pictures, sound and video) to other people, but they do it differently. ‘MMS Message’ is for the presentation style with slide support, while ‘File Server’ treats an MMS like an email, letting you input a subject, main text body and then attach multiple files at the end. In both cases maximum file size support is 300 kilobytes.
Both IMAP4 and POP3 standards are supported for email. Provided you have an email address to use with the phone, you just need to plug in the server details for it and you can then access your email on the A701. Downloaded emails can be limited in size to prevent packet data overuse, and you can also get the A701 to check for emails periodically.
In all messaging types, the A701 uses predictive text support from T9 to make message typing faster. Samsung’s typing interface resembles that of Nokia phones, although to type a space you press hash (#) rather than zero, oddly. The shift button is allocated to the star (*) key and cycles through numbers, sentence mode (Abc), uppercase (ABC) and lowercase (abc) in that order. Sentence mode ought to be after lowercase for quicker access (one button press versus two), but nonetheless typing text using the A701 is enjoyable and problem free. The T9 dictionary can learn new words – the phone will offer to memorise one after trying all the different word candidates it already knows. T9 dictionaries are included for an astonishing 18 languages – English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, Norwegian, Polish, Finnish, Danish, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Croatian.
The A701 is fairly capable in the connectivity department – it can tune Telstra’s unique UMTS band, 850 MHz, while also being able to tune GSM 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz frequencies for compatibility support and global roaming. As the A701 is a variant of the US-headed A707, there’s no reason why the phone can’t tune UMTS 1900 as well, despite what the specification sheets say. This will only help you if you’re roaming in the USA however. Nonetheless, the tri-band GSM functionality will allow the A701 to get connected in virtually every country around the world.
All the modern data transmission specifications are supported – GPRS Class 10 (48Kbps), EDGE (approx. 153Kbps), UMTS (up to 384Kbps) and HSDPA Class 4 (up to 1.8Mbps). HSDPA is particularly good because, apart from the high download speed, its latency is very low, allowing for webpages to load up in about a second from the button push. This is how it is right now though – as Telstra gets more subscribers and more bandwidth is used at once, response time may slow down, but for now it’s extremely fast. Also keep in mind that typical HSDPA speeds are at least one quarter of the claimed peak rate (so around 500-800Kbps in this case).
As this is a Telstra-branded phone, the only data profiles included are Telstra’s ones for MMS and internet access.
In local connectivity the A701 makes use of USB cabling and Bluetooth. There’s no infra-red here. Both connection methods are used by a PC to enable data synchronisation and transfer, while Bluetooth also allows for file sending between other devices, phone calls with a wireless headset and direct internet access through the phone for a PC. Both USB and Bluetooth (through PictBridge and BIP profile respectively) allow the A701 to send pictures directly to a printer for printing too.
If you had a pair of Bluetooth stereo headphones, you could also use them with the A701 to listen to music wirelessly.
The phone retail package is bundled with a CD containing Samsung’s PC software – Samsung PC Studio 3. It contains five programs:
Three more programs for managing contacts, managing messages and creating an MMS are included, but weren’t supported by the A701 and were greyed out. I had no problems installing this software on my computer and connecting the A701 through the included USB cable. Data transfer was fast, despite repeated complaints from my computer that the connection wasn’t USB 2.0 compliant. Considering that three megabyte MP3 files were transferring in ten seconds, I’d say the connection was 2.0 compliant. In any case, the USB socket also recharges the phone’s battery, even without the software being installed on the PC. Very handy.
- Multimedia Manager – allows you to organise and store pictures, sound/music and video between the phone and PC, as well as edit the files and create playlists for music.
- Multimedia Player – a simple viewer of mobile content, again pictures, sound/music and video. Supports major formats such as BMP, JPG, MP3, AAC, 3GP and MP4.
- Phone Networking Wizard – sets up and maintains a packet data connection through the phone for a PC to access the internet.
- PC Sync – the synchronisation application. Synchronises phonebook, appointment, tasks and memo applications with the contacts, calendar, tasks and notebook functions in Outlook respectively. Alternatively you can synchronise contacts data only in Outlook Express. No other programs are supported.
- Phone Explorer – a simple file browser for the phone’s internal memory.
The build quality of phones on the whole just seems to be getting better and better. The A701 felt rock solid and despite the plastic housing, I didn’t get any impression that this phone was going to fall apart any time soon. The flip barrel felt rigid and the flip itself springs open and closed firmly and with a lot of force – perhaps a bit too much. My only concern was the battery cover felt like it latched in a little lightly, and perhaps several months down the track, may wear out if removed and replaced frequently. Other than this, I felt satisfied that the A701 would last for a long time.
Considering that the A701 has a large 1100mAh battery, I was expecting it to last a good deal longer than other phones I’ve reviewed recently. I wasn’t disappointed. In my daily test of a 30 minute call, mild messaging and light use of internet functions such as Foxtel video streaming and camera shooting, the phone still lasted three days before running out of juice. Remember that I leave the phone on overnight and don’t turn it off at all through the test period, so this is an impressive result.
Official figures for the battery are 3.7 hours of talk time and 320 hours standby. Samsung hasn’t provided recharge time figures, but it should take about 2-3 hours to recharge the battery.