If nothing else, Samsung's Instinct shows just how disruptive an influence the iPhone has become in cell phone design. From its spare black packaging (everyone is copying Apple in this regard) to its slim, glass-encased industrial design and fingertip-friendly interface, the Instinct pays homage to Apple's iconic creation while one-upping it in several respects.
If the next-generation iPhone weren't about to address some of the very same weaknesses the Instinct seeks to exploit, Sprint and Samsung's creation would look a lot more appealing. But while the Instinct is a solid effort in its own right (and one worth considering if AT&T's service and rates don't sit right with you), it still has a Brand X feeling to it. My review unit, though generally feature-rich and very capable, also had a few noteworthy glitches.
Let's start with the strengths. The device felt good in my hand. It's narrower and somewhat thicker than the current iPhone, but close enough to the general profile for that not to matter.
Things start off promisingly when you power the Instinct on and unlock the screen by pressing firmly on a hardware button on the top edge (somewhat similar to the way the iPhone gets going, although without the finger swipe). You see a nice-looking starlit sky on the 3.1-inch display, with the current time at the bottom.
But then the device switches to a rather lackluster Favorites screen--basically an empty grayscale screen that invites you to populate it with your most frequently used applications. Though this screen seems intended to show off customization capabilities that the iPhone lacks, it isn't particularly attractive; Samsung would have done better to have the unit default to the Main screen, which is filled with iPhone-like icons for sending messages and e-mail, as well as for GPS navigation.
Solid Touch Screen
Overall, Samsung did a pretty good job on the touch screen. It's a resistive touch screen, so if you prefer you can use the little enclosed stylus instead of your fingertip. (But then you'll have to worry about where to store the thing--the device has no place for you to slide it. All you have for it is a slit in the rather cheesy plastic case that's included.)
I had no difficulty getting along with only my index finger, however. I was happy to find a setting to optimize the touch screen for southpaws, along with adjustments for calibration and touch sensitivity. I also liked the unit's haptic feedback, small vibrations in response to touches (something the original iPhone didn't offer). And wherever scrolling was possible, the unit was responsive.
Intuitive Navigation, Good Voice Commands
Navigation is reasonably intuitive. Startup illuminates three touch-sensitive icons embedded in the hardware underneath the display. The Home icon at the center always brings you to applications. If you want to make a phone call, you press the Phone icon to the right, which brings up the speed-dial menu. The third of the hardware icons, a left-pointing arrow on the left side, lets you step back to the previously active screen.
Within the two principal modes, four small squares at the bottom of the display afford access to all other options. For example, if you're in phone mode, the leftmost square always returns you to the speed-dial screen; additional squares bring up your contacts, your call history, and a software dialpad. On the applications side, tapping the squares (from left to right) brings you to the aforementioned Favorites and Main screens, a Fun screen with multimedia functions such as music and video players and the camera, and the Web browser.
The Instinct also comes with first-rate voice-command features. Simply press the voice-input ('Speech to Action') button on the right side, and you can initiate calls or text messages to contacts in your address book, or launch key applications. Training is not required, but the device does afford a brief training session for users who believe that the device isn't understanding them.
Decent Phone, Bad Battery Life
As a phone, the Instinct works well. I particularly liked the large dialpad, with its big green Call button. Voices sounded good to me, and call recipients said I sounded good too. The contacts display is large and readable; tapping a contact number to initiate a call is easy.
But the battery life isn't great--it came in at about 5.5 hours in our tests, making the Instinct one of the poorer performers in this respect (though not as bad as Sprint's Palm Centro). In contrast, the iPhone ran the full 10 hours of our test. (In fairness, Sprint claims only 5.75 hours of talk time in its Instinct literature.)
Perhaps to compensate, Samsung includes not only a spare battery but also a small charging case for it, so you can be charging the spare all of the time while you're using the phone. This is one of the best features of the package.
Web browsing is fast, thanks to the Instinct's support for Sprint's zippy EvDO network. But the browser itself lacks the iPhone's elegance. It runs in landscape mode only, made narrower by sets of icons on either side. The icons on the left perform display-related tasks such as zooming in and out, toggling between mobile and standard mode, and letting you select (with a picture-frame-like square) the areas of a page you want to magnify--which is helpful but nowhere near as cool as the pinch capability on the iPhone. On the right are icons for search, bookmarks, history, and the like.
The Instinct is equipped with good GPS features, too. Since it uses the Sprint network as well as GPS satellites, its assisted GPS can more or less locate you even when you're indoors. The swift EvDO network makes location and point-of-interest searches go very quickly, a real plus.
The Instinct makes an above-average music player, in part owing to Sprint's helpful media-management software, which not only locates tracks on your PC but also tells you whether DRM protection will make playing them on the device problematic. This feature kept me from attempting to load tunes that I fruitlessly tried to play on other handsets. The included stereo earbud headset, while not the most comfortable I've ever worn, delivered good-quality sound.
But TV wasn't as good as I hoped it would be on the high-quality display and the EvDO network. Though CNN news and Hannah Montana had okay audio, pixelation and pauses plagued the video.
The 2-megapixel camera captured decent images in good light, but was prone to fuzzy-picture alerts in low-light conditions. The device has no flash. You can capture video, too, as much of it as your storage card can hold--but you can upload only as much as 2MB over the air. The phone can upload directly to a MySpace or Photobucket account.
I have a couple of additional observations. First, opening the back of the phone to switch batteries was very difficult. The rubbery plastic back of my unit did not want to slide off no matter how hard I tried to follow the manual's instructions and push with my thumbs. A couple of stronger friends had similar problems before it finally gave way. I hoped the issue would go away after the initial experience, but it didn't--I still can't get the darned thing open myself.
Also, in considering the price, it's worth noting that--unlike the iPhone--the Instinct is not based on internal flash memory. You need a microSD Card to store photos, music, games, and video. And though you can equip the handset with high-capacity cards if you wish, Samsung bundles only a 2GB microSD Card (along with an adapter so you can use it with readers that support the full-size SD format exclusively). In contrast, the US$199 3G iPhone will come with 8GB of internal flash, so its premium price will cover at least some of the savings.
Another financial consideration: Sprint's $100 Simply Everything plan gives you all-you-can-eat data as well as unlimited voice calling (unless you're roaming). You'll be able to get a 3G iPhone bundle for less, but you'll pay more if you want unlimited voice calling, too. You'll enjoy international roaming and Wi-Fi for the extra money, however.
Samsung did a solid job on the Instinct; you have to admire the extensive feature list you get for the price. But with iPhone prices about to tumble even as Apple's hardware improves, the Instinct doesn't shape up as an iPhone killer.