THE GOOD: The Samsung Access offers a brilliant display, great call and music quality, and a respectable set of midrange features.
THE BAD: The Samsung Access lacks some higher-end offerings such as voice dialing and its design is rather boring. Also, its photo quality was disappointing.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Though it offers a new AT&T feature, the Samsung Access isn't a compelling alternative to the flashier LG Vu.
Though Verizon Wireless ruled the mobile TV roost for more than a year, AT&T finally offered Big Red some competition last month with the launch of AT&T Mobile TV. Like V Cast Mobile TV, AT&T's service offers stunning video quality, but its real appeal depends entirely on the handsets that support it. As of this writing there are just two compatible phones, but the LG Vu and the Samsung Access (aka the Samsung SGH-A827) couldn't be more different. While the LG Vu is a showpiece device with a full touch screen and a heavy feature load, the Access presents midrange offerings and an angular, ordinary design. Some may like its more low-key approach, but the Access is the Jan Brady to the Vu's Marcia. But if price is an issue, the Access is $199 with service, which is $100 cheaper than the Vu (the Access is $449 without a contract). If you're interested in either phone, make sure that AT&T Mobile TV is available in your area if you want to get the most out of the device. Currently, the service misses wide swaths of the United States (the San Francisco Bay Area included), but AT&T will add more markets in the future. To find accessories for this phone, see our cell phone ringtones and accessories guide.
If you didn't know better, you might confuse the Access with the Samsung BlackJack. Sure, the Access lacks a full alphabetic keyboard, but at 4.49 inches tall by 2.29 inches wide by 0.47 inch deep, it is about the same size as its Samsung sibling (4.4 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep), though it weighs slightly less (3.46 ounces versus 4 ounces). The overall effect is rather uninspiring--it reminded us of a calculator to be honest--but its thin profile gives the Access an easy portability. Like the BlackJack, the Access offers a 2.25 inch display (320x240 pixels), but it bumps up the color support to a full 262,000 hues. The higher resolution is a necessity on a phone that plays video, and we were pleased with what we saw. Graphics and photos were bright and vivid and the menus were easy to use. You can change the backlighting time and the dialing font size, type, and color.
Below the display is the spacious navigation array. The four-way toggle is quite big and we like that it's raised above the surface of the phone. The button in the center of the toggle also is tactile, but we'd prefer that it open the main menu when the phone is in standby mode rather than activating the Web browser. Surrounding the toggle are two soft keys, a back button, an AT&T Mobile TV shortcut, and the Talk and End/power keys. Though these controls are flush, they're large enough to prevent misdials. We also liked the plentiful shortcut options. In standby mode the right soft key opens a user-programmable shortcuts menu, while the toggle provides one-touch access top four features of your choice. The keypad buttons are spacious as well and the backlit numbers on the keys are rather large. Our only complaint is that the buttons are flush and a bit slick. But even so, they're easy to use.
On the right side of the phone are the conveniently located microSD card slot and a camera shutter. There's also a nifty multitasking key, which lets you open a new application without closing your current application. A volume rocker and the headset jack/charger port sit on the left spine, while the camera lens rests on the rear side of the phone.
The Access's phone book holds a generous 1,000 contacts with room in each entry for five phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, two URLS, an instant-messaging handle, a nickname, a birthday, two street addresses, a company name, a job title, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can assign callers to groups, and you can pair them with a photo and one of 10 polyphonic and MP3 ringtones. Other essentials include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a tip calculator, an alarm clock, a calendar, a task list, a notepad and a calculator.
For more active users, the Access offers a voice recorder, stereo Bluetooth, USB mass storage, PC syncing, and instant messaging for AOL, Windows Live, and Yahoo. The Access also offers POP3 e-mail support for Yahoo, AOL, Windows Live, AT&T Bell South systems. Yet, since it's not a smartphone, you'll have to use the phone's Web browser to access your in-box. Without a dedicated e-mail application, the experience is a bit clunky and there's no syncing for IMAP4 e-mail. As we mentioned earlier, the Access can't match the Vu's powerful feature set completely. It doesn't offer a full HTML browser or voice dialing. Though the former is forgivable given the Access's simpler design, the latter is a peculiar omission. The Access lacks support for AT&T's HSDPA network (it tops out at UMTS), but we'll get to that in the Performance section.
Of course, the Access's biggest feature is AT&T's new Mobile TV service. Like Verizon's V Cast Mobile TV, it offers live mobile television via Qualcomm's MediaFLO. AT&T promises more than 150 simulcast and time-shifted programs from content providers such as CBS, ESPN, Comedy Central, ESPN, Fox, MTV, NBC, and more. However, the service will cost you. The Basic package is $15 a month for just the Mobile TV, and the Plus package, at $30 a month, is for the Mobile TV as well as unlimited Web browsing and Cellular Video. If you want to go even lower, you can opt for only four channels--CBS Mobile, FOX Mobile, NBC 2Go, and NBC News 2Go--for only $13 a month. AT&T Mobile TV launched in 58 markets nationwide with more areas to come
Besides AT&T Mobile TV, the Access supports AT&T's Cellular Video service and AT&T Mobile Music. The former application offers tons of streaming video content, while the latter offers wireless music downloads through a variety of partners. The music and streaming video players are similar to other AT&T music phones. Both are minimalist in their designs but the music player supports a wide variety of file formats and it offers useful features such as album art, playlists, and shuffle and repeat modes. The Access also brings a solid selection of music-related features such as support for XM Radio Mobile, music videos, a Music ID application, a Billboard Mobile channel, and a community section with access to fan sites and downloads. And for further multimedia fun, the Access has a My Cast 5 Weather application and it supports AT&T's Video Share application.
The Access has a 1.3-megapixel camera, which is a step down from the Vu's 2.0-megapixel shooter. It can take pictures in three resolutions, from 1,280x960 down to 320x240, and it offers a choice of three quality settings. Other options include a self-timer; brightness and white balance controls; mosaic, panorama, multishot, and night modes; 20 fun frames; three color tones; an 8x digital zoom (unusable at the highest resolution); and three shutter sounds. The camcorder records clips in a 176x144 resolution with sound and a number of editing options. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped about 90 seconds, or you can shoot for as long as the available memory will permit. The Access offers 100MB of shared internal memory, which is pretty generous, but just the same we recommend using a microSD card. An onscreen meter tells you how much storage space is left so you can plan accordingly when taking your shots. Unfortunately, photo quality was dismal; our images were grainy, and the colors were washed out.
You can personalize the Access with variety of wallpaper, greetings, background colors, and alert tones. More customization options are available from AT&T with the WAP 2.0 Web browser. For playtime the Access has demo versions of four Java (J2ME) games: Asphalt 2 Street Rules 3D, Diner Dash, Pac-Man/Ms. Pan-Man, Tetris, and World Poker Tour Hold 'em 2. The full versions and additional gaming titles are available for purchase.
We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Access world phone in San Francisco using AT&T service. Call quality was comparable to the VU, but there was a slight echo effect on the Access that we didn't notice on the LG handset. It didn't mar the experience, but it was there nonetheless. The volume level was loud and we didn't encounter any interference or static.
On their end callers said they were pleased. They could tell we were using a cell phone, but that's a common experience. They could hear us well in most environments, but a few of our friends said the Access picked up some background noise. On the other hand, they didn't encounter the echoed effect that we heard. The speakerphone quality was quite good. Though the speaker faces the rear of the phone, the sound was loud with decent voice clarity. We had to speak close to the phone for our callers to hear us, but that's to be expected.
The satisfying sound quality carried over to the Access's music player. Our tunes were sharp and clear with the powerful output from the speaker. It's not a replacement for your MP3 player, but it's a good distraction. As with most music phones, headphones will provide the next experience. Steaming media performance was erratic. Some clips were choppy with visible pixilation. Also, we were disappointed that the streaming video frame takes up only a portion of the Access's expansive display. Videos loaded relatively quickly, but the Access differs from the Vu in another important way. It supports AT&T's 3G UMTS network but it's not compatible with the carrier's faster HSDPA network. That won't mean a whole lot of difference to the average user, but it's an important point.
Though we don't get AT&T Mobile TV in the San Francisco Bay Area, last month we tested the service briefly at CTIA in Las Vegas. We were quite pleased with what we saw; the picture was excellent with no distortion. What's more, the large display does the service justice.
The Access has a rated battery life of up to four hours talk time and up to 16 days standby time. We were able to get 4.03 hours of talk time out of the Access. According to FCC radiation tests the Access has a digital SAR rating of 0.486 watts per kilogram.