THE GOOD: The Samsung Muse offers a decent set of midrange photos, an enjoyable camera, and good call quality.
THE BAD: The Samsung Muse has an unoriginal design. Also, its controls and numeric keypad are flat and slippery.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Though its design is nothing special, the Samsung Muse is a decent choice for an Alltel music phone.
As a longtime purveyor of basic cell phone with simple features, Alltel's reputation wasn't built on offering fancy, feature-laden handsets. But in the last year, the carrier has come a long way toward challenging its larger rivals. A few weeks ago it added the LG Glimmer to its lineup, and last month it picked up the LG Scoop messaging phone. And over the music side, the carrier introduced the quality Motorola Rokr Z6m and Motorola Razr2 V9m in the last half of 2007. So as you can imagine, all those hot phone happenings have kept us on the edge of our seats to see just what Alltel offers next. The Samsung Muse SCH-U706 perked our interest when we first heard about it, but now that we have it in our hands we have to admit it's not quite as exciting as had hoped. It certainly offers a decent feature set and reliable performance, but its design is something we've seen many times before. The Muse is $269 if you pay full price, but you can get it for as cheap as $29 with service.
The Muse's design is so ordinary that it almost put us to sleep. It's not unattractive by any measure, but its thin flip design is taken straight from a long line of Samsung predecessors. Its closest relatives are the Samsung Gleam SCH-U700 and the Samsung SCH-U540. Like the Gleam, the Muse is slender with a reflective skin, and like the SCH-U540, its front face features a camera lens, an external display, dedicated music controls, and stereo speakers. Even if it's not original, it's a workable arrangement, and we like the Muse's metallic blue hue. Just be careful, as the Muse attracts fingerprints by the ton.
The Muse's external display supports 65,000 colors (96x96 pixels). Though it's no bigger than a postage stamp, it shows all the necessary information including the date, time, signal strength, and battery life. It also functions as a viewfinder for self portraits, and it supports photo caller ID. Below the display are the music controls. As on the SCH-U540 and the Gleam, the controls are touch sensitive and are usable only when the player is active. Though they don't offer tactile feedback, we like being able to scroll through the player menu and control our songs with the phone closed.
Completing the exterior of the Muse are a volume rocker and a camera shutter on the left spine. The rocker is easy to find when you're on a call, but the camera shortcut could be a tad bigger. On the right spine are a headset jack and the charger port. We give points to Samsung for keeping the ports separate. There's also a small shortcut control for the music player. The microSD card slot is hidden behind the battery cover, unfortunately. And even worse, you also must remove the battery to access it. Inside the SCH-U706 is a 262,144-color (320x140 pixels) display. At 2.1 inches, it takes full advantage of the Muse's real estate. Colors were bright and everything from text to graphics shows up well. Also, the graphical menus are simple and easy to use. You can change the backlighting time, the clock style, and the dialing font size and style.
The Muse's navigation array is fairly spacious, but as on many thin phones, it's not very tactile. Only the square navigation toggle has a raised ridged surrounding it; all of the other keys are completely flush with no clear separation between the individual buttons. It's fine after you get used to it but dialing by feel isn't easy. Besides the toggle, you'll find two soft keys, a speakerphone button, Talk and End/power controls, a music player shortcut, and a back key. There's also an OK button in the middle of the toggle, and you can set the toggle to act as a shortcut to four user-defined functions.
The keypad buttons are flush and a bit slippery. Thin ridges separate the individual rows, but the numbers are big and the backlighting is bright. We didn't have any misdials, but fast texters may have a few problems when they start out.
The Muse has a 500-contact phone book with room in each entry for four phone numbers and two e-mail addresses. You can organize callers into groups and you can pair them with a photo and one of 10 (72-chord) polyphonic ringtones. The SCH-U706 also supports Alltel's My Circle service, which gives you unlimited calling minutes to any 10 numbers on any network, even landlines.
Other basics include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, an alarm clock, a world clock, a currency and unit converter, a memo pad, a calculator, a stopwatch, and a tip calculator. The Muse also offers a few extra features for more demanding users. Inside you'll find speaker-independent voice dialing and commands, stereo Bluetooth, and a voice recorder.
The Muse's music player is standard Samsung. It doesn't support album art but there's a nice selection of features, including playlist, shuffle, and repeat modes. Loading music on the phone is relatively easy; just load songs on the microSD card and slip the card into the phone
The 2-megapixel camera takes pictures in seven resolutions (one more than the Gleam), from 1,600x1,200 down to a special size for photo caller ID. Editing options are plentiful and include a self-timer, a brightness control, four white balance modes, five color effects, 29 fun frames, three quality choices, three shutters sounds, a multishot setting, a night mode, spot metering, a digital zoom, and options for taking series shots and divided shots.
The camcorder takes clips with sound and offers a set of editing options similar to the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds; otherwise you can shoot for as long as the available memory permits. The Muse has a respectable 65MB of user-accessible memory. That's shared between all functions, so you're better off buying a microSD card for maximum storage. Photo quality was fairly good. Colors looked natural for the most part, though reds and oranges looked a bit fuzzy.
You can personalize the Muse with a variety of wallpaper and color themes, and you can compose a customized banner. For more options and additional ringtones, you can download content from Alltel's Axcess Shop with the WAP 2.0 wireless Web browser. The Muse doesn't come with any games.
We tested the (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO) Samsung Muse SCH-U706 in San Francisco using Alltel's roaming network. Call quality was quite decent with sharp clarity and good volume. Some voices sounded a bit harsh, and others sounded a tad robotic, but on the whole the Muse delivers. Callers reported similar conditions. They were pleased with their side of the conversation, though they could tell we were using a cell phone. Also, a couple of our friends said the Muse picked up some wind noise.
Speakerphone calls were somewhat scratchy, though the audio was loud. On their end, callers couldn't hear us unless we were standing close to the phone. It was a similar case with automated calling systems. They could understand us the majority of the time but if we were out on a busy street we had to repeat ourselves. Voice commands worked relatively well, though we had to repeat ourselves on a couple of occasions.
The Muse offers decent music quality. The stereo speakers are well-positioned and they have good output. As with most camera phones, the music quality can be tinny so we suggest using a headset for the best experience. Though the Muse is compatible with Alltel's EV-DO network, we couldn't test the reception since we are out of Alltel's home network area.
We noticed that the menus were a bit slow at times. There was a lag of about a second between the time we moved the toggle and the time the cursor moved in the appropriate direction. The Muse has a rated battery life of 3.83 hours talk time and 8.75 days standby time. We managed to get 4.26 hours of talk time. According to FCC radiation tests, the Samsung Muse SCH-U706 has a digital digital SAR of 0.887 watts per kilogram.