6th Nov 2012 | 02:00
Samsung and Sprint offer an unremarkable QWERTY slider for the talk and text crowd
Introduction and Design
Samsung may have eclipsed Nokia as the king of the smartphone hill with 56.3 million handsets shipped in Q3 2012, but that number pales in comparison to how many basic phones the Korean manufacturer continues to quietly pump out each year.
Enter the Samsung Array, a Sprint version of the Samsung Montage (aka Samsung SPH-M390) for Virgin Mobile. There's nothing too spectacular about this particular handset, which is clearly aimed at old-school consumers who keep carriers' "talk and text only" packages in business. The initial cost is dirt cheap, only $19.99 with two-year agreement.
Our review model was the Sprint model, but the Array is also available for Boost Mobile, which doesn't require a contract. Same goes for the aforementioned Virgin version, the Samsung Montage.
Consumers who are still opting for "dumb" phones in a smartphone world aren't doing so for nostalgia. They obviously want two things: simplicity and savings. But with plans starting at $49.99 for 450 anytime calling minutes and unlimited texting, plus a two-year commitment to this dated handset, is buying a Samsung Array a smart play with your wallet? Let's find out.
Featuring a 2.4-inch QVGA, 320 x 240 LCD display and a QWERTY slider keyboard, the Samsung Array certainly isn't going to be confused for one of the company's Android smartphones. This Brew-powered handset measures 4.40 x 2.12 x 0.59 inches, and at only 4.1 ounces, it fits nicely in even the smallest of hands.
There's no touchscreen display to be found here – instead, navigation must be done using a row of hardware buttons sandwiched between the screen and the T9 keypad on front.
The Samsung Array is also one of the increasingly rare breeds of phone with a QWERTY slider keyboard, complete with a row of Fn-key numbers across the top. While the keys are just a hair too flush with the surface, they're certainly usable for knocking out SMS or even a short email.
A 3.5mm headphone jack is positioned on the top of the handset, with microSD card slot (capable of holding 32GB of additional storage) and dedicated camera button on the right. A micro-B USB port at bottom is used for charging; a volume rocker and a pair of QWERTY option keys (one left, one right) sit along the left edge.
A hidden LED indicator near the front upper left corner blinks when the handset is trying to get a user's attention, while a mostly unspectacular 2MP camera – sorry, no flash here – is included on back next to the speakerphone.
The Samsung Array can be purchased through Sprint for a mere $19.99 with a two-year commitment (after $50 mail-in rebate via rewards card).
Display and interface
Without a touchscreen or flip cover, Samsung Array owners have to resort to Auto Key Guard to prevent accidental key presses, or a traditional four-digit PIN code. Auto Key Guard requires users to press the star and back buttons to access the device, which can also be unlocked by sliding out the QWERTY keyboard.
By default, two option keys below the screen bring you to Messages or Contacts, respectively. There's no way to assign other shortcuts to these keys, but thankfully the rest of the features are available with a press of the red-ringed selection button while on the home screen.
That takes you immediately to a grid of 12 icons ranging from Web to Missed Alerts, Photos & Videos and Messages (this grid can also be viewed as a list). Tools include an alarm clock, calculator, calendar, Bluetooth settings and mass storage for connecting to a computer via USB, which requires a microSD card to be inserted.
Some categories – like Social Networking or Shopping – are little more than WAP-based web portals offering pint-sized mobile versions of Facebook, Twitter or Sprint's own branded store, which offers a variety of "applications" including The Weather Channel, eBay and Pandora, all of which are as painful to use as you might imagine.
While the 286 ppi display is serviceable for viewing straight on, the screen gets much harder to read the moment you turn the handset at even a slight angle. Given the meager size of the display, users aren't likely to invite loved ones to crowd around them very often to get a peek at something.
Calling and internet
While it's conceivable that Samsung Array owners might journey onto the internet now and again, it's pretty clear the handset was designed with talking and texting in mind.
Thankfully, the Array is particularly adept at the first half of that equation, serving up a strong signal from Sprint's CDMA network with decent call quality. The earpiece is plenty loud enough to hear, although we found it a tad on the tinny side.
Callers we spoke with confirmed that outgoing voice was about the same, although the Array does fall a bit short on the speakerphone, which doesn't quite muster up enough volume to be usable where ambient noise is loud.
If you're planning to use the Samsung Array in noisier settings, you might consider a Bluetooth headset – there doesn't seem to be much in the way of noise reduction or cancellation going on with this budget device.
Dialing is as simple as punching numbers on the keypad, but the sluggish single-core 480MHz processor bogs down even this basic task. Instead of a familiar touch dial tone, each press of the keypad confirms input with melodic bleeps, which doesn't help when you're attempting to dial out quickly.
The Array also offers email, which requires an internet connection to set up your Windows Live/Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail or AOL account. There are also shortcuts for Comcast or AIM Mail and we had no trouble setting up other IMAP and POP accounts, including Apple's iCloud.
Once set up, the Array's fetched our email at a snail's pace, and really took a hatchet to any HTML-based missives. The handset does a commendable job considering its tiny screen, but it's really only worthwhile if you send or receive a lot of text-only emails in the first place.
Camera and video
You're not really expecting much from a 2MP camera phone, are you? That's good, because you pretty much get what you pay for here.
While photos have an impressive-sounding 1600 x 1200 pixel resolution in Fine mode and color reproduction is adequate, even images taken in daylight exhibit blotchiness and a general lack of detail.
Videos fare even worse, no better than a tiny 15fps, 174 x 144 pixel postage stamp movies of cell phones past. Unless it's the only video camera you have available for documenting a once-in-a-lifetime event, we'd say don't bother.
Quality issues aside, the Samsung Array does have a few more camera features than one would expect, including five different shooting modes (Single, Continuous, Mosaic, Panorama and Night Shot), auto or manual white balance and a five or ten-second timer.
However, the Array's camera is more notable for what it doesn't have – namely autofocus or an LED flash, but given that the sensor fails to live up to even our meager expectations, this shouldn't be much of a surprise.
Battery life and connectivity
One good thing about basic phones: They can almost always run circles around smartphones when it comes to battery life. The Samsung Array includes a mere 1000mAh lithium ion battery, but manages to actually exceed the company's own talk and standby time specs.
While Sprint boasts up to four hours of talk time, we managed something closer to six hours, which was a nice surprise. Samsung promises something on the order of 10 days standby time, which sounds accurate to us, given the Array only needed a single charge during the time we spent with it.
The battery is removable, and easily accessed by sliding a fingernail into a thin slit next to the headphone jack up top, although we don't see many users needing a spare battery for a handset such as this.
While Sprint's variant of the Samsung Array does tap into the carrier's poky 3G data network, there's no WiFi option to be found here. Given the meager web browser and questionable selection of so-called apps, the lack of WiFi is not much of a hardship.
We attempted to connect the Array to our MacBook Pro using mass storage mode, but neither the internal nor micro-SD storage ever mounted on the desktop. We had better luck connecting via Bluetooth 3.0, but transferring even 18MB worth of photos and videos took nearly 20 minutes.
Storage and apps
The Samsung Array includes a mere 40MB of internal storage, but by adding up to 32GB with a micro-SD card, the handset is capable of playing MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, WMA, WAV, AMR or MIDI format audio files through a dedicated Music Player – or so it promises.
We loaded up several AAC+ songs purchased from iTunes and launched Music Player, only to be flatly denied with the warning: "No music files found on card." We had better luck with MP3 tracks from Amazon, but even those threw up a random error the first time we played them.
For those who intending to use the Array as a down and dirty music player, the software offers the option to play tunes in the background while you're doing other things on the phone. It's cumbersome, but does work as expected.
Oddly, the Samsung Array come equipped with GPS, which can be turned on via the Settings > Location option. According to Sprint, turning this feature on will make some applications and services "easier to use," but we didn't see much difference either way – especially without a navigation app to test it on.
That brings us to the so-called "applications." Two games – Bubble Bash 2 and Tetris – come preinstalled inside the My Stuff icon, along with a variety of built-in ringtones and wallpaper.
Browsing to the "All" category of Sprint's application store offered up a pretty anemic collection of web apps including Jeego Ecards and dating services such as Webdate Mobile and Lavalife2Go (the latter of which tossed up a "404 Not Found" error when we tried to open it).
This kind of stuff is hardly worth bothering with, so just trust us when we say you won't buy the Samsung Array for its multimedia capabilities, which are scarce at best.
As much as we'd like to point fingers and laugh at Samsung for even offering something like the Array in the year 2012, the fact remains that not everyone wants a smartphone – and for those who simply want to talk and text for cheap without the distraction of cloud connectivity, apps or push notifications, this one is as good as any.
While there is value to be found here, what about flexibility? Is two years with this device really a smart option?
While there's very little to differentiate the Samsung Array from a thousand other "dumb" phones – some of which can be had for free with a two-year contract – this one offers up the increasingly rare QWERTY slider keyboard. While the keys are a hair too flush with the slider, we had no problem banging out short text messages with it.
Beyond that, the camera does offer up more than just a basic set of software features, and the 286 ppi display is a modest step above other handsets in the same league.
Sprint's 3G network is one of the slowest around, and with no WiFi to be had, you'll need plenty of patience. Bluetooth file transfer was also painfully slow, so purchasing a microSD card is recommended for anyone taking advantage of the dubious multimedia features on the Array.
For its size, the display is sharp enough considering its size, but poor viewing angles thwart the screen at almost every turn. Using the Samsung Array as a video camera is laughable at best, and those so-called "applications" are mostly borderline useless.
Back to that two-year contract. A two-year commitment to such a dated device is a deal breaker for us, especially when you can get the same phone at a comparable value from Boost and Virgin Mobile.
So just what kind of room is the Samsung Array trying to play to? There's an aging generation of users still buying basic phones to stay connected on the go, although many of them lack a QWERTY keyboard for more efficient text messaging.
In the grand scheme of things, 20 bucks is cheap for something that would have cost hundreds just a few years ago. But given the pace of innovation with mobile devices today, hitching your wagon to the Samsung Array for the next two years just doesn't make a lot of sense to us.
We recommend that the talk-and-text crowd looking for a bargain investigate pre-paid, no contract options. The Array is decent hardware, if a QWERTY slider is what you want, but Sprint just isn't offering a compelling deal.