Review: Samsung Instinct

We received the Instinct a few weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to write up my impressions on it after using it for just about a week straight. I’m happy to report that the Instinct on Sprint is a capable and powerful smartphone and, in a way, is a direct competitor to the iPhone generation 1 (iPhone 3G doesn’t fit into this equation, but I suspect I’d say the same thing when we see it). Sadly, there are many caveats to this opinion and it would behoove Sprint and Samsung to quickly update the phone as soon as possible if they wish to have the blockbuster success that this device, in the end, deserves.

First the good. The Instinct interface is far superior to the iPhone’s simply because of haptic feedback. Much of the good ideas the iPhone uses – slide to unlock being one of the most important – are partially visible here and special care has clearly been taken to ensure that an apples to apples comparison is difficult if not impossible. Nothing in this phone is a direct knock-off and it is all fresh and slightly disconcerting at the same time. Once you work out the kinks, however, it is very strong interface and eminently usable.

We begin by unlocking the phone by holding down a button on the top. This direct physical interaction with the phone also turns it on and off, so care must be taken not to hold the button too long or it will turn off. The sliding metaphor appears quite a bit, however, especially in answering and making calls. For example, when a call comes in you are offered a floating bar. To answer, you slide the bar up to a box marked answer. To ignore, you slide the bar down. Weird, right? Strangely, it works. Another odd UI choice: When you make a call you type in the number and then press the bar that the number shows up in. You wouldn’t know it to look at the screen, but that was their design choice. It works although it does take a moment to figure out what’s going on.

Most importantly, the Instinct has haptic feedback. When you press a button or slide through emails or menus the phone buzzes and creates an interesting form of feedback. Haptics are not a must-have but they’re nice.

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Call quality is strong and the data capabilities mean you can live stream TV and on-demand video from almost anywhere. The web widgets like Weather, News, Sports, and Movies are quite useful. The music player is very capable even though it checks the included 2 gigabyte memory card every time it launches. The camera is good in standard light but is useless in low light, throwing a “fuzzy picture warning” on the screen and giving you a messy photo.

I’m most pleased with the email. It supports POP3 and IMAP along with all of the usual suspects – AIM, Yahoo, MSN – and uses a very intuitive mail reading system that lets you select multiple messages for deletion or filing.

Now for the bad news. There is no desktop sync and it only supports contact sync of up to 600 contacts. There is a “backup” system offered on that keeps your contacts safe but there is no real sync solution for Windows or OS X.

Next, the browser is abysmal. Coupled with a fairly bad keyboard, trying to type in a URL into the browser is hell while viewing a full webpage at the default resolution is a study in agony. The browser is not quite standards-compliant, as we see here. The system uses the accelerometer to let you scroll through longer documents. This position sensing system, activated by pressing the camera button, is fairly useless.

Finally, in the week I used this phone I’ve already scratched the screen quite noticeably. While I don’t coddle phones, I never put them in with my keys nor do I ever put them in with other phones. The result, after just a week of use, is a buffed and scratched screen that makes screen viewing difficult under some light.

Bottom line? This is a good, if flawed phone. Most importantly, the browser needs a complete overhaul and the next generation needs a glass screen. As it stands, however, this $130 iPhone competitor is quite compelling. If you are on Sprint, this is the closest you’ll get to a truly intuitive phone with enough horsepower to download TV, audio, and video on the go. It is not a dream come true – yet – but it is a start. It is up to Sprint and Samsung to upgrade this phone with regularity, adding features that business folks need – Outlook sync for one – and a better browser for everyone else.