Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Phone Samsung i500 (Sprint) Cell Phones: PCS Phone Samsung i500 (Sprint)

I wanted a semi-decent business-market phone at a reasonable price that would allow me to sync and manipulate contact data on my Mac. I didn't plan on going to a PDA/phone for a variety of reasons, including my opinions of the cost/technology/capability ratios.

To my surprise I ended up with the Samsung i500. It's a pretty good implementation of a phone with very well done old-fashioned Palm PDA extensions; and the price was within my range (the phone is being sunset, so the price was much lower than a Treo or Samsung i600). As a PDA it's comparable to a Palm device of @2001 (a good year), as a phone it's comparable to a fairly basic and slightly bulky analog/digital device.

Here's my review.
I ordered the phone, had it activated and changed my service plan. I'm still breathing. It was about an average level of trouble -- typical of life in the modern world. (My wife claims the staggering complexity of modern life fully explains why young adults refuse to leave home these days. I think she has a point.)

First the phone, then some brief highlights on what was surprising (suppressing boring and pointelss details).
Phone: Samsung SPH i500

This is the last of the classic Palm OS devices. Turning this phone on was a surprising trip to the good old days. It has an IR port! It has Graffiti ONE! I don't think any other device sold today ships with the much mourned version of Graffiti best known for the unique trait of actually working. It is a Grafitti-centric device, as God meant a Palm to be.

Most people will compare this to the Treo 650. The Treo costs about $600 list, this one was about $450 list (more or less, pricing on these things is diabolically confusing). Either way, if you don't have a current Sprint contract, and you sign up for a fresh two year locked-in contract, you get $150 back. The Treo 650 is a newfangled Palm that dispenses with Graffiti and opts for a keyboard, and it's a PDA first and a phone second. The i500 is a phone first, but also quite a decent little PDA.

The Treo has the new PalmOS that's slightly more Outlook friendly but less reliable overall. Amazon reviews suggest a high hardware defect rate for the 650 (the 600 may be better). In contrast the i500 had quite favorable reviews.

The i500 is not a new phone, I think it came on the market about 1-2 years ago. It's nearing the end of its lifecycle so prices may fall. It may also become hard to find accessories, so stock-up.

The phone is smaller than the Treo by a good bit, but wider than most modern phones. It's substantially bigger than the more costly and fashionable Motorola RAZR for example. Compared to my 2-3 yo Samsung phone it's significantly slimmer and lighter but a bit wider. It feels flat and actually is comfortable in a pocket. The fixed stubby antenna might be damaged in a pocket however. Reception is much better than my old Samsung; sound is clear but voices have a slight metallic quality. You can't do Caller ID until you open the phone -- the later version of this phone (PocketPC/Mobile PC version) does have an external LCD dispay. This phone cures the curse of older Samsung phones -- the errant volume adjustment. Buttons on the right side of the phone still raise and lower volume; but they now have no effect when the phone is closed.

It wasn't initially clear how to switch this phone to vibration mode. The manual describes navigating to an obscure preference setting, but it also mentions that the 'vibration' and 'silent' modes are set by lowering volume. I'd call this a bit of a usability glitch; it's not obvious to me that "vibrate" is a volume setting. Anyway, if the phone is in idle mode using the keys on the right side you can drop volume to "vibrate" or "silent".

The phone/address book integration seemed good on first use (but see update, below). There are a plethora of ways to interact with stored numbers, including quick keys, address book (typical palm), voice dial, and a curiously different phone specific four number short list (seemed pretty worthless and confusing, I swapped it for a diffeerent "plug-in"). The built in software is standard Palm stuff, the Samsung authored phone specific tools are less polished and responsive than the PalmOS tools. I have a CLIE PDA and I'd thought I'd be using this as a phone with a great contact/dialing list, but I like it better than I'd expected. I might end up giving up some of the advanced features of the CLIE and making this my phone/PDA for the next few years. The screen is pretty good, a slightly small and squashed version of the standard screen. It's a smaller screen, so there are more pixels/cm.

I mentioned one odd exception to the phone integration. Here's what the full manual says about the speed dial numbers:
Note: When you perform a HotSync operation, make sure you use the default setting of “Handheld Overwrites Desktop” or else the Speed Dial numbers will not be synchronized.
Anyone who's used a Palm or other PDA knows how dumb this recommendation is. In my testing with the normal sync setting editing a phone number on the desktop and then synching did not cause me to lose the speed dial number settings.

This is a business phone, not a fun phone. It feels solid and well made. There's no camera and ring tones are not a strength. It came with two batteries (shock) - thin and standard and an extra stylus. It comes with a brief manual, on the CD is a 200+ page tome (Adobe Acrobat format). There's a travel charger that can plug into the phone or into the sync/charge cradle; a very nice touch. There's no travel sync cable, but a retractable sync/USB charge cable is widely sold. I report back how well it charges via USB, I don't think the cradle charges with a USB only connection.

The software CD comes with Windows software only. I have a Palm Desktop 4.1 for CLIE, this ships with roughly Desktop 4.1. The install program is very polite, you can choose to install PocketMirror (bundled), Palm Desktop, or just the USB drivers. I just did the USB. The phone ships with a quite inadequate paper manual, the full manual is a PDF file on the CD. I actually read the full manual, which is how I learned to record a phone conversation (p. 38 - it's a menu item on the option menu for a call).

There's no software for Mac, but I had Palm Desktop 4.2 for Mac from another Palm of mine. That worked fine, it synched with no trouble (OS X 10.3.8). I synched with the old Mac Palm desktop, not with iSync/Address book (I'll try that later, should work as well as any Palm device.) Missing Sync sells software to support this device if you don't have Palm Desktop.

There's not much other software on the CD, other than PocketMirror (no value on a Mac) and some plug-ins for the Samsung phone screen. The Windows CD has an installer for the "plugins", but if you browse the Windows directory you'll find two PRC files. Put ONE of those on a Mac, double click, and you can install them manually. I liked the calendar plug-in. If you don't like the plug-in you delete it and can get back to the default screen view.

When I plugged this device's USB cable in (via cradle) OS X recognized it immediately as a CDMA modem. I expect it will work well as a wireless modem. If you try to sync without having the cradle plugged into an outlet the sync button on the cradle won't work. Sync does work if you start it from the Palm's internal sync application. The cradle feels like a weak spot in this product. You must tilt the top of the phone forward to remove it from the cradle; if you try to pull up you will break the cradle. I don't feel like this cradle will last forever. I may use it primarily to charge the batteries and sync via the $14 retractable cable I've ordered.

More updates to follow, but first -- Sprint.

Verizon has a good reputation, Sprint doesn't. What can I say, it's too much hassle for me to switch and Verizon didn't have a phone I liked. I think all these companies are evil anyway -- Europeans do so much better than we with wireless providers. A few tidbits from my Sprint expriences:
  1. Sprint's website doesn't work properly with Safari. It mostly works with Firefox. Idiots.
  2. The phone was $150 more at the Sprint store than at the Sprint web site. I think it's being sunset and the store price was a few weeks out of date.
  3. To get the rebate you have to sign up for a PCS Vision plan.
  4. When I called the operator swore there was a much better plan for us. Free and clear, lower rate, adjustable rates, etc. So she said. We'll see. What she forgot to mention, however, was that when we switched plans we also got a new contract! That would annoy me except I'm getting used to life in the modern world. Rule #1: no matter how careful you are, these companies know this business better than you do. They'll get you sooner or later, so close your eyes and think of England. I needed the contract anyway to get my $150 back, but it would be nice to have been told first.
  5. The phone is configured to make it very easy to go online, where you pay by the KB at an outrageous rate -- unless you have a plan internet access. I changed the Palm setup to make that less automatic (changed button assignments).
Update 4/10/05: In many ways the phone has held up well, but it's now apparent that it falls short of excellence. The phone/PDA integration looks good -- until one tries to actually use the directory to make calls. Sigh. This is so bad words fail me. Two quick examples:
  1. The number lookup defaults to searching by number rather than name. (Huh?)
  2. The name lookup assumes each person has only one number. Of course in the Palm directory there are 3-4 numbers per person.
  3. The quick lookup has one sort order -- by sequence in which the shortcut number was asssigned (eg. not by name).
There's more, but it's too depressing. This phone should have been excellent, but some serious product management screw-ups make it merely useful.

Update 1/15/07

My wife's i500 died. Since she needs ePocrates, she stole my phone and I bought a Motorola RAZR v3M. I was able to migrate her data and applications from her old phone to the new one through Missing Sync (OS X). For reference, the steps are:
  1. Perform a hard reset to wipe all data:
    Press and hold the Handheld Power button located on the side of the phone, then use the stylus reset tool (unscrew the stylus to access the reset tool) to press the reset button.
    Remove the stylus reset tool from the rest hole and wait for the Palm Screen to display, then release the handheld power button. An Erase all data screen is displayed confirming the hard reset.
    Press the up scroll key on the front of the phone to perform the hard reset.
  2. Calibrate digitizer.
  3. Place in cradle, press sync, select old user name from Missing Sync dialog. Sync twice so ePocrates updates its database.

1 comment:

  1. I still have my i500 phone. However, my laptop crashes and i have to reload windows 2000. However, I no longer have the USB driver for it. Would you please e-mail it to me to