Samsung SGH-a657 is a rugged candybar cell phone that is designed for those who abuse their phones. With 3G support, built-in GPS, and Push-To-Talk (PTT), the a657 offers quite a robust feature set. In our review, we check to see how well the phone stands up to abuse, but also how well the actual phone functions work.
Samsung SGH-a657 is cased in thick plastic, most of which is rubberized for a firm grip. The phone sports a rather drab black and grey color scheme, though that will likely appeal to its target consumer better than bright colors might. The phone feels solid in your hand, as expected, and does not creak or make any other noises when in use. Weighing in at 122g (4.3 ounces), the a657 is slightly hefty, but not so heavy that it is uncomfortable to carry in your pocket. The small 114mm x 51mm x 20mm (4.5in x 2.0in x .8in) body should fit in most any pocket, though it is a bit thick.
The front of the Samsung SGH-a657 features the small, bright 2.2-inch 176×220 pixel resolution display on the top half, and a standard numeric keypad below. The entire key mat is a solid piece of rubber, which contributes to the phone’s ruggedized build. Between the numeric keypad and the display is the navigational cluster, with left and right softkeys, dedicated end and send keys, and two additional keys between the others. One of those extra keys is for AT&T Navigator, which offers voice-guided turn-by-turn directions, while the other is a back/delete key. The end key pulls double-duty as the power button. The d-pad is a raised chrome square, with nicely defined clicks for each direction. From the standby screen, the center d-pad button takes you directly to the web browser. Below the navigational cluster, the numeric keypad features large, easily-read labels, and the keypad backlight is extremely bright, evenly illuminating each key. These buttons are raised slightly in the middle, and each offers a very satisfying tactile click when pressed.
Along the right edge of the Samsung SGH-a657 are two buttons. The top button activates the built-in flashlight, which is located at the top of the phone. You can press and hold this button for a few seconds to turn the flashlight on, and there is a 10-minute timeout, so that you don’t accidentally leave it on and drain your battery. Below this is the multitasking button, which allows for crude multitasking. Pressing this button brings up a banner across the bottom of the screen, so that you can quickly switch to the messaging menu, web browser, music player, or games. Below these buttons is the proprietary Samsung port, covered by a protective door. This port is used for charging as well as for data connections and, presumably, music headphones.
On the left edge of the Samsung SGH-a657, you’ll find the volume rocker and Push-To-Talk (PTT) button, the latter of which is colored bright orange. As previously mentioned, the flashlight is found on the top edge of the phone, and the microphone is the only thing you’ll find on the bottom edge of the a657. There is a large loop at the top of the phone that can be used to easily attach the phone to a belt loop, if you wanted. The back battery cover on the Samsung a657 is rubberized, and fastened securely with a large silver screw. The inside of the battery cover has a rubber gasket, to protect the battery and internals from being damaged by the elements. Unfortunately, we found this battery cover difficult to securely fasten, with an odd fit that did not inspire confidence in its ability to protect the phone. Beneath this cover, you’ll find the heavy-duty 1420mAh battery, as well as the SIM card slot and a well-hidden microSD card slot, both beneath the battery.
The Samsung SGH-a657 is certified to Military Standard MIL-STD-810F against dust, shock, vibration, rain, humidity, solar radiation, altitude, and temperature extremes. In our tests, we dropped the phone onto concrete from 7 feet, played fetch with it and our chocolate Labrador Retriever Abilene, and set it in a river. The phone passed the drop and game of fetch with no issues, but did not handle water well. After only a few minutes in less than 4 inches of water, the phone began behaving erratically, with the right column of keys ceasing to work. After a few days of drying out, the phone worked fine, fortunately.
Samsung SGH-a657 has no problem using its quad-band GSM (850/900/1800/1900MHz) support or dual-band UMTS (850/1900MHz) support to get a strong signal. Even in areas of known low signal strength, I found the a657 to show nearly full bars, and was pleased to see that it did not constantly switch back and forth between EDGE and 3G, as other phones in this area typically do. Call quality is amazing, as I was able to clearly hear my callers, and they reported the same crystal clear quality. Even more impressive, though, is the volume, both through the earpiece and the speakerphone. I had to keep both turned down significantly to protect my eardrums.
The Samsung SGH-a657 from AT&T did not come with any synchronization software in the box, nor did it come with a USB cable to connect to a computer. Browsing Samsung’s website, the a657 is listed as being compatible with Samsung PC Studio, which should allow synchronization of Outlook data, such as contacts and calendar, though I had issues getting this to work over Bluetooth. The contacts application on the Samsung a657 is surprisingly robust, with the ability to store first and last name, as well as a different display name, if necessary. There are multiple phone number and email address fields, as well as options to store a contact’s birthday and a free-text note field. You can also specify a custom ringtone and caller ID graphic for each contact. Contact groups are also supported, and each group can have its own ringtone or graphic, which overrides the individual contact. Groups can be helpful to know if it is work or family calling.
The keys 2 through 9 on the a657 can be assigned as speed dials. To call a specific speed dial, simply press and hold the corresponding key from the standby screen. Alternatively, you can press the number, and then press the send key. You can search through the contact list by opening your phonebook and then typing the name. You can also simply begin typing from the standby screen, and then press ‘options’ and then ‘search as spelling’. There is no voice dial system on the Samsung SGH-a657, though the phone does support AT&T’s premium voice dial service, which is available for a monthly fee.
The Samsung SGH-a657 supports SMS and MMS through its messaging menu, as well as instant messaging and mobile email. The instant messaging client, as usual from AT&T, only supports AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo! Messenger. There are no options to add your own service, such as Google’s Gtalk or a Jabber network. Mobile Email is also a rather dismal affair, with a java-powered application offering support for only a few popular email services, such as Yahoo! Mail, Windows Live Hotmail, and a handful of others. There is no option to connect to a Gmail account, nor is there any ability to enter a custom email account, so I was unable to login to my MobileBurn.com email account from the a657.
Samsung SGH-a657 is able to fit in a powerful 1420mAh battery. With the massive battery and small display, the a657 is easily able to last a week on standby. With an hour or two of phone calls, 10-15 SMS, and an hour or so of local music playback each day, I was easily able to squeeze 3 days of solid use out of this phone.
Multimedia / Applications
While the Samsung SGH-a657 supports AT&T Music and AT&T’s Cellular Video service, it’s certainly not marketed as a multimedia phone. Nonetheless, the phone puts on a good show, enough to satisfy a minimal amount of entertainment needs.
Annoyingly, things start out rough with the microSD card slot buried beneath the battery, forcing you to not only remove the backplate, but also the battery in order to swap it out. With the absence of a USB cable in the sales package, this is even more frustrating if you like to change the music stored on your phone often. However, I was able to use an 8GB microSD card with no problems. The music player supports DRM-free MP3 tracks, AAC, AAC+, M4A, and MP4, as well as songs protected by Microsoft’s PlaysForSure DRM.
The music player is somewhat limited, with no option to browse music by genre, though you can browse via artist or album. Playlists are supported, and you can create these directly on the device, which is rather handy. The player also supports shuffle and repeat play, though there is no option to apply a rating to a specific track. A graphic equalizer is available, with several presets, along with the ability to customize those to your own tastes. While the Samsung SGH-a657 annoyingly uses Samsung’s proprietary headphone port, and does not come with a compatible headset in the sales package, it does support A2DP, for Bluetooth stereo headphones. The ability to hide the music player in the background, so that you can listen to your tunes while you do other things on the phone, is also appreciated.
The Samsung SGH-a657 comes with three games pre-installed, and you can download more directly from the AT&T MediaMall. Midnight Pool 3D, Tetris, and World Poker Tour Hold’Em 2 are included as demo versions. I checked out the World Poker Tour Texas Hold’Em 2 game, and was pleased to see the graphics were quite nice, despite the phone’s small display. The game is standard Texas Hold’Em poker, and allows you to bet, call, or raise at preset amounts, as well as the ability to go ‘all in’. In demo mode, I was only able to play a single game, though the full version allows you to build your character and your bankroll as you progress through various stages of the World Poker Tour.
Thanks to the Samsung a657′s 3G data connection, the web browser pulls up web pages incredibly quickly. The browser does not pretend to offer full HTML browsing, instead routing you to the mobile-friendly version of web pages, if possible. You are able to store bookmarks, for your frequently-accessed websites, which is handy, and you can easily send a web page to a friend as an SMS link, which is rather neat.
Considering its utilitarian design, I expected the Samsung SGH-a657 to offer a few helpful utilities, and I was not disappointed. The phone features a robust set of tools, including an alarm clock, calendar, todo list, and free-form notes. There is also a regular calculator, tip calculator, unit converter, and world time clock. A timer and stopwatch are also included, to help you keep organized.
Samsung SGH-a657 offers one of the most customizable user interfaces that I have ever seen on any phone, much less a rugged feature phone. The standby screen shows a minimal amount of information, such as the time and date, and the four directions on the d-pad act as shortcuts to various phone features. Pressing up begins creating a new message, right goes to the Instant Messaging application, down opens your contacts, and left opens the My Stuff folder. The left softkey opens a small, user-customizable shortcut menu, and the right softkey opens the main menu.
The main menu cannot be reorganized, though it can be presented as a 3×3 grid of icons or a scrolling list. There are 4 sound profiles that can be customized, as well, for a custom ringtone or audio level. The phone’s wallpaper can be changed, and the display backlight can be adjusted. However, the most impressive part of the Samsung SGH-a657 is the in-built My Theme application.
There are three preset themes that a user can choose, or users can create their own theme, right there on the phone. There are two ‘builder’ modes, easy and experienced. The easy mode allows you to quickly create a custom theme, specifying the background image and colors. However, the experienced mode allows you to customize nearly every aspect of the phone’s display, including such minute details as the label backgrounds and colors of the indicators along the top of the screen. Themes can be saved, so that you can use them again later, if you wish.