The Samsung UpStage, about to be released in red, is a flagship phone in Sprint’s lineup. Being highly promoted by Sprint already, we take an in-depth look at the UpStage, and see how the phone stacks up against the hype.
Buy an UpStage from LetsTalk.com ($-50.01 With New Contract)
Introduction, First Impressions
This phone is thin. At .37 inches thick, its one of the thinnest phones ever made, even thinner than the Motorola SLVR. The dual screens certainly give the wow-factor that we haven’t seen in the mobile sector, since, well, since Steve Jobs pulled an iPhone out of his pocket.
The build quality on the phone is very high, there isn’t a part on the casing of the phone that we have a complaint about. The form factor is really robust here, nothing appears out-of-place. Like other Samsung phones recently, the connectors are on the side, and the phone-side of the device resembles a Samsung n270 (the Matrix phone) without the bulging display hood. The media side of the device resembles a typical Samsung DAP, a true testament to how hard Samsung worked to make the phone appear as an integrated offering.
General Phone Functionality
The UpStage comes standard with a battery wing. The battery wing services two purposes, to protect the UpStage in your pocket, and to give you a second battery. The battery wing clips onto the phone securely, and it can’t fall off because it is clipped to the base on the unit. The design is very nice, though it would be nicer if the extended battery could be detached from the leather case. The leather case is nice, but sometimes not necessary. With typical use, the auxiliary battery in the wing is.
Also nice about the extended battery is the dual charge indicators. You can monitor the battery strength of each battery independently. Also, the battery wing does not recharge the battery inside the phone (for the most part). It will pass along a bit of a charge if the battery is critical, but otherwise, you get to keep each battery separate.
This is actually preferable, since you can focus on draining the battery in the phone, and only drain the battery wing when you need to. This minimizes the need to recharge the battery wing (which is recharged when attached to the phone, after the primary battery is fully recharged).
Both batteries in the UpStage are Li-Polymer, a high-quality grade of battery we haven’t seen in a phone… in years. Polymer batteries are much longer-lasting than Li-Ion batteries, which explains why the UpStage can pull a 6.3 hour talk time (when using both the built-in battery and battery wing).
It’s also important to note that the UpStage does not need the battery wing for general protection. While in a drop the battery wing could prove to be essential, general pocket wear didn’t scratch either display in over three weeks of use.
Text entry is a pain. There’s no way around saying that. And, the bad news is, it shouldn’t be all that difficult. Numeric entry can be transacted on the flip-side. However, text entry requires flipping the phone. The phone constantly offers the flip softkey to do this. However, it begs the question as to why the phone can’t be intelligent about this.
When you approach a text entry box, the phone should just unlock the other side, and allow you to flip (without pressing the Flip key), type in the text, and flip back accepting the text entry. That’s how Apple would do it, and when you’re modeling half you device after an iPod… that’s the standard to while you will be held.
I will start by saying this: The UpStage has the most advanced touch-sensitive directional pad (d-pad) in a phone to-date. However, UpStage’s worst failure is its touch-sensitive d-pad. The phone would be pretty much perfect in terms of form factor if they had just copied the d-pad on the phone side of the device, and put that same d-pad on the media side.
This apparent contradiction can be easily explained. The UpStage, while making significant advances over LG’s Chocolate, is still lacking the finishing touches that products like the iPod has.
iPod does one thing that no phone does well to-date; it lets you know that it recognized the action. iPod’s click-wheel always clicks the instant you make any sort of change or tap. UpStage is supposed to notify you when you make any sort of action on the touch pad… but it tends to lag the action so long that you get frustrated.
The solution here is simple, either go with a touch-screen, or use a tactile d-pad. There is no reason to use a touch d-pad except for the novelty factor. And novelty over functionality ensures users aren’t happy.
And another thing (since we’re on a roll). iPod’s touch sensitive d-pad requires human electrical current, which reduces accidental clicks. UpStage doesn’t (but unlike Chocolate, does have a much more advanced auto-keyguard process, explained later). UpStage 2, please, please, please have a traditional d-pad on both sides. We really hope this doesn’t kill the flipper-style of phone factors, as otherwise UpStage is an excellent device.
So, what is there good to say about the d-pad? For starters, it has a tactile play/pause key (which doubles as the OK key). This is good for several reasons. First, it enables a refined auto-keyguard. Once the display goes to sleep, the d-pad is shut off, but can easily be woken by hitting the center play/pause key.
Also advancing over previous offerings, the UpStage supports scrolling. While it can’t do circular scrolling (a la iPod), it does do both vertical and horizontal scrolling. This enables you to easily scroll through menu elements… just a little less polished that a normal d-pad.
Of course, the main question people will ask is… is the phone still acceptable with the touch-pad, or is it a deal-breaker? It is not a deal-breaker. However, the learning curve may turn newer users off, and that may turn people off to the flipper-form-factor, which is the real shame.
Advanced Phone Functionality
Because of the unique flipping functionality, MI-UI (uiOne) downloadable themes are not available for the device, so you’re stuck with the default theme. That said, the default theme is very nice (reminds us of Apple TV and the Hi-Tech Theme in OS 9). And, the default theme is using uiOne to begin with, so the overall user interface quality is very high.
We could not test GPS performance with the unit. TeleNav and Sprint Navigation are not yet available for the device. However, the menus on the phone have a link to Sprint Navigation, and we’re told that both apps are currently being prepared for release on the UpStage.
One interesting thing we weren’t expecting was the Mobile Podcast application, located in Menu > Tools. This app is powered by VoiceIndigo, and essentially gives access to a small set of pre-screened podcasts. The usefulness of this application is rather limited though. You can only choose from a few podcasts that VoiceIndigo selects, and it also doesn’t amplify the audio through the speakerphone, meaning to listen, you have to hold the phone to your ear. This is likely the same firmware bug as presented below, but, the application is a nice start at offering mobile podcasting. Probably the best feature is the hourly news updates from radio providers (NPR, etc).
Other than that, the UpStage is essentially a refined version of the Samsung M610 (previously reviewed). It inherits nearly every feature, and all other advanced features perform as well as they did on the M610, if not benefitting slightly from improved software. Though, as you’ll see on the next page, like all Samsung phones, it has its fair share of bugs.
Bug or Hinderance: Samsung’s Hidden Media Player?
One thing we certainly didn’t like about the UpStage was the hiding of Samsung’s Media Player.
On previous phones, Sprint TV was hidden behind the vague Media Player menu item. This received criticism, since most users didn’t know how to access Sprint TV… they didn’t know you had to go to Media Player to get to Sprint TV.
In the UpStage, Sprint fixed this, by making the Sprint TV menu item. But, there’s a catch, you can’t access the Media Player for local files anymore… it only loads Sprint TV.
This means that if you want to access video files on your microSD card, or use the Media Player just for music, you now have to go hunting. Sprint kept a slightly-hindered version of Media Player as part of the Mass Storage menu item (located under Menu > Tools).
Let’s face it, Samsung’s media player blows away the Sprint Music Store. Not only can it play 3GPP movies stored on your microSD card, but it has a better interface. Problem is, if you can’t find it… what are you going to do other than blame Sprint for (apparently) lacking the ability to play stored movies?
Granted, if this is a hindrance, it’s not nearly as bad as Verizon. Verizon orders manufacturers to disable their media player, forcing you to use the V CAST Music Store’s poor-quality media player instead. But, our advice to Sprint: don’t push it, this is as far as is acceptable for our tastes.
A much more acceptable solution would be to simply bring back the old Media Player option, and move it under Tools. Right now, it’s just too difficult to explain to users how to access microSD-stored videos.
You want bugs? Well, it’s a Samsung, so here we go…
Samsung’s platform, from an architectural standpoint, is bug-prone. Over the years, Samsung has worked hard to reduce this, and their most recent offerings have shined in that regard.
Unfortunately, UpStage has some bugs. For example, 3GPP video doesn’t play with the speakerphone turned on. That includes Sprint TV. Meaning, you often have to hold the phone to your ear. This is a bit sporadic, some times it does play with the speakerphone, but most of the time, it doesn’t.
Also, 3GPP video will not play with A2DP headphones connected. Why? We aren’t sure, but we get an error saying we can’t.
And, full screen view often is hidden. You have to toggle back and forth between “Enlarged” view until Options soft-menu finally shows Full Screen. While we certainly enjoy multiple viewing sizes (Normal, Expanded, and Full screen), it makes no sense why you have to jump to Enlarged View to then be offered Full Screen View.
And, for some reason, Mass Storage browser won’t let us view images (GIF, JPEG, etc). Even the M610 let us do that… but alas, on the UpStage we have to navigate to Pictures > Memory Card to view them.
While not very noticeable at first glance, the phone does have a 1.3 megapixel camera, placed near the display on the phone side of the device. One of the great things about the software design of the UpStage, is that you can actually use both flips to take photos with. This is great for self-portraits using the small screen, but you can use the media side’s display for general photo taking.
Click to enlarge…
Compare to the Motorola RAZR maxx Ve…
The camera itself takes acceptable photos. This certainly isn’t a camera-centric phone, and the CMOS camera on the phone certainly isn’t terrible, but doesn’t stand out from megapixel CMOS phones sold years ago either. The lack of an LED flash means that you can’t expect to take photos in the dark either…
Conclusions, Closing Thoughts
The UpStage should finally shake any vestage of a notion that Sprint does not care about carrying new, ultra-high end devices. While everyone may nit pick just about every carrier’s lineup, and the grass certainly is greener on the other side, UpStage is only on Sprint. And it’s a powerful addition to the Sprint lineup. I really felt bad sending our review copy of the UpStage back to Sprint, and it’s a powerful phone that just about any user could take full advantage of.
But please, ditch the touch-sensitive keypad. The d-pad that is on the phone-side of the device would be perfect on the media side. LG has learned that, and placed a standard d-pad on their next version of the Chocolate… hopefully Samsung will do the same.
Pros: Extremely advanced, extremely thin. Flip style is new and excellent.
Cons: Media Player slightly hindered, Touch-pad should have been scrapped.
Final Score: 4/5