At a Glance
With its high-resolution camera and thoughtful design, this phone has a lot going for it, but it's expensive.
For cell phone users in parts of Asia, camera phones with resolutions of up to 10 megapixels are yesterday's news. But for folks on this side of the globe, a 3.2-megapixel camera phone is a big deal. The 3.2-megapixel Samsung SCH-a990 is now available through Verizon Wireless, but it isn't cheap, costing $400 (as of 9/8/06, with a two-year contract). Even at that steep price, though, there's a lot to like about this thoughtfully designed phone.
Weighing 4.4 ounces and measuring 3.8 inches high by 1.9 inches wide by 0.8 inch thick, the SCH-a990 may seem large at first glance, but it's comfortable to hold during extended conversations. Calls sounded clear, with adequate call volume. Its talk-time battery life is less impressive, however, as it lasted only 4 hours, 16 minutes in our lab tests, marking it as a poor performer among standard cell phones we've evaluated.
Navigating the phone is not so pleasant. The keys on the dialpad and other controls inside (two soft keys, camera, voice mode, five-way navigation, send, clear, and end) are too flat, slippery, and plastic for my taste. (I prefer tactile and slightly rubbery keys.) Nevertheless, the device is reasonably simple to use. The BREW-based user interface is straightforward and the menus are easy to follow. But as with many phones, the controls for some features and settings (for example, the lock mode) lie layers deep in menus, which means lots of clicking.
You can play music stored on a memory card or on the phone, and you can buy and download songs over the air from Verizon's VCast service. I also downloaded VZ Navigator, a GPS-supported navigation tool that provides maps and turn-by-turn directions and finds local businesses such as movie theaters.
But the main attraction of the SCH-a990 is its camera. The handset's cover rotates 180 degrees, automatically triggering the camera mode. Once the camera is activated, you can use the 2.2-inch internal LCD to frame shots and take videos. If you hold the phone in landscape orientation, it works much like a normal camera, with the shutter button at the top right (exactly where my index finger landed). Opposite the shutter, on the other side panel, is the MicroSD expansion slot. Considering the SCH-a990's high price, I would have hoped to get some kind of memory card--even a low-capacity 32MB card, say--bundled with the phone, but, alas, you must buy it separately. The phone does include 72MB of user-accessible memory for storing content.
The SCH-a990 produced prints--especially of outdoor shots--that looked pretty good, with adequate color and exposure; it didn't do as well on my indoor photos, displaying discoloration and image noise when viewed on my monitor. It also suffered from a 1-to-2-second shutter lag.
The camera includes some extras: It permitted me to adjust light metering and ISO, perform rudimentary in-phone photo editing, and set up a slide show. It has a flash, too, and comes with a TV-out cable, an unusual add-on for a camera phone. To print photos, you can use a Bluetooth connection, PictBridge, or a USB cable (not included).
Unfortunately, the device automatically reduces the size of your photos when you send them via e-mail or text message. I would have liked to have the option of sending a file at its original size, in the range of 300KB to 500KB. Instead, the SCH-a990 sends files that are about 100KB--you can print 4-by-5 and (maybe) 5-by-6 snapshots with such files, but nothing larger. Given that the phone supports Verizon's broadband-like EvDO network, I don't see what the problem would be with sending a large image. (Of course, a reduced-size photo works fine for sharing online.)
The SCH-a990 won't replace your digital camera. But if it fits in your budget, you're likely to enjoy its features.