Review: Sprint's phone is iPhone clone done right

June 11, 2008 7:00:43 PM PDT
This is a review of the 3G iPhone. No, not the one Apple announced on Monday. The other one. You know - the one from Sprint and Samsung? Amid the buzz surrounding Apple Inc.'s new iPhone model, coming out July 11, it's been easy to miss the news that Sprint Nextel Corp. is bringing out a phone on June 20 that is the closest thing so far to an iPhone made by someone else.

The Samsung Instinct is, like the real iPhone, a slab with a large touch screen and few buttons. There are other touch-screen alternatives, but the Instinct's the only one that does what the iPhone does: wrap a wealth of features into a package that's easy to use.

This is a remarkable achievement, mostly on Sprint's part. The hardware, made by Samsung Electronics Co., is available overseas. Sprint commissioned its own software to run on it, working very closely with an outside design house on its development.

The result is a lucid, logical interface. It's not as pretty as the iPhone's, but it allows the user to quickly use e-mail, Web browsing, GPS navigation and text messaging; watch videos, live TV and photos; and listen to music and online radio.

Of course, Apple should get much of the credit for inspiring competitors to come up with phones like this. But the Instinct is more than a copy: Sprint pulled out all the stops when it came to adding features, resulting in an almost absurdly capable phone that outdoes the first-generation iPhone in many ways.

If that were the only competition, the Instinct would look very good. But a fairer comparison is with the upcoming 3G iPhone, so called because it will use AT&T's third-generation wireless network.

To start with the similarities, the Instinct's price will likely match that of the 8-gigabyte iPhone model: $199 with a two-year contract, but Sprint hasn't confirmed this. The cheapest service plans will cost the same, at $69.99 per month.

Both phones will use fast data networks - the Instinct is one of the very few phones to use EV-DO Revision A, the fastest flavor of Sprint's network.

Both have 2-megapixel cameras. The Instinct comes with less memory, at 2 gigabytes, but it's expandable with cheap MicroSD chips. Both use an on-screen keyboard that's quite usable. Both will connect to corporate e-mail servers and Microsoft Outlook e-mail programs, though the details differ.

The Instinct has several advantages over the new iPhone: - It's smaller, fitting more comfortably in a pocket. - It records video. The iPhone only does stills. - It does picture messaging. - It has "haptic feedback," fancy words meaning it can be set to vibrate when it registers a touch. - Its navigation software gives turn-by-turn directions. - It can get live, streaming TV service. - It has a removable battery, and even comes with a spare. The iPhone's battery is not removable by the user. - Its applications can be updated over the wireless data network. - It can send music to stereo headsets using Bluetooth. The iPhone can send calls over Bluetooth, but not music.

The Instinct has some notable drawbacks as well: - The screen has two-thirds as many pixels as the iPhone, which means it displays less information. Worse, it's limited in the number of colors it can display, which spoils the look of some photos and movies.

- The Instinct can only sense the touch of one finger at a time, which makes it more cumbersome to use. The iPhone will let you zoom into a Web page or picture by spreading your fingers on the screen.

- Sprint's network is not in very good shape, and I have noticed some problems with call quality.

- There's very limited international roaming, mainly in South America. Sprint's network isn't compatible with the dominant network standard overseas, while AT&T's is. That means the iPhone can roam in more than 170 countries.

- Sprint has said the Instinct will be open to third-party software developers, and its software is based on Java, a ubiquitous programming language that should make it easy to adapt existing applications. But the cachet and user base of the iPhone will attract more developers to that platform, which Apple is only now opening up.

Ultimately, the Instinct makes me sort of sad.

Sprint tried so hard and did so well, but is that going to matter in what is shaping up to be a killer year for "smart" phones?

Not only is the second iPhone coming out, backed by tremendous buzz, but there's a feature-packed high-end BlackBerry in the wings for AT&T. There has also been speculation of a touch-screen BlackBerry coming later on Verizon Wireless.

Still, for those of you who are Sprint customers and want to stay there, the Instinct will do you very well indeed.