Earlier this month at CTIA, AT&T launched quite a few new phones into its lineup, one of which happened to be Samsung's sophisticated, college-educated Propel Pro. For a smartphone, the design is quite unorthodox; rarely do you see a WinMo handset that looks more like a square than anything else and can easily double as a mirror for the fashionistas. Engineered specifically for those who favor texting but can't afford to live without the luxuries that come with owning a bona fide smartphone with a bona fide data plan, the Propel Pro caters to an interesting niche. Follow us past the break for our thoughts on the just-launched handset.

Samsung Propel Pro hands-on

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Design

Say what you will about our tastes, but we dig the overall design of this here handset. BlackBerry converts won't find it any thicker than most of the slabs they've willingly dealt with over the past few years, and even those coming from a touchscreen-based handset won't notice an awful lot of heft. And, for whatever reason, we just can't shake the notion that the Propel Pro is downright cute. Maybe it's the resemblance to a traditional compact, or maybe it's the overt love affair with all things chrome and shiny; whatever it is, we've found the formula quite appealing.

When you first pull this bugger from the box, it's easy to assume that it's just another cheap handset trying to sashay about as a real smartphone. But really, it's just exceptionally light. The actual build quality here is fairly impressive, with the only gripe from us coming from the somewhat mushy call / end keys. Outside of that, everything else is super sturdy and not at all burdensome in the pocket. The slide action is smooth and controlled, the backlit keyboard is ready for 1,000 texts per day (for at least five years, we'd assume) and the side-mounted volume rocker is amongst our favorites due to its length and great positioning.

As for the 320 x 320 resolution display, it's... um, decent. For starters, we're not huge fans of square displays. We end up scrolling down far too often, but really, we suspect this is just a matter of taste. As for the quality of the display, we're yet again left with mixed feelings. In low light, the pixels are bright, vivid and stunning; take it outside for a leisurely walk, and good luck seeing anything. We were pretty disappointed with how the panel performed in sunlight, even compared to similarly priced alternatives. We have all ideas that the mirror coating above it is somewhat to blame, and while we're on the subject, we'll just get this right out there: the shiny covering may look svelte on retail shelves, but it's a pain in real world use. Even in dimly lit rooms, the glare is simply obnoxious, and to us, it's a perfect example of letting style hamstring utility.

We already mentioned that we weren't huge fans of the mushy buttons, but the central joystick is another story entirely. It's easy to maneuver, highly responsive and makes navigating the non-touchscreen display a real joy. For trackball lovers in attendance, we suspect you'll also fall for this quickly, and even for those dead set on touch input, we reckon you'll warm to this 'stick with impressive haste.

Software

Ah, software. As with pretty much every other WinMo handset hitting the shelves these days, this one also comes loaded with Windows Mobile 6.1 Standard, and if you've used it on anything else, you know what to expect. Unlike HTC's offerings, there's no big overlay here to hide or sugarcoat what Microsoft has built. The vertical panels approach works about as well as anything on this phone, with a downward punch of the joystick giving you glances at Application, Media Player, Photo Viewer and Profile shortcuts. This "home screen," if you will, is quite stunning, and in our testing, we found it to be satisfactorily responsive to our inputs -- something you can't always count on when navigating around in a WinMo front screen.

Compared to Sony Ericsson's XPERIA X1, we found the overall Windows Mobile experience to be far better on the Propel Pro. Lag within menus was minimal (albeit noticeable at times), and application launching was on par with other snappy WinMo handsets. The media player wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but it did manage to handle our photos and audio tracks with ease. Overall, we felt the Propel Pro had plenty of horsepower to handle the OS, and apart from a few bouts with lag that just seem to plague every single WinMo handset we touch, we were quite pleased with performance. Who knows -- maybe the lack of "fancy" helped the basics to move along more briskly.

Usage

All around usage of the Propel Pro left us mostly impressed. The size was just about perfect for us, and despite our doubts, we actually forgot to mind that there was no touchscreen shortly after we began using it. All the usual WinMo gripes were here -- screen freezes while trying to connect to WiFi, delayed reactions to incoming calls and texts and sluggish load times when firing up a mildly intensive app -- but the Propel Pro did a remarkable job with mitigating those quirks. In other words, it minimized the lag about as much as it could from a hardware and usage standpoint, and really, that's all we can ask.

As much as we appreciated the volume rocker, we lamented the fact that no headphone jack was included. Not a 3.5 millimeter one, not a 2.5 millimeter one. Just a power plug / headphone jack combo that's about as unconventional as it gets. So yeah, you're not buying this phone to double as an MP3 player, though we will admit that the internal speaker sounded about as good as a phone's internal speaker can sound. Samsung also (smartly, might we add) threw a dedicated camera launch button on the right side of the phone, and amazingly, the camera app was pretty snappy to open.

The 3.0 megapixel shooter actually had a decent amount of options (including selectable ISOs, scene options and a video record mode), and as you can see below, it took pretty decent images for a cameraphone. The microSDHC card slot was also quite helpful, and the oh-so-capacious 16GB SanDisk microSDHC card we had on hand worked like a charm. Moving on to the keyboard -- which is definitely going to be a make or break aspect for some, if not most prospective buyers -- we really only have positive things to say. At first glance, the keys seem just a wee bit squashed. There is only a sliver of space between each key, but the raised nature makes it easier to "feel" exactly what key you're currently on. After a day or so of texting and emailing, we were already adjusted. Our only real complaint comes when looking at key placement; call us crazy, but we aren't fans of where the period, comma and delete keys are. On more than a few occasions, we found ourselves hunting around for the comma and period key, and often we'd mash "Return" instead of "Delete."

Samsung Propel Pro sample images

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Call quality was also up to par, with volume being plenty loud and colleagues confirming that our voice sounded as handsome as ever on the other end. Little did they know that we hired a professional to do the talking, but hey. Oh, and as for accessories? You're looking at a home charger, proprietary USB cable and a few sheets of paper. That's it. Not like we'd expect too much more for $149.99 on contract, but if you were banking on getting a set of weak earbuds that work with that funky connector, you'll be heartbroken and stunned.

It's also worth mentioning that Internet Explorer managed to perform decently at 3G speeds. Should you consider this something you can easily browse complex sites on? Definitely not, particularly with that 320 x 320 display, but it'll definitely handle made-for-mobile news sites (you know, like the Engadget suite of sites) with ease.

All in all, Samsung's Propel Pro does WinMo 6.1 about as good as it can be done without any super fancy overlays. The build quality is stellar, it nails the basics and -- just in case you missed it the first go 'round -- it's as cute as a button. To be honest, though, it's a hard sell with the S60-packin' E71x available on the same carrier for $50 less. If you're a diehard WinMo user, you aren't apt to be disappointed, but if you're open to options, we'd have to suggest looking elsewhere with your buck fifty, much to the chagrin of the otherwise fundamentally sound phone.

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Samsung Propel Pro review