We hate gratuitous iPhone comparisons as much as the next guy, but let's be straight with each other here: Sprint has its sights squarely focused on Cupertino's darling with the Instinct. From beginning to end, the carrier has pulled no punches about the model's target audience and its competition. Make no mistake, though, the Instinct is no iPhone ripoff or clone -- it's distinctly its own beast that just happens to share a form factor and a few common UI paradigms, and depending on your perspective and the specific feature you happen to be using, that can be a good or a bad thing.
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Samsung Instinct hands-on
The Instinct makes a strong first impression, a good thing when your goal is to sell a phone tethered to a store kiosk to folks walking in off the street. It's glossy, heartbreakingly attractive (from the front, anyway), and feels fantastic in the hand. The matte black backside is a little plain, but since your eyes are fixed on the business end 95 percent of the time, we certainly wouldn't call it a deal breaker.
The UI is good; not great, but good. Happily, it felt boatloads more responsive than what we remember from the beta unit, which could've singlehandedly doomed the device's critical and commercial success. It's plenty colorful -- some would say overly so -- and unlike some LGs we've recently used, the Instinct's finger-friendly touchscreen was dead-on responsive and came perfectly calibrated out of the box (not to say we'd ding it if we'd had to calibrate it; it's really not a big deal).
The home screen's icons are large enough to be pressed with 100 percent accuracy, as are most of the elements throughout the phone. In general, Samsung has done a good job of carrying user interface themes consistently from one application to the next, and it's obvious that thought was put into making this a finger-based UI throughout, not a hacky bastardization of an existing Samsung platform. One thing that bothered us a bit was the categorization of the home screen into four seemingly disjoint areas: "Favs," Main, Fun, and Web. Apps can be assigned at will to appear in a list format in the Favs tab, which is nice and should save a headache or two trying to navigate quickly to where you need to go, but we didn't really understand how Web deserved its own category -- and for that matter, why it can't be "fun" like the music player, Sprint TV, and installed Java apps list all apparently are.
The keyboard was accurate and we found ourselves getting fast on it within a minute or two of using it, though there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to when the portrait or landscape keyboard would appear after selecting an input field, and it was pretty frustrating to be holding the phone upright and occasionally be presented with a landscape keyboard -- the phone's way of demanding "okay, time to rotate me." We did enjoy Samsung's healthy use of top-level domain shortcuts on the secondary keyboard, which were definitely saving us precious seconds in the email and web apps.
Like its Apple inspiration, the Instinct's camera interface is ridiculously simple, and the resultant picture quality is similarly mediocre. To be fair, the Instinct doesn't pretend to be a photography powerhouse; with a 2 megapixel sensor, tiny lens, and no flash, we weren't expecting much, and we suspect customers won't be, either.
Sprint informed us that its Visual Voicemail infrastructure wasn't quite ready yet and that we wouldn't be able to access it on our device, but much to our surprise, opening the voicemail interface prompted us that a software update was available from Sprint (per-app automatic software updates are crazy cool, by the way) -- we downloaded it and we were off to the races. The interface was reasonably easy to use, and we found that sound quality of the voicemails was considerably better than what we're used to with the iPhone's aggressive compression. With EV-DO Rev. A on board, we figure Sprint can probably afford to throw a few extra bytes at this feature, and it appears that they have.
Sprint Navigation works extremely well on this phone. So well, in fact, that it's one of the few phones we've used that we can seriously (with a straight face) say could take the place of a full-fledged nav unit in a car. Voice prompts were loud and clear, the 3D mode was snappy and attractive, the traffic and search functions worked really well, and the overhead 2D map was reasonably good, too. We weren't in love with Samsung's placement of a giant zoom bar on top of the overhead view; it was extremely difficult to grab the slider with our finger without triggering movement of the underlying map instead. Otherwise, though, map updates were ridiculously snappy as we swiped back and forth to bring new areas into view.
Unfortunately, the weakest link in the Instinct's chain may be the link it needed to be the strongest: the web browser. We foresaw some problems with the Instinct's browsing capabilities when we played with it back at CTIA a couple months back; at the time, we'd chalked it up to prerelease software and banked on the whole thing coming together by the time the launch date arrived. As many of us know, trying to successfully navigate (much less use) a website designed for a desktop display on our phones can be maddening at best and impossible at worst depending on the browser's rendering engine, and unless you're rocking Mozilla, WebKit, or full IE, you can end up in a world of hurt on a whole gaggle of mainstream sites. Load times weren't great (Sprint tells us they're still tuning EV-DO Rev. A to make sure it's optimized for the Instinct ahead of launch), but that aside, sites frequently didn't render correctly or completely, and navigating around them with finger swipes was a trying process -- the Instinct just couldn't keep up. It was choppy, laggy, and altogether frustrating; it turned browsing from something we'd like to do in our spare time, to something we'd only do in a worst-case scenario when we absolutely must have access to some bit of information on the interwebs. There's a button on the left side of the browser for toggling between desktop and mobile mode (for rendering mobile versions of sites), and after trying to use desktop mode for a while, we see why.
The Instinct is a solid phone, and thanks to an ongoing EV-DO Rev. A build-out and the phone's capability to snap up core application updates over the air, it should only get better over time. An iPhone killer it's clearly not, but it's a surprisingly reasonable substitute for Sprint customers whose loyalty to the carrier (and by "loyalty" we mean "contractual obligation") requires them to stick around.