The Samsung Alias 2 is not an attempt to revive Jennifer Garner's "Alias" television show. Rather, it is the third revamp of the Samsung SCH-U740 for Verizon Wireless. Also built for messaging and sporting a dual-hinged design, the Alias 2, aka the SCH-U750, adds more significant changes than the second generation Alias. The morphing e-ink keyboard is undoubtedly the highlight, but the Alias 2 also adds a 2-megapixel camera and support for corporate e-mail syncing through RemoSync. The result is a functional and full-featured communication device with good performance. Be advised that learning how to use it will take time, and the extra data features almost make the handset uneconomical, but the result is a solid addition to both the Samsung and Verizon stables. You can get it for $79.99 with service and a $50 mail-in rebate.
From the outside, the Alias 2 doesn't look like much. Straight lines and sharp angles predominate and it's noticeably bigger (4.01 inches by 2.04 inches by 0.67 inch) than most flip phones. But trust us when we say that everything is there for a reason. The bigger size and boxy shape hide all that is inside, and the extra weight (4.34 ounces) gives the phone a sturdy feel in the hand. The Alias 2 only comes in a dark gray color (the SCH-U740 is available in three hues), but we don't mind.
The external display measures 1.3 inches and supports 65,000 colors (128x128 pixels). It shows all the information you'll need including the date, time, battery life, signal strength, and photo caller ID. It also works as a viewfinder for the camera lens, which is located just above. You can customize the display's contrast, wallpaper and clock style, but the short backlighting time isn't changeable. Below the display are dedicated controls for the music player. You can use them to activate the player and cycle through your songs without opening the phone. You use these same keys to take a self-portrait with the camera.
The remaining exterior controls include a volume rocker and a voice dialing button on the left spine. You'll also find a 2.5 millimeter headset jack and a proprietary charger jack. You probably can guess that we'd much prefer a 3.5 millimeter headset jack and a standard Micro-USB charger port. On the spine are a power control, a handset locking key, and the microSD card slot.
The main display measures 2.6 inches and supports 262,000 colors (320x240 pixels). It's bright and beautiful with sharp colors, photos, and graphics. The menu interface continues to evolve, albeit very slightly, from Verizon's standardized design. In a welcome change, your picture files get a dedicated folder on the main menu--we like that you no longer have to dig into the V Cast menu to find your shots. A few menu themes are available, though the default My Place option is overdesigned. We prefer the simple icon-based interface. You can change the backlighting time, the menu font style and size, and the dial font size.
As mentioned, the Alias 2's keyboard is its star attraction. Indeed, you'll notice immediately that it looks a bit unusual. In place of a traditional navigation array and fixed keypad buttons, there are a number of square and rectangular tiles. These tiles are actually buttons that take on different uses depending on which way you've opened the phone. In vertical mode, the keys will assume one form, and in horizontal mode three different arrangements are available. The e-ink technology (as it's called) is similar to Moto's ModeShift technology, but more advanced. Instead of simply switching the backlighting on the keys, the characters on the keys actually change. So for example, a number key can switch to a letter key at the press of a button.
We're not sure how it works, but the result is an easy-to-use experience once you get the hang of it. It's also pretty spiffy and sure to be a conversation piece for the short term. We like it because it solves a big problem from which the previous versions of the handset suffered. Instead of a crowded arrangement where almost every key had to serve two different functions, the e-ink keyboard offers a much cleaner experience. Only one character is displayed at a time, and keys not in use go completely white.
In vertical mode you'll see the standard numeric keypad, plus several shortcuts for Bluetooth, the messaging menu, the alarm clock, voice dialing, the camera, the games menu, and the speakerphone. The shortcut keys stay lit when in standby mode, but most turn off when you're in the interior menus. The Talk and End buttons and a clear/back key are squashed between the keypad and the navigation buttons. Though we got used to their location after a few minutes, we had to hunt for these controls during our first test. Ideally, we'd prefer if they were a different color than the keypad buttons. Since they're also white, they're difficult to find.
Fortunately, the navigation controls are dark gray. You'll find four directional arrows and a central OK button in the shape of a cross. Above them on either corner are the two soft keys. On the whole, the navigation buttons were easy to use, but we had one complaint. Because the soft keys are quite a distance from the bottom of the display, they don't sit directly under the corresponding commands on the screen. It's not a huge deal, but it did take some getting used to. Also, in our first minutes of use we had to remember that the clear key was down in the middle of the keypad.
On the upside, the keys have a comfortable, tactile feel. Though they're the tinniest bit slick, they also have an appealing, gel-like touch. We had no problem dialing or texting, and the bright backlighting helps in dim situations. Navigation was a bit trickier as the arrow keys felt just a bit too small.
To open the phone horizontally, you must first close the flap and then rotate the handset to the left. The hinge is neither too loose nor too stiff, and we like that the flap opens a full 180 degrees. And even better, the handset doesn't wobble if you place it on a table while typing. When opening the Alias 2 in horizontal mode, the display automatically switches to a landscape orientation. It's worth noting, however, that since the handset doesn't have a true accelerometer it won't rotate when you tip the phone on its side. On either side of the display are stereo speakers.
In its default horizontal mode, the keyboard shows standard numeric keys and shortcuts for the messaging menu, the voice dialing, the camera, and the speakerphone. The calling buttons and clear control have moved to the bottom left of the keypad and the navigation buttons are on the bottom right. Below the display are an OK button and two soft keys. In this mode you can make calls and browse through the menus. The arrangement is fairly intuitive, but it will take some practice.
To switch to the full alphabetic keyboard, just press the control in the lower-left corner of the display. The keyboard switches instantly to show all letters of the alphabet, a period key, the calling controls, a clear button, a space bar, a shift control, a back button, and enter keys. The navigation arrows and soft keys remain where they were. Though this keyboard is the only one to use all keys on the phone (none are inactive), it doesn't feel crowded. In fact, we could bang out messages quickly and comfortably. A third keyboard is also available with symbols and more punctuation. Though three keyboards will result in a lot of switching back and forth, it was only tedious when typing long messages.
The Alias 2 has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each entry for five phone numbers, two e-mail addresses, a street address, and notes. You also can save a dedicated emergency number. For further personalization, you can save callers to groups, pair them with a photo and assign one of 20 polyphonic ringtones.
Other essentials include a vibrate mode, a calculator, a calendar, an alarm clock, a stopwatch, a world clock, a unit and currency converter, and a tip calculator. Though the Alias 2 isn't a true smartphone, you'll find a few higher-end options, as well. It offers stereo Bluetooth, speaker independent voice dialing and commands, USB mass storage, and a file manager. Wi-Fi, which would be useful on a messaging phone, is not an option.
As you'd expect, the Alias 2 offers a respectable number of messaging options. Besides text and multimedia messaging, there's instant messaging, chat, and e-mail. POP3 e-mail access for accounts like AOL, Yahoo, and Hotmail is limited to a clunky Web-based interface. RemoSync service offers access to push e-mail from corporate accounts as well as calendar, notes, and contacts syncing. We tried syncing our work e-mail and were mostly pleased with the results. The initial sync took a few minutes, but after that the process as pretty smooth. The service will cost you $9.99 per month. We'd much prefer to have such a cost included in an umbrella monthly data plan. The same goes for Verizon's Visual Voicemail, which is $2.99 per month. Add up all those extra costs and you get an expensive monthly plan. At that rate, it's better to get a real smartphone with a comprehensive data plan.
As an EV-DO phone, the Alias 2 supports the full range of Verizon's 3G services, including V Cast streaming video content, and the V Cast Music with Rhapsody. Both the V Cast menu and music store interface are pretty much unchanged from other Verizon phones. Player options include the usual limited shuffle and repeat modes, but V Cast Music also will recommend other songs based on your playlist. The Alias 2 includes an airplane mode for listening to your tunes while aloft.
The Alias 2 has a 2-megapixel camera. You can take pictures in five resolutions from 1,600x1,200 pixels down to 160x120, and you can choose from three quality settings. Other options are plentiful and include a self-timer, a multishot mode, five color tones, four white-balance effects, an adjustable ISO, spot metering, a brightness control, and three shutter sounds (plus a silent option). There's also a 10x digital zoom, though it's unusable at the highest resolution. The Alias 2 doesn't offer a flash, which we expect on a 2-megapixel phone. Camera quality was quite good, however, with bright colors and little image noise.
The camcorder takes clips with sound in two quality settings. You also get about the same number of editing options that are on the still camera. Clips meant for multimedia messages are capped at 30 seconds; otherwise you can shoot according to the available memory. The Alias 2 offers about 100MB of user-accessible internal memory, which is quite respectable. For more storage, the external memory slots will handle microSD cards up to 18GB.
The Alias 2 supports Verizon's VZ Navigator GPS service. You'll have to download it and pay an extra $2.99 per day of use. You can get other application downloads from Verizon using the WAP 2.0 Web browser. The Alias 2 doesn't come with any games, but titles are available for purchase. You can personalize the phone with a variety of wallpaper, clock formats, and banners. More options and additional ringtones are available from Verizon. Unfortunately, you can't use music tracks as ringtones.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) in San Francisco using Verizon Wireless service. As mentioned, the Alias 2 also supports EV-DO, though it is not a Rev. A device. Call quality was quite good on the whole. Conversations were clear, the volume was loud, and the consistently strong signal didn't suffer from interference or static. What's more, we were able to talk in most environments without any problems. On the downside, the sound tended to be somewhat harsh and even robotic at times. It was a minor issue, though, and it didn't distract from our experience.
On their end, callers were mostly positive. In fact, a few couldn't tell that we were using a cell phone. We made calls in noisy environments and in a quiet room. Callers noticed few changes between the two areas. However, some reported that background noise increased when we were outside; it wasn't significant, they said, and it's hardly an unusual occurrence on a cell phone. Automated calling systems could understand us, but it was best if we were in a quiet room. Speakerphone calls were fine for the most part. The sound quality diminished somewhat, but the volume was loud. Also, we could speak a few feet away from the phone and still be heard.
Streaming video quality was fine, though we've seen better on other Verizon phones. Videos downloaded quickly thanks to the strong EV-DO connection and only one clip paused to buffer midway through playing. There was some visible pixelation, but most onscreen action was pretty smooth. Also, the sound was in sync with the action on the display. It's most comfortable to watch the videos in landscape mode, even though the frame takes up only half of the screen.
Its music quality was satisfying. The audio isn't especially rich, and like many music phones there was an audible tinny effect, but it is fine for short stints of listening. Headphones will provide a better experience, though we wouldn't use the Alias 2 as our sole music device. Songs downloaded quickly from V Cast Music, and we added a 3.7MB song in about a minute.
The Alias 2 has a rated battery life of 5 hours talk time and 16 days standby time. We managed to get 5 hours and 54 minutes worth of talk time in our tests. According to the FCC, the Alias 2 has a digital SAR of 0.541 watts per kilogram.