Up until recently we thought that Nokia had a big machine that continually pumped out new cell phones. It was just that the company put out so many phones--and many of them looked so much alike--that we couldn't imagine how else they made so many models. But in the past couple months it appears Samsung either purchased Nokia's machine or made one of its own. The new Samsung SGH-A517 for AT&T is the fifth Samsung handset we've reviewed since September and quite a few more models from the company are on deck for the next few weeks. There's not much to distinguish the SGH-A517 from its Samsung counterparts; it has a flip-phone design that we've seen before and its feature set is solidly midrange. But it doesn't quite pass the test when it comes to call quality. Full price is $249, but you can get it for $49 with service.
Though it isn't an identical twin, the SGH-A517 copies some design elements from the Samsung's previous SGH-A717. They both have the same basic angular shape with the protruding lip at its bottom end. At 3.74 inches by 1.89 inches by 0.63 inch and 2.9 ounces, it's smaller than its predecessor, but it has a similar comfortable feel in the hand.
Yet that is where the comparisons between the two phones end, as the SGH-A517 shows its own on its front face. Behind a glossy black face that attracts fingerprints by the ton is a postage-stamp-size external display. It's a bit small for the phone's size, and we weren't thrilled that it's grayscale. Though it works very rudimentarily for the camera, it doesn't support photo caller ID. Also, the backlighting time, which can't be changed, is very short. We didn't like going to look for the time or date and seeing a blank screen instead. You can adjust the contrast or program the display with a slogan or a preloaded image (monochrome, of course).
The camera lens sits above the display while below are touch controls for the music player. Using the latter you can activate the player and manage tracks with the flip closed. The controls are about identical to the touch-sensitive buttons found on other Samsung phones (like the Gleam, for instance). They're easy to use, but, as we said earlier, the phone's glossy face is prone to fingerprints. The microSD card slot sits on the right spine while a volume rocker and a headset/charger jack sit on the left spine.
The interior display supports 262,000 colors and measures 1.4 inches (220x176 pixels). As a standard Samsung display it shows animations and graphics well. Colors looked bright and the simple menus are easy to use. The pop-up menus may depend on the user; we liked them but others might find them annoying. It's difficult to see in direct light but you can change the backlighting time and the font size and color.
The navigation controls below the display consist of a four-way toggle with a central OK button, two soft keys, shortcuts to the music player and the camera, the Talk and End/Power controls, and a Clear button. Though you're given a lot of space for the controls, they are completely flat, so dialing by feel was a tad difficult. Also, we don't like that in standby mode the toggle in the middle opens the Web browser instead of the main menu. The keypad buttons are also flush, and just the tiniest bit slippery, but raised ridges between the individual columns give them some texture. They're backlighted, too, so we could dial in dim situations.
The SGH-A517 has a 1,000-contact phone book with room in each for five phone numbers, an e-mail address, and notes (the SIM card holds an additional 250 names). You can organize callers into groups and pair them with a photo and one of 10 polyphonic ringtones. Essential features include a vibrate mode, text and multimedia messaging, a world clock, a calculator, a unit converter, a tip calculator, a stopwatch, an alarm clock, a timer, a notepad, and a calendar. Higher-end offerings include instant messaging, e-mail, a speakerphone, a voice recorder, and Bluetooth with an object exchange profile.