Walt Mossberg

Latest Music Phone Is a Creative Gadget Marred by Big Flaws

Gadget freaks are still buzzing about Apple’s planned iPhone, a combination smart phone and music player that won’t even be available until June. Meanwhile, the traditional cellphone makers are continuing to churn out music phones that can be in the hands of consumers much sooner.

The latest, and most unusual, of these music phones has just been announced by Sprint. It’s a Samsung model called the UpStage. The UpStage costs just $149, less than a third of the iPhone’s planned $499 price, and it will go on sale early next month.

Samsung has shown real creativity in solving the problem of cramming a decent music player and phone into one small gadget. The slim UpStage has been designed with two distinct faces. On one side, it has a phone keypad and a small screen, for making voice calls and tapping out text messages. But if you turn it over, you see a larger screen and navigation controls, mainly for playing music, but also for other tasks, such as viewing online data.

Sprint's UpStage music cellphone by Samsung.
Sprint’s UpStage music cellphone by Samsung.

At the same time, Sprint is slashing the price of songs sold on its proprietary music service from an outrageous $2.49 each to just 99 cents. That isn’t quite as cheap as it seems, because you have to pay $15 a month for the privilege of buying the 99-cent songs. But it’s still a positive step for consumers.

I’ve been testing the UpStage and found that its two-sided design works pretty well. It’s a better music phone, in my opinion, than Verizon’s Chocolate model, built by Samsung’s Korean rival, LG.

But the UpStage has too many weaknesses and compromises for me to recommend it. It has lousy battery life, both as a phone and as a music player, a limitation Sprint and Samsung have tried to offset with a free add-on that makes the phone too bulky. And it comes with so little memory that, out of the box, it can hold only around 20 average songs. Adding more capability costs extra, thus lessening the price advantage. There are other downsides as well.

I tested the UpStage primarily as a music player, because that’s its claim to fame. I compared it with the base-model iPod Nano, which also costs $149, although of course it doesn’t include a phone.

I did try out the basic phone stuff, like making calls, all of which seemed OK, though the screen on the phone side of the device is very small, a sort of throwback to early cellphones. Sound quality, reception and the keypad all were fine. The built-in 1.3 megapixel camera is standard for phones these days.

Only one of the phone’s two screens can be used at any one time, and you have to press a “flip” button on the side to switch. This worked well, but was kind of a pain when I was trying to use the keypad to type in text, like a Web password or the name of a new song playlist, on the music side of the phone. I had to flip to the side with the keypad and then flip back.

I loaded in about 20 songs and the UpStage played them back pretty well, displaying all the correct song information and album art. I also loaded in some photos, which also displayed fine, though the phone can handle only small picture files. I purchased a song from Sprint’s music service, and that downloaded and played well.

Walt reviews Samsung’s new MP3-playing cellphone, the UpStage, which is a third of the price of Apple’s iPhone. But he says it won’t satisfy the bulk of people looking for a music phone.

The only problems were that the album covers and photos looked grainy, because even the larger screen has pretty low resolution. And occasionally, the start of a song was clipped. The iPod Nano exhibits neither of these problems.

Out of the box, the UpStage comes with only a tiny memory card, which can hold only around 20 standard MP3 files. The iPod Nano can hold 500 of those files. To get the same capacity on the UpStage, you have to buy a larger, $40 memory card.

Though the UpStage is bigger than the iPod Nano, it has far worse battery life — just 2.5 hours of talk time for the phone and seven hours of music playback time, compared with up to 24 hours of music playback time for the Nano. To compensate, Sprint is throwing in a “battery wallet,” a case with an additional battery built in. This brings the talk time to 6.3 hours and music playback time to around 17 hours. But it makes the phone twice as thick.

There are two other problems with the UpStage. First, synchronizing its music with songs stored on a PC requires you to install and use Sprint music software. It doesn’t work with Windows Media Player or the Windows version of Apple iTunes, which most music lovers already own. (You also can manually drag and drop songs onto the phone’s memory card.)

Second, the navigation pad on the music side of the phone can be confusing. It works by touch controls; you have to use just the right pressure and slide your finger just the right distance along its sides to get it to work right. It’s too complicated.

Samsung and Sprint deserve credit for a good try with the UpStage. But it doesn’t quite cut it.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. See video versions of my reviews at wsj.com/mossbergvideo.

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