Walt Mossberg

Samsung’s Instinct Doesn’t Ring True as an iPhone Clone

The parade of iPhone lookalikes continues. Soon after Apple (AAPL) announced the first iPhone a year ago, factories in Asia, at the behest of U.S. phone carriers, were asked to respond to the sleek, touch-screen device. Some already have reached America; more are coming.

The latest to arrive is the Samsung Instinct, to be introduced by Sprint (S) on June 20. I’ve been testing the Instinct, and while it isn’t a bad phone and has some features the Apple product lacks, it’s no match for the iPhone. The manufacturers haven’t replicated the iPhone’s greatest strength: beautiful, powerful, breakthrough software.

Samsung Instinct
Samsung Instinct

Also, the timing of the Instinct is unfortunate. It was designed to go up against the first iPhone. Sprint even has a Web site (nowisgood.com) comparing the two devices. But the Instinct will go on sale only three weeks before Apple and AT&T (T) start selling the new 3G iPhone, the second-generation model announced earlier this week. This second iPhone model corrects some of the first model’s main weaknesses, wiping out some advantages Sprint hoped the Instinct would have.

Before getting into the details of the Instinct, a few words about the new iPhone, its main competition. I don’t do full reviews of products until I have tested them extensively, but my first impressions of the 3G iPhone are largely positive.

The price of the new iPhone’s base model, which comes with 8 gigabytes of memory, is $199, a 50% price cut from the comparable first-generation model. Yet, it now works on AT&T’s fastest data network, promising anywhere from two to five times the speed of its predecessor. It also has GPS for tracking your location, and fully supports over-the-air synchronization of email, contacts and calendars — through Microsoft (MSFT) Exchange in corporations or via a similar new consumer service from Apple called MobileMe. And you’ll be able to download directly to the phone a whole universe of third-party programs, from productivity software to games.

On the downside, the new iPhone’s camera remains very basic and still can’t capture video. For people who prefer physical keyboards, the iPhone will still fall short. It continues to include only a virtual onscreen keyboard. And the iPhone remains locked to a single carrier in the U.S., AT&T, which will charge $10 more per month for unlimited data consumption on the device.

The iPhone, along with some competitors like the BlackBerry, are really hand-held computers that happen to make voice calls. And they’re getting more powerful and innovative. So far, competitors like the Instinct, while trying to look like iPhones, are still mainly voice devices with so-so computing features tacked on.

For instance, while the Instinct is a touch-screen device, it lacks the iPhone’s “multi-touch” system, which includes features that recognize multiple fingers and gestures, and allows actions like shrinking a photo by “pinching” it. The touch system on the Instinct is more like that on an ancient ATM than a cutting-edge gadget, even though it has a gimmicky feedback mechanism that gives you a tiny vibration-jolt when you press an icon.

Physically, the Instinct looks a lot like the iPhone — a dark slab without a physical keyboard or many buttons dominated by a large screen. It’s a bit longer and thicker than the iPhone, but a tad narrower and lighter. Its screen is smaller than the iPhone’s and has lower resolution.

The Instinct has the same $199 price tag as the new iPhone, after a rebate and with a two-year contract. Service plans are likely to start at around $70, in line with the minimum monthly fee AT&T will charge on the new iPhone. But it comes with just one-quarter of the memory the base iPhone includes.

Like the 3G iPhone, the Instinct runs on a fast cellular network that promises speeds similar to what people get with slow home DSL service. In my tests, it seemed to deliver this promised speed. It also has GPS and navigation. But, unlike the iPhone, the Instinct lacks Wi-Fi wireless networking, which can often be faster than the cellphone networks or available where there is no speedy cellphone coverage.

The Instinct has a removable battery, something the iPhone lacks. And Sprint claims 5.7 hours of talk time on one charge, more than the five hours that Apple claims for its 3G model. Sprint’s new baby has a few other features that even the latest iPhone omits, such as a built-in service for viewing TV shows and a voice-command system.

But I found its email system and Web browser to be less sophisticated than the iPhone’s or the BlackBerry’s. I also thought the phone’s onscreen keyboard was harder to use than Apple’s. It would flip unpredictably from landscape to portrait mode. The Instinct does allow handwriting recognition as an alternative, something the iPhone doesn’t.

If you’re a devoted Sprint customer, or want to avoid AT&T, the Instinct is an OK choice. But it’s no iPhone.


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