iPhone’s rivals: Do they measure up?

[8 June 2007]

By Andrew D. Smith

The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

SCH-u540 from Verizon Wireless

SCH-u540 from Verizon Wireless

Must you wait for Apple Inc.‘s iPhone (and shell out $500) to get a device that truly combines communication and music?

Competing manufacturers say no.

I decided to see for myself by asking phone makers to send me the best music player they make for each big cellular carrier.

Samsung rose to the challenge first by shipping me three new models: the SCH-u540 from Verizon Wireless, the Synch from AT&T, and the UpStage from Sprint Nextel.

All three phones do much more than play music, of course. Each has a built-in camera, a Web browser, a video player and a Bluetooth receiver. The models from Verizon and Sprint also have GPS transmitters, which allow them to provide driving directions and local search.

That said, I mostly ignored these features and focused on music. My only real concern was whether these devices could realistically replace an iPod.

For Mac users who cannot run Windows on their machines, the answer is certainly not. None of the phones can take songs in any format directly from a Mac.

For PC users, the answer is probably not. An 8GB iPod shuffle sounds good, holds 2,000 songs and plays for 24 hours straight. None of these three models sounds as good, holds more than 20 songs or plays as long.

Still, if you don’t need high-fidelity music for days straight, current options may suffice. Memory chips add enough room for up to 500 songs, and streaming music services can further expand variety. Users who want to listen beyond their own collections may enjoy the trade-off.

SCH-u540 (Verizon)

This midsize clamshell model costs $120 in stores or $70 at the Verizon Wireless Web site. Most users will need to spend an extra $100 or so on a headset, a memory chip and a USB cable that will connect the phone to a computer.

The phone supports Bluetooth headsets but, alas, not stereo models.

Verizon’s system makes it easy to transfer music from PC to phone—if music is stored on Windows Media Player. Attach a cable to both devices, press the “Synch” option on the phone’s “Music & Tones” menu and then select the “Synch” tab on WMP.

Even iTunes users can transfer songs from computer to phone.

To do this, they must download WMP, which is free from Microsoft, and then convert any songs they have in AAC to the MP3 format. (To convert one song in iTunes, right-click on that song and select the conversion option. To convert a bunch of songs, check the box next to each song and select the conversion option from the “Advanced” menu.) Once a song is in the MP3 format, WMP will automatically recognize and display it.

Songs purchased through the iTunes store cannot legally be converted for use on Windows Media Player, but songs uploaded from CD are fair game.

Users can download new songs to their phones or their WMP libraries from the VCast Music Store, which charges $1.99 a song, $1 more than iTunes.

That price, along with the limited storage, seems like a deal-breaker to me.

Synch (AT&T)

This model, another midsize clamshell, costs $25 with contract and mail-in rebate. Again, most users will need to spend another $100 or so on headsets, memory chips and USB cables.

The Synch works with stereo Bluetooth headsets, but it’s otherwise quite similar to the SCH-u540. Windows Media Player users will have no problems transferring songs to their phones. Users of iTunes should see the WMP conversion instructions above.

The difference between the two phones lies mostly in the services provided by Verizon and AT&T. Verizon gives one purchase option: the company store. AT&T offers several music sources.

AT&T customers can download songs from Napster for 99 cents each or subscribe for $15 a month to Napster to Go, a music service that lets users “rent” any of Napster’s 2 million songs. (AT&T actually lets users try Napster free for 60 days.) AT&T also offers Yahoo Music Unlimited, another subscription rental service, which costs $12 a month, and 25 stations of commercial-free music from XM Satellite Radio, which costs $9 a month.

These services provide an enormous amount of variety, but there’s currently a big catch. Aside from XM, which streams directly to phones, users must download music onto their computers and then transfer it to their phones.

AT&T promises direct downloads soon, which would make the Synch a decent option.

UpStage (Sprint)

Unlike its two conventional counterparts, the UpStage looks fresh. The slim, black rectangle has a cell phone on one side and a music player on the other. It costs $99 with contract after rebate, but yes, users will have to spend extra on memory chips and headphones. (A USB cable comes with the phone.)

The tiny package uses every square millimeter of surface space to pack in nearly as many features as its larger competitors, but the form creates drawbacks. UpStage’s tiny battery supports only 2.5 hours of talk time per charge.

Users who wish to synchronize a computer music library with the UpStage must first install Sprint’s music software. Then, they must transfer songs from Windows Media Player or iTunes to the Sprint software before moving music systematically to their phones.

Sprint, like Verizon, operates its own music store, but it charges only 99 cents a song. The company’s $15-a-month data package comes with 10 commercial-free music channels. The company’s $20 package provides 50 music channels plus one TV channel of music videos and news.

Next month, Sprint will add a further wrinkle to the mix, an Internet music service called Pandora that creates personal music channels for users. The Pandora service, which predicts what songs you will like based upon how you rate songs you have heard, will become available by the end of next month and cost $3 a month.

The UpStage looks pretty cool, but I couldn’t recommend it without Pandora. If Pandora fits the system, though, the UpStage could be a contender.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/iphones-rivals-do-they-measure-up/