AT&T’s Samsung SGH-a717: More Music, More Confusion

  • Save

Most music fans on the AT&T network are vying for an iPhone, though the carrier offers a range of other multimedia devices at more affordable rates.

Perhaps anything outside of the iPhone is simply second-best, but budget-conscious buyers may be willing to settle.

Apple disallows device subsidization, yet other manufacturers have gladly played the discounted bundling game for years.  Among them is mega-manufacturer Samsung, an important partner for a range of mobile operators worldwide.

One of the latest Samsung releases is the SGH-a717, an AT&T compatible offering.  Off-the-shelf, the phone pushes past a $300 price tag, though subscriber packages and rebates can drive that price below $50.  That is exactly the type of devaluation that Apple wants to avoid, yet something consumers, carriers and manufacturers have relied upon for years.

And for those wary of the iPhone sticker, the Samsung SGH-a717 offers a respectable alternative.  From the ultra-important cosmetic standpoint, the phone carries itself well.  The post-Razr device is competitively slim, comes in a sleek black, and features a miniature external display and swivel camera.  The lack of a bold second screen could be a turnoff for some, though the minimalist approach seems oddly luxurious.

Perhaps less is more, but when it comes to media options, this device is positively stuffed.  A premium data bundle opens access to news, weather, sports scores, Mapquest, video clips, and even a mobile-based version of Wikipedia.  That just scratches the surface, though iPhone users would be unimpressed by the lesser-generation internet experience – a compressed, mobile-based version that feels a bit watered-down by comparison.

In fact, there is almost too much being crammed onto this deck, and that gels poorly with the mobile-configured internet.  Exploration can be fun, but features feel a bit cluttered and disorganized – even on a rather roomy screen.  Experienced mobile users will not be intimidated, though finding favorites can be challenging, time-consuming, and unfriendly towards quick media “snacking” behavior.

The music offering typifies the issue.  A number of music services are offered on the deck, including ringtones, music subscription services, streaming satellite radio stations, and even an over-the-air (OTA) download play involving eMusic.  The ringtone download process is fairly straightforward, yet more sophisticated features are a bit cumbersome.

A glaring example comes from Napster and Yahoo Music Unlimited – competing subscription services that exist side-by-side on the SGH-a717.  That approach might make sense if those services had strong respective positions among music fans.  But both are rather niche – and that means that many users are being introduced to the concept  for the first time on the AT&T third screen.  Meanwhile, subscribers on both services can only bookmark downloads for later access on the PC, a somewhat limited experience.

eMusic, on the other hand, has tossed an interesting, OTA concept into the ring.  The company is just toeing the mobile waters, and offering modest download packages.  Surfing the mobile-based eMusic selection is also a bit painful, especially for those used to the more sophisticated, big-screen layout.  Yet the mobile downloads are delivered nicely, and users can subsequently retrieve a PC-based version.  A pack of five, mobile-based downloads can be purchased for $7.49.

Perhaps iPhone users will sneer at this less sophisticated Samsung device.  But both suffer from a rather spotty high-speed connection from AT&T.  The Samsung steps up into 3G, but if the zone is unfriendly, media access grinds to a halt.

Additionally, Samsung SGH-a717 buyers will undoubtedly be disappointed by a number of missing hardware pieces.   Sideloading is frequently the preferred method for populating mobile decks with media, yet the critical USB cable is missing from the box.  And this is a proprietary chord – along with the earphones – a situation that mandates separate purchases.  A portable storage card is also sold separately.

Older buyers often prefer simpler phones – they want to complete phone calls, not video messaging and music downloads.  But this phone actually performs fairly well on more basic tasks.  Audio quality is strong on calls, the device can survive the beatings of everyday use, and voice connectivity was rarely an issue during testing throughout Los Angeles.  That makes this a great phone for the simpler things in life, but somewhat uninspiring for more complicated multimedia endeavors.

Review by editor Paul Resnikoff.