Readers of my personal blog will know the stress I’ve had recently around moving house and trying to take my ADSL broadband connection with me. To cut a tedious story short, despite claims to the contrary I was without internet access for a little over a fortnight; now that might not sound like much, but to a dedicated net-addict like myself it put a serious dent in my day to day life.
Since my phone line was also waiting to be connected, that meant dial-up was a non-starter, and so as the withdrawal symptoms began to get worse (shaking hands, excess perspiration, a tendency to shout out phrases like “purge the cache!” and “dot com!”) I looked around desperately for a way to sate my need for the interweb. And then my twitching eye fell onto the Samsung SGH-Z560.
T-Mobile UK had sent me this unassuming clamshell a week or so back, it being one of the first models to support HSDPA on their network. Unfortunately its arrival had coincided with that of a Treo 750v, and the smartphone had gobbled up most of my attention (you can follow my path to push-email redemption in my Treo 750v review).
First impressions of the Z560 hadn’t been great; its black plastic body, although lightweight and attractive enough in design, felt cheap in comparison to the dense, matte casing of the Treo, and while the inside was to some extent saved by virtue of a tactile, fat-finger friendly keypad the screen, bright as it is, failed to make the most of the size and QVGA resolution with Samsung’s standard UI.
Call quality, for both national and international calls, was fair, even when low signal threatened to cut me off completely, and battery life comfortably saw me go at least two days without recharging. Better, then, than the Treo, which ran out of juice after a day or so (albeit with Exchange server synchronising going on in the background) and saw people complain of crackly or hissing audio when on the fringes of network coverage, though not as good as my everyday phone, Nokia’s N80.
This particular handset had been blessed with a Web’n’Walk tariff, amounting to unlimited internet access, and yet even this initially failed to grab me. Oh yes, it was fast enough, but the limitations of the browser made any meaningful surfing awkward and disappointing. Hit and miss results logging into some sites, together with poor screen rendering, made me long for the excellent S60 browser on the N80. I was getting ready to snap a few photos, pack it back into its box and ship it away, with it ending up the subject of a mediocre review.
But the Z560 had an ace up its sleeve, courtesy of the included USB cable and Samsung connectivity software. Tethering the phone to my computer meant I was once again in the land of the internet-living; walked through a simple dial-up account setup (which required only a choice of country and network), I then could enjoy HSDPA speed browsing, advertised as up to 1.8Mbps (in reality I perhaps saw burst-rates close to that and general browsing at half).
The tethering experience had its ups and downs, for sure. It was certainly fast and convenient enough to get me blogging again but periodic disconnections, particularly when multiple browsing tabs were refreshing, proved to be a frustrating punctuation. After a few days use, I learnt to change my internet style in deference to the moody Z560; rather than setting half a dozen sites to load in the background, I would instead concentrate on one. Minimal other running programmes was a further necessity, perhaps due to the impact an otherwise occupied CPU has on maintaining the 3G connection, and as I dialled and ended the link over the course of the day, the length of time I would stay online would gradually diminish (generally prompting an early bedtime).
Still, these were overlookable hurdles when the payoff was internet access, although had I bought the phone myself I might, perhaps, be less forgiving. Even when doing duty as mobile-modem the Z560’s battery life was reasonable; none of the USB ports I tried it with were apparently high-power enough to charge it while hooked up, but I could go a few days without needing to recharge it (with maybe three or four hours of solid browsing throughout those days). Samsung include a second battery but no desktop charger to fuel it, so you’ll need to swap and change from the phone itself if you want to use both.
Click for full-sized screenshots
Of course, there’s more to a modern cellphone than internet and calls, and Samsung have been generous with the features. 3G video calling (which seemingly hadn’t been set up on my review unit) is handled through a VGA camera beneath the internal screen, while its 2-megapixel counterpart lurks above the external display. It boasts autofocus, yet the lack of flash or low-light mode means the pictures it produces rarely rate above middling. Under that external display (which as standard shows a hideous analogue clock but can be changed to the far more useful digital version with signal and battery strength meters) are three touch-sensitive music transport controls (play/pause, skip-forward and skip-back) that respond neatly to the warmth of your fingers. That means loose change and keys in your pocket won’t mess up your playlist but the wet tongue of a dog might, so don’t let your canine carry your mobile. Audio reproduction is passable through the supplied earphones, but the absence of an adaptor for the proprietary connector means you’re stuck with them at least to begin with. It seems strange that Samsung think to supply an extra battery but no 3.5mm headset adaptor or microSD card to expand the onboard 17mb of memory. There is, however, support for A2DP stereo Bluetooth headphones (sold separately, of course) and the phone has built-in stereo speakers that perform as well as can be expected for such small drivers.
I’m left wondering whether I can recommend the SGH-Z560, then. Seen purely as a way of getting online when out of WiFi range there’s no doubting that HSDPA is a godsend, and I seem to have been lucky with the battery life it achieved compared to other reviewers out there. Yet I would’ve been highly frustrated had I tried to use this as my sole cellphone, as minor flaws mar the experience as a whole: the controls are great, but a 2.3-inch (diagonal) screen needs to be higher than 240×320 resolution; HSDPA is fantastic, but the mobile browser fails to encourage use; the mp3 player is straightforward to use and supports MP3, AAC, AAC++ and WMA file types, but the included headphones – and lack of adaptor – make enjoying music difficult. My advice to prospective buyers, then, is to be realistic in your expectations: the Z560 is by no means a bad cellphone, it just might not be the best for you.
Samsung SGH-Z560 [T-Mobile UK]
Many thanks to T-Mobile for loaning me the Z560 and saving me from ADSL-less hell.