For some people, the Instinct’s entertainment features may make up for these weaknesses. There’s music playback, of course, and access to Sprint’s online music store ($1 a song, which downloads directly to the phone). None of it is as polished or pleasant as the iTunes/iPhone system, but it gets the job done.
Better yet, the Instinct doubles as an effective pocket radio; it offers dozens of free and subscription Internet-style radio stations. You can also watch live or on-demand TV channels — sometimes static-y and stuttering, but not a bad alternative when you’re stuck in a cab in traffic.
Then there’s the highly refined G.P.S. feature, which comes close to simulating one of those $600 dashboard-mounted car systems, complete with voice prompts (“Turn right on Elm Street”). It even warns you of traffic tie-ups and offers to reroute you around them.
All of the Instinct’s monthly plans include unlimited use of the G.P.S., TV, text/photo/video messaging and Internet features; the plans differ only in the number of talk-time minutes. You can pay $70 a month for 450 minutes (same as the new iPhone) or $100 for unlimited talking.
From a feature-count perspective, the Instinct whops the iPhone. It has all of the now-standard smartphone features — calendar, calculator, alarm clock and game demos. And its cup runneth over with features unavailable on the iPhone, like navigation, TV, radio, a swappable battery, video recording, picture messages and voice dialing.
But three things are missing from the Instinct. First, it lacks the iPhone’s ability to access Wi-Fi wireless hot spots, although its fast Internet speed in big cities (on Sprint’s EV-DO network) greatly minimizes the loss.
Second, there’s nothing like the iPhone App Store, an online repository of add-on programs — games, music keyboards, tools nobody has even imagined — that you can download directly to the phone. Programmers can write programs for the Instinct, but without something as effortless and centralized as the App Store, Sprint’s pantry of add-ons will never be as well stocked or as popular.
Finally, the Instinct is missing that Applesque essence of polish, perfectionism and fun.
Error messages and the “please wait” cursor appear way too often. There’s no @ sign on the main keyboard, even when you’re inputting an e-mail address. Similarly, every time you hit the Home button, you go back to the same Favorites screen (a superhandy customizable list of phone numbers, TV channels, Web sites and whatever else you use a lot). But it doesn’t remember which Home screen you were on most recently (Favorites, Main, Fun, Web).
And why does the Instinct ask you to input its own phone number when you’re setting up e-mail? Shouldn’t it know that?
The design misstep that will drive you battiest, however, is the need to keep rotating the phone. You turn it horizontal for TV, vertical for e-mail, horizontal for radio, vertical for texting, horizontal for the Web, vertical for calling, horizontal for the camera and so on. The Instinct lacks the iPhone’s orientation sensor, so it has no idea when you’re holding it upright.
Even so, the Instinct’s software is not terrible, like Windows Mobile, or even mediocre, as on many previous iPhone knockoffs; over all, it’s good. Good enough, in fact, to provide a satisfying iPhone alternative to anybody who’s attracted to the Instinct’s longer feature list and alternative cellular network — and who doesn’t mind sacrificing a bit of polish in exchange.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.