An Imitator That Rivals the iPhone

The story so far: Apple introduced the iPhone a year ago, and has sold six million of them. Then on Monday, Apple unveiled an improved model that brings faster Internet, G.P.S. and a much lower price to an already well-designed device.

Now, this new iPhone won’t be available until July 11. So this is not a review of the iPhone — not exactly.

The new iPhone will offer many goodies, but it continues to omit some standard features that a lot of people consider important: removable battery, memory-card expansion slot, video recording, voice dialing and the ability to send pictures to another cellphone. Oh, and the option to escape AT&T, which is nobody’s favorite cell company.

In other words, a certain population still awaits something that offers the touch-screen joy of an iPhone without those limitations. Oh, there have been efforts, but just slapping a touch screen onto a phone does not make it an iPhone. It’s all about the software, kids.


Here comes one more. On June 20, Sprint will offer the new Samsung Instinct. It, too, is a blatant iPhone wannabe, but its software structure is simple and it has its own personality. It does not succeed in surpassing the iPhone, especially the new one — but it does succeed as a smartphone.

The Instinct is tentatively priced at $200 with a two-year contract and a $100 rebate. It’s a wee bit taller and thicker than the iPhone, but noticeably narrower (2.2 x 4.6 x 0.5 inches).

Beneath the 3.1-inch touch screen are three glowing, flush-mounted buttons: Phone, Home and Back. That Back button is refreshing, since moving from one software spot to another on the iPhone generally requires pressing Home and drilling down again from the very top.

The Instinct’s most gimmicky enhancement is a so-called haptic touch screen, which means that the whole thing vibrates a little each time you tap it.

To expand the puny 32 megabytes of built-in memory, you can insert a MicroSD card — in fact, Sprint provides a 2-gigabyte card with the phone. And as though to rub Apple’s nose in the swappable-battery feature, Sprint also includes a second battery and an external charger. Each charge, Sprint says, supplies 5.8 hours of talk time.

The phone works the way the iPhone does: tap someone’s name in Contacts to dial, tap Answer or Ignore when a call comes in, and so on. Even what Apple (and now Sprint) calls Visual Voicemail is here — the brilliant feature that displays your voicemail messages in a list, like e-mail, so you can listen in any order (and avoid the 15 seconds of exposition. “You. Have. Seven. Messages. ...”).

If you have a Gmail, AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo account, setting up your e-mail is as simple as entering your name and password. You can open, but not edit, some attachments, like JPEG pictures, MP3 music files and Word documents (minus formatting).

The good news: On the Instinct, you can always rotate the on-screen keyboard 90 degrees, the wide way, making the keys much bigger targets. The bad news: the Instinct’s software isn’t nearly as sophisticated as the iPhone’s. It makes no effort to save keystrokes by predicting what you’re typing, and when it notices a typo, its suggestions are practically idiotic. (You type “tymes,” it suggests “funds.”) If you find iPhone typing slow going, you’ll really bog down on the Instinct. (There’s a one-word-at-a-time handwriting recognition mode, too, but it’s so inaccurate that it’s nearly worthless.)

The iPhone shows complete, fully formatted Web pages on that vast expanse of screen. But the Instinct doesn’t even come close, for two reasons.

First, you’re peeking at the Web through a smaller keyhole; the Instinct’s 240 by 432 pixel screen size is dwarfed by the iPhone screen (320 by 480).

That’s compounded by the second problem: the Instinct doesn’t have a multitouch screen. So you can’t smoothly zoom in and out of Web pages (or photos, or e-mail attachments) by pinching with two fingers, as on the iPhone. Nor can you enlarge a single chunk of a Web page — a single photo or sidebar box, for example — with a double tap. Instead, the Instinct offers only three zoom settings: full size, double size and half size, and the result is a touch of BlackBerry claustrophobia.

Lacking the iPhone's polish, but still quality

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: