Cingular Sync by Samsung

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November has been a busy month for Cingular, which launched the Sync music phone and BlackJack Windows Mobile smartphone, both by Samsung, and then the eagerly awaited Palm Treo 680. My original intention was to review the Treo 680, but I decided there just isn't enough to say about it: it's no slimmer than its predecessors, and Cingular will have to pack better, user-friendly e-mail software into it if it's going to attract non-corporate types, or indeed anybody but Palm customers in search of a replacement to their Treo 650.

The BlackJack was a bit of a letdown too. When it comes to managing personal e-mail, it can't touch T-Mobile's BlackBerry Pearl, and as far as the glitzy marketing campaign ("compact 3G PDA that can do it all"), just remember that it still runs on the cumbersome, unresponsive Windows Mobile platform. Many Windows Mobile devices have crossed my path of late, and none of them have been worth discussing at length. No, the smarter of Cingular's offerings tend to leave me dumb. It's the Sync, a jam-packed regular phone, that has held my attention. It's not perfect, but it is the key to Cingular's next wave of phones—phones I'm quite optimistic about.

The Sync, aka Samsung SGH-a707, is pretty much RAZR slim. It's got a respectable talk-time battery life of up to four hours and a gorgeous, 2.5-in. LCD screen. Since it connects to Cingular's new highspeed data network, it can download files at broadband speed. Although the network is key to much of Cingular's ambitions, it is not required to access music, however. The Sync is so-named because you load music from your PC. Any MP3 or unprotected WMA files will transfer, but so will subscription downloads from Rhapsody, Napster, AOL and MTV Urge. In other words, if you pay $15 per month for all-you-can-eat music, the Sync will, in theory, act as a vessel for your downloads.

I say "in theory" because the truth is, although I tested two Syncs with two separate music services, I never actually got one to transfer protected content. The bane of the subscription services, the reason they can't compete with iTunes, is that they don't work 100% of the time. In the past, my enthusiasm for the subscription model has been stymied by just such technical snafus. However, the kinks usually work themselves out, and I know that both Cingular and Samsung have been feverishly working to improve the synching capability of the Sync.

My love for this phone in fact has nothing to do with the music platform, though tracks do sound amazing through the Sync's hidden speaker. No, what I like best about the phone is its e-mail program. Easier to use than anything pre-loaded on the Treo 680 or the BlackJack, the Sync's e-mail manager requires nothing but your e-mail address and password for set up, and manages most major webmail providers, including the trickier ones like MSN's Hotmail and AOL's AIM Mail. You can even manage multiple e-mail accounts simultaneously. The interface is smooth and simple; in truth, I have never seen a better looking e-mail program on a standard cell phone. The only hiccup, and mind you, it's a biggie, is that you still have to key in your text with the number pad. Until the same phone comes out with a QWERTY keypad, it'll be more of an e-mail reader than anything else.

Cingular says that the e-mail program, making its debut on the Sync, will be loaded onto many other phones in the coming months. The company also says that the music synching system launched with the Sync will appear in more and more standard handsets. Even though I had troubles with both, I'm looking forward to the next "regular" phones Cingular has to offer. I don't need over-the-air downloads of overpriced music when I've got gobs of tunes on my computer; I definitely do need better access to my e-mail, much more of an on-the-go necessity. When it comes to getting these two key priorities straight, Cingular seems to be out in front, followed by T-Mobile. Sprint and Verizon Wireless are, sadly, bringing up the rear.