In a smartphone race that’s become all about the latest and greatest, the fastest and most powerful, the Samsung DoubleTime is an odd phone to review. Its specs don’t say smartphone — it’s big and clunky, running Android 2.2 on an 800MHz Qualcomm processor, without much storage or added software — but its price ($49.99 with a contract plus a minimum $15 / month data plan) screams it. So what is the DoubleTime? Really, I think it’s the evolution of the feature phone, an early preview of what cheap, simple phones will look like in the future thanks to Android. But successful feature phones have always had advantages Android phones don’t: they last a long time, they don’t crash, they’re simple to use, and they’re cheap. Can the DoubleTime add Android’s strengths and compensate for its weaknesses to make the perfect feature phone? And how does this device measure up to the current smartphone crop? Read the full review to find out.
Hardware / design
It's big, bulky, and white all over
When it’s closed, the DoubleTime just looks like a standard Android phone, albeit a super thick one. It’s got a 3.2-inch, 480 x 320 screen, with AT&T and Samsung logos above and below, along with some silver accents and the four standard Android buttons, which are physical and both look and feel like those on the Droid Charge. (These are pink, though, which is a strangely common theme on the DoubleTime.) It has a plastic white shell, with a headphone jack and power button on top, volume controls on the left side, and a MicroUSB port on the bottom. The back is dimpled like a golf ball, with another Samsung logo and the camera lens. It’s 15mm thick, and feels like a brick to hold, but I’ll forgive that because of the QWERTY keyboard it’s hiding. Less forgivable is the sheer surface area of the case, which infringes much too far onto the front of the DoubleTime, making the screen look even smaller than it is.
Once you flip it open, the DoubleTime is notably more interesting-looking. (I should mention that it’s oddly hard to open, though — the hinge is seriously sturdy and the case pretty slippery, which makes flipping it open with one hand pretty hard.) There’s another 3.2-inch, 480 x 320 screen inside, which can be propped at two different angles; one is ideal for viewing and using the phone as its own stand, and the other is how you’ll actually use the phone. There are four more physical Android buttons, and then a full QWERTY keyboard.
I was prepared to hate the DoubleTime’s keyboard, and I did for the first few minutes of playing with it. First of all, all the accent colors and function keys are pink, which is likely going to limit the appeal — slap a charm on this, and it's every bit as gender-specific as the HTC Rhyme. My insecurities aside, though, the keyboard actually turned out to work quite well. There are four rows of keys — the top row and number row are combined to leave more space, which is always a good move — and though they’re not raised very high, they still clack nicely. They’re also spaced out pretty well, so I was able to type pretty quickly without looking at the keys. A few of the keys are oddly placed, like the huge arrow keys that don’t really belong on a touch-friendly device anyway, but for the most part I really liked the keyboard. It was almost enough to overlook the fact that it’s pink — almost.
There may be two displays, but they're both pretty bad
Both of the DoubleTime’s displays are bad, but hey — compared to the one- and two-inch screens we’ve seen from "messaging phones" over the years, anything’s an improvement. They’re capacitive multi-touch displays, and though 480 x 320 is barely passable at any size they’re at least small enough that it’s not unusable. Text is often jaggy and hard to read, and video playback is fairly disappointing, but if you’re using the DoubleTime for email, some web browsing and phone calls, it’s manageable. The displays get pretty bright, and are relatively usable even in sunlight.
I found myself using the external screen for everything other than heavy typing, mostly because it’s able to rotate. The internal screen is stuck on landscape mode, and 320 pixels isn’t a lot of real estate for reading websites or emails, plus plenty of Android apps and system menus just don’t rotate out of portrait mode. My standard move was to type anything longer than a URL on the keyboard, and then close the phone and use the external screen — it’s a lot of back-and-forth.
This phone might as well not have a camera at all
In 2007, the 3.2-megapixel camera on the back of the DoubleTime would be about as good as you could expect. In 2011, it’s pretty terrible. Even in good lighting, its shots are blurry and noisy, and in anything other than broad daylight photos are near-unusable. The DoubleTime’s photos were eerily reminiscent of the photos I got from the BlackBerry Curve 8330 I owned back in 2008, and I remember being underwhelmed by its pictures then. The camera and camera app are also insanely slow, taking two to three seconds to autofocus for every single shot (which explains some of the blur problems).
Video is, improbably, even worse. I shot a tree in broad daylight, and I think it looked terrible. I say "I think" because, since the camera shoots at 320 x 240, I couldn’t really see much of anything in the shot. The microphone is quite good, though, which makes sense given how important the mic is to any phone.
Performance and battery life
Everything about using the DoubleTime screams "feature phone!" It’s really, really slow to do a lot of things, which I’d forgive of a $49.99 phone, but not one that currently resides in the "smartphone" category of AT&T’s store. Every time you launch an app, there’s about a half-second pause before anything happens, and another half-second while you wait for the app to open. Once an app is open, though, switching around is pretty snappy. The keyboard would lag behind me as I typed, which is never a good sign, and there were frequently taps and swipes that just wouldn’t register. It’s hard to tell how much of that is the 800MHz Qualcomm processor’s fault and how much is due to the ancient version of Android running on the DoubleTime, but either way it’s not good. The phone also gets quite warm whenever it’s working hard — it wasn’t burn-your-lap hot, but feeling my phone warm up while I played with it was a little disconcerting (though it feels good to hold to your face on a cold day, so it’s not all bad).
Benchmarks backed up what I’d found, too: I got Quadrant scores between 400 and 550, which is all of 1/6th of the best results we’ve seen on phones like the Galaxy S II, and is more akin to phones from two years ago than today. (Even the Kobo Vox scored higher on our Quadrant test, and, well, you know how we felt about that device.) Some phones, like the Motorola Droid, got faster as they got new Android versions, but the DoubleTime seems stuck in the past in both hardware and software. The browser performance left much to be desired, too: it handles mobile sites fine, but full sites (including this one) slow it to a crawl.
There’s no LTE or HSPA to be found here — you get AT&T’s 3G, and nary a G more. I got download speeds hovering around 1Mbps in Washington, DC, which is about average, and somewhere between 100 and 400Kbps up. The connection was solid, though, hanging on to a connection even in spotty areas.
I may not have dropped many calls, but the ones I made didn’t sound very good; callers sounded tinny to me, with a lot of static on the call, and the person on the other end reported much of the same. The speaker was quite loud on both ends, though. Oddly, it turned out the best way to talk on the DoubleTime was on speakerphone — I was told I sounded instantly clearer as soon as I turned on the speakerphone, as long as I didn’t get more than a couple of feet away. If I got too far, I sounded terrible, but did stay at least audible.
Battery life was good for a smartphone, but bad for a feature phone. I consistently got a day and a half of battery life using the phone, even with relatively regular use. My four-year-old nephew commandeered the phone to play Angry Birds, and played for several hours over the course of a day without crushing the battery. You’ll still want to charge the phone every day, though, since it won’t last two full days — if this is the future of feature phones, battery life is one of the unfortunate changes.
It works like a decent phone...from two years ago
Feature phones running Android is a compelling idea
The DoubleTime runs a spectacularly outdated version of Android (2.2.2), and doesn’t even offer it unencumbered. TouchWiz is here, though it’s a relatively muted version of the skin; app and menu icons have been changed, and the app drawer is paginated rather than scrollable, but it’s more recognizably Android than some TouchWiz-ed handsets. TouchWiz also adds a power manager to the notification window, which is pretty handy.
There’s hardly any bloatware or customization to be found, save for a few AT&T-standard apps like Live TV and myAT&T. There’s full Android Market access, and all the Google apps come preloaded. Most apps worked fine, even games like Drag Racing or Angry Birds, but the 800MHz processor got seriously tripped up by more intense games like 3D Bowling. Even the Market couldn’t handle the heat, crashing on me a number of times during my time with the phone.
AT&T wants you to believe the DoubleTime is an inexpensive smartphone — if it is, it’s as bad a smartphone as I’ve used in a long time. Requiring a data plan with this device is a huge mistake that totally dooms the DoubleTime, because at the cost of ownership I can’t possibly recommend the phone to anyone. But as a feature phone, for $49.99 with a contract, it has definite potential. It’s solid for messaging, runs basic apps well, and does all the things you’d need a basic phone to do — plus a few more. When you can buy an iPhone 4 for $99, or Saumsung’s own Infuse 4G for the same $49.99, the DoubleTime doesn’t even come close. Don’t buy this phone until it’s called something other than a smartphone, but don’t be surprised to see the low-end phones on your carrier’s shelves get replaced by handsets like the DoubleTime in the near future.
(NOTE: Much though I'd like to score the DoubleTime as a feature phone, I have to rate it in context of how AT&T is currently selling it, so consider the below to be smartphone scores. If and when AT&T makes this a feature phone, its scores will be consistently higher.)