Review of the Siemens A56


The Siemens A56 is an entry level GSM phone with a lot of surprises up its sleeves. While its price and market position would temp you to assume it was a lackluster phone, think again. If you donít have any need for advanced features, this could very well be the phone youíve been waiting for.

Last Updated: 26-Oct-2003

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

General

Before we talk about what makes the A56 such a great phone, letís look at what you get for your money. And speaking of money, Fido offers the A56 for only $25 to new activations, or essentially free in the All-in-One package (at the time of this writing). It therefore wouldnít take much for this phone to worth it, but it as youíll see, itís even worth the outright purchase price of $125.

The phone is small and light, and it has rounded contours with no sharp edges. In fact, the phone looks downright cute, which I hope wonít scare away any potential male buyers.

It felt comfortable in my hand, and it felt comfortable against my ear. The keypad is traditionally organized with no strangeness like combined or flush keys. The keys donít feel like a million bucks, but they press with a reasonably resounding click. Itís certainly a far better keypad than you find on some high-end phones these days.

The screen is a bit small, but it has fairly high resolution for its size, and Siemens has made good use of the screen real estate. Backlight is courtesy of orange LEDs, which provide reasonable coverage of the screen and keypad. This isnít anything spectacular, but it gets the job done. Like a number of higher-end phones, the A56 fades out its backlight rather than just turning it off cold.

The real surprise is the number of features it has that you donít expect in an entry level phone. Features such as: Ringer Profiles (ala Nokia); alarm clock; games; T9 input (with user dictionary); calculator; User Groups (ala Nokia); wallpaper; screen saver; selectable caller graphics; and one user-selectable soft key.

Another surprise feature is the ability to select a fast network search, which makes recovery of the network (after loosing the signal) markedly quicker. It wasnít quite as fast as a Motorola phone switched to Continuous Network Scan, but it was damned close. All GSM phones should include a feature like this.

The T9 implementation is especially good, and it includes features that even Nokiaís otherwise excellent T9 does not. For example upper and lower case that you use when entering a new word into the dictionary is remembered the next time you type the word. It also does something Iíve seen on few other phones; once it realizes that there is only one possible word you could mean with the letters youíve so far entered, it displays that full word for you to select. On most T9 systems, you must enter all of the letters in the word, no matter what.

The overall menu experience is also excellent. I do take exception to having to use the END key to back out of menus, as pressing the key once too often in a call can result in you hanging up. It really doesnít matter in idle mode, and once you get accustomed to it you have no problem at all.

The phone does not support GPRS, and because of that Fido had the web browser disabled (as it only uses circuit-switched data). This may be a sour point with some, and if you really need browser functionality, then this phone isnít for you.

The only feature that is oddly missing is a way to determine call duration after a call has ended. Nowhere in the manual was a way to determine call duration after the call had ended ever mentioned. It is possible to display the running time during a call, but that seems to be it for caller timer functionality. This is a very odd omission on an otherwise capable phone.

The keypad is full of thoughtful shortcuts that even Nokia should take note of. For example, pressing and holding the star key switches the phone between silent mode, and whichever Profile you had previously selected. Pressing and holding the pound key activates and de-activates the keypad lock. Pressing and holding the cursor up key allows you to quickly select a new Profile.

The left soft key can be reprogrammed to any of the major functions in the phone or to a phone number. You can also assign either functions or phone numbers (mix and match) to the numeric keys. That means you can press and hold a digit from 1 to 9 and either dial a number, or instantly access a feature. This is a very thoughtful touch.

RF Performance and Audio Quality

Where the phone really shines however is how it performs as a phone. RF performance, while not quite as stellar as a Nokia 6310i or a Nokia 3650, doesnít fall that far short. In fact, in terms of raw RF sensitivity the A56 is almost the equal of my Nokia 6310i. It does suffer from more audio problems in very weak signal areas, but it isnít really much worse than the 6310i in that respect. The over-the-road performance is excellent, and handoffs are very gracefully dealt with (a little better than the 6310i in fact). I really must give this phone an excellent rating for RF performance.

Audio quality is equally impressive, with very good tonal balance, and excellent sound preproduction. The earpiece volume could do with being louder, and there is a slight background rushing sound that is audible at the highest volume setting. However, the phone exhibits absolutely no transmitter buzz. Outgoing audio is also extremely good, though again the volume could do with being just a tad louder. It deals fairly well with background noise, though not quite as well as the 6310i.

I guess Iím not being as hard on this phone as I might with others, but Iím taking into consideration its place in the world. This is an entry level phone, which means no one really expects much from it. The real surprise therefore is that it delivers way more than youíd ever imagine, and in many important aspects (such as RF and audio) is blows away phones costing hundreds of dollars more.

I wouldnít hesitate to recommend this phone to anyone signing up with Fido, and assuming that the C56 (which is really just an A56 with a few more features) is similarly endowed, I wouldnít hesitate recommending that phone to Rogers users. Hell, if I had to replace my Nokia 6310i tomorrow, I wouldnít feel bad for buying one myself. I certainly plan to get one for my wife to replace her dying Ericsson T18z.

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