Pop quiz, smartphone users: Do you prefer a physical QWERTY keyboard on your device?
For some, the experience of pressing thumbs to actual keys is an essential part of the text-messaging experience. Others either have no objection to using a virtual keyboard, or are willing to sacrifice the physical-keyboard experience in order to own a lighter smartphone.
The Samsung Epic 4G, which arrives Aug. 31 on the Sprint network, offers a sliding QWERTY keyboard for those who fall into the former camp. In this way it differs from its smartphone cousins in the Samsung Galaxy S line, which include the Samsung Vibrant (on T-Mobile), the Samsung Captivate (on AT&T) and the Samsung Fascinate (on Verizon). Those phones are virtual-keyboard only, and consequently are lighter and thinner.
Compared with other smartphone keyboards, though, the Epic 4G's physical five-tier keyboard is somewhat lacking. Its horizontal length means a lot of stretching for smaller thumbs, and the flat keys are difficult to individually feel. I found myself mistyping words on the Epic 4G with greater frequency than on, say, a BlackBerry device. Whatever the faults of the new BlackBerry Torch 9800, Research In Motion made the wise decision to incorporate its traditional keyboard, with its nicely curved and beveled keys, into the sliding form factor.
The keyboard and the phone's availability on the Sprint network are basically all that separates the Epic 4G from the other Samsung Galaxy S smartphones. As such, it presents many of the same pluses and minuses as the other devices. With a 1GHz processor, 16GB of memory and an ultracrisp 4-inch Super AMOLED screen (resolution of 480 by 800 pixels), the Epic 4G has the capacity to be a multimedia powerhouse.
Although Samsung's Media Hub remains an inactive icon, the Epic 4G can still play YouTube videos, games and television shows (through its Sprint TV application). Lower-definition shows-I watched some of "Whale Wars" during a long train ride-display the slight fuzziness one would expect, as do certain YouTube clips. Based on my experiences watching "Avatar" on the Samsung Vibrant, however, I expect that high-definition content would play with the sort of sharpness and clarity implied by the Super AMOLED screen's 50,000:1 contrast ratio.
After about 30 minutes of constant use, the Epic 4G became a little warm to the touch, but nothing unexpected. The Epic 4G's 1GHz processor seemed more than capable of handling all these multimedia tasks with little effort. Battery life also seemed satisfactory, with the device running for a day and a half before needing a recharge.
The 5.0-megapixel camera captured crisp images in outdoor shooting, although interior shoots sometimes resulted in soft-focus images. Videographers could have some fun with the camcorder, which shoots 30 frames per second at 1,280 by 720 resolution, although it seemed to have more resolution problems in low-light conditions than the still camera.
For Sprint subscribers, the Epic 4G offers a connection to a 4G network and a Sprint Hotspot application for connecting up to five WiFi-equipped devices. The Hotspot activates with a single finger-tap, which is useful. However, I tested the smartphone over a series of days in New York City, upstate New York and Connecticut-three areas that currently lack 4G coverage. Your own mileage may vary depending on location.
Nevertheless, even in deeply rural areas, the Epic 4G seemed capable of rapidly downloading apps, uploading photos to social-networking services such as Facebook and finding its GPS location on a map. Furthermore, that GPS was pleasingly accurate, even indoors. Call fidelity was generally clear, with no dropped connections. As with other Galaxy S smartphones, though, using a headset rather than holding the device to your ear will make your voice seem far less "distant" to callers.
As I noted in my previous review of the Samsung Galaxy S, Android 2.1 presents a far more polished interface than previous versions of the operating system. The tweaked virtual keyboard seems much more accurate and responsive than it was in, say, Android 1.5-and if you like the Swype entry system, it's here. For business users, the operating system can integrate both e-mail and calendar functions.
However, for every function in Android that feels like a finished product, such as Maps or Gmail, other apps or features feel half-baked or simply unfinished. Many apps available through Android Marketplace unnecessarily duplicate the function of existing, better ones-if they work well to begin with. Voice Search continues to be a thoroughly hit-or-miss proposition with regard to accuracy. Multitasking will still guzzle battery power, although this seems somewhat improved from previous Android builds. And using the carriers' proprietary navigation apps quickly becomes an exercise in frustration.
Much of that unevenness will presumably be smoothed out with the next version release. For those who want an Android phone and plan on staying with the Sprint network, it seems your choices for a next-generation smartphone come down to the Epic 4G or the HTC Evo 4G. Those who love their multimedia-and a kickstand for hands-free viewing of same-might prefer the Evo 4G and its 4.3-inch screen.
The Samsung Epic 4G retails for $249.99, after $150 instant savings and $100 mail-in rebate, with a two-year contract through Sprint.