Apple should be quaking in its black turtleneck right about now. While the iPhone has long ruled the consumer smartphone roost-at least in terms of mind-share, if not actual market penetration-the new generation of Google Android smartphones presents a viable competitor to Steve Jobs' sleek device.
Eight months ago, I reviewed the HTC Droid Eris running Google Android 1.5 alongside the Motorola Droid with Android 2.0. Both devices had their upside, with lots of nifty features, but the user interfaces felt in desperate need of additional polish. If the iPhone OS was a Ferrari, then Android 1.5 was a bit like a custom car cobbled together by a some genius gearheads in somebody's garage: fast and responsive, sure, but in want of a shiny coat of paint and some nifty dashboard dials.
The other day, I received the Samsung Vibrant and the Samsung Captivate, the carrier-specific variants of the Samsung Galaxy S (T-Mobile in the Vibrant's case; AT&T in the Captivate's), which made a splashy debut during this past January's Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. The Vibrant and Captivate both run Android 2.1, which offers only a handful of new features but nonetheless feels shinier and more highway-ready than do its predecessors.
Other versions of the Galaxy S are being offered by Sprint (the Samsung Epic 4G, the carrier's second 4G-capable phone) and Verizon (the Samsung Fascinate). Whatever the carrier, these smartphones share a handful of multimedia-friendly capabilities: a 1GHz processor, 16GB of memory and an ultra-crisp Super AMOLED screen. What's more, they're being pushed as the ultimate in portable media: an e-reader, movie-viewer and camera in the palm of your hand.
That marketing angle is unsurprising: the Motorola Droid X, whose screen, at 4.3 inches, is slightly larger than the Galaxy S's 4-inch version, is also being hawked as a multimedia monster. This focus on Android smartphones as handheld movie- and game-players might immediately turn off some business users, but that seems a risk these vendors are willing to take if they can challenge the iPhone on its primarily consumer turf.
But while the Samsung Galaxy S has many multimedia features to recommend it, the smartphones also have some deficiencies in hardware and software that could give more finicky users pause.
First, the good: the Super AMOLED screen (resolution: 480x800 pixels), which Samsung claims is 20 percent brighter than competing models, boasting 80 percent less sunlight reflection and 20 percent more battery life. Whether reading an e-book via the Kindle app, watching "Avatar" (conveniently preloaded onto my review Vibrant) or viewing the trailer for "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" on YouTube, the display was reassuringly crisp and clear. The device's 1GHz processor also seemed more than capable of handling games and other apps without stuttering, even while multitasking.
Which brings us to overheating. With the first generation of Android devices, multitasking had the unpleasant side effect of heating the smartphone to the point where you could practically fry an egg on the back panel. Both the Vibrant and the Captivate seem to run cooler-after 90 minutes of watching video on the former, the device was merely warm.
If the Galaxy S smartphones have one consistent flaw, it's the quality of the devices themselves. From a distance, both the Vibrant and Captivate are handsome-looking, in the "pane of glass" tradition of the iPhone and HTC. In the hand, both present nicely beveled edges and a relatively light weight (4.5 ounces for the Captivate, 4.16 ounces for the Vibrant). On closer inspection, though, both devices have niggling details that suggest cheap manufacture, detracting from the overall experience. The power and volume buttons don't fit comfortably in the frame, and the power jack on the top of both devices features a loose cover. With the Vibrant, the jack popped out of the port every few minutes, suggesting a less than perfectly engineered fit.
Other carriers' phones in the Galaxy S line feature different hardware, such as the physical QWERTY keyboard integrated into the Samsung Epic 4G; but since eWEEK did not receive those devices, they remain outside the bounds of this discussion. [[ED NOTE: Then let's leave this whole graf out of the review. TM]]