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: 480×800 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]]
Battery Life and Call Quality
Battery life for both phones is satisfactory. Samsung claims 769 minutes of talk time in the 2G version or 391 minutes for 3G, with a standby of 750 hours (2G) or 625 hours (3G). After a day of fairly constant use (Internet browsing, phone calls, maps, games, YouTube videos, etc.), both phones were in serious need of a recharge. However, such multitasking didn’t eat battery power with the same hunger of previous Android phones.
It’s why you purchased a phone in the first place, no? Previous users of Android devices will be familiar with the Galaxy S’s calling interface. Call fidelity was generally crystal-clear, although some callers complained that my voice seemed distant whenever I held the device to my ear rather than using the headset-no surprise. Holding the smartphones in either my left or right hand caused no loss of reception. No death grip here.
The Samsung Galaxy S comes equipped with a 5.0-megapixel camera. That’s a solidly middle-of-the-road number of megapixels, and shooting both photographs and camcorder footage is an equally solid middle-of-the-road experience. For the most part, images were crisp, although the cameras in both the Vibrant and the Captivate seemed better suited for outdoor work; interior shooting, particularly in environments where the light source came from a fluorescent bulb, occasionally resulted in somewhat soft-focus images.
However, the camera offers lots of granular options (Exposure Value, Night Mode, Portrait Mode, Shooting Mode, etc.) that could satisfy the more serious shutter-bugs. The camcorder (which shoots 30 frames per second, at 1,280×720 resolution) had more trouble shooting in low-light conditions than did the still camera, which came off as more capable of displaying details even in nighttime shots.
Software and Conclusion
As previously mentioned, Android 2.1 presents a polished interface that’s a noticeable aesthetic improvement over its predecessors. Among the features: Live Wallpapers, which let the user staple waving grass or gently glowing jellyfish to the background; Microsoft Exchange support; and tweaks to Google Maps and the virtual keyboard. The user has six home screens on which to store apps, as well as a Feeds and Updates screen; the Applications icon at the bottom of the home screen provides quick access to yet more content.
Despite the shininess of the interface (again, due in large part to that Super AMOLED display) and Android 2.1’s supposed hardware optimization, there are some kinks. Tapping an icon seems equally capable of launching that application, activating the Trash emblem, or mysteriously duplicating it. That can be frustrating. Also raising the annoyance factor are some of the third-party apps, available through the Android Market, that don’t seem quite ready for prime time-at this stage one shouldn’t have to question whether a downloaded app will actually work.
For business users, the device is capable of integrating e-mail and calendar accounts. While browsing the Internet, I desperately longed for the capability to open PDFs, but to no avail (there is an Adobe app available for download to handle this, but it’s not a baked-in feature). Those who prefer Swype-a feature that lets the user drag a finger around the virtual keyboard in order to form words rather than typing individual letters-will be comforted to find it installed on the device (personally, it took me a day to get used to it, and even then I preferred to type emails and notes by hand).
The Galaxy S plans to challenge Apple’s iTunes with the Samsung Media Hub, which is said to include a wide range of TV shows and movies-once it actually launches. For now, users trying to access the Hub are greeted with a “Coming Soon” screen. Given how Samsung and its carriers are touting the smartphone as a multimedia device, this is a considerable oversight, although Samsung is apparently promising that the Hub will be in place by autumn.
These quibbles aside, Samsung is promising that all Galaxy S smartphones will be updated with Android 2.2 (Froyo) by the end of 2010-which will presumably eradicate a number of issues, as well as provide full Flash 10.1 support.
These aren’t perfect smartphones. They are, however, solid portable-media devices with noticeable improvements to the Android operating system. For those in the market for an Android smartphone, the Galaxy S family definitely bears consideration-although the focus on features such as YouTube and movies make it more of a consumer-oriented device than a business one.
Whether or not potential buyers attach themselves to the Galaxy S, one thing is certainly clear after testing: With regard to a sleek and feature-rich operating system, Apple needs to start watching its back. The iPhone still offers a peerless experience thanks to iTunes integration and new iOS 4 features, such as multitasking, have eliminated many of the traditional complaints leveled against Apple’s mobile franchise. But Android apps such as Kindle, Amazon’s MP3 Store, and Samsung Media Hub-combined with the Android Market-show that Google’s operating system is starting to catch up in both the aesthetics and functionality departments.
Editor’s Note: This review has been updated with information about the smartphones’ PDF-reading capabilities.