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Samsung Galaxy

December 20th, 2009
Samsung makes a capable first Android phone.

For Samsung, 2009 will likely be remembered as the year when the company realized its devotion to the "old guard" of smartphones -- Symbian and Windows Mobile -- was failing. With the Android-based Galaxy, the company has leapt back into the modern era and has signalled its willingness to compete against the iPhone and other devices that have shown where phones can go. But are Android, an OLED screen and a good camera enough to make Apple (or HTC) uncomfortable? Our Galaxy review finds out. design and the OLED display

What's most remarkable about the Galaxy's design is precisely how unremarkable it is. While it's solidly built, thin, and generally pleasing to the eye, the layout is so similar to virtually every other Samsung touchscreen smartphone from the past year that it loses all identity. You shouldn't base a phone purchase solely on looks, but Samsung's layout certainly isn't iconic.

More importantly, though, each element is always not quite as good as the HTC Hero that Samsung is competing against. The Galaxy has a smooth, glossy finish that is both less stable than the Hero's matte finish and also much more prone to showing fingerprints. HTC also has a better button layout; the home button on the Galaxy isn't labeled at all, and Samsung saw fit to give the Galaxy just a directional pad instead of a more adaptable trackball or trackpad. Again, it's a solid phone in practice but shows the difference slightly more effort can make.

Unlike a phone such as the LG Eve, the Galaxy doesn't have an external microSDHC card slot, but it does make up for this through internal storage. The device always has 8GB of built-in space and uses the microSDHC just as a "bonus" for extra media storage. A note of caution: Android as of late 2009 still requires that main app data install directly to system memory, so there's actually only about 900MB of free space. Extra data attached to those apps can run in the larger space, however.

We've also had trouble getting the Galaxy to setup for USB file transfer. It may just be a technical issue, but we're contacting Bell to make sure it wasn't intentionally disabled.

The screen does partly make up for the relative blandness of the phone body. Samsung is one of the few making an Android phone with an AMOLED (active matrix organic light emitting diode) screen, and in most cases it's a step up from conventional LCDs. Colors and contrast ratios are more vivid, and unlike the Zune HD, the Galaxy's screen is less prone to washing out under direct sunlight. Combine that with capacitive touch that's very responsive, and it's at least worth a look.

Android on the Galaxy

Since it's given the Google branding, the Galaxy uses a very nearly stock version of Android. That's not necessarily a bad thing: after our experiences with the Eve as well as other heavily customized versions like the Motorola Cliq and Samsung's own Behold II, it's become clear that sometimes handset producers can actually damage an otherwise good interface. The clever widgets from HTC's Sense UI aren't here, but the interface is thankfully fuss-free and is still very capable for the web, e-mail, music and videos. The one non-standard app we saw installed was a convenient wireless switcher that could toggle Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi and auto-syncing.

There's even a slight positive side effect in the on-screen keyboard. While it doesn't have a button to close the keyboard at will (something very handy for web browser forms), the keys are wider and easier to reach. The official Android keyboard isn't as quick for typing as an iPhone keyboard but can still be faster than a physical keyboard if you're experienced.

As with the Eve and Hero, though, Samsung is still running Android 1.5, and the limitations are evident. There's no updated portal for Android Market, and the absence of support for voice recognition and a few other key features restrict the Galaxy from using key apps, like Google Maps Navigation. It may have a robust app community of over 16,000 titles, but the age will mean that phones like the Motorola Droid (Milestone in most countries) will have better software unless Samsung chooses to upgrade the firmware.

Performance does seem slightly faster than on the Hero, though unlike the HTC device there's no multi-touch input to streamline the experience. The experience isn't shattered, but it's another one of those minor points where extra development time can pay dividends.

photo and video quality

As is virtually the de facto choice for an Android phone, the camera is the typical 5-megapixel unit with autofocusing. Samsung's version is notable in having a fairly large, bright LED flash. Its optical performance is slightly above average: we were able to take fairly crisp, colorful shots with only subtle signs of its using a plastic lens. Some characteristic camera phone qualities persisted, particularly in focusing. The Galaxy isn't great at adapting to low light, and its auto-only autofocus had trouble locking on certain subjects that a dedicated still camera would normally catch. This is partly why we prefer the tap-to-autofocus of a device like the iPhone 3GS; choosing exactly where to focus gives greater odds that you'll get the intended result.

Unlike some recent phones, other details like white balance or ISO sensitivity aren't adjustable, so apart from disabling flash there's little that can be done to influence the final shot.

Video recording doesn't take advantage of whatever added visual quality is inherent to the camera. It's still the familiar 320x240, 30 frames per second footage of the pre-2.0 Android devices, and the image quality is still lackluster with visible compression artifacts and fairly poor audio. Google's video sharing features are the main saving graces and let you push videos either to a source like YouTube or to another app.

call quality and battery life

Voice quality is generally good. Calls are clear and sufficiently loud, though we noticed a slightly shrill quality during a call. We tested the phone on Bell's fledgling HSPA-based 3G network and were pleased that there weren't any reception issues, which is impressive considering the maturity of the networks it's up against.

Although it's slimmer than the thick Eve, Samsung's hardware is capable in battery life. Once again, the battery will invariably need charging if it's used moderately for calls and data throughout the day. It's still strong enough to have some battery left over, though, and standby lasts somewhat longer than expected with two to three days before it can't be ignored. We suspect the AMOLED display plays a small part as there's no backlight consuming power.

wrapping up

Throughout testing, the label that most often came to mind for the Galaxy was "workhorse." It can usually be counted upon to do what it's asked without unnecessary interface flash or otherwise getting in the way. It's a relief given that the same can't be said for many of Samsung's own phones burdened with TouchWiz or resistive touchscreens that only end up slowing you down.

While the phone doesn't have any glaring weakness and should be commended for being so reliable, it's this consistency that's potentially the phone's main challenge: it may not do anything particularly wrong, but it doesn't do anything so well as to stand out. Just among Android phones, the Galaxy has to compete against the Hero; it also has to contend with phones that are often priced at or near the phone's price, whether it's the $100 at Bell less at a European carrier like O2. For a similar amount you can buy an iPhone 3G, with multi-touch and more apps; there's also the Palm Pre if you want both multi-touch and a hardware keyboard.

As such, whether or not the Galaxy is appealing to you may depend entirely on your current status as a cellphone user. If you're attached to or prefer a carrier where the Galaxy is the main option for Android, or the non-Android alternatives aren't appealing, it's a safe pick. But if you're out of contract or don't mind switching, think hard before you commit; there are potentially better alternatives.

- Good OLED display.

- Solid build quality.

- 8GB of built-in storage.

- Above average photo and call quality.

- Usual Android web and app strengths.

- Strictly average design.

- Stuck on Android 1.5 for now.

- Video quality so-so.