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Samsung Galaxy Spica

April 18th, 2010
A good and inexpensive Android phone facing stiff competition.

Samsung was one of the last major phone builders to get into the Android arena, but what it lost in time it made up for in sheer numbers: the Galaxy Spica came barely a few months after the original. It promises a substantial boost with a new design and a much faster processor at just $50. We'll learn in our Galaxy Spica review if the combination is enough to make it the cream of the entry Android crop. Design and the AMOLED screen

Those who have seen or used the original Galaxy might be forgiven for thinking they're seeing the same phone. In many ways, they're right: the button layout is almost identical, and many of the proportions are just as similar. This is generally a good thing, as the earlier phone was very easy to hold and to use one-handed.

There have been a few welcome changes, however. First is simply the change to white: gone is the glossy black that invariably showed fingerprints after just a few minutes. We also like that there are much clearer "home" and "web" buttons versus the abstracted controls on the original. The phone is also easier to grip thanks to a ridge of bumps on the back, and both the volume and hold buttons are in more natural locations.

The 3.2-inch AMOLED display is also unchanged and brings with it the same pluses and drawbacks. AMOLED by its nature is more vivid than LCD and produces punchier colors with deeper blacks. In most lighting conditions, it's a treat to look at and might be ideal if you're reviewing photos you just took with your camera or watching videos. It may also help battery life, which we'll touch on later.

The operative word for usable environments, however, is "most." Without the benefit of the Super AMOLED screen in phones like the Galaxy S, regular AMOLED displays like that on the Galaxy Spica wash out very quickly in bright sunlight -- on a particularly sunny day, the screen was almost unviewable. This is only occasionally a problem, but it's definitely something to take into account if you often find yourself in the park or commuting at mid-day.

And while the capacitive touchscreen is very responsive and good for typing, we do wish it was higher resolution. In an era where 800x480 and 854x480 screens are virtually standard, 480x320 feels somewhat simple. We didn't have any problems using the phone, but it lacks the crispness we've seen on phones like the Motorola Milestone.

Speed, Android 1.5 and the upgrade question

By far the most noticeable change on the Galaxy Spica is the processor. It's a huge leap from the earlier, strictly 528MHz chip to the 800MHz example in the new phone, and the effect is noticeable almost immediately. In most environments, there's none of the lag or stutter that for awhile seemed to plague every Android phone out there. Certain tasks, such as scrolling in the web browser, still tend to chug but are limited more by the software than the hardware.

That software may be the primary limiting factor. That the phone shipped with Android 1.5, not even 1.6, is baffling. We still love the core experience -- accurate web browsing, Google Maps, many apps, and by far the best Gmail implementation on any phone -- but without any OS upgrades, much of the modern Android experience is off-limits. Certain features like Google Maps Navigation or even entire apps, like Google Shopper, won't even run on the Galaxy Spica because the software isn't there. Android Market itself isn't as full-featured, either. If you don't mind this, the phone is still very much a pleasure, but it's enough reason to pause if you're a power user.

It should be noted that the Spica can play DivX and XviD videos out of the box, which may be a boon for those who don't cling to the most popular video formats.

Thankfully, unlike with the original Galaxy, Samsung isn't planning to abandon the software, at least not yet. It has said it's upgrading to Android 2.1 and has already started for Europeans. Rogers has told Electronista that its upgrade is coming but hasn't narrowed it down to an exact timeframe. When the upgrade hits, the Galaxy Spica should be a much more potent device -- it'll have virtually all the same features as the Droid and Milestone do, but for considerably less.

There is one caveat: for unknown reasons, Samsung is insisting that users upgrade through the company's PC Studio software rather than the over-the-air updates that Android normally allows. That will leave Linux and Mac users stuck on Android 1.5 unless they can either dual-boot Windows or find a friend willing to install PC Studio for long enough to handle the update.

Camera quality

The Galaxy Spica isn't quite a uniform upgrade to the Galaxy, and it's in the camera where that becomes evident. Oddly, Samsung decided to drop the flash that was present on the first phone, and that rules the phone out for most low-light photography or even just fill flash for subjects silhouetted by background lighting. Arguably that's not what people will buy the phone for, but it's disappointing.

It wouldn't be as much of an issue if it weren't for the camera quality itself. Color accuracy and sharpness are good in bright scenes, but even in moderate light it's possible to get overly blurry shots and excessive noise, even when shots are downsized for the web. Video quality is also quite poor at 352x288 and just 15 frames per second. Right now, we'd steer North American Android buyers directly towards the Droid or Milestone if photo or video capture is particularly important.

Battery life and call quality

We mentioned that the AMOLED screen could help with battery life, and in many ways it seems to be the case. You still need to recharge after a day of moderate use, but the phone conserves more overall power and is less likely to leave the user stranded if the phone isn't in constant use. We also had a small opportunity to try leaving the phone on standby, and it's clear that either the lighter demands or optimizations keep the phone at near full power where every other Android phone we've tried has usually seen its power drop substantially over the same period.

Your results will vary due to the OS: running a large number of background-aware apps, like Twitter clients, could drain your battery life quicker.

On phone calls, we're quite happy with the Galaxy Spica's performance. Calls were largely quite clear on our end. One recipient said the call had a slightly tinny sound but that it came through quite clearly. We were also glad to note that the volume was appropriately loud directly out of the gate: with most phones we've had to boost the volume even in a quiet room, but Samsung's phone was already at a good level for these environments.

Wrapping up

How appealing the Galaxy Spica is depends entirely on several conditions: your choice of carriers, how much you're willing to pay and how long you're willing to wait.

As of April 2010, the Galaxy Spica might still be the best subsidized Android phone on a given network. If that's the case and you need a phone soon, it's fairly easy to recommend the phone. It's fast, pleasing to grab and very inexpensive. On Rogers, it's just $50 with a contract, which makes it an extremely tempting offer, and many European networks will give it away for free even on a lower-tiered smartphone plan.

Samsung's problem is just that the situation is rarely so simple. If you're attached to Rogers, it can be an exercise in tradeoffs: if cost is the absolute facto, the LG Eve is $30 cheaper and has a hardware QWERTY keyboard, even if it's noticeably inferior in most ways. The HTC Magic + is slower and slightly more expensive, but it can also use Android 1.6 for now. These also assume you insist on Android; if you don't, the iPhone 3G and even the BlackBerry Curve 8520 are distinct options.

And if you're not linked to any one carrier, the situation is more complicated still. The original Galaxy is now free, even in Canada; you'll also have the option of the slower but in other ways more advanced HTC Hero,. Outside of Android, the Palm Pre is an option, as is the BlackBerry Tour in some areas. We'd argue that Android by itself is often worth much by itself, but being squarely in the middle for features and price isn't where Samsung needs to be.

The Galaxy Spica is a very solid phone and a good entry into the Android world, but we're quickly reaching the point where "good" isn't always good enough and where cost isn't everything. The up-front price of a phone is only a small factor in the cost of running a smartphone over a multi-year contract. Samsung has made a great device for those who just can't justify spending $200 on contract; we'd rather pay the short-term premium and have a more impressive phone like the Droid, Milestone or (soon) Acer's Liquid e that provides longer-term happiness.

- Cheap for the quality.

- Vivid, responsive AMOLED screen in most lighting.

- Fast in most tasks.

- Small but comfortable.

- Better button layout than original.

- Good battery life and call quality.

- Just Android 1.5; apps, features limited.

- Android 2.1 update will need Windows PC.

- regular AMOLED hard to see in bright sunlight.

- Poor camera for both photos and videos.

- Too close to rival phones in pricing for what you get.