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Samsung Fascinate

October 2nd, 2010
Samsung Galaxy S hits Verizon with additions and limitations.

Samsung's Galaxy S line is an unusual mix: each model is theoretically the same on the surface, but each model has its own spin. The Fascinate for Verizon is much like AT&T's Captivate or T-Mobile's Vibrant, but it has the unique challenge of pulling users away not just from the iPhone but from top-tier Android options on the Verizon network, particularly the HTC Droid Incredible or the Motorola Droid X. We'll see in our Samsung Fascinate review if that's possible -- and if controversial decisions for apps undermine the open principles behind Android. Hardware and design

Before launching into the Fascinate in earnest, we'd definitely recommend reading our Samsung Vibrant review if you want an overall feel for a Galaxy S design and how Verizon's model differentiates from the norm.

The Fascinate has a very simple and attractive design with a carbon fiber look to its case. The top of the phone has headphone and USB jacks while the volume toggles are where you’d expect them on the left side of the phone; the power/lock switch is on the opposite side of the device. The phone weighs in at only 4.5 ounces and is very thin and light in the hand. Even though the phone is wider and taller than other smart phones, such as the iPhone, its slender design and low weight gives it a very svelte feel.

Samsung uses a custom-made 1GHz processor to power the Fascinate while including a 16GB microSDHC card for storage. As before, the general user experience of the phone is very responsive, and all of the apps we've tested have loaded quickly. As always, the highlight of the phone is its four-inch Super AMOLED screen; Not only is the screen sharp and bright, but its touch sensitivity is excellently calibrated and cuts down on accidental input. It's not as color-neutral as an LCD -- colors can be oversaturated -- but it's vivid and viewable in bright sunlight. Call quality on the device is very good, and the speakerphone is adequately loud.

Our only physical design quirk is that volume rocker on the left side of the phone feels loose, so loose that we can actually hear it rattle when we shake the phone. While the power button on the opposite side of the phone seems secure enough, both sets of buttons feel too cheap to be on an otherwise very polished phone.

While other Android phones on the Verizon network feature eight-megapixel cameras, the Fascinate is armed with only a five-megapixel example. Just below the camera lens is a decently bright flash which works adequately for adding a little fill lighting, though it certainly won't illuminate a large room. The camera does a decent job with landscape shots, but close-ups didn’t fare quite as well without good macro support. The controls within the camera software are easy to navigate and work just how we expect them to; there's a reasonable amount of customization to fine-tune the end result. By far the best aspect of the camera is the touch to focus feature, which allows users to focus the lens anywhere in their scene by simply tapping that area on the screen. iPhone 3GS and 4 users are well familiar with this, but many Android phones are locked to letting the phone guess your intended target; it's welcome to see such a change here.

User experience: the Samsung and Verizon changes

In the past, we've been critical of both Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface and the inclusion of Swype for the keyboard. As on the Vibrant and other Galaxy S phones, though, Fascinate is possibly the best implementation of both software layers that we've seen yet. The menu navigation and overall flow of the operating system on the Fascinate feels more natural than on some other Android 2.1 phones. Many have likened it to an iPhone's in accessibility but while keeping most of the customization that has defined Google's platform. Some of it is still change for change's sake, and it has already delayed an update to Android 2.2, but it works well.

It would also be safe to say that Swype has officially arrived as a viable text entry platform, much the way T9 did years ago on phones when texting became more mainstream. The technique uses the swipes from key to key to speed up typing in a way that even a well-designed keyboard might not. We've seen iPhone 4s work faster, but for many it could be a reason to drop a hardware keyboard.

Compliments also have to be given out for the car cradle and desk cradle apps. These make the Fascinate much more useful as an alarm clock or a driving GPS unit by providing an interface you can easily reach when in bed or in your car at a stoplight.

Unique to Verizon is the use of the Fascinate as a 3G mobile hotspot, to feed an Internet connection to other devices over Wi-Fi, and its support for Skype Mobile for Android. Both could be considered advantages, but there are catches, too. Since Android 2.1 doesn't have built-in tethering, Verizon uses a proprietary implementation that lets it ask $20 extra per month and institute a 2GB cap. Likewise, Skype has been held back so that it has to use Wi-Fi for true VoIP; go to 3G and you still use your cellular minutes. We'd rather have the features than not, but it should be noted that other countries don't usually face these decisions to protect traditional business at the expense of subscribers.

In addition to these features all of the typical Android, Samsung, and Verizon fare is present including Android Market, Samsung's Social Hub, and all of the typical Verizon V Cast media apps. However, much attention has been drawn to Verizon's decision to change search engines. The search widget and OS-wide defaults for the Fascinate aren't based on Google, as one would expect on an Android phone, but instead Microsoft's Bing. Moreover, there are hints that Verizon may have taken steps to prevent customers from even using Google outside of manually setting it as the homepage. Everyone has noted that the Google options are missing, and some have claimed that they can't install official Google widgets.

When we talked to a Verizon spokeswoman, she claimed that Google would come back with Android 2.2, but it's hard to tell how accurate this might be. The same representative also didn't understand what Android widgets were and that the Google widget has been on Android phones since they launched two years ago. We know why Bing is the default; Verizon struck a non-exclusive deal with Microsoft for its non-Droid phones. But for those who assumed that Android's openness meant freedom of choice, it's a rude shock and could be enough to steer them away from the Fascinate, if not Verizon entirely.

While that's a glaring issue, our list of other criticisms for the Fascinate is quite short. Android 2.2 still hasn't arrived, and it's bit puzzling that the Fascinate would ship significantly later than other Galaxy S models but use 2.1. We would really like to get definite upgrade plans for this model, especially beyond the promised 2.2 fix. Samsung's history with Android so far has been a tenuous one, as more than one phone has been left running an outdated version of Android for the rest of its lifespan even when the hardware was capable of more.

Wrapping up

With an identical $200 price tag and similar features, the Samsung Fascinate is a compelling alternative to the Droid Incredible or Droid X. That said, the choice for users looking for an Android-based smartphone on the Verizon will largely come down to a matter of personal preference. On paper, the Motorola and HTC phones look more appealing through the larger screens and higher-resolution cameras, but the Fascinate has Swype and other helpful apps out of the gate as well as exceptional performance and one of the best screens in the field.

With this in mind, we're disturbed at the direction Android has taken in the Fascinate. Samsung's customizations go some ways to making the OS more accessible, but the mandatory Bing search and Skype limits run against the notion that Android is free. It's ironic that an iPhone, the definition of a closed platform, has more search engine choices. It's not a fatal limitation in this case by any means, but we'd like to see Google back its words in practice and guarantee choice for the users, not just the carriers.

The battle for smartphone dominance at the $200 price point will only get tougher if Verizon gets the iPhone 4, so Samsung and Verizon may not have much of a chance to rest easy. Regardless of whether or not this happens, the Fascinate is a good choice among many and helps reinforce the diversity of Android on a network that has become Google's home.

- Fast.

- Vivid Super AMOLED screen.

- Thin, light, attractive.

- Samsung UI helpful to some.

- Tap-to-focus camera.

- Still on Android 2.1.

- Forced use of Bing; against Android principles.

- Cheap-feeling side buttons.