Samsung comes out shooting with an Android phone to rival them all. (August 15th, 2010)
Samsung took Android hype to a new level when it launched the Galaxy S; it's the first Android device to have a truly worldwide launch and to hit all US carriers within weeks. T-Mobile markets the phone under the name Samsung Vibrant but the hardware features and functionality are the same for other carriers who use the more popular Galaxy S moniker. While T-Mobile does include a few software frills with its edition of the phone, we believe the Galaxy S is an excellent smartphone regardless of which cell phone carrier you choose and may make Apple slightly nervous -- read our Vibrant review to find out why.
Product Manufacturer: Samsung
Price: $200 (2 years, T-Mobile)
- Exceptional display.
- Android in fine form.
- Good camera quality.
- Solid call quality.
- Decent battery despite screen.
- Text entry merely okay.
- No camera flash.
- Navigation could be a bit easier.
- Question of long-term Samsung support.
Hardware and the Super AMOLED screen
The Vibrant, even more so than most other versions, is roughly the same size and shape as an iPhone, just a little taller. The back of the phone houses a speaker that can reach surprisingly loud volume levels as well as the five-megapixel digital camera, while USB connectivity and a headphone jack sit on the top of the phone. There is a tiny power button on the right hand side of the phone which is easily toggled with ones thumb; the only other buttons on the phone are the volume toggles on the left side of the phone where one would expect to find them.
Under the hood, the Vibrant sports the same specifications as other Galaxy S versions, if still impressive ones: it uses a Samsung-designed 1GHz processor and carries 16GB of internal storage with a microSDHC card slot for more. The chip speed is, in many ways, a large part of what defines the experience: unlike even Motorola's Droid 2 or Droid X, the OS and apps almost respond instantly, which makes using the phone feel very natural.
The screen common to all Galaxy S variants is easily their defining trait. We already saw the benefits of what Super AMOLED can do just recently with the Wave, but in many ways what we saw on the Vibrant took it to another level. Samsung still gave it an 800x480 resolution, but at four inches (versus 3.3 on the Wave) it's better for camera and video tasks as well as the on-screen keyboard. It's outdoor viewable, unlike most pre-Super AMOLED screens, and the touch-sensitivity is well calibrated; you're not likely to make accidental presses. Side by side with an iPhone, the differences in contrast are immediately noticeable, and even the iPhone 4 isn't necessarily more vivid.
Below the display are the requisite menu, home, back, and search. These four functions are work for both apps and for the basic Android OS. If you're new to the platform coming from the iPhone where every interaction was part of the touch interface, it'll take some familiarization to work with a button interface once again. As a testament to the solidity of the design, though, it eventually became second nature, and there was a certain comfort in having the same controls always in the same place.
Software and the user experience
Samsung's TouchWiz 3.0 interface on the Vibrant is similar to that on the Wave and has more than a slight hint of iPhone-like navigation: four icons are always lined up along the bottom, and the home screens give room for much more. Of course, Android is very different in practice: notably, the home screen is merely a place for shortcuts, not the app launcher itself, and supports widgets that Apple doesn't. It's here that Galaxy S phones shows one of its first advantages over the Wave, as Android gives the freedom to install extra widgets where Bada is so far locked to what Samsung gives out of the box.
Android Market may be the clearest advantage of the Vibrant over the Wave -- and, some would argue, the iPhone. At roughly 100,000 apps, it's much more likely that you'll find what you want, and it's much less often the case that an app exists on the iPhone's App Store without at least a rough equivalent on Android Market. Since Android gives a greater level of flexibility over what's allowed to run, such as apps that modify the interface, anyone who likes tinkering with the OS inside will like the Vibrant. It's unfortunate that the phone doesn't yet support Android 2.2, as it won't handle Voice Actions or certain newer apps. Samsung has promised at least a part improvement over its past reputation, though, and expects to have 2.2 very shortly.
A fairly robust level of multitasking is supported natively under Android, and we decided to use this to test the performance of the Vibrant under load. We played Internet radio through Pandora while sending e-mail, writing text messages, and browsing the web. Performance didn't suffer regardless of what we tried.
Social Hub persists as Samsung's single interface to manage social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. We tested this application with various social media accounts and found it did an adequate job aggregating the various accounts, but it didn't have many advanced features. Again, it's really just a way of eliminating clutter in communication. It's not a true unified experience like Synergy on a webOS phone or what Microsoft has promised for Windows Phone 7, although this does have the upside of preventing unwanted contacts from slipping into your phonebook.
T-Mobile actually didn't have much control over the software of the Vibrant, but those who like giveaways will be very happy that the carrier shipped it wit ha number of apps built-in. Most, such as Amazon's Kindle reader, MobiTV and Slacker are already free and are more just conveniences, but a full copy of The Sims 3 Collector's Edition gives it gaming from the start, and a temporary promo for Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi will give the Vibrant some utility while it's in the air. T-Mobile even preloads a full copy of the movie Avatar on the Vibrant, which plays back the movie beautifully on the screen. That said, there's a certain irony: the screen resolution prevents Avatar from displaying in true HD.
If we had a gripe about the Vibrant's software, it would be text entry. Even with Android, there's no native auto-correct function for mistyped words, and the text entry simply didn't feel as crisp or clean as the iPhone and other top-tier smartphones. That said, Swype is prelloaded here, and its implementation on the Vibrant is by far the best we've tested yet. This is probably due to the large screen size and resolution; you can not only move quickly but have a reasonable expectation of accurate results. What the Galaxy S lacks in text entry abilities is mostly remedied by Swype.
There's also some quibbles with the way that Android (and to some extent, Samsung) often hides features in contextual menus rather than putting them directly on the screen. Some menu items and settings were less than intuitive to find and we often found ourselves wondering why certain tasks had to take as long to complete as they did. While there is nothing terrible with the menus on the Vibrant, we were at times scratching our heads as to why they were laid out as they were.
Camera quality, call quality and battery life
We were very impressed with the picture quality of our test shots. You'll want to visit our Wave review (linked earlier) for impressions as the output is very similar, but as a rule it avoids the obvious flaws of camera phones in the past with only desaturation seeming to be the most noticeable issue. Using the camera on the Vibrant felt more like using a digital camera than like using a camera phone. The software, if anything, made it even better: where the Wave depends on a half-press of the camera button to focus, the Vibrant permits tapping anywhere on the screen to instantly focus on that part of the frame. And again like the Wave, the 1GHz processor means much to the experience: you can take photos in quick succession without having to wait for the app.
There is one glaring omission, however: there's no flash. Despite its being a higher-end device than the Wave, the Vibrant has to make do with natural light. We would argue that it's a minor issue as few camera phones can produce a good shot in the dark even with the help of a powerful flash -- many concert venues ban flash regardless -- but the Wave is paradoxically the better camera if you can't bring a dedicated example to wherever you're going.
Remembering that the Galaxy S is a phone, we would be remiss not to comment on its calling functionality. Call quality and volume were excellent, both surprises coming from the strictly average Wave, and the T-Mobile data service was very quick as it supported the full 7.2Mbps speeds the phone can handle. In terms of phone usability and quality, the Galaxy S delivered.
Battery life is difficult to test with such devices, but the Vibrant's performance should be roughly on par with what we've seen in newer Android and iPhone devices. You'll want to recharge the phone after a day of moderate use, and streaming Internet video or constant 3G data use will logically sap the battery sooner. That said, this is definitely an improvement over a device like the Evo 4G; owing partly to the AMOLED screen's lack of a backlight, you won't run out of battery within a few hours even with the large display area.
It's hard to dispute the Vibrant's prowess as a phone. It's simple to use but has the flexibility of Android under the hood; it has a large screen and fast performance without needing a charger in eyesight. Samsung's customizations aren't uniform improvements to Android, but they may help ease the transition and take some of the "alpha nerd" intimidation away. For those looking for a very compelling iPhone alternative, it may very well have arrived.
The only true factors making us reticent to give a perfect score are the keyboard outside of Swype and Samsung's own attitude towards Android. To put it mildly, Samsung in its brief history of making Android phones has developed a reputation for offering only mild upgrades before cutting the cord. It never updated the original Galaxy beyond Android 1.5, hasn't promised any upgrade for the Galaxy Spica past 2.1, and claimed the Behold II was ineligible for more than 1.6 despite it having faster hardware than the Spica. We should reiterate that Samsung has promised at least Android 2.2, but the possibility remains that it may pass on Android 3.0 where an upgrade would still be an option with other manufacturers.
But if you're happy with the existing feature set, the Vibrant brings the right mix of build quality, hardware performance and software functionality that will please nearly any smartphone shopper. We'd go so far as to call it the best Galaxy S variant on the market right now; the Captivate is partly neutered by AT&T's ban on non-Market apps, and Sprint's Epic 4G carries a higher price both up front and for monthly plans. That T-Mobile could very well have one of the best Android phones in an extremely competitive field is a shock, but a very pleasant one.