Samsung Epic 4G Touch Review

After a very long wait, the Samsung Galaxy S II has finally made its way to America. Sprint was the first carrier to bring it out with their Samsung Epic 4G Touch and we’ve had a bit of time to get down and dirty with it. Will this phone be worth your pennies after all this time or should you hold off until something more “recent” makes its way here?

Hardware

The Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch features much of the same “plasticky” build that its international counterparts and even its predecessors do. The plastic doesn’t feel cheap or rickety, though. It’s a huge part of not only the device’s enticing looks, but also the way it feels and works.

The device is only .38 inches thin and weights just 4.6 ounces, but even though it’s slightly more chunkier than the original you won’t be able to tell the difference. Without holding the original, you’ll just think to yourself “this phone is extremely thin and light” because the reality is it’s one of the thinnest phones of its kind on the market.

There was much concern for the device’s 4.52 inch display in terms of comfort in holding it. I don’t know if it’s just my big, grotesque hands but I didn’t have any more trouble holding this than any other device. Speaking to other writers who have the device and considerably smaller hands, they’ve mentioned that holding it for them wasn’t a huge issue, though two-handed use may be warranted for certain applications.

The back side of the device features a hard mesh battery door sitting around the 8 megapixel 1080p camera sensor with flash sitting up top. The battery door is extremely thin and can be taken off with the slightest of tugs. The back cover gives it a far more premium feel than any of the original Galaxy S’ back covers did and the new material makes it a tad more grippy to prevent dropping it.

Exynos

Inside the device we have that illustrious 1.2GHz dual-core Exynos processor made by Samsung. I’m not sure what it is about Samsung and being able to transform these ARM-based processors into speed demons, but the Exynos is probably the most powerful processor I’ve used inside of a device.

Exynos makes TouchWiz and Android feel like hardware-accelerated iOS and Windows Phone 7 devices. In fact, a good reason for that is due to the fact that Samsung indeed transformed TouchWiz with hardware acceleration built-in. It combines with Exynos to make the device extremely fast.

Have you ever seen those commercials for touchscreen phones where it looks like the phone is doing what you tell it to do almost before you tell it to do it? Yea, that’s kind of what this feels like. Most of the time it felt like I couldn’t even get my finger fully off of the display before it had loaded up whatever application I pressed. I tried so hard to get this thing to slow up and I absolutely couldn’t.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard for other OEMs or Google themselves to get true hardware acceleration going, but Samsung has shown with the Galaxy S II line of phones that it’s very possible and that it makes for the smoothest Android experience you’ll ever find. I should note that Google is said to be bringing native hardware acceleration with Ice Cream Sandwich, but that’s another story for another day.

Internals

One thing I was a bit disappointed in was the lack of NFC radios. I figured Samsung would put them in considering Google’s desire to get that going here in the US. I expected it even more-so due to the fact that Sprint will be a major partner of Google’s in Google Wallet. We’re sure they would’ve loved NFC in this model, but for whatever reason it didn’t make it. We’ll have to dig a bit to see whose decision it was to exclude it and why.

To top off the insides we have 1GB of RAM alongside 16GB of internal storage, but only ~12GBs are usable. Storage can be expanded via a MicroSD card slot up to 32GB. As the name suggests, we also have 4G radios inside alongside 3G radios. As I am not in a 4G area coverage, I was unable to test its performance.

Battery Life

While my battery tests are never scientific, I believe using the phone how you normally would and measuring a phone’s battery that way is worth way more. I do a lot of emailing, texting, Tweeting and Facebooking (and now Google+ing) on my phone.

I like to watch YouTube videos from time to time and my favorite time to browse the web is at night, in my bed and without a hot laptop sitting next to me – I can lose track of time and the next thing you know a couple of hours will pass. I don’t place or accept calls very often and I don’t play games for more than five minutes.

With that said, my idea of heavy usage will net me anywhere between 14-16 hours in this phone on a full charge (heavy usage being everything I mentioned above and maybe a bit more). Some might experience much less, but it all depends on how you use your phone.

To give you an idea of how the phone performs on standby, I let the phone sit for an entire day (24 hours, went to sleep, woke up and there was still a tad bit of juice left. All in all I was able squeeze 30 hours of the phone with stuff constantly syncing in the background and without strong cellular signal.

With less services syncing and a strong signal or with airplane mode enabled, you should easily be able to stretch that further. Needless to say, the battery should make you plenty happy if your phone is not constantly awake and if you don’t mind charging it every night. Also worthy of nothing is that if you have the original Epic 4G’s battery it will fit perfectly inside the Epic 4G Touch. It’s not as big in terms of capacity but it should make to be a nice spare.

Display

Samsung’s included a 4.52 inch Super AMOLED Plus display (the original’s was 4.3 inches). The size might be off-putting to some, but the phone still fits very nicely in my hand. Maybe that’s because my hands are grotesquely large, but other friends I’ve spoken with who have much smaller hands say they had no problem holding the phone and in most cases operating it with one hand.

At first I was a bit disappointed by the display’s WVGA resolution, but I have gotten used to it over time. Super AMOLED Plus is great and makes me forget about the resolution. Not only does it help in color accuracy, contrast and brightness, but also in clarity. The display provides prime viewing angles and performs extremely well in direct sunlight. On top of that, it’s extremely responsive, but that’s to be expected from a Samsung Display.

Software

TouchWiz

TouchWiz 4 is greatly improved over previous versions. It doesn’t really feel clunky or bloated (not that TouchWiz 3 necessarily did). Great new features, widgets and applications make debuts and get makeovers for this version of Samsung’s oft-criticized but solid user interface. Eye candy has been stepped up a great deal with a “leap” like pinch-to-expand feature, a new method of scrolling through and placing application icons, shortcuts and widgets on your home screen and an app drawer that now features pages and folders support.

As we mentioned above, TouchWiz runs extremely fast and it’s because Samsung has hardware acceleration built-in. While TouchWiz 3.0 wasn’t by all means slow (beneath the power of the Hummingbird processor, anyway), TouchWiz 4 takes advantage of the Exynos processor beautifully.

Samsung’s added new motion controls and they are more than just novelty – they can be useful in most instances. The browser has a feature that lets you hold the display with two fingers and move the device back and forth to zoom and in out. For some people this will be highly desirable over pinch-to-zoom. You can also do the same in the default gallery app to zoom in and out on pictures

On the home screen while holding an app or widget to place, you can pan left and right simply by tilting the device left or right. This is loads better than trying to get the app to the edge of the display in order to trigger a page turn.

Another motion-based feature is double tap to activate voice actions. This could be a bit useless for those who prefer to just hold the search button, but if you’re driving you can activate the Voice Talk app and your phone will listen for a “Hi Galaxy” command. From there, you can simply speak your instructions to it (“Text ‘Mother’ Message ‘I’m coming to see you'”, for instance.) Finally, turning your phone over will silence a call while ringing. Simple, but convenient.

The app drawer has been given a nice bit of polish, as well. You can still organize apps alphabetically or by downloaded vs preinstalled, and you’re now given the option to add folders and pages. This is useful if you like organizing apps of the same kind into one folder or pages. Another use case would be to get those apps you don’t use all in one folder and put that folder on a separate page so they’re out of the way. (Thumps up for hiding bloatware, anyone?)

The ability to change dock icons is back and it’s performed simply by hitting the edit button while in the app tray and dragging an app onto the three leftmost spots. The app launcher icon can not be removed. Flexibility is always king and we’re glad Samsung has given us more freedom in how to display our apps.

Samsung’s brought resizable widgets into the fold. The only ones we get to resize are AP, Accuweather and Mail. Resizing is great if there’s a certain way you’d like to set up your home screen, and for the Accuweather widget you can show as little or as much information as you want as you go smaller or bigger. Power controls are still embedded at the top of the notifications pane when you pull it down so you can toggle settings on and off with ease.

For keyboards, we’ve got Swype and Samsung’s standard keyboard. Nothing is really new there. Last but not least, installing apps is easy for those who don’t like to navigate to the Android market or venture into settings. Simply open up the app drawer, tap Menu, press Edit and press the minus button on the upper right of the icon. Unfortunately this does not work in list view.

Apps

All the usual Sprint apps are here, including a N.O.V.A. 2 HD demo, but you can remove all but Sprint Zone, Sprint Hotspot, Sprint Mobile Wallet, Sprint ID and Voicemail. Bloatware, but not nearly as much as other carriers (and being able to group apps into folders or pages can help you hide the things you really don’t want to get in the way).

As for preinstalled apps, we have a nice mix of apps from both Samsung and Sprint. Along side the usual Google apps and stuff like the calendar, clock and calculator apps, Polaris, Media Hub, Social Hub, Task Manager and a task app all return for the party. New (to us) are a voice recorder, Vlingo for voice actions (it’s branded Voice Command here), Photo Editor and a Video Editor (more on these two later).

TouchWiz 4 is great, but to be quite frank, I was more impressed that there were little to no glitches, than anything. I would have taken TouchWiz 3 with considerably less issues so this is especially satisfying. I got no random reboots, apps don’t open inadvertently, software reads the sensors fine – everything just works great. And that’s one of the biggest things phone manufacturers strive to provide – phones that “just work” for their consumers. Samsung’s finally achieved that here.

Camera

Samsung’s always been considered at the top of the totem pole when it comes to camera sensors and the Galaxy S II is no exception (and undoubtedly a step up from before). This one has an 8 megapixel sensor with 1080p video recording along with a 2 megapixel front-facing camera, not to mention a quality sensor.

Still photo performance is outstanding, especially in well-lit and natural lighting conditions. The sensor picks up color and white balance accurately, and a lot of that is thanks to the software. Shutter speed is quite fast even with autofocus doing its thing.

That lone LED flash on the back is extremely bright. It’s enough to light up a pitch black room. In fact, it might be a bit too bright – your subject will be washed out if you’re too close, and if your subject happens to be a human you might inadvertently blind them. Still, we’re just glad there’s an LED light considering most

The software will equip you with tons of settings for ISO, resolution, white balance, shooting modes, focus modes, special effects, scene modes, exposure values, blink detection, image quality, photo contrast and more. That sound like enough for you? Lowlight performance is great and is helped along by the phone’s super bright LED flash. Can take pictures in pitch dark and they come out looking great.

Video performance is nothing to sneeze at either. 1080p recording won’t rival mid-range or high-end camcorders, but for a phone it’s as good as it gets. You get an excellent amount of detail when shooting.

The camera beautifully adjusts to light on the fly so your footage won’t be washed out when pointing it toward the sun or bright lit areas. Flash works in video recording, but you need to turn it on before starting. Unfortunately, you can’t zoom in 1080p during recording, but you can zoom in 720p.

Another thing to note is that this thing will certainly pick up a great deal of sound. You need not look any further than my sample footage to see how well the microphone captures my voice. You should be able to pick up the voices and sounds of your subjects with ease. Take a look at some photo and video samples below (click to enlarge the panoramic photo, video is 720p sample).


Multimedia (Gaming, Photos, Videos and Music):

Media Hub returns to allow you to rent and download movies and TV shows. No comparable service for music exists, unfortunately, but Sprint has included their own Sprint Music Plus service that allows users to download songs and ringtones and bill them straight to their monthly bills.

If you want to watch those movies and TV shows on your television, you can. That USB port isn’t just any old USB port. It’s an MHL-compliant USB port. We’ve covered MHL in the past and it provides data sync, charging and HDMI functionality all through the same port. You do need to get an MHL-compliant and compatible cable to go with it, but those shouldn’t be too hard to find. Unfortunately, I was unable to test the device’s HDMI functionality as I do not have a compatible HDTV.

The photo and video editors aren’t professional grade, naturally, but they can be a great, quick tool for those who need to whip up something. Photo editor won’t be good for much other than cropping and tweaking color while the video editor gives you the ability to split and trim clips as well as create transitions and use themes (some themes come with background music but you can also add your own). Editing was easy and fun, but certainly not as powerful as Google’s Honeycomb app or Apple’s app.

Gaming on the device was superb as you’d expect from this processor. I tried several 3D games and none of them could bog the Exynos processor down. As of now, technologically there is nothing holding you back from playing whatever you want in the Android market (aside from games exclusive to certain devices, of course).

The speaker on the device is as usable as it was on the Epic 4G. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from the too-quiet EVO 3D, but sound was crisp, accurate, loud and clear. It’ll be great for watching videos and listening to music without headphones as well as taking a call on speakerphone.

Just as with playing music on the Samsung Galaxy S, you’ll get music controls in the notification bar for skipping, forwarding and pausing music. What’s new this time around, though, are controls on the lockscreen – I think I’m truly in love.

A Major USB Annoyance

Trying to transfer my sample photos and images for this device for my review, I discovered that I could not easily access my phone’s microSD card on a Mac. My files come up just fine on a Windows 7 machine, but for my Macbook I had to go through some pretty annoying steps.

It didn’t take more than 30 seconds, but it was still disappointing. I had to venture to Settings > Wireless and Networks > USB Utilities. I then had to make sure my USB was unplugged. Next, you press the button to turn on USB storage and it asks you to plug your phone back up.

Finally, the familiar USB storage screen comes up that asks you if you want to turn on USB storage. Turn it on and bingo. Like I said, it doesn’t take long but I really shouldn’t have to go through all of that just to access my phone via my USB cable. We’re hoping Samsung, Sprint or whose ever idea that was will eventually streamline all of that in the future like they were able to on the original Galaxy S.

Web Browsing

Samsung has done perhaps the best job with Android’s default web browser we’ve ever seen. The UI remains largely the same, but it’s the performance enhancements and new features that get us excited. Holding two fingers and moving the phone back and forth is an alternative to pinch to zoom and it works really well. So well, in fact, that we’d think it’s “magic” (sorry, Steve).

Even if you pinch to zoom, the webpage will flow very smoothly and text wraps quickly to your screen (you have to turn the option on). You do get a bit of checker boarding when scrolling up and down the page really fast, but it’s nothing that will break the experience. Flash playback is excellent and lag free, even with HD video playing on Youtube. Again, this is most probably thanks to the processor inside.

Benchmarks

I only ran a couple of benchmarks – Quadrant and Linpack – but I didn’t need a whole lot of benchmarks to let me know that this phone is stupidly fast. For Quadrant, I consistently saw scores right around 3,150 – none of my other tests came lower. The one time I was able to break 3,100 I was able to garner a score of 3,400+.

I can’t imagine how much faster this thing will be overclocked but I can’t imagine many other phone can catch it. To compare, my HTC EVO 3D overclocked to 1.5GHz saw Quadrant scores in the 2,100s.

As for Linpack, I naturally ran the multi-thread benchmark right away. Scores were consistent around mid-high 80s. The highest result I was able to pull up was 91 while the lowest was about 72. Averaging it all out netted an 85. As for the single-thread tests, Linpack scores were consistent around 55.

Odds and Ends

For my taste (I’m certainly not an audiophile), call quality and clarity was exceptional. The only problems I ran into are with signal strength as I live in a notoriously bad area for Sprint.

Even with 1 or 2 bars, I’ve experienced no dropped calls (and I’ve made a bunch of them) which says a lot about Samsung’s attenuation. It’s said plastic helps that out more than it does metal, and I’d be inclined to agree as my EVO 3D does tend to drop a few calls when signal strength is dangerously low and my hand is covering the phone. (And yes, it’s sad that the phone stuff is in the odds and ends section. Says a lot about how far phones have come, yea?)

Just a quick tip: if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like everyone in your business, you’re going to need to turn the in-call volume down. The phone’s earpiece delivers very loud sound (but as with the external speaker, it isn’t overkill and the ability to turn the volume down will make this a non-issue).

Other radios such as WiFi, Bluetooth, and yes, even GPS, work great. With the latter, I’m able to get a lock within less than 10 seconds inside of my house with an average accuracy of 40 meters. Needless to say, we’re extremely relieved considering the original Galaxy S GPS debacle.

I should note that droves of owners are complaining about WiFi signal strength. I’ve seen this “low strength” in my testing but this does not appear to have any impact whatsoever in data speeds.

I’ve done countless speed tests and am able to hit my maximum bandwidth on both upload and download speeds. Long story short, just because the WiFi indicator says it has 1 bar doesn’t mean the signal is weak and doesn’t mean the radios are bad. Yes, it’s annoying, but we’re sure Samsung can address this with a fix.

Verdict

The Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch is, without a doubt, one of the best smartphones in the United States. Yes, even after all this time, it outdoes most of the competition. Other dual core devices exist and are great in their own light (Motorola has a nice line of dual-core devices out and HTC has a couple), but I can say, without hesitance, that none of them stack up to the Galaxy S II, performance wise. It also bests competition in areas such as its 4.5 inch Super AMOLED Plus display (despite only having WVGA resolution) and its 1080p HD 8 megapixel camera.

Much has been said about Samsung and their software updates, but they are very consistent and fast with updates outside the US and there’s hope yet that carriers in the US will work with Samsung to deliver them faster.

For the time being, Android 2.3.4 is going to be good enough for the majority of users as it’s the latest major Android revision for handsets available. TouchWiz 4 also isn’t bad at all. In fact, the changes Samsung’s made almost puts their UI on par with HTC Sense in terms of usability and depth (HTC Sense gets the edge in widgets).

This phone was delivered with virtually no bugs. I know there’s never such a thing as perfect software, but I have not seen one major or even minor noticeable flaw. To me, this is most important in considering sticking with a phone for two years (give or take a few months).

All in all, this is the phone to get right now, as are any of the other variants if you aren’t with Sprint (sorry Verizon customers). Even if you weren’t looking at this phone, I strongly advise you to try it out before writing it off. For $200 and a choice between 1 of 3 dual-core phones, the Samsung Galaxy S II is more than just a safe choice – it’s a choice that just makes a ton of sense.

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