There is a lot to be said for a phone that so boldly has attempted to corner the smartphone market by getting out on almost every carrier imaginable all over the world. The big four US carriers are — with some concessions made — even getting in on the game with the first two variants (AT&T’s Samsung Captivate and T-Mobile’s Samsung Vibrant) already out and about doing their thing. Sprint and Verizon’s offerings will come later so as not to compete directly with their recent big handset launches. To get the purest experience possible, we dove-in head first with the international version of the Galaxy S (not slated for US release) to see just how out of this world it really is.
Hummingbirds and AMOLEDs, Oh My! Galaxy S Hardware Review
The Samsung Galaxy S is dominated by two main hardware powerhouses: the 1GHz Hummingbird processor and GPU and the 4-inch, 800×480 WVGA Super AMOLED touchscreen. Neither element can I praise highly enough, as both easily perform to their expected capabilities and then some. Even though the Galaxy S obviously takes its design cues from an extremely popular non-Android smartphone we won’t name, the internals easily set it apart. Now that isn’t to say there aren’t some things we wish Samsung had done differently, but their final product hits many of the right notes.
Again, I can’t say enough about the Super AMOLED display, it almost deserves a review of its own. When T-Mobile dubbed their version of the S the ‘Vibrant’ they weren’t kidding. This screen simply kicks ass. The contrast ratio of 50,000 to 1 is on par with your HD television at home. The blacks of the screen are so dark that they simply blend right in with the outer screen bezel, making it hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It seems a bit cliche, but images truly do pop on this thing. And the technology makes for a super responsive touchscreen with virtually no lag between what you want the phone to do and what it does. That of course may also owe something to the Hummingbird processor powering the whole thing.
And that processor kicks too. Aside from some lag that seems to be more brought on by a sluggish UI and with no fault to the chipset, applications jump open, homescreen slide left to right and back effortlessly, and video and 3D rendering never skip a beat. We are dealing with truly powerful stuff here, and it would seem between the screen and shear power we would be dead sold on the Galaxy S, but here come the caveats.
A few design decisions have led to the hardware of the S leaving us wanting more. For starters, the navigation buttons below the screen take a turn from what we are used to, and we can only thing the single hardware in the button was again designed to emulate a certain iProduct. That isn’t so bad, but the hardware button’s position dead center comes at the expense of one of the four traditional Android buttons. We lose the ‘search’ touch button (though search can still be accessed by long-pressing the menu softkey), something that almost seems organically linked with a Google-based phone.
Also missing is any sort of LED notification light, something I personally have grown very accustomed to finding on almost every cell phone I have ever owned. Fair enough, as the Galaxy S does feature a front-facing camera, something that is almost becoming a standard on today’s top phones. Of course, for now it’s usefulness is rather limited — apps like Qik and Fring aren’t supporting the Galaxy S’ FFC just yet — with video calling coming built in, though I am not sure just who we can video call as I have yet to ring one other phone with a FFC that I can connect to. While on the topic of cameras, a dedicated camera button is also missing. Something we would have liked to have, but not a deal breaker by any means.
The phone feels light, if not a bit cheap and plastic-y in hand. You get the impression if you handle it too much it might break. It is a small price to pay for a phone that has the slim profile and low weight of the Galaxy S. The actual physical appearance is pretty neat as well. There is a nice sort-of multi-demensional pattern covering the back battery cover of the phone.
And while on the topic of battery, the lifespan of the Galaxy S wasn’t the greatest I’ve experienced. I can’t say how many times I went to wake the handset from standby just to find it wouldn’t wake, and in fact had drained all of it’s juice in standby. I’m sure some energy saving tweaks to the display and modified usage habits could improve the longevity of the battery’s charge, though.
Oh, and the phone part of the Galaxy S? The call quality was good, but nothingI haven’t experienced before. The phone I was using was on AT&T so I can’t say much for the network, but using the phone for messaging and placing calls was a painless experience.
Off to See the TouchWiz-ard: Galaxy S Software Review
Like Motorola’s MotoBlur and HTC Sense, Samsung has brought out their own Android UI along with the Galaxy S. The TouchWiz 3.0 interface (which again seems to take its inspiration from a certain fruit-named cellphone) suffers from the same things those previously mentioned Android skins went through during their early versions. What TouchWiz adds is mostly on the social networking front through Samsung’s SocialHub, including contact list integration and an array of widgets. It certainly isn’t offensive as a UI, and for the most part acts like a slightly more rotund version of stock Android with some more bubbly icons, but here’s hoping later versions get some improvements.
Widgets such as Daily Briefing and Buddies Now allow for quick and easy access to info, contacts, and feeds you follow regularly, and we liked these additions for the most part. The biggest issues with Samsung’s custom widgets is the lack of ability to resize and arrange them to better utilize screen space. As it stands each of these widgets eats up a whole homescreen, so you could very quickly see the number of available panes drop steeply from the max of seven.
Navigating between those homescreens is made pretty simple thanks to a row of small navigation dots at the top of the screen. You can pinpoint a specific dot to jump to that screen. If you don’t need extra screen you can easily reduce that number by hitting the menu button and selecting edit. Then trim away.
In TouchWiz, your contact list is integrated right with Facebook, Twitter, and other feeds. You can access a history of your communications with a contact, quickly see their social media activity, and even get access to their uploaded photos. All of this right in the contact list. It is definitely a nice take on getting all of your needed information in one area.
Perhaps my favorite small tweak in the TouchWiz interface is the addition of a set of toggles for WiFi/Bluetooth/Silent Mode/Vibrate right at the top of the notifications drop down. It saves you from having to install these widgets on one of your homescreens and means you can turn these functions on and off from any screen. Definitely a little thing that could go a long way in terms of usage.
As I said before, I was by no means blown away by TouchWiz. Take that as you will, as I happen to be stock Android fan and tend to stray away from OEM custom skins, but still TouchWiz doesn’t quite match up with the latest versions of Sense and MotoBlur. The Galaxy S runs on Android 2.1 right now and is promised Android 2.2 in the near future. Hopefully some improvements to TouchWiz come with that. We’d really like to see better widget customization and the ability to more easily and quickly organize contacts and their social feeds.
LED Flash? We Don’t Need No LED Flash: Samsung Galaxy S Camera Review
OK, OK. The title of this section is a bit misleading because I definitely think the Galaxy S WOULD benefit greatly from an LED flash. That out of the way, given proper lighting conditions (and probably a much better photographer than myself), the Galaxy S with its 5MP auto-focus camera is capable of some pretty great shots. The added icing on the cake is the 720p HD video recording the Galaxy S is capable of.
I found that the Galaxy S functioned best as a camera in situations with plenty of natural light. It’s a good thing I went to the beach, then, as the rays of sun pelting my supply flesh provided ample ambient light. Using the Beach/Snow setting really got some good results.
But as you can see in the next series of pics, while night mode was serviceable for capturing images in low light, the camera didn’t necessarily get the best focus in such a setting.
And here is an example of the macro focus of the camera. It gets a bit harder to focus in macro mode, and the touch-to-focus refused to hone in on areas a bit to close to the lens, but the result are some pretty impressive closeups (sorry, no flower shots this time).
Finally we’ll take a quick look at some of the alternative shooting modes for the Galaxy S, namely highlighting the panoramic feature and the self-shot mode to give you an idea of what the front-facing VGA camera looks like. Here is a panorama from the beach which blended together real seamlessly and turned out looking pretty alright.
And here is that front-facing camera. Obviously the quality won’t replace your MySpace pose or the classic mirror shot, but it should work just fine as a video-chatting tool.
So let’s talk about 720p HD video. The first thing we must concede is that as of now the quality of HD video recorded by a mobile device just won’t stack up to your typical HD consumer camcorder, but it still provides a pretty nice result. Colors come off looking a bit duller than the still camera (I’m sure this could be tweaked a bit in the camera settings). Check out this peaceful beach scene with some bonus skim-boarding action from Phil at the end:
The result is pretty good. Definitely looks better if you keep it resigned to the 4-inch Super AMOLED display, but on a computer monitor or even a big screen TV it ends up looking pretty darned nice.
Overall we wish the version of the Galaxy S we played with had an on-board flash. For some who choose to go with one of the few US carrier versions that do sport LED flashes, the camera experience should be even better. We didn’t mind the lack of a hardware button after getting used to tapping the screen, either. While it could have been a disappointment, the Galaxy S camera did nothing but impress, and ended up being one of the best things about the phone.
Everything Else: Gaming and Media on the Samsung Galaxy S
Finally let’s take a quick look at some of the things that come packaged with the Galaxy S that really make the whole experience. Good hardware and a slick interface don’t mean anything if there is nothing worthwhile to use them for. Here the Galaxy S doesn’t disappoint. If anything it exceeds what you might expect.
3D gaming on the Galaxy S is an experience we haven’t had much of on Android phones up until now. True, several of the big phones to get a release in the past few months can probably do an equally impressive job of rendering and handling graphics, but the Hummingbird processor makes gameplay so smooth, the Super AMOLED screen makes graphics so immersive, and some pretty responsive six-axis controls really bring gameplay to life. It isn’t just one area or another that the Galaxy S succeeds, but a combination of all elements necessary for a proper gaming experience.
Aside from gaming, the S features several other ways to enjoy your media. An included FM radio built in to the handset is a nice touch, and presets and favorite stations make for an analog radio experience that feels at home on a smartphone. Video and audio playback also are not lacking in the slightest, and web browsing is quick and responsive. Again the responsiveness of the display provides one of the best tracking scrolls I’ve experienced on a mobile browser.
But how does the Galaxy S share all of that media with other devices in its environment? The most basic way is through a standard definition analog TV-out provided through the 3.5mm headset jack. This output provides a one to one representation of everything you do on your phone. You can use this connection to play games on your TV, browse the web, watch YouTube, and even listen to music.
If you want to get your HD recorded videos on your set in all of their glory, you will need to use Samsung’s AllShare app. AllShare is a DLNA application with several functions. You can play media from your phone directly to a compatible device, you can play media from a server on your phone, and you can use your phone to control playback from a server onto another device such as your TV. There are a few issues with DLNA, however. First, it won’t ever provide a one to one view of your screen, so you can’t play Galaxy S games or browse the web over the wireless standard. Second, and the biggest blow to DLNA for the moment, is a lack of standardized codecs, meanings certain devices won’t playback every file type. In my case, while I could connect via DLNA, most media wouldn’t playback on the Galaxy S, and no Galaxy S media would play on any of the other devices I own.
The media of the Galaxy S are easily the final tipping point if lacking hardware features or a needs-improvement interface have you on the fence. I got the most use of my Galaxy S for media purposes, and get the feeling most people would do the same.
So Is it Out of this World?
On paper the Galaxy S is a great phone. The specs put it right at the top of the heap as far as Android big dogs go. The TouchWiz 3.0 interface leaves a lot to be desired, but it is serviceable. Throw in a pretty top-notch camera with HD video recording and it would seem we have a real winner. But somehow the overall experience gets lost to the little things — the missing LED flash, lack of a notification light, no true customization in the software, all examples of factors keeping the Galaxy S just shy of smartphone supremacy. Is it a good choice? Heck yes if you happen to be on a carrier without many high-end Android/smartphone options. But for some with other options to consider you may want to spend a bit of hands-on time with this one in the store before committing.