Short version: A powerful and attractive handset held back by a few interface quirks and matters of taste. The Galaxy S series still is probably the best large (as opposed to medium, or extra-large) Android handset on the market as of this review.
There are a total of five Galaxy S-based handsets: The AT&T Captivate, which I have here in my hand, the T-Mobile Vibrant, the Verizon Fascinate (identical to the Vibrant except for an LED flash), the Sprint Epic 4G (with slide-out keyboard), and the “vanilla” international Galaxy S. They’re much the same but have some features setting them apart, mainly in the body department. Even so, the experience on one should be pretty similar to the experience for another, so consider this our review of the Galaxy S line — with the caveat that your mileage may vary slightly on the other models.
The Galaxy phones fit in between the medium-sized Android phones like the Nexus One and the mega-phones like the Droid X. At 4″ diagonally, the screen doesn’t sound much smaller than the 4.3″ Droid and EVO, but it does make a difference, as every millimeter counts when you’re dealing with something you’ll hold in your hand every day. For my money, the 4″ is pretty much the maximum and perhaps even a little bit too big, but of course that’s a matter for you to figure out yourself.
The hardware differs between the carriers, but you’ve got a few things in common: the Galaxy series is extremely thin, quite light, and has little in the way of bezel. With its shiny border and single hard bottom button, you could be forgiven for thinking the Vibrant, Fascinate, or reference Galaxy S was a slightly larger iPhone 3GS. I much prefer the AT&T model: in addition to having a dedicated search button, it has a more striking shape (real corners!) and an excellent back plate. The back plate is worth describing here: it’s a barely-there carbon-fiber-looking sheet that provides a little grip, looks awesome, and resists fingerprints. Taking it off is ridiculously easy, yet I’m not afraid it’s going to happen on accident. Kudos to the body design people for the Captivate.
The display is Samsung’s vaunted Super AMOLED technology, and while it’s a nice screen, it’s far from perfect. I’ll leave it to dedicated display reviewers to obsess over the color gamut and temperature bias, but I found it to be extremely bright, high-contrast, and fairly vibrant. On the other hand, it has a visible screen door effect, noticeable especially at borders of text and boxes, where there is visible sawtoothing. This has, I think, to do with the sub-pixel layout and dot-sharing that goes on behind the scenes of the display. It won’t bother most people, and the benefits of super-high contrast are probably worth the trade-off. It was especially nice as an alarm clock on my nightstand; black pixels produce almost no light at all, making it an admirable alarm clock.
It does employ soft buttons on the bottom, which aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. Personally, I like them, but Greg doesn’t, and the fact that they’re not always lit up means you will occasionally hit the wrong one even a year into ownership. It’s easy to design something so that users can tell where they’re putting their fingers, Samsung. Just do it!
Samsung also neglected to include any sort of navigational tool like a trackball or optical pad. I don’t expect those to be around forever, but until you create a replacement for it, you can’t just leave it out. The iPhone does fine without one because of its excellent cursor-placement tool. There is no such tool on this phone, so you end up repeatedly jabbing at the screen to get the cursor in the right place. As much Google’s fault as Samsung’s. (Or you can hold the number/symbol key to bring up a separate set of navigational buttons, which I completely missed)
There are two cameras, one front and one rear. There aren’t many uses for the front-facing one right now, but it’s nice to know that it’s there (sorry – it’s only on the Epic 4G and vanilla Galaxy S; the above picture is not a camera on the Captivate, the camera is on the right side in any pic of the handsets mentioned). The rear camera is five megapixels and functions as you would expect. It’s pretty nice. The macro mode was surprisingly functional, and I found most gross details to be very well-represented, though the lens and sensor have trouble making sense of, say, the leaves of trees or brick patterns. Here are a few shots I took; as you can see, the autofocus isn’t entirely reliable, but with a small amount of patience you can easily get some great point-and-shoot quality shots on it. Note that only the Verizon Fascinate has a flash on the back. A puzzling omission from the other phones, if you ask me, but perhaps we ask for too much standard.
One other omission, nearly fatal to my liking for these phones, was that of an LED indicator light. Why, Samsung, why? Those things are just handy as hell! (Update: Apparently the Epic has one, my mistake)
Call quality seemed fine to me, and no one complained about my voice — about the tone or volume, anyway.
Battery life was, I thought, extremely good. Depending on how much you’ve got syncing in the background, of course. It lasted from morning to late night every day I used it, and never approached dangerous levels. It does have a bad habit of announcing in a dialog box that it’s charged, though, which will be showing up every morning if I’m not mistaken. Really, Samsung? Why not overlay “100%” on the battery indicator?
One inter-handset note: there are very few hard buttons on the Galaxy family. The AT&T one has a leg up on the others, though, because they wisely moved the sleep/wake button up a bit; on the Vibrant and vanilla Galaxy, it’s exactly on the opposite side from the volume buttons, and I ended up hitting both on accident many a time (but not on the Captivate).
Right off the bat, you’ll notice that the stock Android 2.1 interface has been taken over by Samsung’s TouchWiz and Social Hub, which is not a trivial change but not as major as something like Sense.
Instead of an app drawer, the applications button opens up a truly blatant aping of the iPhone’s app layout. It’s organized by date downloaded, which would be nice except for the fact that the non-removable apps Samsung and AT&T are front and center. You can change the order, as well, but isolating your garbage apps in a “jail” screen is time-consuming. There’s also a list view in alphabetical order, though — which is convenient and quick to navigate. Then there are the omnipresent bottom four buttons, which are switch-out-able, but irk me for some reason. Don’t trust ‘em.
Samsung has included a few widgets and apps of varying usefulness: the bright pink “feeds” widget seems a bit limited compared to other apps’, but the “Buddies Now” quick contact rolodex seemed handy for keeping your top five or six contacts ready for quick access. The “Daily Briefing” is similarly handy, though it seems ridiculous to only show a single news article at a time, often with the headline so truncated as to remove all meaning (Democrats Face Un…).
Some apps are included as well, though they’re also hit-and-miss. Question: How many options do you need with which to update your Facebook status? If you answered four or more, this is the phone for you. In all honesty, it’s good to have a choice, but I don’t see myself using the inexplicably wood-themed “Write and Go” when I already have widgets and apps coming out of my ears. That said, the phone does also come helpfully pre-supplied with handy apps like Layar, Thinkfree (a mobile MS Office client), and an e-book reader.
The on-screen keyboard is responsive, but less so when you put on predictive text. Fortunately, I found the predictive text mostly useless, so I avoided it. That meant some annoyance in that that it’s all or nothing — “youll” won’t become “you’ll” even though hello, obvious? The handwriting recognition alternative was fun but not really practical, and it had a lot of trouble recognizing a lower-case “i”.
The unlock screen is another low point. There’s no unifying functionality at all: you swipe in any direction to unlock (not really pocket-proof), but you have to swipe in a particular direction to answer or kill a call. You have to drag a puzzle piece onto an empty space to answer an SMS, but you have to unlock normally and drag down notifications to answer an email. Why aren’t there just different puzzle pieces? The lock screen is attractive, but pretty useless. Let’s get a little more functionality in there, Samsung.
The usual quibbles found in Android (finicky text input, occasional weird delays or slowdowns) are present, but no more so than any other phone, in my opinion.
Getting things on and off the phone is a pain unless you use software that Samsung does not provide — in fact, they seem to go out of their way not to mention it, except deep in the manual. You can download Samsung Kies here, which is an powerful and intuitive syncing and file management app for the handset. I can only guess why it isn’t being actively promoted; setup was easy. Furthermore, I was unable to mount the phone on my PC without it, so there’s that. But check it out, it’s super handy:
Looking back, it seems like I’m really laying into this thing, but the part I haven’t mentioned is that otherwise, it runs Android extremely well. The 1GHz processor launches and closes apps quickly, and navigating scrolling areas and web pages was very quick, limited only by the data connection.
Update: Some points I forgot or have encountered since writing the review. Although the phone is light, I have found it to be quite sturdy. I’ve knocked it off a few tables and sat on it (sorry, Samsung), but it caused no problems and I see no blemishes.
Also, I’ve encountered a few more slowdowns than I’d like — for some reason it will occasionally take several seconds before returning to the home screen, and the camera app once took about 10 seconds to load. Yeah yeah, big inconvenience, right? But on a top-shelf phone with (supposedly) a faster processor than the iPad, this kind of slowdown is unacceptable.
I have not been able to replicate the GPS issues people have mentioned, but I’ll update this if I do.
Although I seem to have spent several paragraphs taking Samsung to task for their questionable interface decisions, I still think this is a great handset. It’s thin, gorgeous, has a big bright screen, and runs great with Android 2.1. The fact is, though, that there are a few issues with the interface, and that 2.2 is coming up fast. I can’t say what might change with 2.2, but I’m pretty sure some of these issues will be addressed. Whether you want to wait for that or not is up to you; some of these little problems might be pet peeves of yours (as the lack of LED indicator is for me). But as far as hardware and general usability goes, the Galaxy S is a nice piece of work.
As for the different models, I’d sat that the AT&T Captivate is the nicest, with the T-Mobile Vibrant a close second. The unbranded Galaxy S is third because of its slightly awkward home button and the volume/sleep button problem I mentioned above. We’re still waiting on the Epic 4G, which I suspect will be pretty epic (I’d go with it over the Evo sight unseen) but obviously trades in a little sleekness for that sliding keyboard. I like all four better than the Droid series, though.