Samsung Galaxy S review: T-Mobile Vibrant and AT&T Captivate

July 18, 2010: 1:56 PM ET

The svelte Samsung's Galaxy S platform comes to U.S. shores with an amazing 4-inch Super AMOLED display.

Seeing Samsung's new Galaxy S hardware on a web site just doesn't do it justice.  You have to pick one up to just feel how light they are and how beautiful the four-inch display looks almost better than reality.  I've been using both the T-Mobile Vibrant and AT&T Captivate for the past week and have to say it will be hard parting with them.  The Vibrant went on sale this week and AT&T's (T) Captivate hits stores today.

Image Credit: Seth Weintraub/Fortune

Except for the encasement design and 3G radio hardware, these two phones are pretty much the same device, so I'm going to group them together unless otherwise specified.

I'll start with the good and work my way down to the issues...

Screen:
This is the best screen I've seen on a phone, period.  That's coming from someone who has been using an iPhone 4's Retina Display for the past few weeks.  Sure there are more pixels on the iPhone 4 (most of which I can't see) but the Galaxy's much larger four-inch, Super AMOLED display more than makes up for the lacking pixels.   If you have any doubts, check out the Avatar video that T-Mobile includes with their phone. Not one person I've shown this to hasn't been blown away (expletives abound).

The viewing angles are also the best I've ever seen, which make sharing videos doable (unfortunately, it also helps your neighbors in the train see what you are doing as well). Viewing angles in sunlight aren't as hot but looking straight on, like you'd do 99% of the time, it is as good as high end IPS LCDs (like EVO/Droid/iPhone).

A knock on traditional AMOLED displays, like that of the Nexus One, has been its performance in sunlight. This 'super' version built by Samsung is just as viewable in sunlight as LCDs like those on the EVO, Aria or even the iPhone.  What's even more astounding is that Super AMOLED's blacks are perfect in the sense that there is literally no light emitted. Samsung says this screen also saves power and allows the Galaxy S to be thinner and lighter. The Amazon (AMZN) Kindle app takes advantage of this by using a special white text/black background mode that uses almost no battery -- almost like eInk.

Weight:
The trend in high-end Androids has been "up-up-up", both in size and weight.  It is refreshing to see hardware that goes the other direction in thickness and weight, while retaining a super-sized screen.

Both of these devices weigh in at 117.9 grams or 4.16 ounces . That's a whopping 20 grams (14%) less than the iPhone 4's glass-backed and steel-framed 4.8 ounces (137 grams)  -- which is even more astounding when you consider the Galaxies have a much bigger screen. Oh, and that's without the bumper.

In fact, the Galaxy S is only a few grams heavier than the much smaller-screened HTC Aria from AT&T. While I am a big fan of the Aria, it is time to say good-bye to that recommendation for small, free-with-plan Android devices.

No other high-end Androids come close to the weight of this thing. The EVO (170G) and Droid X (155G) feel like anchors in comparison.

Size and feel:

There are significant external design differences between the Vibrant and the Captivate. The Vibrant looks like a thinner, lighter -- but also bigger --  iPhone 3GS, while the Captivate's edges are more square.  I personally prefer the Vibrant by a small margin, but this is subjective.  Both feel great in your pocket; the size to weight ratio makes it feel like the battery fell out -- it is unnaturally light (a good thing).  You will wonder how a device with a an amazing four-inch display can be so light.

With a bumper, the iPhone is thicker than the Vibrant

These devices are also as thin as you'll find on any Android phone at 9.9 millimeters. While the iPhone 4 is less than half a millimeter thinner, the bumper makes it a thicker package than either Galaxy overall.  The Galaxy feels thinner in your pocket because of the rounded edges and curved back.

While I'm normally a huge fan of Apple design, I really don't like the way the squared-edged steel and glass iPhone 4 feels in my pocket or in my hand.  I much prefer the rounded, soft  iPhone 3GS-type plastic that the Galaxies have.  This is something you need to try for yourself as everyone has a different taste on this.

Camera:
The camera on the Galaxy S is 5 megapixels and it has no flash. It also has no front-side camera for video chatting (the European and Sprint Galaxy S models do). That being said, the camera performs really well, especially in low light conditions. It has manual and automatic ISO settings like you'd find on a Samsung point and shoot and a bunch of other consumer camera features. In normal conditions, the still images are fantastic and as good as the iPhone 4's, at least to my eyes.

The software is Samsung's own and takes a few minutes to get used to but works fine overall.

The camera also takes 720P video but the quality isn't nearly as good as a Flip phone or the iPhone 4 (which might be due to compression). There is also no HDMI video out on this phone to watch your videos, but I'd almost say that watching videos on the Galaxy's screen is as enjoyable as the big screen.

GPU/Gaming:
This is the fastest gaming Android device available.  Here's a benchmarking video from Android and Me demonstrating the capabilities of the PowerVR SGX540 (which is double the speed of the current generation PowerVR SGX530 GPU of high end Android devices and the SGX 535 of the iPhone's A4).

This is also the first Android device to have a six-axis accelerometer for better gaming (similar to iPhone 4)

The buttons:
The buttons are a weak spot for the Galaxy. There are the standard four on the front below the screen, but besides search they are in a different order than traditional HTC or Motorola buttons (Android needs a standard in this area).  I imagine that this will be easy to get used to for someone who only has one phone, but for someone like me who uses a few different Android devices, it is maddening.  They also aren't as accurate as HTC's buttons and certainly not as reliable as Motorola's physical butons -- like on the Droid X.

The haptic feedback on the buttons is softer than what I'm used to on Motorola and HTC devices -- so much so, that I actually prefer it off.

The power button is on the right side.  I wasn't initially a fan but got used to it pretty quickly. The left side has the volume rockers exactly where you'd expect it.

Other hardware notes:
Samsung's devices come with 16GB of storage built in plus the ability to add 32GB SD Cards for a total of 48GB capacity.  Samsung makes lots of Flash storage so it probably makes it more economical to beat out HTC and Motorola.

The speakers are solid but not spectacular. I had no problem watching a movie in ambient noise of an office or home.

The USB port is located on the top. I prefer bottom but it is subjective and not a big deal. It was easier when driving than bottom or side USB charging ports. The Galaxy also has a somewhat cheap feeling sliding door that can cover up the USB port.  I'll never use this.

Because this phone is so light, it seems like it would be less prone to breakage in the event of a fall.  I have no data to back that up, however.

Battery life: (1500mA battery) This was on par, if not better, than other Android devices like the Nexus One, Aria and the Incredible -- probably close to the iPhone. Much better than the EVO.

Software:
The Galaxy S comes with Android 2.1 which gets along fine on Samsung's own 1 GHz Hummingbird ARM processor. Like most other Android devices, the speed which they can update to 2.2 Froyo will be watched closely. Neither Google nor Samsung will comment on when that will be nor whether this phone will be Android 2.3/3.0 'Gingerbread' compatible. For what it is worth, the Galaxy's specs surpass the current low-end Gingerbread requirements so it shouldn't be an issue.

Both Vibrant and Captivate come with Samsung's TouchWiz Android overlay. Much like HTC's Sense and Motorola's Blur, I'd be happier without it overall but it does add some features. One is a Kin-like Social Feed widget called "Feeds and Updates" that updates with your friends' Twitter, Facebook and Myspace updates. Another is a more iOS like dock at the bottom and side scrolling apps menu.  There is also a Diary application that functions as a sort of blogging platform somewhat like the Kin Studio.

I'm not sure if it is just me, but Samsung's overlay feels a bit more lethargic than Sense, which is snappier. Again, if anyone at Samsung is listening, please make a skinless option like the Nexus One. Less work, more sales!

Both AT&T and T-Mobile add irremovable applications, which is annoying. You would think that carriers, especially AT&T, would see how satisfied iPhone users are with a clean experience. I wonder if the pennies per application they get for sticking their consumers with unwanted applications is worth the aggravation it causes.

That being said, I did appreciate T-Mobile's addition of the 1.4GB Avatar movie, which, like I said before, will make your (and your jealous friends') jaw drop.  It is also on the SD card and easy to delete when/if you want to.

Both phones also come with Swype texting installed.  Swype will make texting faster but there is a learning curve involved.

GPS
I've saved the worst for last.  The Galaxy has an extremely weak, almost broken GPS receiver. On both the Vibrant and Captivate, I had issues connecting to GPS satellites in almost every setting.

For some (including me), this might even be a deal-breaker.  I had trouble getting a signal outside, in my car in a slightly wooded area. On a highway, it took over a minute to get a signal. The GPS would time out in my home where EVO, Droid, Aria, Nexus One and iPhone all had very little problem picking up a signal in a matter of seconds. I'd often have to rely on cell towers or Wifi spots to get my coordinates, which aren't nearly as accurate as true GPS.

With GPS being such a huge part of the Android experience, I'm surprised that this sort of flaw made it to shipping Galaxies.

It isn't just me either. Other Galaxy users around the globe are having the same types of issues.

I've reached out to Samsung for comment on this. There does appear to be a firmware update that helps with this but I have no official confirmation that this is coming. I'll update if/when I get one.

UPDATE: Samsung says they are working on the GPS and should have an update available in September along with Froyo:

Overall:
If you can look past the (fixable?) GPS issue and the other small annoyances of the Samsung/Carrier Android software overlays, this is an incredible phone. The screen, weight and form factor is the best available in any phone right now, bar none.  The camera doesn't have a flash and doesn't face forward but is otherwise right up there with the best as well. The OS is a skinned (for better or worse) Android 2.1 with Froyo coming soon.

If you use your phone as a primary GPS device (and on Android, why wouldn't you?) I'd hold off until Samsung issues a fix for the GPS issue.

The Vibrant and Captivate are almost identical in practical use but if I had to pick one, all other things being equal, I'd probably go with the Vibrant because of the more rounded form factor...and (sadly) the Vibrant's Avatar movie (and 2GB MicroSD card - included), which is a crowd favorite. AT&T also won't let you sideload apps, which will certainly be a deal-breaker for some.

On the other hand, AT&T's will work on international 3G, where T-Mobile will downgrade to EDGE.

A bigger factor should be network in your area. Go with the best carrier, AT&T or T-Mobile -- or wait for Verizon's, Sprint's, Bell South's or US Cellular's.

Where to buy:

Both carriers sell the device for $200 with a two year plan.  AT&T.  T-Mobile.

Amazon has discounts on both the T-Mobile Vibrant $99 and the AT&T Captivate for $49 (see top) but those prices change frequently.

Some more selected reviews and videos:

Phandroid:

Slashgear's test of the 720P camera:

PocketNow's browser testing.  (Samsung's GPU really shines vs. iPhone and Froyo Nexus One)

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About This Author
Seth Weintraub
Seth Weintraub

Google went from searching the Web to worming its way into nearly every facet of business and government. Seth Weintraub unveils where the company is going, who it's competing with, who it's about to compete with and how market forces push the company to veer or adhere to its Don't Be Evil motto. For 15 years, Weintraub was a global IT director for a number of companies before becoming a blogger.

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