Samsung's Galaxy S phones: A different take on Android
Tapping the tiny button on the side of Samsung Electronics' Vibrant smart phone illuminates the beautiful, 4-inch touchscreen that, on first glance, looks to be running software from another galaxy.
The Vibrant for T-Mobile -- and its AT&T sister called Captivate, both of which went on sale in the last week -- make up the first half of Samsung's new Galaxy S product line, which will show up on all four major carriers. These first two phones each cost $200 with a two-year contract. (For the Vibrant, that price comes after a $50 mail-in rebate.)
I've spent the last week or so putting the Vibrant through its paces; the Captivate is a very similar product. Software on the two is seemingly identical, and the hardware differs only in minor aesthetics. Whereas the Vibrant's look is reminiscent of Apple's previous set of iPhones, the Captivate has a boxier feel.
As you dive deeper into the software, some aspects will look familiar. These phones run a heavily modified version of Google's open-source Android operating system -- the software that powers about 60 devices including Verizon Wireless' popular line of Droids.
Some of Samsung's software revisions are for the better.
With the new lock screen, you can swipe your finger in any direction after the screen lights up, and you're quickly tossed into the software.
On the home screen, a dock with four key apps stick to the bottom as you scroll between screens, much like the iPhone. However, which ones remain in this strip cannot be customized.
[Updated, 6:17 p.m. Turns out you actually can rearrange the apps in the dock -- just not the way apps are normally moved around. As a reader points out, the setting is buried five steps deep in a menu within the "applications" drawer.]
Unlike the iPhone, each screen can hold numerous widgets -- mini app-like utilities that can display and refresh data.
Android's staple notification menu, which you can access by pulling down the top bar where the clock resides, has some nice improvements. It presents quick access to buttons that toggle the Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS functions on or off.
Amid all of these daring software overhauls, there are shortcomings.
One of those, it seems, may have been out of Samsung's control. As we noted last week, the Vibrant, like Motorola's Droid X on Verizon, includes some apps -- such as the full "Avatar" film and Sims game -- that are difficult to uninstall and seemingly impossible (for mere mortals) to remove completely.
Another problem, which may be attributed to either a faulty chip, T-Mobile's network or a software error, has to do with the GPS system. It's weak. At times when using Google's excellent navigation system, the phone will lose a GPS link for minutes at a time. Other times, it gets fairly close at finding a location but struggles to pinpoint.
However, some issues lie solely on Samsung. The loads of software tweaks seem to slow the system down at moments, despite the phone's speedy 1-gigahertz processor. Other Androids of comparable hardware don't suffer from this.
The large, high-contrast touchscreen -- it employs a display technology called Super AMOLED -- takes up the face of the device. Below that are the four navigation buttons common to every Android phone.
Battery life is lacking. It struggles to survive a workday, even with limited usage. Get used to carrying around a charger.
The Galaxy S has no scroll ball of any kind, but unlike what Motorola did with the Droid X, Samsung seems to have overlooked providing an acceptable alternative. Scroll balls enable users to fine-tune their writing. Without one, you'd need, as Motorola implemented and Apple pioneered, a sort of magnifying glass feature to easily locate a certain spot in a sea of text.
The Galaxy S lacks anything of the sort. It feels like I'm poking blind, needing to delete chunks of text in order to revise what I've written. In some text fields, such as Google's own Buzz website, tapping in a crowded box of text provides no on-screen response whatsoever.
Swype, a rather clever alternative to standard touchscreen keyboards, doesn't remedy the issue, but it's a great feature to have turned on by default.
Software issues aside, the hardware on these phones is quite nice. The design isn't groundbreaking, but it's thin and impressively light. It feels solid too, like it could survive some perilous falls. That unusually small, misplaced power button I mentioned earlier is annoying, but users can adapt. The speaker on the back can get really loud -- great for hands-free calling. There's one 5-megapixel camera on the back, sadly lacking a flash.
And the Galaxy S lacks a different kind of Flash -- Adobe's multimedia software, which comes with Android version 2.2. With all of these software changes, who knows when Samsung will condition their systems for Google's newest version that some Androids can already install?
While flawed, the Galaxy S phones are solid, bold and distinguished. Since Google's Nexus One will soon be gone for good, the Vibrant and Captivate are worthy alternatives for T-Mobile and AT&T customers.
-- Mark Milian
Photo, top: A pedestrian walks past advertisements of Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S smartphone, outside the company's headquarters in Seoul. Credit: Truth Leem / Reuters. Photos: Samsung Vibrant. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times