When offered to preview Sprint’s Samsung Galaxy S offering, the SPH-D700, also known as the Epic 4G, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. While my first personal-use Android device was the Nexus One, I’ve handled my share of Android smartphones, and my history of smartphone use has included several Samsung phones over the years. This being the first Galaxy S device I’ve personally handled, I’m glad to say that Samsung does not disappoint, and I can highly recommend the device to users who need a physical keyboard and can sign up for a contract with Sprint.
Let's recap the specs of the Epic 4G:
- 1GHz Hummingbird processor
- 4-inch Super AMOLED touch screen
- 1GB internal ROM
- 512MB of RAM
- 1500MAh removable battery
- 5 Megapixel rear camera
- front-facing VGA camera
- 720p HD video recording
- 802.11b/g/n Wifi
- 3.5mm headset jack
- the ability to use Sprint’s 4G WiMAX service, if it's available in your area that is. See our Sprint 4G tracker for the up-to-date coverage area
- the phone shipped to me with a 16GB Class 2 micro SD card installed.
The Epic 4G is almost 50% thicker than the rest of the Galaxy S devices (T-Mobile Vibrant, AT&T Captivate, and Verizon Fascinate), as Sprint was the only carrier to attach a physical keyboard, which slides out from the left side of the phone and immediately rotates the display when extended.
On the software side, the phone will ship with Android 2.1-update1, Samsung TouchWiz UI, a bevy of Sprint-branded apps like Sprint TV, Sprint NASCAR, Sprint Football, Sprint Navigation and Sprint Zone. Other apps included on the phone include Qik, Asphalt 5, Facebook, a Memo pad, and ThinkFree Office. Typical Android app offerings include a Gmail client, a separate Email client, a media player, YouTube player, voice dialer, browser, calendar, and so on.
For media connectivity using the supported DLNA standard, there’s a nice app called AllShare. AllShare uses your local Wifi connection and allows you to stream media files from your phone to another player device (like a networked TV), from a local server to your device, and from a local server on some other player device but controlled by your handset. I did not have time to fully review this app, but sounds like it has a great deal of potential.
Upon power-up after delivery and charging, the phone announced a system update (OTA) that included Amazon MP3 and other “minor system updates.” I couldn’t find any details of everything in the update.
It’s no secret that Samsung included their own Super AMOLED displays in the Galaxy S devices; hopefully the supply shortages we’ve been hearing about will be resolved so the devices aren’t held up in the manufacturing process.
I borrowed my coworker’s Sprint EVO 4G for some comparisons, along with my own Nexus One, and got some photos of the three devices side-by-side. It’s remarkable to see the difference between a 3.7” OLED (Nexus One), a 4.0” Super AMOLED (Epic 4G), and a 4.3” LED screen (EVO 4G). In a nutshell, the EVO 4G’s LED screen literally pales in comparison. There’s just no denying the Super AMOLED display is a far deeper, richer color palette and contrast, viewing angle, and ease of use in bright sunlight.
While all three displays have WVGA screens (800x480 resolution), my preference has always been on the high-DPI (pixels per inch) screen of the Nexus One, with its virtual 252-dpi display. The EVO 4G’s 4.3” display puts it at around 217dpi, and the Epic 4G at 233dpi. The EVO 4G’s 4.3” size seems just a tad bit too big for my taste, and I could easily find myself waffling between my Nexus One and any of the Galaxy S devices’ 4.0” Super AMOLED displays. However, as a typical geek user who wears glasses pretty much full-time after 20-odd years staring at computer screens all day, my recommendation for ANY user is that the 4.0” screen size is “the new black” (or whatever cliché is hip these days) -- a full 4-inch Super AMOLED screen is a work of pure beauty. Full stop. Period.
On full brightness, I had moments where I was unable to discern major differences between my Nexus One OLED screen and the Epic 4G’s Super AMOLED, but when viewing a quick high-color video filmed at Disneyland, it was apparent that the Super AMOLED was the clear winner. Again, at a full 4 inches, that tiny bit of extra screen over a 3.7” display really makes a difference.
The Box and Contents
The box is a nice, compact, well-thought out design, white and yellow as per Sprint’s corporate coloring.
Besides the Epic 4G device itself, the innards include another small box containing the manuals and a collection of accessories including headphones with varying ear bud sizes, an adaptor to read the microSD card using a full sized SD card slot, a micro-USB charging/data cable, and an AC charger which the USB cable can plug into for wall charging.
Or, “Every Day Use for the Every Day User.”
My wife depends heavily on smartphones with slider keyboards, so I asked her to give the Epic 4G a try. She promptly posted on Facebook that I let her “play with an Epic 4G from Sprint. So far the keyboard doesn’t suck.” Uh, thanks honey… I told her later that I had to write this review rather promptly but that we were allowed to hang onto the device for a few extra days but then had to ship it back. She replied with “You can’t bring home a shiny new car, tell me to test-drive it, then expect me to drive my *Camry*!” (My wife’s current device is a QVGA (320x480) Motorola Cliq, desperately awaiting the Android 2.1 update. I digress.)
Personally, I’m not much of a physical keyboard guy anymore, since I made the move from a Samsung Blackjack II last summer, and the Epic 4G keyboard feels very foreign compared to other Samsung keyboards I’ve used in the past. Between the other WinMo / Blackberry devices of my past, the keyboards have all had very distinct buttons, but the Epic 4G keyboard has a very smooth 5-row design which I found distracting and frankly hard to use. Perhaps if the keys were spaced slightly farther apart than they already are or had rounded tops, it might have felt better to me. However, my wife and another coworker, who pledged to marry a Samsung keyboard if his current marriage ever failed, absolutely love the Epic 4G keyboard.
Both my wife and coworker agreed that the keyboard is nearly perfect: the keys have the proper “clickiness” to them, while being nearly silent, and have a nice solid feel to them. It has a top row of numbers, three rows for a QWERTY layout, and the bottom row is dedicated to some punctuation, arrow keys, and so on. My biggest beef is why Samsung felt it was more important to have a smiley face key on the bottom row instead of any of the more used Internet punctuation symbols is beyond me. Yes, I’m looking at you, @ sign. In an age of email and Twitter, Samsung, why didn’t you give this popular squiggle more love?
While I personally do grief on the whole physical keyboard aspect, there is one feature on the keyboard that I highly praise: the 4 Android control buttons have dedicated keys on the keyboard so users don’t need to reach up to the screen. Menu and Back are on the left edge of the keyboard, and Home and Search are on the right edge. I hope the designer who came up with that idea gets a little extra from Santa Claus this year, because that alone probably saved my sanity when using the hardware keyboard.
Thankfully, Samsung also has Swype pre-installed on the device, which is my virtual keyboard of choice. Who wants to see a typing speed challenge between my wife and me on the Epic 4G? I’ll try to get a video posted as a follow up.
TouchWiz vs Vanilla Android Experience
I subscribe to several Android-related podcasts and lurk in several forums, and have heard/read some pretty horrible reviews of TouchWiz. However, I put all of them aside, because I wanted to review the Epic 4G with an open mind. Coming from a stock “vanilla” plain Android experience on my Nexus One and my wife’s Motorola Cliq with MotoBlur, and having used my coworker’s EVO 4G with Sense UI, I have to say that once I got used to it, I quite enjoyed the TouchWiz interface. It seemed lightweight enough to not be obtrusive, but added some nice features over stock Android, such as an orientation-rotating home screen.
The other thing I really enjoyed was the blue theme of the system menus. On stock Android, any of the Settings menu entries have the option name in a large white font, with smaller subtext for that option in a shade of gray. On the Epic 4G, the subtext is in a blue font, which helps distinguish it nicely. It did strike me as a little funny that Sprint didn’t ask Samsung to set the color scheme to yellow instead of blue.
The integrated Email client (not the Gmail client) seems updated or improved on the Epic 4G, and I’ve told several people that I was tempted to root this device and figure out a way to rip it off the Epic 4G and put it on my Nexus One. It has a much nicer feel to it, though the app is only slightly different from the one that ships with stock Android.
Another neat feature, which I’ve heard complaints about, is the pull-down notification bar which includes power controls for Wifi, Bluetooth, 4G and GPS. It would have been nice to include buttons for 3G and screen brightness, as well as a general “Sync” option, from the stock Android ‘Power control” widget.
During my Disneyland trip, I snapped a few pictures and a short video in 480P. Later on, I added a 720P video of an RC helicopter flying around the office.
I was very impressed with the quality of both pictures and videos. The pictures and the videos both look incredibly good for a mobile phone camera, and the 720P video is the best I'd seen - definitely better than the EVO 4G.
Don't forget to switch it up to 720P in the quality selector in the bottom right corner.
Other Details About the Device
To get to the battery or micro SD card, there is a small groove on the bottom edge of the phone where you can pry the backing off. This back panel, while a nice soft material, felt like flimsy plastic. It was a little awkward to pull it off, and I even worried that I might break it, but it snapped back on quickly with little effort.
Samsung and Sprint have also included a file manager app, called “My Files,” which was a really nice touch. Along with the included Memo pad I mentioned earlier, it was nice to see extra apps that fill in any gaps left in stock Android where I’d otherwise download Astro File Manager (which I love).
It’s Not All Double Rainbows and Unicorns
While I do believe that Sprint’s device lives up to the much-overused “epic” name, I did find several issues that users should be aware of before making a purchase decision. While this device was a preview model, given that we’re so close to the August 31, 2010 launch date, I believe that everything installed on it is what the Epic 4G will ship with later this month.
My biggest complaint with the Epic 4G may be software-configurable, but is still super annoying. The 4 Android control buttons (Menu, Home, Back, Search) on the front of the display are virtual keys, which are backlit any time you interact with the screen, or swipe over them under the Samsung logo on the phone, but that backlight goes out way too fast. While I adapted quickly enough to the different ordering of the keys from the Nexus One, I still found it quite aggravating to touch where I *thought* the button was supposed to be and not knowing whether my finger would simply turn on the backlight or activate the button. I oftentimes found myself hitting the Home/Back button when I simply wanted to re-enable the backlight so I could hit the proper key I was aiming for. Having an option to keep those keys lit without keeping the physical keyboard lit would be a nice update to the firmware.
A close second for annoyances is something I consider to be a major design flaw in the device. While the micro USB charging slot has a really nice sliding trap door to protect the port, some engineer thought it would be a good idea to put the charging port on the TOP edge of the phone. Obviously the engineer who put the Android control keys on the physical keyboard had no say in where the charging/data plug went, which quite nearly ruins the user experience for me. I can’t imagine how difficult/awkward it’s going to be to develop desktop or car docks when the power plug is at the top of the device. Really, Samsung, what were you guys thinking?
My only grief with TouchWiz is that the four app icons at the bottom of the screen cannot be changed. You are forced to have the Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Applications icons at the bottom of each of the 7 home screens.
I did have some issues connecting to the Android Market on my home Wifi where my Nexus One and my wife’s Motorola Cliq had no problems at all. There was also a minor hiccup after the unboxing where installed apps weren’t showing up in the TouchWiz “Applications” area. It seems that once I installed the system update (the one which installed the Amazon MP3 app and fixed unnamed “minor” issues), the problem disappeared and any new apps I download immediately showed up in the Applications area. I do love that the Applications listing is a horizontally-scrolling paged setup, as opposed to the stock Android “scroll one page upward forever” approach.
The device ships with 1GB of internal storage, but the Task Manager in the phone says I only have 498MB of that space usable for installing apps, and assume the missing 500MB of Flash is the core ROM/OS installation. It also ships with 512MB of RAM, but only 325MB of that is available to user processes, which is typical of Android in my experience -- my Nexus One ships with 512MB of RAM, and I get about 300MB of usable RAM. Again, these are not out of the ordinary but needed to be mentioned to avoid any surprises.
Another very minor bug: the Sprint Zone app contains text calling the device the Intercept.
While this isn’t a “bug”, it is worth noting that Sprint will charge an additional $10/month data fee for using the 4G WiMAX network, even if it’s not in your existing geographic area. It’s also well-reported that having the 4G radio turned on will reduce your battery life significantly.
The specs, hardware, software, speed, an amazingly crisp screen, build quality, presence of a hardware keyboard, 4G - all of these are combined in the Epic 4G.
If you’re an existing Sprint customer and you want a rich, deep color screen or need a slider keyboard, you should definitely look no further than the Epic 4G. While you may need to wait beyond the August 31st launch because all pre-orders are sold out, I do believe this is a much hotter phone than the EVO 4G. Seriously, go get your tent and a sleeping bag, and camp outside a Sprint store for this one. (*)
If you are on an alternate North American carrier, and are looking to make a switch, and a non-world phone is okay with you, the Epic 4G will make an excellent device capable of handling all your needs.
If you’re tired of tiered bandwidth caps on AT&T and Verizon and want to get in on the unlimited all-you-can-eat data plans while they last, get in on the Epic 4G.
Sprint thought that a well put together package like this is worth an extra $50 compared to most other high-end smartphones on the market and wasn't afraid to slap on a $250 price tag. Is it worth the $50 over the EVO or the Droid 2? I think so, especially for keyboard lovers. And frankly, it doesn't matter. Those $50 over the next 2 years will amount to $2 a month. Think of the big picture when buying a new phone - you will likely develop a relationship with your new companion that will be more intimate than with any other gadget. You will spend days and nights carrying it around, so don't forget to be objective when making a buying decision.
It’s worth noting that Samsung has been notoriously slow in getting OS updates out to the masses, so hopefully they’re already hard at work on a Froyo update. I haven’t personally heard any rumors of when the Epic 4G users can expect a Froyo update, but maybe the carriers will dump TouchWiz and jump right to Gingerbread around the holidays.
(*) Android Police staff do not condone or endorse camping outside retail stores.
And now for some more photos.