Just because the US has gone gaming crazy these past couple of days doesn’t mean the smartphone world has stopped turning. Samsung trotted out its Galaxy S handset last night in London, and we were naturally there to try and glean a better understanding of where this 4-inch Android 2.1 device fits in our wishlist hierarchy. It’s quite the stat sheet stuffer, as we’re sure you’re aware, and it strikes an alluring figure for those looking to get on the true do-it-all smartphone bandwagon. Check out our latest impressions — replete with video and a whole gallery dedicated to the Super AMOLED screen’s performance in sunlight — just past the break.
So we might as well start off with the headline feature: Samsung’s 4-inch, Super AMOLED, 800 x 480, IPS-killing display. Touted as the technology that will finally rid AMOLED of its vampiric quality, the screen within the Galaxy has already shown itself to be adept at handling direct sunrays, but we had to see for ourselves. We didn’t pull any punches in testing it out and subjected the handset to bright sunshine flowing directly at it, leading us to a two-sided conclusion. When facing you directly, the Super AMOLED display really pays off and remains usable (albeit with a loss of vibrancy that’s to be expected), however turning it away from center shows that its otherwise stellar viewing angles suffer dramatically from exposure to the sun. See, for example, the comparison of the same submenu page on the screen when the phone is facing the camera and when it’s slightly turned away. It’s a small niggle that shouldn’t figure greatly in regular use, but we thought you’d wanna know that even Super AMOLED is not immune to some sun damage.
That said, it remains head and shoulders above its OLED contemporaries, and when taken to more hospitable environments, the Galaxy S’ screen really shows off some terrific color and vibrancy. Our opinion hasn’t changed at all here: this is one of the finest displays you can hope to lay eyes on. And it’s set to remain an exclusive feather in Samsung’s cap for the next eighteen months, we’re told. We knew the company would be holding on to its latest and greatest for its own handsets but this is a mighty protracted exclusivity term, which we’re guessing is motivated either by Samsung looking to push its own brand more or by severely limited production quantities — probably the latter.
The positive impression made by the screen is hardly done any harm by Samsung’s inclusion of the new Hummingbird application processor inside, which pushes Android’s home screens around with frightening ease. Pinch-to-zoom is also ridiculously smooth — as fluid in its motion as a well warmed-up Bruce Lee, the Hummingbird just owns this gesture-based input that tends to trip up a lot of mobile devices. Whether you’re zooming in and out of pictures or a web page, this is the one area where we truly felt like we were tapping into the full potency of the processor inside. Hell, you might even turn this around on Samsung and contend that the company has failed to fully harness such a workhorse.
But then you’d be wrong. 720p video recording at a cool 30fps is on offer, along with a 5 megapixel imager on the back and a 1.3 megapixel one on the front. Both picture and video processing were done rapidly — we almost got the feeling the UI was slowing us down more than the hardware, which is impressive however you wanna slice it.
On the software front, you’ve got TouchWiz 3.0 overlaid atop Android, though if you’re keen on sticking to the stock Google-flavored Eclair, the good news is that Samsung’s modifications don’t really get in your way. Aside from the Social Hub — which aggregates Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and other social networks into one stream, in a similar vein to what almost everyone else is doing lately — they’re mostly in-app changes and skinning tweaks that shouldn’t have a negative impact on the user experience. In fact, we were quite taken with the Galaxy S’ handling of contacts. Swiping right on a contact’s name automatically dials his phone number, whereas swiping left initiates a text message with him as the addressee. It’s smooth, it’s clever, and it’s quite fun to use.
Qik video chat and Swype come as preloaded apps on this handset, with one offering a way to utilize all that multimedia prowess and the other letting people try out an alternative input method. Just neat little extras that we appreciate seeing for a device that aims to be widely accessible. On the topic of input, we’d also say Samsung’s layout of the soft keyboard is a sensible one — this particular writer found it more intuitive than the default Android implementation.
But hey, it can’t all be strawberries and cream now, right? This phone’s gotta have a weakness or two. And indeed it does. Listed at 9.9mm in thickness, this Samsung handset is remarkably thin, but unfortunately we didn’t find the materials of construction quite as reassuring as we would have liked. The glitter-patterned (ugh) back is composed of what feels like mediocre plastic, while the actual glass of the screen is in itself extremely glossy and reflective, and the physical buttons are okay, but only that. The chrome surround is also more tacky than stylish and we’re not convinced we need that mighty bump at the bottom of our ultraslim phone, but then that might be just us. More negative points are scored for the lack of a dedicated camera button (what is this, 1997?), but are offset by a neat sliding door for the MicroUSB port.
All in all, we get the sense that Samsung decided that since it builds all these awesome parts anyway, it might as well splice them together into one superpowered handset. And while the spec sheet sparkles with an appropriate level of ultra-modernity, the Galaxy S itself doesn’t feel like the thoroughly polished, coherent product that other market participants are bringing out at the moment. We’d put a large part of that down to the body’s construction, as the user experience is more than snappy enough, and we reckon some more attention to hardware detail could really put this handset over the top. It certainly has all the quantifiable qualities necessary to be one of our Android faves. On the other hand, since the hardware design’s already finished, why not just give us some Froyo? We’d settle for that.