We've got to hand it to Samsung with its Galaxy S line. Coordinating the launch of a single family of devices across all four national US carriers (plus a regional or two) is a feat very rarely accomplished, and usually reserved for really unique handsets that those carriers wouldn't be able to effectively source from anyone else; HTC's Touch Pro2 is a prime example of that. Add to that the murky issue of exclusivity periods... and, well, yeah, Samsung definitely has reason to be proud here -- on the business end of things, anyway. Never mind the awesome contractual maneuvering that undoubtedly took place to make this all happen, though -- we all know that it's the hardware (and software) that really counts. Today we're looking at the first two models of the American run, the Captivate for AT&T and the Vibrant for T-Mobile; Verizon's Fascinate and Sprint's QWERTY- and WiMAX-equipped Epic 4G are still forthcoming, though we expect the Fascinate to be largely similar to these first two.

Beyond their simple appeal as sexy, high-end Android phones, what makes the Captivate and Vibrant especially interesting is that they are actually their respective carriers' only high-end Android phones at the moment. In other words: if 1GHz processors and high-res AMOLED displays are how you roll, these are basically the only game in town if you're on AT&T or T-Mobile -- particularly now that Nexus One sales are winding down. Do they rise to the challenge? Let's have a look.

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

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Samsung

Vibrant

Pros

  • Amazing display
  • Thin and sexy
  • Swype included, works well

Cons

  • Uninspired UI skin with quality issues
  • Seems slow considering processor
  • Questionable battery life
Summary

Samsung

Captivate

Pros

  • Amazing display
  • Thin and sexy
  • Swype included, works well

Cons

  • Typical AT&T gimping
  • Seems slow considering processor
  • Questionable battery life
Summary





Hardware

Let's start with the packaging. Neither the Vibrant nor the Captivate bother to try to impress you with crazy or unusual boxes -- a trend that's been picking up steam as of late -- though the Vibrant's is definitely prettier, a mixture of matte black interspersed with glossy black text like "camera," "network," "movies," "social," and other words clearly designed to clue you in to some of awesome features you'll be enjoying when you tear the package open. AT&T, meanwhile, seems to have demanded that Samsung stay in line with the carrier's box art standards -- white and orange without much pomp. Inside, both boxes treat you to basically the same mix of items: besides the phone itself, you've got an in-ear wired stereo headset with replaceable silicone buds (unusually nice for a bundled 'set), a relatively small USB charger and micro-USB cable, and an assortment of manuals and related documentation. The Vibrant also includes a second "lavender" battery cover to replace the standard black and dark blue one (though our review package was missing it), a microSD-to-SD adapter, and a 2GB microSD card -- provided more to bundle the movie Avatar than to supplement the 16GB that's already on board.

Physically, the two phones are surprisingly different despite their identical innards, a testament to the breadth and depth of customization companies like Sammy can provide to a carrier when they decide to offer a particular phone. Which one you prefer is mainly a matter of personal taste, though we'll caution you that you shouldn't form your opinion from these (or any) pictures alone. We had expected the Captivate's faux woven rear to be extraordinarily cheesy, for instance -- but in reality, it look quite good and it's made of some sturdy metal. Don't get us wrong, we still would've preferred a blank brushed metal cover in its place, but all things considered, it could look a lot worse. We also really liked the mechanism by which the cover comes off: you pull down on the cap toward the bottom of the phone, which disengages the latches holding the cover in place.

And actually, that leads us to our problem -- we prefer the back of the Captivate and the front of the Vibrant. Put bluntly, the back of T-Mobile's device is glossy plastic that feels (and looks) like it belongs on a phone half the price at best. It also lacks the Captivate's neat cover interlock -- here, you just pry the entire rear off, which has never been a satisfying experience for us on any phone. Not a big deal, but the least they could've done is made the whole thing out of a matte, soft touch plastic -- or heck, for starters, just don't print a shiny metallic dot matrix pattern across the entire thing. We're giving you options here, Samsung! Anyhow, we mentioned that we prefer the front of the Vibrant, though we admittedly don't any objective reasons why; we just dig the rounded corners and the subtle chrome ring around the edge. Your mileage may vary.

Going around the sides of the phones, the features are basically the same, though the differences are amusing -- and, once again, they speak to the wacky little customizations that carriers request. Here's an example: the power button, which also controls screen standby as it does on most Android phones, is located on the right edge. On the Vibrant, though, the button has icons for both power and lock, while the Captivate shows power alone. Makes you wonder the kinds of discussions AT&T and T-Mobile had with Samsung when making that decision, doesn't it? Moving on, the bottom's got just a mic hole, the left side has a volume rocker (which forms two bumps on the Captivate, a nice touch), and the top has your micro-USB port and 3.5mm headphone jack. One problem we noticed specific to the Captivate is that the curved edge makes it tricky to connect some micro-USB cables, because the cable's housing can strike the outer-most part of the edge before you've gotten it inserted enough to make a connection; ultimately, we were able to use all of our cables by pressing hard enough, but it made us a little uneasy.

Samsung actually did something really cool with the micro-USB port. We've never been fans of the flimsy plastic or rubber flaps that you often find covering these -- especially since micro-USB was designed specifically with robustness in mind -- but Sammy sort of split the difference with the Galaxy S line by using a sliding door instead of a flap. It's easy to use, locks securely into place in both the closed and open positions, and you don't have to worry about the flap getting in your way or breaking off when it's pulled off for charging. Actually, we're pretty sure you could just leave the door permanently open and never worry about it again.

Anyhow, let's stop beating around the bush and get to the real reason we're all interested in these phones: the display. The Galaxy S line is among the first to use Samsung's so-called Super AMOLED tech -- and as you may have already heard, it's the real deal. You get the same great black levels you're accustomed to with other AMOLED phones, but in general, color reproduction on these new displays seems to be more accurate (though still very high-contrast and bordering on oversaturated in some cases) and maximum brightness is better than any AMOLED you've ever seen. It still underperforms most LCDs in direct sunlight, but we tested the Vibrant and Captivate outside on a completely clear day under a blazing noon sun and were at least able to make out what was going on on the screen (albeit with a healthy dose of squinting) in a situation where a Nexus One or Droid Incredible would simply look blank. As we'd mentioned before, the Vibrant comes with a copy of Avatar pre-loaded on a microSD card, and it's the perfect way to put the display through its paces -- it looks absolutely amazing. Makes us wish Samsung would take a stab at commercializing affordable Super AMOLED televisions, but we imagine that's a few years off yet.

All Galaxy S models use the same 4-inch WVGA Super AMOLED unit, which we've found to be a perfect compromise for a full touchscreen smartphone -- you basically eliminate the complaints that 3.5- and 3.7-inch displays are too small without going overboard and alienating really small-handed users like the Droid X and EVO 4G have done. Having just recently tested both of those 4.3-inch beasts, we found ourselves not really missing the extra third of an inch on the Vibrant's and Captivate's screens, but we definitely noticed their smaller size in the hand. Of course, both of these phones clock in at just under 10mm thick, which also helps immensely; in that regard, you enjoy the Droid X's svelte shell without the hump at the top (the Vibrant feels a tad thinner, but when you set the pair down on a table, you realize that it really isn't).

When we first played briefly with a European-spec Galaxy S prototype back at CTIA in March, we thought that it felt a bit light and cheap. Not so with these. Don't get us wrong, they're still quite light -- even with their 1500mAh battery packs installed -- but we were delighted that we weren't able to detect any creaks, squeaks, or overly-flexible parts anywhere. Heck, even the screens feel better to the touch (or fingernail tap) that just about any we've tested in recent memory -- they don't have any perceptible "give" to them, which is reassuring.

Directly below the display are four capacitive buttons, the usual suspects on Android devices: Menu, Home, Back, and Search, in that order from left to right. Importantly, the buttons are low enough so that you can press them without risking actuating the bottom of the screen or vice versa. One thing that bothered us about them, though, was that they're lit on a different timer than the display; they time out after about two seconds and turn on again when any of them or the display is touched. You'll need the lights at first to remember which button is which, because seemingly no two Android devices have them in the same order, and we found that they're pretty difficult to see in some lighting conditions when they're not backlit. What's more, though, we found it really distracting on the Vibrant -- the lights are actually really bright, so your attention is drawn to that row of buttons every time they turn on or off. That'll happen to you frequently if you're, say, reading websites and scrolling every few seconds. The lights function the same way on the Captivate, but they're much dimmer so it wasn't nearly as distracting.

Battery life is tricky on these phones, and we think we know why: Super AMOLED. After fully charging, we let the phones go all night syncing two email accounts connected to both GSM and WiFi and drained about 30 percent from each; in the morning, we set the screens to stay on (30 minute timeout, actually, the max these phones will allow) at automatic brightness and they were both dead within two hours. We think it's possible for a normal human being to eke through a full day, but perhaps not without consciously remembering to not dally with the screen on and to set brightness as low as possible while still being usable.

Camera

Though the Vibrant and Captivate have theoretically identical cameras, they seem to perform quite a bit differently in some respects, due in part to software. The Vibrant is slower between shots, primarily because it pops up a preview asking you what to do with the shot you just took before sending you back to the viewfinder. Initial camera app load times and autofocus times are both quite quick, though, so that's a plus.

Out of the box, the Vibrant was producing warmer shots (see above) and actually seems quite a bit sharper; we're almost certain the sensors and optics are identical, so we have to believe this is either a compression issue or some combination of post-processing steps that the phones are taking; obviously, the Vibrant looks better, and the phones are both configurable enough to correct any white balance issues you may have. Video was a different story -- 720p worked well with enough lighting, and both devices seemed to be in lockstep with one another in terms of overall capture performance, though the Vibrant was once again the warmer of the two.



There are other bigger issues, too -- most notably the lack of a flash. Samsung appears to be taking the gamble that weak LED flashes that cast harsh, nasty light aren't useful, anyway, possibly in order to shave a few tenths of a millimeter off the overall thickness of the phones. Needless to say, in regular incandescent to dim indoor lighting, we found the camera to be practically useless (pictured right). There's a "night mode," sure, but boosting ISO well beyond a sensor's capability is no substitute for actual light.

Software

If you're a seasoned Android user -- particularly on stock Android 2.1, 2.2, or Sense -- you're likely going to wish a pox upon the Galaxy S UI. As with most Android skins, it seems to serve no particular purpose other than the maker's self-aggrandizement and a need to feel like they're something more than a hardware manufacturer. Here's a hint, though, Sammy: when you make hardware this good and you supply virtually all of the world's high-resolution mobile AMOLEDs, you don't need to try to justify your existence with a lame UI skin!

We don't mind this kind of software when it genuinely and legitimately adds value to the plain-vanilla experience, but we constantly struggled to figure out how or why TouchWiz 3.0 was adding value to the Android 2.1 build that lies underneath it. Having access to seven home screen panels is always nice, getting Swype pre-installed is a great bonus, and we kind of liked the phones' unusual "puzzle lock" option which lets you view messages and missed calls right from the home screen by dragging a puzzle piece into its corresponding hole -- but overall, the ends don't justify the means. For example, the Applications menu puts seemingly randomly-colored squares behind each and every app icon, giving it a cartoonish look that simply doesn't match the elegant hardware. Samsung also took an annoying cue from Motorola, separating its own widgets into a separate "Samsung Widgets" menu item on the home screen rather than dropping them in the regular Widgets menu where they belong.

That said, it could be worse; nothing about TouchWiz 3.0 is particularly annoying or counterproductive, it's just different mostly for the sake of being different. Just as with the harwdare, there are differences in the software between the Captivate and Vibrant, too; some are big, others quite subtle (differences in the camera UI, for instance). Both products come with a variety of bundled apps; actually, some of these aren't "apps" in the traditional sense of the word, they're just shortcuts that the manufacturers have elected to place in the Applications menu (the Vibrant's "Add to Home," for example, which does exactly the same thing as a long press on the home screen).

Below is a list of all the preinstalled apps and shortcuts on both phones' Applications menus that are above and beyond stock Eclair; most of it can't be removed, thought a couple items (like The Sims 3 and Layar on the Vibrant) can.

Both Vibrant only Captivate only
AllShare Accounts & sync AT&T FamilyMap
Daily Briefing Add to Home AT&T Hot Spots
Files ("My Files" on the Captivate) Alarm & Clocks AT&T Maps
Media Hub Amazon MP3 AT&T Music
Memo Audio Postcard AT&T Navigator
Mini Diary Avatar AT&T Radio
MobiTV Call Log Instant Messaging
Video Player GoGo Mobile Banking
Voice Recorder Kindle Mobile Video
Voice Search Layar Where
Write and Go My Account YPmobile
My Device
Slacker
Swype Tips
TeleNav GPS
The Sims 3
ThinkFree Office
Visual Voicemail
Voice Dialer


Notice that the Captivate has removed access to Amazon MP3 in favor of AT&T Music. Speaking of limitations specific to the Captivate, you're unable to sideload apps (just as with the Aria and Backflip) -- but refreshingly, the home screen search widget is using Google, not Yahoo, so it seems like the carrier is easing off its crusade to screw up Android just a little bit.

It's not just about failing to add value -- it's about quality control, too. We were blown away by the number of typos, grammar issues, weird choices of words, and oddball UI problems we came across in the Vibrant in just a few minutes' time without even looking too hard (interestingly, some of these -- "Sweep screen" for example -- are fixed in the Captivate, suggesting AT&T may have tested the phone more rigorously). Granted, these are all extremely minor, but things like this just look bad, and they reflect poorly on a product that could be absolutely rock solid from a technical perspective. Does any mortal human know what an "SNS account" is? And yes, "Sweep screen" nearly made us put a Karate Kid wallpaper on the Vibrant, but we ultimately decided to maintain some modicum of restraint through the review.

We mentioned that these phones have Swype installed, though only the Vibrant uses it by default; you've got to enable it on the Captivate out of the box. Even if you're not into Swype, though, these phones have some of the most generously-configurable input options we've ever seen on an Android phone without having to install additional keyboard. In addition to Swype, you've got access to the stock Android 2.1 keyboard (which some folks prefer) in addition to a Samsung one, which is further configurable as full QWERTY, XT9, or -- on the Captivate only -- a handwriting mode, though it's more trouble than it's worth. We generally liked Sammy's keyboard, though when you're using it in QWERTY mode, it really doesn't bring anything special to the table -- it's just fast and simple.

One major annoyance we noticed is that neither the Captivate nor Vibrant were able to connect to our Macs in mass storage mode, and only the Captivate could connect to PCs. In practice, what that means is that transferring media and big files to and from your phone becomes quite a bit trickier (and slower) because you've got to use Bluetooth or something like an SD / microSD reader. We were able to connect them using Media Transfer (MTP) mode, so that's an option if you've got an app like iPhoto, Lightroom, or Image Capture available and you just need to move media. [Turns out you can finagle mass storage mode into working if you turn on USB debugging mode for some reason. -Ed.]

And here's a bigger issue: incredibly, we've been able to verify that AGPS ships totally broken on both phones -- in other words, you can't get a wireless network-assisted fix. When we first reviewed the phones, we admit, this is a feature we'd taken for granted, especially since they ship with stock Google Maps -- and you don't realize just how much you need reliable AGPS until it stops working. There's a fix floating around -- and we have to believe Samsung is going to fast-track a firmware update -- but for now, this is the first thing you're probably going to want to do once you get the phone.

From a speed perspective, both the Vibrant and Captivate benchmark very well -- consistently over 8 MFLOPS in Linpack, which is a strong figure for Android 2.1. And hey, with 1GHz Hummingbird cores, they'd better benchmark well, right? Problem is, that benchmark didn't seem to consistently translate well to real-world usability for some reason. The UI was generally speedy (screen transitions and so on), but it started to get slow in places where it really mattered, notably the browser. Both zooming and scrolling on complex pages was often a laborious, stuttery task, even with the phone brand new, stock, and untouched by the thousands of background tasks we obviously intend to run. It's usually a bad sign when a bone stock Android phone can't render the browser smoothly.

Wrap-up

As is too often the case with Android devices these days, mediocre software threatens to spoil superb hardware. And let us say it again for emphasis -- both of these phones are really pretty, attract a ton of attention, fit great in the pocket and the hand, and sport displays that will simply knock your socks off. You won't be disappointed. And here's the good news: unlike some phones we've tested, the software isn't bad enough to ruin the experience. Sure, we'd like to be able to remove some of the crapware and restore a couple morsels of functionality that AT&T saw fit to remove, but overall, Samsung's tweaks thankfully don't get in the way of enjoying these otherwise-awesome handsets.

In fact, you could argue that the Vibrant instantly becomes the best phone T-Mobile offers (with the myTouch 3G Slide being a close second). On AT&T, well... it's either second or first, depending on whether you love or hate the iPhone 4. If we had to choose between the two, we'd go with the Vibrant -- we prefer the looks just ever so slightly, but more importantly, it lacks AT&T's boneheaded restrictions. Either way, though, if you're in the market for an Android phone and you're locked into T-Mobile or AT&T, you won't be disappointed picking these up.

Additional reporting by Myriam Joire

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