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-MobileSee all photos
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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|
|Write and Go||My Account||YPmobile|
|The Sims 3|
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.
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.
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.
Additional reporting by Myriam Joire