Samsung Fascinate hands-on
- Display looks great
- 4-inch size is a sweet spot
- Camera is extremely capable
- TouchWiz skin is superfluous
- Phone is prone to freezes
- Bing is default search engine, can't be changed
On the back of the device is a five megapixel camera and LED flash, and there are hard buttons for the power / sleep and volume control on either side of the phone.
The design of the phone is simple enough to be inoffensive, but not daring or notable in any real way. In our hands, 4-inches feels like the perfect size for this type of phone; the device feels considerably smaller than something like the Evo, but is more comfortable to type on than the Incredible or iPhone. The general size and thickness will keep it competitive (the phone is nearly as thin as the iPhone 4), though in a sea of like-minded devices, the Fascinate could easily be overlooked.
In terms of raw specs, the Fascinate looks lustworthy no matter how you slice it. Like the other Galaxy S phones, the device houses a 1GHz Hummingbird CPU, 4-inch 800 x 480 Super AMOLED display (capacitive touch of course), 512MB of RAM, a microSD slot expandable to 32GB (it comes with a 16GB card), along with proximity and light sensors, and an accelerometer. Additionally, the device packs in WiFi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth 2.1, and an AGPS radio. Of course there's a 3.5mm headphone jack and Micro USB port, but other than that, the phone is fairly no-frills. You won't find a hidden HDMI jack somewhere on this device.
As we've noted on the other Galaxy S devices, that Super AMOLED display does look pretty stunning. It seems to produce truer, richer colors than standard AMOLED screens we've seen, and its sunlight performance wasn't completely useless (though it was notably harder to see than the iPhone 4's IPS display when held side-by-side).
It's a healthy package, but absolutely contemporary with the Nexus Ones, Droid Xs, and iPhone 4s of the world. Nothing here is really groundbreaking (and obviously we've seen pretty much the same phone in three other slightly tweaked designs), but it's keeping up with the Joneses just fine when it comes to specifications.
Fascinate camera shots
On the video front, we were particularly impressed with the 720p video quality of the device. Even indoors, the camera produced smooth, stable images that looked good when we blew them up on our TV. We don't think anyone should consider the fascinate for the next Citizen Kane, but for family outings (or just general partying with friends), the phone stands in nicely for a dedicated video camera.
Phone / Speakerphone
Phone quality on the Fascinate was really very good, and speakerphone volumes and tone were loud and clear without becoming distorted or piercing (tones lots of modern phones seem to prefer). Our callers voiced no concern with the outgoing sounds of the phone, and our incoming calls sounded pretty crisp to our ears. Since this is a Verizon handset, call stability was excellent -- in fact, while testing we didn't have a single dropped call.
We do have some reservations about the phone software, however (more on software in a moment). More than once we had a call just stall out when we tried to hang up, leaving the phone frozen and us pounding buttons and feeling pretty frustrated. There seemed to be some disconnect (ha ha) between when you tell the phone to hang up and when the phone actually hangs up. It could have been the area that we're in, a symptom of a larger software issue, or just a fluke, but it was extremely annoying when it occurred.
As with most devices these days, battery life is subject to the wants of many aspects of that particular device's OS. In the case of Android, the changes or additions made by a manufacturer or carrier can have significant repercussions on the device's battery life. That's certainly the case for the Fascinate, where the kind of battery life you'll wind up with depends largely on how hard you want to push your auto-updating widgets and backgrounding IRC apps (for us, that's a lot). In typical use, the 1500mAh battery kept things chugging along for a full day of work and then some. Hammering on the device harder (and making lots of calls) can definitely put you into the red far faster than you'd like, however. The combo of lots of data and lots of voice on any modern smartphone is going to be a drain, but the Fascinate didn't seem especially susceptible to the damage, which is a very good thing.
That said, there are a number of decisions made with the Fascinate's particular brand of the TouchWiz / Android mashup that bear mentioning.
First -- we had a fairly extreme shock when we booted up this device for the first time. After some experiences with the "new" Android (that is, devices which have a much heavier carrier influence than Android's first wave), we've come to expect just about anything. However, what we found with the Fascinate still seems notable. The phone does not use Google as its default search. And it doesn't utilize Yahoo! either. No, the Fascinate search engine defaults to Bing. Bing is used for the homescreen widget. It is defaulted to in the browser. It is present across the device... and there's no way to choose a different search engine. Like, you know -- Google. When we pressed Verizon reps about this, they let us know in no uncertain terms that the stock engine is Bing without a second choice.
This was maddening to us. We don't have a personal issue with Bing, but it's not our engine of choice, and we'd be willing to bet that it's not yours either. Now, imagine buying an Android phone -- a Google phone -- only to discover that not only was Google not defaulted to as a search engine, it's not even an option! For us, this is actually a deal breaker. It's fine to throw a new choice a user's way, but to force them into using nothing but that choice seems pretty low. Even on the original iPhone you were given a choice between Google and Yahoo!. Here, you've got Bing unless you want to get hacking -- and most people actually don't want to get hacking. They just want to use their phones. Again, it's not that Bing is a bad search engine, but Google is the standard. If it's not even offered, what does that say?
Beyond this, Verizon also has tweaked the device so that it defaults to Verizon Navigator instead of Google Navigation in any area of the phone which calls for navigation (including the context menu in contacts). This can actually be changed, but only through a fairly arcane combination of settings -- another annoying alteration that seems unnecessary here. As with the Dell Aero and other unfortunate devices which carriers have attempted to warp to a more profitable variation of Google's operating system, the result is not flattering.
Besides the bloatware and carrier changes (you'll find plenty of both here), TouchWiz itself is still a poor substitute for a solid, stock Android experience (or even a more advanced skin, such as HTC's Sense). On the Fascinate, as with the other devices in this series, it comes off as a pale and often buggy imitation of iOS -- not something a lot of Android users likely embrace. There are some solid ideas here, such as the tweaks Samsung has made to the dialer (being able to tap out someone's digits and have it automatically find your contact is very welcome), but overall the skin felt extremely... unsure of itself.
More than once the phone locked up doing what we considered to be basic tasks, such as switching between apps or back to the homescreen. The Fascinate just seemed to stall out, often at the most inconvenient times, and we were left to simply wait until it sorted out whatever memory or processor issues it seemed to be having. Comparatively, a device like the Incredible rarely if ever stalled out on us, even during heavy use. The Fascinate (as well as the other Galaxy S phones) just don't feel like they've been left in the oven long enough -- there are good ideas, but they needed to get to golden brown. This dough is still uncooked from what we can tell.
We also noticed a weird delay when using the hard buttons along the bottom of the phone. Between pressing, feeling the haptic feedback, and actually seeing a result there was an almost (emphasis on almost) imperceptible pause for each action. Hitting the home button on the Captivate yields nearly instant results for us, but on the Fascinate there's a slight hesitation that makes the phone feel more sluggish than it actually is. We're not sure why there would be a difference between these two identical phones, but it's another frustrating detractor for Verizon's offering. And another thing about those buttons -- their lights dim before the screen (and often when you're navigating the phone), making getting around the device unnecessarily challenging. Here's a thought Samsung: just keep those illuminated until the screen goes to sleep.
As with the rest of the Galaxy S family, you get two keyboard options here -- Swype and the stock 2.1 keyboard. Neither of those really cut the mustard for us, and we found ourselves re-downloading Better Keyboard for the umpteenth time on an Android phone.
At the end of the day, it's not all bad. In fact, Samsung has made some thoughtful choices and attempted to pull together what can seem like a disparate collection of odds and ends at times. Still, there are some problem areas here that never should have made it out of bug testing, and if this is supposed to be a high-end experience for an end user, we hate to think of what the other end of the spectrum would look like. The issues are even more pronounced having used stock Froyo (and even 2.1) on a Nexus One -- the experiences couldn't be more night and day (that's to say, the Nexus blazes). A smartphone should help you along, not hinder you, and all too often while using the Fascinate, we felt like we were hitting red lights.