Don't get us wrong -- we've seen our fair share of unlocked Galaxy S II devices proudly shown off in the US (most of them from our own editors, admittedly) because it's already available at full retail (roughly $650-700) from multiple vendors. However, the Samsung Epic 4G Touch is the first to be offered at a subsidized cost in return for a two-year commitment, and it won't be the last as AT&T and T-Mobile pull up the rear with their own styles of the same handset. So how does the landmark phone stand up to not only the test of time but several carrier-specific design changes? Are Sprint customers getting a "tainted" version of Sammy's flagship Android device? These questions have been pondered for months, and we finally have the answers if you keep on reading.
Samsung Epic 4G Touch gallerySee all photos
If it ain't broke, why fix it? The original Galaxy S II earned one of our best review scores, topped our back to school guide and recently earned a mention in our smartphone buyer's guide for the second time in a row. Add in the stellar sales figures we mentioned earlier, and Samsung has surely found success in its top dog. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Sprint mixed in the same secret sauce into its version of the worldwide hit handset, called the Epic 4G Touch. Whereas the phone's predecessor, the Samsung Epic 4G, was a radical change in look, feel and design from its global counterpart -- Sprint slapped a mediocre QWERTY keyboard on its version of the Galaxy S, for crying out loud -- this one fortunately doesn't depart far from the original design.
Still, there's no mistaking the latter over the former, as the latest Epic found plenty of ways to not just stand out but enhance the global GSII. As preposterous as it may sound that an already wonderful phone may have been improved upon by a carrier, we think Sprint's variant may have done just that: beefing up the screen, adding an LED notification light, using a larger battery and adding a couple capacitive touchscreen buttons could indeed make the phone even more desirable than it already is, as painful as it may feel to admit it.
Such enhancements are also likely responsible in part for the phone's extra heft. The Epic weighs in at 4.55 ounces compared to the original's breathtaking 4.09; it must've gained an extra mm when waiting in customs, too, as the handset ballooned from a svelte 8.49mm (0.33 inches) to a slender 9.65mm (0.38 inches) during its transition. This may be a letdown for anyone who absolutely must have the thinnest phone -- the original comes close behind the 7.7mm-thin NEC MEDIAS N-04C -- but it's likely that the vast majority of interested buyers will only see a marginal difference between the two.
An adjustment that'll definitely get noticed, though, is the Epic's bump in display size to 4.5 inches, a full two-tenths of an inch of additional real estate on the screen to take advantage of Samsung's colorful Super AMOLED Plus technology. Adding a whole four mm to its width, the device doesn't feel much wider in our hands when compared to the original, contrary to our darkest fears; in fact, it nestles in our average-sized mitts quite comfortably, though we can definitely understand that anyone with more petite palms may not experience the same type of luck.
Also sure to get some attention is the usual change in navigation buttons, with all three US models opting to use four capacitive touchscreen buttons here instead of the global's three-button layout consisting of a physical home key in between the capacitive menu and back buttons. The fourth button, missing entirely on the original, is the search key. Frankly, we were expecting to see this layout on the domestic versions -- the first Galaxy S phones launched in the US last year opted for the same setup, not to mention that devices launched in the US seldom depart from this four-button system. Sorry folks, if you loathe the search key that much, it appears that your only choice is the unlocked version.
The Epic 4G Touch took some other liberties to spice up the Galaxy S II design. The corners are slightly more rounded, the speaker grill has been moved from right to left (and mic from left to right), the screen lock / power button has moved closer to the top right corner and the camera is shaped like an oval instead of a rectangle, with the lens and LED flash oriented up / down rather than left / right. And before we forget, the inclusion of an LED notification light -- not present in the original -- is a minor yet very welcome change, allowing us to quickly see that we have a new message awaiting us. There are a couple other obvious adjustments that had to be made underneath the battery cover as well; since the Epic 4G Touch is a CDMA-based phone with no global GSM roaming capabilities (a point that may dissuade international travelers from choosing it), the SIM card slot is notably missing and the microSD port has slid over to take its place.
Completely unchanged in the Epic is the somewhat questionable build quality of the Galaxy S II. We love Sprint's decision to go with the same textured battery cover that serves well to protect the back of the phone from dings, fingerprints and scratches, but unfortunately the number of revolutionary changes in the global's flimsy plastic material can be counted without raising a single finger. You'd best be protecting your crown jewel if you're a clumsy dropaholic, because we could painfully envision it smashing into little pieces (in slow-motion, of course) when coming into contact with a tough-as-nails concrete floor.
The Epic 4G Touch also retains the signature bump just below the battery cover -- for better or worse -- and doesn't deviate in its size. Moving around the phone, we also see the same 3.5mm headphone jack on top, a volume rocker on the upper left that has been given an indent in between the up / down and a microUSB charging port. Contrary to the original Galaxy S series, this particular port lacks the clever sliding door to keep dust and moisture out while the phone isn't charging, which was a small disappointment.
Underneath the hood, Samsung and Sprint have kept the Epic true to its fraternal twin's roots, retaining the top-of-the-class 1.2GHz dual-core Exynos CPU and 1GB of RAM primarily responsible for the phone's buttery-smooth performance and amazing benchmarks (discussed later in the review). It features the same 8 megapixel rear camera and 2 megapixel front-facing cam; the Epic also has 16GB of built-in storage and its included microSD port is capable of extending that capacity out to 48GB. Its battery is also a fair amount larger at 1,800mAh, versus the Galaxy S II's 1,650mAh. Naturally, the UMTS / HSPA radio has been swapped with an EVDO / WiMAX one, though as we mentioned earlier, we would've preferred to see at least GSM for global roaming.
Suffice it to say for this review, the Epic 4G Touch doesn't disappoint in its display either. We say this with just a smidge of surprise, since it made the screen even larger but yet used the same WVGA (800 x 480) resolution. The pixel density is obviously lower in this case, as there's more screen space to pack the same number of pixels in. To our delight, however, the Epic's display looked just as beautiful in spite of the size difference. This was great news to us, since we were able to enjoy the same viewing experience and do so with more real estate on the screen. And what's better, we took the phone outside in the middle of a sunny day and were still able to see the screen clearly, despite being exposed to direct sunlight.
To take things an extra step, we compared the Epic's Super AMOLED Plus side by side with the IPS WVGA display in the T-Mobile G2x, cranking the devices' brightness up as high as they could go. The G2x, which has a higher pixel density by nature of its 4-inch display, still appeared dimmer and more pixelated.
Samsung Epic 4G Touch screenshotsSee all photos
To many countries around the world, the Galaxy S II remains on the same Android 2.3.3 build it was released with, so it appears the Epic 4G Touch will have a leg up on the original's firmware at least for a short period of time, offering Android 2.3.4 straight out of the box. Unless you use the front-facing camera often, this probably won't make a huge difference since the primary enhancement in the update is the inclusion of gTalk video chat.
TouchWiz 4.0 remains largely unchanged in the Epic with only minor UI and software tweaks. We've never kept our opinions about Android skins a secret, but Samsung's flavor does have its share of positive points, such as the extensive customizations and motion controls integrated into the skin. For more specific details on TouchWiz 4.0, check out our review of the Galaxy S II. The FM radio is conspicuously missing in this model. Not missing? Why, the bloatware, of course! What would an Android device on Sprint be without your usual dosage of Sprint ID, NASCAR, Sprint Zone, Sprint Mobile Wallet or game demos? We know that preloaded apps that are impossible to uninstall may be enough to turn bloatware haters away, but it's actually not so bad this time around -- a few of the multimedia-based apps can be uninstalled, such as NASCAR, Sprint Movies and TV and Sprint Radio, not to mention one customization in TouchWiz that we deeply appreciate is the ability to add folders within the app menu itself. This means we were able to tuck away all of the unwanted programs into their own depository and keep them completely out of sight. We doubt this is exactly what Sprint was talking about when it expressed a desire to scale down its bloatware, but hiding the apps is definitely a step in the right direction.
Three of the four Samsung Hubs found on the original Galaxy S II have gone the way of the dodo, with the Social Hub remaining as the sole survivor and now being accompanied by a Media Hub that gives you the chance to buy or rent various movies and TV shows. Samsung and Sprint must've agreed with our original assessment of the Hubs, in which we surmised that they were all a waste of time since we could get to the same content via other means.
We also appreciated the inclusion of Kies Air, which uses local WiFi connections to let you sync all of your pictures, ringtones, text messages, videos and music to your desktop or laptop. Upon entering the app, you're asked to open your preferred internet browser and type in a specific URL to establish the link between the two devices. Once you're in, you can peruse (and download) all of your phone's content through the browser. Likewise, uploading multimedia to your handset is incredibly easy. Services similar to Kies Air can be found in the Android Market... for a price. Kudos to Sammy for setting a precedent by offering a feature that should be free in every smartphone.
The Galaxy S II's camera has been lauded with a monstrous amount of praise (deservedly so) and the Epic 4G Touch comes equipped with the same lens, sensor, software and everything in between. Both sensors in the device are perched near the very top of the spec sheet, snapping images at a resolution of eight megapixels in the rear and an impressive two megapixels in the front. We say this is near the top, of course, as it's still eclipsed by the 13.2MP CMOS camera in the Fujitsu IS12T Windows Phone and the 12 megapixel sensor in the Nokia N8. Understandably, megapixel count isn't everything, but Samsung has an established history of making sensors for its mobile devices that are leaps and bounds better than the competition.
We're very grateful that the camera UI has remained untouched on the Epic. The left menu column gives us three spots for shortcuts to features that we use the most, with two additional spots already taken (but still changeable). Virtually every possible menu option you can think of is included as a possible shortcut, such as ISO, scene and shooting modes, metering and other adjustments to exposure and contrast -- just to name a few. The right menu bar offers up the camcorder toggle switch, shutter button and a shortcut to return to the photo gallery.
Samsung Epic 4G Touch camera samplesSee all photos
Speaking of shutters, the phone's lack of a dedicated camera button may be disappointing, but at least Samsung makes up for it with a killer shutter button that mimics a double-detent focus. Pressing it will lock in the focus and exposure, and the image is taken as soon as you lift your finger off the trigger. Just like any double-detent camera, this gives us the ability to snap pictures at a moment's notice, increasing the likelihood of capturing a child or pet in the act of something cute (or at least not blinking). The fact that the exposure is locked in is an impressive feature few other phones have; oftentimes we run into issues snapping images of the sunset because phones like to automatically adjust the exposure, causing the picture to turn out incredibly dark. By pointing the camera away from the sunset (allowing the exposure to adjust to the low light rather than the direct sun), locking in the exposure and then turning it back to our intended target, our images turned out much brighter.
We took some truly beautiful images with the Epic 4G Touch at full resolution, thanks to the plethora of various camera settings available: ISO, metering, focus modes, panoramic shots and other shooting modes were all graciously included. We had a lot of fun using the macro mode, which allowed us to take some amazing shots from different perspectives that we just haven't been able to do from very many other phones. Our images of flowers, grass, and even wheat fields turned out more finely detailed than we were expecting. Additionally, the overpowered LED flash on the device completely wowed us; not only did it take incredibly bright images in the dark, it also knew when to use the flash when taking the image and when to use it just to set the focus.
As mentioned in the original review, the only real concern with the Epic's sensor is the fact that it uses a narrow dynamic range, causing a large contrast between well-lit and dark areas and creating blown-out highlights or deep shadows. We only ran into this problem occasionally -- such as when taking images around sunrise or sunset -- so the pros in this camera certainly trounce the bad by a long shot.
Samsung keeps the max video resolution at 1080p HD, though the camcorder keeps 720p as its default mode -- this may be due to the fact that the lower resolution allows for 4x zoom, whereas the top setting does not.. However, if you plan on recording videos to be stored on your computer or watching them on your high-res HDTV, it's easy enough to make the change in the camera settings. In standard daylight our videos turned out crisp and smooth, catching motion without any lagging or efforts to refocus. We had a few concerns in lower-light scenarios, as there were deeper shadows that we couldn't clearly capture objects in. Sadly, we also wish image stabilization played a larger role in recording video, as our hands were shaky without using some type of support.
Lastly, the Epic 4G Touch, much like its global twin, features an in-house photo editor which can be used to crop, zoom and add some nifty effects to your images. It's far from professional-grade, but it's one of the best free editing apps we've seen on a phone, and it's definitely a fun time-waster.
Performance and battery life
Another area where the Epic 4G Touch shines is in its performance, as predicted. We didn't think there would be enough of a difference between this device and its overseas version, considering the phone's components are virtually identical. Our evaluation of the 1.2GHz Exynos dual-core CPU show that it's in a class of its own, outmuscling competing processors in both our real-life performance tests and the usual less-than-reliable benchmarks, the scores of which echo almost exactly that of the original Galaxy S II: Quadrant scored 3244, Neocore and Nenamark stayed consistently at 59.8fps (which would likely be higher if it weren't limited by a 60fps software cap), and Linpack actually exceeded the original a fair amount, averaging around 55.1 MFLOPS for single and 79.5 MFLOPS for multi. For browser performance, the Epic outshone every other phone we've seen with an average result of 3475.
The Epic 4G Touch's battery is stronger than the Galaxy S II, weighing in at 1,800mAh (compared to the GS2's 1,650mAh). We suspect the difference may be to support Sprint's WiMAX chip and ensure that its battery life doesn't suffer as much when using 4G consistently. We didn't see any improved performance here, but thankfully it wasn't any worse, either. Our standard video rundown test yielded 5 hours and 15 minutes before shutting off, and with 12 straight hours of moderate use (emailing, taking pictures and videos, social networking, playing a couple games, making a few calls and keeping 4G and push notifications turned on) we still had just over one-third of our battery remaining. You'll never have to feel uncomfortable leaving your charger at home for the day unless you plan to watch videos or play graphics-intensive games all day. This is still highly competitive with the latest Android devices on the market today.
Our calls were absolutely solid. The phone's reception is on par with the best handsets around, and we never suffered from dropped calls or degraded quality. Our calls came in absolutely clear, and we think the speakers go to 11 because we had to actually turn down the volume to comfortably hear the other end of the line. The same thing could be said about the loudspeaker for calls and music, which both came out loud and clear without needing to strain our ears or feeling like we needed to break out the headphones. However, the sound seemed a bit limited when watching a full-length blockbuster movie, though we believe this had to do with the quality of the movie itself and not the phone.
Last but not least, we double-checked the GPS to make sure it wouldn't have similar concerns to the Galaxy S series, and weren' t disappointed. In several locations -- including a basement next to a window -- the GPS pulled up our location in less than ten seconds. Needless to say, this is definitely a sound improvement, one we imagine had special attention given to it throughout the course of the phone's development.
We were bracing ourselves for a disappointment with the Epic 4G Touch, but the outcome was actually just as pleasing -- if not even more so -- than the original Samsung Galaxy S II. Performance junkies and screen enthusiasts alike will be pleased to see that the same spirit lies within both devices, despite one of the two being tied down to a specific carrier. International travelers may be the most affected by the company's decision to leave out a radio for global GSM roaming, but otherwise it's a dependable, sleek, and enjoyable phone to use with very few negatives -- which is saying a lot for a handheld device. As the powerhouse on Sprint's network and an ambassador of the "Galaxy S II" title in the US, the Epic 4G Touch is definitely worthy to bear the permanent branding that sits on the battery cover.
Myriam Joire contributed to this review.