Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

We first heard rumblings about the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze Q slider back in August, and what stood out most -- apart from the rumored Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor and HSPA+42 connectivity -- was that long-winded moniker. Interesting, then, that Sammy should re-brand the T-Mobile device with a name that does nothing to clarify this handset's identity: the Galaxy S Relay 4G. That jumble of words aside, this phone offers a five-row QWERTY layout, a dual-core S4 chip and a 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, all for the moderate price of $150 (with a $50 mail-in rebate). Is this slider the best T-Mobile has to offer? Join us past the break as we give the Relay the full run-through.

Gallery | 52 Photos

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review

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T-Mobile (Samsung)

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G

Pros

  • Good everyday performance
  • Comfortable grip
  • Solid battery life

Cons

  • Flat, nearly unusable keyboard
  • Weak camera
  • Cheap, overly branded design
Summary

The Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G, T-Mobile's newest QWERTY slider, offers snappy performance and good battery life, but the uncomfortable keyboard is a dealbreaker.

Hardware

The Relay 4G won't shatter your conception of a slider: at 4.9 x 2.5 inches (125.9 x 64.9mm) and 0.5 inches (13.4mm) thick, it has more or less the same brick shape of other handsets with QWERTY keyboards. At 5.3 ounces (150 grams), this phone isn't heavy compared to its competitors (the Motorola Droid 4 weighs 6.3 ounces, and the T-Mobile myTouch Q is a hefty 6.5), but the extra girth that comes with a slide-out keyboard means you'll never confuse the Relay with wispier, touchscreen-only Android phones.

Much like the Samsung Captivate Glide from late 2011, the Relay is a relatively warm and fuzzy incarnation of a QWERTY slider. Competing handsets like Motorola's Photon Q 4G LTE and Droid 4 sport sharp, diagonally cut corners, and while that design choice may take away from the otherwise boxy dimensions, we prefer the Relay 4G's gently rounded edges, which conform to the palm quite nicely. A soft-touch, slightly dimpled backing also makes for a solid grip, and indeed the Relay feels very good in the hand. The 4-inch display gives you decent screen real estate, but it doesn't push the reach of smaller hands to the limit.

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

Most of the phone's backing sports the soft-touch finish, which is quite similar to that of the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G, though the bottommost part is done up in plastic and makes room for two tiny speaker grilles. The 5-megapixel camera and LED flash sit prominently on the device's rear side, with the Galaxy S logo etched directly underneath. The front side of the Relay is riddled with additional branding: Samsung's moniker sits right below the screen, and T-Mobile slaps its name across the top of the handset. What would otherwise be a pleasingly minimalist design is cheapened by all that labeling; we wish the carrier had shown some restraint and left out its logo.

A large home button, along with smaller ones for Settings and Back, sits at the bottom of the phone's front face. The top of the front face is lined with the LED notification light, earpiece and 1.3-MP front-facing shooter. The 3.5mm headphone jack is up top, and the power button resides on the right edge. You'll find the volume rocker on the left edge, while the micro-USB port lines the bottom side. There is a microSD card slot for expanding the phone's modest 8GB of internal storage up to an additional 32GB, but you'll have to remove the backing to get to it.

Taking a look at what's under the hood, we have 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 CPU, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal memory. In practice, though, users will have access to about 5GB of on-board storage. The handset supports quad-band DC-HSPA+ / UMTS (850 / AWS / 1900 / 2100MHz) in addition to GSM (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900MHz) for roaming the globe. (We'll get to network performance later.)

The Relay 4G's 4-inch display sports a WVGA (480 x 800) resolution and is made of scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 2. We appreciate this extra layer of protection, but this is a Super AMOLED PenTile panel, and that in itself is enough to send shudders down the most hardcore screen buffs' spines. Truly, it's disappointing that Sammy's still stuck in Super AMOLED mode: we've been seeing basically this same panel since the original Galaxy S debuted in 2010. It might have been impressive then, but the bar has since been raised substantially, and this display on a $150 device is downright underwhelming.

Yes, this screen isn't top-notch -- pictures and text exhibit a subtle, but noticeable, blurriness. That said, the display isn't horrid, either. Viewing angles are wide and colors are bright and accurate, if not especially vibrant. But then again, take this guy outside and you'll be lucky to make out anything on the panel: it's perfectly acceptable for viewing email and browsing the web, but you'll want to turn elsewhere to get you outdoor reading -- not to mention your 1080p trailer -- fix.

Keyboard

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

A hardware keyboard entails some extra heft, but the idea is that you'll enjoy a more comfortable typing experience than cramped touchscreen keyboards can offer. We've seen that concept carried through on sliders like the Photon Q 4G LTE, whose keypad offers well-sized keys and a decent amount of travel. But if that Sprint handset is a success story, the Relay 4G can only be described as a half-hearted attempt at an ergonomically pleasing device.

The Relay 4G can only be described as a half-hearted attempt at an ergonomically pleasing device.

The Galaxy S Relay 4G's keyboard isn't completely flush with the rest of the deck, but it's not raised enough to let you find keys by feel, either. There's definitely a learning curve with this layout -- and even accomplished touch typists may find themselves looking down at their fingers pretty often. Using a third-party typing test app, we notched shamefully low word-per-minute scores (read: less than 20 words per minute when we stopped to correct our various mistakes). The keys are on the small side, but the real challenge to efficient typing is the flat layout: our fingers often hit adjacent letters or no letter at all. We do appreciate the keyboard backlighting, which, while not adjustable, helps for pecking out messages in low-light conditions.

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

Sliding the keyboard out feels smooth and secure -- no creakiness here -- but if anything, the mechanism offers too much resistance and requires a hearty push to open up and reveal the keys. That's probably better than an overly sensitive slider that moves at the slightest touch, but we had the distinct sensation that we were mowing over keys row by row when we pushed out the keyboard, as if Samsung didn't leave enough room between the keyboard and the slider mechanism.

Software

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

The Relay 4G runs Android 4.0.4, the most current version of Google's last-gen Ice Cream Sandwich OS. (We reached out to T-Mobile about an update to Jelly Bean, but the carrier wouldn't share anything on that front.) Of course, Samsung's custom TouchWiz UI is layered on top, but out of the box, the phone's interface is more T-Mobile inspired, with a white-and-pink background and no fewer than eight folders of apps -- many of which bear the carrier's branding.

In addition to these folders, T-Mobile widgets like Bonus Apps and Media Hub hog screen real estate with their ad-centric content. Luckily, you can send these suckers to the trash can, but you'll still find plenty of crapware in your apps list. You can disable superfluous built-in widgets like Bonus Apps and Game Base, and you most certainly should. Third-party additions include Lookout Security, Slacker Radio and a shortcut to Amazon.com.

The Galaxy S Relay 4G carries Samsung's SAFE (Samsung Approved for Enterprise) designation, and it includes a few corporate-targeted features, such as VPN client for remotely accessing your computer network, AES-256 bit encryption and Microsoft Exchange ActiveSync.

Now is as good a time as any to mention that the Relay 4G supports NFC for sharing contacts and other content with other enabled devices via S Beam, Samsung's tap-to-share utility. T-Mobile also offers WiFi calling for when you're out of the network's reach.

Camera

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

The Relay 4G's 5-megapixel camera with LED flash isn't impressive. We'll take a moment here to passive-aggressively point out that even some less expensive smartphones like the Droid RAZR M manage to pack 8-megapixel cams capable of 1080p video. Shots that look crisp when viewed on the phone's display often translate into blurry messes once they make it to your PC or social network profile. Even when we tap on the part of the image we want in focus, the camera doesn't reliably render that area in sharp detail. Tap-to-focus fans though we may be, we'd recommend letting autofocus do the work: we got the clearest results this way. In general, sunny scenes come through with pleasing clarity, but cars and people in motion show up a bit blurry. Also, the shooter tends to render images darker than they appear in real life, and we found ourselves bumping up the exposure value when shooting in the late afternoon and in the shade. Camera settings aren't too in-depth -- no HDR here, for example -- but you'll find ISO and exposure adjustment, several white balance options and a variety of shot and scene modes, including panorama and smile shot.

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

We noticed a one- to two-second delay when tapping the on-screen shutter button (there's no physical option here), which means that candid pictures are out of the question. The phone's volume rocker doubles as the zoom in / out function within the camera app. Though images snapped during the day (or in other scenarios with ample light) show mostly accurate colors and satisfactory detail, nighttime shots that require the LED flash look blurry and indistinct. The camera is capable of 720p video recording, and we found it did a fine job of capturing motion with little jerkiness and no distortion. We shot our test footage in New York's always-busy Astor Place and our clip exhibits plenty of fuzzy, sometimes harsh, ambient noise.

Gallery | 52 Photos

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G sample shots

You'll find fewer settings for the front-facing 1.3-megapixel -- there are simply options to turn the timer on or off and to adjust the exposure value. When we made a test Skype video call over WiFi in our New York apartment, our partner's face appeared clear at times and plagued by pink and green pixels at others, though of course results will vary according to your connection.

Performance and battery life

Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G Motorola Droid 4 Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE
Quadrant 4,430 2,755 5,036
Vellamo 2,734 N/A 2,347
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,794 2,158 1,649
AnTuTu 6,707 6,134 6,942
GLBenchmark Egypt Offscreen (fps) 60 N/A 56
CF-Bench 8,845 N/A 9,562
SunSpider: lower scores are better

The Relay 4G's dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 1GB of RAM enable some zippy, fluid performance. Swiping through home screens, launching apps and scrolling through web pages is glitch-free, and the phone had no problem accommodating our Riptide GP sessions. The touchscreen is wonderfully responsive as well; we had to force ourselves to pull out the keyboard every now and then. Cold-booting into Ice Cream Sandwich takes 28 seconds, and once the phone is up and running it's almost immune to stuttering and other performance hiccups.

Benchmark scores echo our real-world experience. This phone keeps pace with other sliders, crushing the Motorola Droid 4 and the Samsung Captivate Glide with their older internals but trailing the Photon Q by a small margin in most tests. The Relay 4G's Vellamo score of 2,734 is especially impressive, and indeed the stock Android browser loaded pages almost instantly; even with the maximum of eight tabs open, the phone rendered websites in 0.93 seconds.

DNP  Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

On our battery rundown test, which involves looping a locally stored video with WiFi on and a few social network accounts set to send push updates once an hour, the Galaxy S Relay 4G's removable 1,800mAh battery lasted seven hours and 59 minutes. This is one area where the Relay makes other QWERTY sliders look half-baked: the Photon Q 4G LTE pulled through for just six hours and 18 minutes and the Motorola Droid 4 lasted a slightly shorter seven hours and 15 minutes. In our everyday use, which entails lighter video-watching, email-composing and occasional picture-taking, the phone lasted about 11 hours -- enough to see us through the work day and then some.

The Relay 4G's dual-core Snapdragon S4 makes for zippy, fluid performance.

The Relay 4G's tiny back-set speakers pump out sufficiently loud sound that stops short of tinny, even if we can't call it clear or crisp. Listening with headphones is the ideal setup here, as audio comes through a bit richer. The speakers' placement, near the bottom of the phone's backside, isn't the most convenient in either portrait or landscape modes, since your fingers will likely gravitate to this edge either way. In terms of audio formats, you're good to go with .amr, .flac, .m4a. mp3, .ogg, .wav and .wma files; we tried and failed to play songs in the .aac, .ac3, .aiff, .ape, .au, .m4r, .mka, .mmf and .npc formats.

When we made a few test calls on this slider, our friends on the other end said we came through loud and clear, and things sounded crisp on our side as well. In terms of network speeds, we saw a max of 15.04 Mbps downloads and 3.44 Mbps uploads on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, with results generally ranging 0.7-2 Mbps on the uplink and 14-15 Mbps down. These numbers are nothing to sniff at, and throughout New York City the 4G signal remains strong. We saw throughput on the upper end of this range when we took the Relay 4G for a spin in Southern California.

Comparison and pricing

If you need a physical keyboard, you know you're limiting your smartphone options. The Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G costs $150 with a mail-in rebate, but QWERTY fans on T-Mobile have a few other devices to choose from, including the myTouch (free with a two-year contract), which is a capable device even though it runs the outdated Gingerbread OS. And the Relay 4G is just one of several Galaxy S devices on T-Mobile: on the slightly lower end, there's the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G, which runs Gingerbread on a 1.5GHz processor and like the Relay sports a 5-megapixel camera. Now that the price has dropped to $100, it's a worthwhile contender. On the higher-end side -- but priced at $150 just like the Relay 4G -- is the Samsung Galaxy S III. If the QWERTY layout is at all negotiable, this is hands-down a better pick.

Opening the door to QWERTY devices on other carriers, we like the Photon Q on Sprint, which, for $50 more than the Relay 4G, offers a superior typing experience. On Verizon, there's the $100 Droid 4, which runs Ice Cream Sandwich on a 4-inch qHD screen and also sports a best-in-class keyboard.

Wrap-up

DNP  Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review TMobile's QWERTY slider falls flat

For a mid-tier smartphone running Ice Cream Sandwich, the Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G is no slacker. Its Snapdragon S4 allows for smooth and fast performance, and battery life is none too shabby. Sure, the 4-inch WVGA display isn't tops and the camera is underwhelming, but $150 doesn't buy you the stars. What it should buy you is a comfortable, reasonably fast device that fits in well with your texting and photo-taking habits. If there wasn't a five-row QWERTY keyboard under the hood, our review would end on a higher note. But the fact that there is one naturally leads to some expectations about a better typing experience, and this device falls flat in that regard. If you want the extra set of keys, the Photon Q is a much better pick, and if you're open to going touchscreen-only, T-Mobile has plenty of superior devices -- even within the Galaxy S lineup.