- Gorgeous displayImpressive cameraSolid overall performance
- Average battery lifeLooks and feels cheapFroyo instead of Gingerbread
At a glance, you'd be hard pressed to tell the front of the Galaxy S 4G apart from the Vibrant. The only difference is the return of the front-facing VGA camera also present on the original Galaxy S, Epic 4G, and Nexus S. It features the same gorgeous (dare we say vibrant?) 4-inch WVGA glass capacitive Super AMOLED touchscreen, complete with faux-chrome surround. The T-Mobile logo is in the same top center location, below the earpiece and next to the proximity and light sensors, while the Samsung logo is positioned bottom center, above the standard row of backlit capacitive buttons. And yes, the LEDs behind the capacitive buttons still turn off too soon and still shine too bright. In back, the Galaxy S 4G is almost identical to the Vibrant, with the same metal-rimmed 5 megapixel camera, speaker grill, and Galaxy S logo -- even the signature bump in the battery cover carries over. But instead of being finished in shiny black with a faint silver dot pattern, the back is painted a satin bronze finish that changes color slightly depending on the viewing angle, just like a lenticular print. It's a very polarizing design: while some people really like it, we think it looks cheap and tacky, especially on what is arguably T-Mobile's flagship phone. Everything remains the same around the edge of the device, with a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack and microUSB connector (behind a clever sliding door) on top, a battery cover removal slit and microphone on the bottom, a lanyard hole and volume rocker on the left, and the power / lock key on the right. The Galaxy S 4G feels just as light as the Vibrant, and no less plasticky, which is a shame.
So does HSPA+ really make much of a difference? We compared the Galaxy S 4G to our HSPA-only Nexus S on T-Mobile by using the speedtest.net app in various San Francisco locales (within the carrier's HSPA+ footprint) and most of the time the results were similar on both devices. Of course the topography of San Francisco is notoriously hard on signal quality, and we expect the performance gap between HSPA and HSPA+ to widen over time as T-Mobile tweaks its network, but for now HSPA+ does not appear to offer significant speed gains. Your mileage may vary.
Samsung knows how to make a nice cameraphone, and the Galaxy S 4G is no exception. It shares its 5 megapixel sensor and autofocus optics with the Vibrant, and takes excellent pictures. In fact, the results are better than most other 5 megapixel cameraphones. This is a camera with few equals amongst Android devices. It gathers a ton of information, with accurate color balance and exposure. There's no flash, but low light performance is top notch. Noise is kept well under control, and loss of detail is minimal. The Galaxy S 4G does a decent job of recording 720p video at a smooth 30 fps. While there's no autofocus before or during video capture, Samsung wisely chose AAC (instead of the default AMR) to encode audio, resulting in better sound quality. User experience can make or break a cameraphone. Thankfully, the camera interface on the Galaxy S 4G is one of the best we've seen on Android, no doubt thanks to the company's experience making dedicated point-and-shoot cameras. It's reasonably intuitive, and all the important controls are easily accessible, with less common settings nestled within menus. There's no dedicated two-stage shutter key, but you'll find touch-to-focus, smile / blink detection, and a panorama mode, amongst other features. Overall, we're very impressed with the camera on the Galaxy S 4G. It strikes a good balance between image quality and usability, without making too many compromises.
Let's put things in perspective. The Vibrant shipped with Android 2.1 (Eclair) mid-July and just received its Android 2.2 (Froyo) update in January. Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) was launched mid-December with the Nexus S. The Galaxy S 4G is running Android 2.2, and while Froyo still offers great performance and useful features such as built-in WiFi hotspot functionality, it's somewhat disappointing to see a flagship phone arrive on the market one full OS version behind the state-of-the-art. Of course, this is the price we all pay for manufacturers and carriers customizing Android in a flawed attempt to differentiate themselves. Thankfully, the TouchWiz 3.0 UI used by Samsung on the Vibrant carries over to the Galaxy S 4G mostly unchanged. It remains lightweight and relatively unobtrusive, unlike Motorola's Blur. We're still not sold on the ultra-saturated cartoon-like color scheme (made stronger by the high-contrast Super AMOLED display), but Froyo on the Galaxy S 4G certainly feels snappier than Eclair did on the Vibrant. Quadrant scores routinely hover around the 1000 mark, and while it's no speed demon, the Galaxy S 4G consistently delivers the level of performance we've come to expect from a high-end device. As a point of reference, our Nexus S with Gingerbread easily reaches 1500+ on the Quadrant benchmark. TouchWiz 3.0 provides some nice, well... touches, like a task manager, a file browser, a much improved music player, and a row of toggles in the notification area for WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, silent mode, and auto-rotation. The sideways-scrolling app tray is a bit disorienting at first, but is easy to adjust to.
A few apps take advantage of the front facing camera right out of the box, like the camera and video recorder, as well as Qik Video Chat, a T-Mobile branded version of the popular video streaming service. We also installed Tango on the Galaxy S 4G and made several video calls over T-Mobile's network to an iPhone 4 on AT&T. Image quality is pretty much what you'd expect from a VGA camera -- acceptable in normal light and grainy in the dark -- but it gets the job done.