The Samsung Galaxy S may look like an iPhone 3GS wannabe, but its huge, vibrant screen and heaps of smart-phone features make it more than just another touchscreen also-ran. Samsung has played to its strengths by delivering great hardware and mostly leaving the software side of things to Google's Android operating system.
Design and build quality
The Galaxy S looks very similar to the iPhone 3GS, with a black plastic case and a gunmetal-grey trim. On the front there are two touch-sensitive, flat buttons and a single mechanical home-screen button, lending the whole phone a sleek and pared-down look that sets it apart from other button-laden phones that run Android, such as the HTC Desire.
The Galaxy S' screen is a 102mm (4-inch) behemoth, and yet the handset manages to feel shockingly light, at only 119g. Some people will miss the heft of a giant, heavy smart phone, but we love the Galaxy S's lightness. We expect that the glossy black case will gather scratches after you've used the phone for a while, though.
The huge screen is the supernova of this particular galaxy -- it's the Super AMOLED kind, which you can only get on Samsung phones. The name's hyperbolic, but Super AMOLED screens are a big improvement on the normal AMOLED screens that we loved on phones such as the HTC Legend.
In the past, we've admired the insanely bright colours and high saturation of Super AMOLED screens, but lamented the fact that they are so reflective that they can be invisible in bright sunlight. The Galaxy S has overcome this problem though. We were able to use the phone even in the brightest sunlight that Wimbledon week could bestow upon us. The display even looks good compared to an LCD screen like the iPhone's. At 233 pixels per inch. the 480x800-pixel resolution isn't quite as impressive as the razor-sharp 330ppi, 640x960-pixel display on the iPhone 4, but it more than bears comparison with the rest of the touchscreen posse.
The rest of the Galaxy S' hardware lives up to the promise of the screen. HSUPA connectivity ensures fast Web surfing over 3G, while Wi-Fi works when you have large files to swap. You can even wirelessly share your phone's 3G connection with your other Wi-Fi devices, such as your laptop, thanks to the tethering feature.
The Galaxy S offers 8GB or 16GB of internal memory, plus the ability to add up to 32GB more with a microSD card. That makes the Galaxy S a massive memory monster, which is handy, since you'll want to slap plenty of video and images on this phone to take advantage of its big screen.
You'll also need plenty of room to store the photos from the Galaxy S' 5-megapixel camera. It took decent photos in good light in our tests. They were slightly noisy, but the camera was very quick to respond, which makes it perfect for taking spontaneous snapshots. Without a flash or LED photo light, however, you won't capture much detail in low light.
With speedy surfing capability and a 1GHz processor, the Galaxy S is generally fast. Menu transitions are smooth and responsive, and using a quick pinch of the fingers to zoom into the Web browser, maps and gallery applications is pain-free. The Android Market, however, didn't even work when we first started the Galaxy S up, and it always seemed to run at half the speed of the other apps on the phone.
There's also an FM radio on-board, and, if you have a Samsung TV, you can use the phone as a remote control.
Android app action
Samsung has mostly let Android handle the software features, which we think is very wise -- we usually don't find Samsung's own attempts as user-friendly. Android is Google's software for powering smart phones, and it includes innumerable treats, especially if you use Google products like Gmail. For example, Google Maps is available on plenty of phones, but, on Android phones, including the Galaxy S, it comes with a free turn-by-turn navigation feature.
You'll also get access to the Android Market, which is packed with apps that you can easily download and add to your phone, increasing its capabilities and features to an almost infinite extent.
Even if you never download an app, Samsung has made sure there are plenty of good ones pre-installed on the Galaxy S. Our favourite is Swype. It's an alternative keyboard that makes writing on the screen faster, because you just have to run your finger over the letters that you want, rather than picking out each one. To activate Swype, you just have to hold your finger on any text field. If you don't like it, you can switch it off just as easily.
Many of the features that we used to need apps for on Android, such as support for Outlook email, have now been built into the operating system. The Galaxy S has the latest version of Android installed, 2.1. Samsung has a good track record of updating the operating system of its previous Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy Portal, which bodes well for the Galaxy S, since version 2.2 of Android is on the way.
Unfortunately, we'll be praying for a firmware update even before Samsung finishes baking Android 2.2, because the software on the Galaxy S can be very flaky at times. For example, we never got our calendar to sync any of the events from our Outlook calendar except the all-day ones, and our Google Apps calendar was ignored altogether. Our sample, which wasn't a pre-production version, also froze often enough to leave us feeling like we were living in the North Pole.
Widgets and menus
Along with apps, you can load up the seven home screens with widgets. Some include live updates, providing you with, for example, up-to-the-minute information from social-networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. The phone also merges your Facebook and Twitter chums with the contacts in your address book, to help you keep in touch.
As with apps, you can download widgets from the Android Market, and Samsung has also chucked some of its own onto the phone. They look good, if you like Samsung's playful style, but we don't rate any of them as must-haves.
The daily briefing widget, for example, sounds great -- it shows the weather, news and calendar for your day ahead. But the widget doesn't fill the screen, so it only has room for one headline or appointment, and the headlines all come from AP Mobile, which is only useful if you're favourite topic is American congressional hearings.
You'll never have to use Samsung's own widgets if you don't want to though, and you can move them and remove them at will. They may not be mind-blowingly good, but don't let that put you off buying this phone.
Samsung has tweaked the menu slightly, chucking the standard Android apps on to rounded-square backgrounds that are highly reminiscent of the iPhone's icons. We don't know why Samsung thinks this will help people accept this smart phone, but we think it's a waste of developer time. The more a manufacturer messes with the default Android user interface, the less likely it is that users will receive timely updates to the operating system -- and Android tends to be refreshed more often than most people's underpants.
But for every dodgy widget or annoying, copycat menu, the Galaxy S overflows with dozens more great features -- from the Aldiko ebook reader, which looks just like Apple's iBooks app, to the augmented-reality app, Layar. Taken together with the big screen, the Galaxy S lives up to the mobile-computer hype, and we could happily stare at it until our eyes go square.
Thanks to Android's software brains and Samsung's hardware flair, the Galaxy S is a very impressive smart-phone package -- albeit an oddly light one. The huge Super AMOLED screen is great, and you can freely ignore the occasionally clumsy Samsung widgets and apps in favour of your choice from the thousands in the Android Market.
The downside of all this power is the Galaxy S' weedy battery life and occasionally buggy software. But, for the pay-monthly price, we can forgive the plasticky case and incontinent battery -- and, once a software fix comes over the air, the Galaxy S could be a true smart-phone titan.
For more on the Galaxy S' software features and tweaks to the Android OS, check out the video below.
Edited by Charles Kloet