As the last variant of the Samsung Galaxy S to hit U.S. shores, Verizon’s Samsung Fascinate has a lot to live up to. Samsung has shipped a million units in this country alone just six weeks after it first arrived on AT&T as the Captivate. Since then we’ve seen T-Mobile pick up the Vibrant and Sprint offer the QWERTY-equipped (and WiMax-capable) Epic 4G. Our previous reviews never gave these devices, including the unlocked Galaxy S, a score lower than four out of five. Will the Fascinate fare just as well, or has Verizon struck out? Read on to see…..
Anyone who saw our unboxing video knows that the word of the day when it comes to the Fascinate’s box contents is “minimal.” Besides the handset itself, the box includes a microUSB cable and a USB power dongle to endow said cable with charging functionality. Oh, and you get a 16GB microSD card pre-loaded into the back of the phone. That’s it. No case, no separate charger, not even a cheap wired headset. These are dark times we now live in, friends.
If you’ve seen our other reviews and/or video hardware tours of the other Galaxy S variants, you’ll know that the Fascinate is most similar in appearance to the T-Mobile Vibrant — although all of the models, save for the Sprint Epic 4G QWERTY slider, bear much in common with each other as well as the international, unlocked variation.
To quickly recap the specs that you’ve likely heard 1,000 times before, we’re working with an Android 2.1 handset powered by a 1GHz Hummingbird processor and 512MB RAM / 2GB storage ROM, all pushing a four-inch AMOLED display featuring WVGA (480 x 800) resolution. Besides the usual 3.5G, EV-DO Rev. A cellular data, the WiFi radio does 802.11 b, g, and n, and also gives the phone DLNA capabilities for streaming media to and from compatible devices. Other (very) nice touches include a Bluetooth 3.0 chipset — one of the first devices to support this latest standard — and a five-megapixel camera capable of 30fps, 720p video capture.
The Fascinate feels nice in your hand, like an iPhone 3GS that’s narrower but with a bigger face. It’s an almost totally plastic job, but that being said, it feels sturdy and well-built (though it’s no tank like Sony Ericsson’s XPERIA X1). We especially liked the sliding microUSB door cover, which we found easier to operate than the flaps found on some phones, while still providing more protection from pocket lint than than the exposed ports on your average handset.
While we thought hardware button placement was fine, there’s just not enough of them: people need more than power and volume buttons alone; there’s not even a dedicated camera launcher / shutter trigger on board, meaning that you have to navigate to the applications screen just to switch the camera on — certainly not the best scenario for capturing a quick shot. Also somewhat annoying about the buttons — the capacitive, softkeys at the bottom of the screen — is that they only light up after one has been pressed, so locating the button you want is sometimes difficult in a dark room. (You’d think that by now we’d have memorized the order of the four buttons on almost every single Android handset, but you’d be wrong.)
The screen itself is top-notch, which is probably why the demand for them is so high that we’re hearing about shortages left and right. Bottom line is that Super AMOLED displays look pretty sharp both indoors and out, and we’d be happy to have one equipped on any of our personal devices.
Anyone who’s a fan of the Android operating system won’t find much to complain about with Samsung’s implementation, even if some of the Verizon-added apps might be consider bloatware; but hey, at least they give you the option of downloading the full VZ Navigator instead of killing storage space by preloading it.
In general Sammy doesn’t do too much to take away from the stock feel of the OS, and what they do do — added widgets, colorized settings menu, more functional taskbar — almost always enhances the overall user experience. We’ll suggest that the TouchWiz widget set isn’t quite as mature or well-rounded as the latest iteration of HTC Sense for Android, but with so many customizations available from the Market, we doubt that the bundled widgets are going to make or break the deal.
The most obvious — and probably most controversial — change Verizon made to this model was replacing several key Google applications, most notably the search bar and maps application, with competing versions from Microsoft’s Bing. We actually like Bing search a lot, and use it pretty regularly, especially when looking for images; and even if you don’t, it’s fairly easy to bring Google back as the default search engine. Where we’re not as enthusiastic is Bing Maps, which we find to be clunkier and less feature-filled than the very polished Google Maps Plus Navigation. But again, any and all Google apps are just a click away at the Android Market.
Other non-standard fare include a Blockbuster app for downloading paid films, Mobile IM client that only works over 3G (quite a stark contrast to the many Apple App Store apps which eschew cellular broadband for WiFi), a handy task manager, and interestingly, a mobile Skype program — meaning Verizon seems to be okay with you using WiFi or data to make calls instead of pricey minutes, although quality may vary based on many factors.
One nice addition to the suite of Verizon apps is called My Verizon, and lets subscribers easily track minute, text, and data usage, as well as change certain account setting or add different services. There’s also a widget associated with the app that conveniently displays data usage for the current billing cycle.
Finally, Verizon has obviously thrown in its money-making media suite of VCast applications. VCast Music is a joint venture with Rhapsody that provides a relatively clean interface and easy downloading, making it a serious contender for on-the-go purchases against the likes of Amazon MP3 or the countless services that could be accessed by the excellent Android browser. VCast Videos, on the other hand, has a great selection but poor, QVGA streaming resolution, which really looks choppy on the WVGA display. Verizon’s gonna need to step up the quality pretty significantly if it wants to pull in a serious revenue stream from high-end device owners.
We were generally pleased with both the photographs and videos captured by the Fascinate; its camera is good, but not great. Photos taken in natural light were pleasing if a touch grainy, but indoor shots both with and without and flash tended to look somewhat soft. However, we’ve not won any awards for our photography, either, so some of our gripes are likely due to poor operator performance.
Videos came out especially nice, at least visually — naturally the tiny phone microphone isn’t going to produce the highest-caliber audio. We thought that the 720p capture mode produced very nice-looking footage, with sharp detail, accurate colors, and smooth motion. For grabbing spontaneous footage, the Fascinate is a most capable companion.
Overall, the Samsung Fascinate is a great phone, performing on par with some of the snappiest handsets we’ve seen: Motorola Droid X, Apple iPhone 4, HTC HD2. It’s clear that the Hummingbird processor more than holds its own against the likes of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, TI’s OMAP 3630, and Apple’s A4, and several benchmarks we’ve seen would seem to confirm these observations.
Specifically, the handset boots up quickly and is ready to use in well under a minute. Applications load almost instantly, and many of them can be open at once before memory management kicks in and starts killing processes. Browsing on the Fascinate is quite pleasant, with pages loading quickly and rendering accurately. One complaint we do have is time to first fix on the GPS, which seemed fairly long to us. Apparently other Galaxy S variants are also experiencing this problem, so perhaps a software upgrade will remedy this issue.
Screen rotation is snappy, and live wallpapers operate smoothly, with no jerkiness or stuttering. Most apps exit instantly, and the back button is very responsive in the browser as well as other programs. We’d have no problem recommending the Fascinate to someone looking for a high performance smartphone.
CALL QUALITY/NETWORK SPEED
As usual, Verizon provides comprehensive coverage and very competitive data speeds. We were seeing between 1.2Mbps and 1.5Mbps with around two or three bars, which is what we’d expect from 3G in real world conditions most of the time (except for some T-Mobile customers, apparently). We had no problem neither maintaining a data connection nor using the device as a mobile router (that’ll cost extra, naturally).
One problem we did experience — or rather, which was reported to us — was an apparent muffled sound of our voice with one test caller. This occurred while we were talking outside, in low wind, and apparently continued throughout the entire call. Subsequent testing could not duplicate these results, so chances are that we just had a bad connection or perhaps a defective review unit. Callers always sounded very clear on our end.
Since we may have been evaluating a previously-used unit — one that had not initially been charged properly — it’s difficult to judge the Fascinate’s true battery life with any real reliability. We found our experience to be below par, but since both the Vibrant and Captivate are reported to have above-average stamina, we’d imagine that Fascinate owners can probably expect the same general performance.
PURCHASING AND AVAILABILITY
Currently available through all Verizon sales channels, the Samsung Fascinate can be found for anywhere between free and $199 on two-year contract.
+ 1GHz processor is snappy and responsive
+ Form factor is sleek and feels well-constructed
+ Super AMOLED display looks great, as advertised
+ Samsung adds some nice UI touches without overwhelming the core experience
+ Camera takes pleasing photos and videos, includes a flash
+ Handy sliding microUSB door cover
+ Radio controls on notification bar
+ Froyo update should make this thing really fly
- No dedicated camera button
- All-plastic; a metal battery cover like on the Captivate would have been nice
- Capacitive buttons hard to see in low light
- Some users may be annoyed by several Google apps being replaced by Bing software
- Speakerphone grille has a raised nub that may snap off
It’s no surprise that Samsung has a genuine hit on its hands with the Galaxy S: it’s a sleek piece of hardware powered by cutting-edge components displayed on a beautiful screen. Besides some annoying additions by Verizon — all of which can be removed through rooting or simply ignored — the software here is top-notch, offering users all the trimmings of a modern operating system. Everything performs as expected, from the above-average camera to the impressive camcorder to the graphical smoothness. Our only problems with the device are mostly niggles, with the most serious omission being that of a dedicated camera button; obviously some people will be incensed by the substitution of Bing, while others will find it refreshing. Being bigger critics of hardware than software, we can’t find much here that can’t be undone through a little Market downloading or perhaps more advanced hackery.
Point being, this is a very solid handset, one of the best choices on Verizon at the moment, especially if you’re an Android buyer. The Motorola Droid family, especially the Droid X, certainly give this model some steep competition (as does the HTC Droid Incredible, for that matter), but where the X may take the cake in certain areas (screen size, megapixel count), the Fascinate surely holds its own in others (screen quality, form factor). Ultimately you can’t really go wrong with any of these devices, which says a lot about the golden age of smartphones we find ourselves currently enjoying.
Final score: 4/5