With its 4-inch screen and heavyweight spec, easily worthy of the current cream of the crop (Google Nexus One, iPhone 4, HTC Desire), the Galaxy S is out to impress. Plus, with a decent range of multimedia functions and the Samsung TouchWiz 3.0 user interface pasted over Android promising greater comfort of use, this new smartphone looks seriously promising. Time to find out if the Galaxy S really is out of this world!
Design: strangely familiar
Before you get your hopes up, let's make one thing clear. Although Samsung, king of the shiny plastic casing, seemed to have made a real effort with the design of its Wave smartphone, this appears to have been a one-off. We were hoping to see Samsung's new Android smartphone graced with a design just as sleek and stylish as the Wave's contemporary blend of brushed metal and matte plastic. Alas, we found it difficult to hide our disappointment when we got the Galaxy S out of the box.
The glossy plastic casing is reminiscent of ... pretty much every other Samsung mobile! The Korean manufacturer is obviously a big fan of its shiny plastic, and the Galaxy S certainly has its fair share of the stuff. What's more, its overall look isn't a million miles off a certain iPhone 3GS. For the three weeks that we've been using the Galaxy S, we've lost count of the number of people who've said 'give us a look at your iPhone,' or 'that's just a copy of the iPhone 3G(S)!' It's difficult to disagree with these enlightened individuals too as the resemblance is striking, even if Samsung's logo is clearly (perhaps too clearly) visible on both sides of the phone. With its black casing, rounded edges, slightly curved back and just one navigation key under the screen, the similarities seem endless (this button isn't a trackball for navigating though menus though, here everything is touch-sensitive). This similarity can be either a good or a bad thing though; it all depends what you're looking for. On the whole, the finish is decent enough and the Galaxy S is pleasant to handle. In fact, with such a big screen, you could be mistaken for expecting this smartphone to have the same 'slab-like' feel as the Toshiba TGO1, but thankfully that's not the case, as the Galaxy S is slim and light, weighing just 119 g.
The Galaxy S has a standard USB port (hidden under a discreet cover) for charging and for synchronising with a computer, as well as a standard headphones socket and a microSD card slot under the rear casing, which can thankfully be accessed without removing the battery. Strangely, there's no direct access button for the camera, and you'll have to scroll your way through the menus (or create an on-screen shortcut) to access the function quickly. On the front of the phone, a second camera is on hand for video conferencing, although you'll have to check the terms and conditions of your contract and your network operator's authorisations in order to use the function.
Like the Wave, the Galaxy S has a Super AMOLED screen. It measures 4 inches from corner to corner (diagonally) and has 800 x 480 pixels. It also offers multitouch control. As Super AMOLED technology was developed by Samsung, you won't find it cropping up in any other manufacturers' devices for a good few months yet, as the Korean manufacturer is keen to reap all the rewards of exclusivity. Exclusive it may be, but is it any good? Super AMOLED offers increased brightness and high, sharp contrast. This means that even in bright sunlight the display can still be read most of the time (although you may still have to squint a little bit), even if it's still no stranger to reflections. The colours are bold and bright, and could well be too garish for those who prefer more natural-looking tones. However, it seems that many users do prefer their colours so bright they almost look worse, but then who are we to criticise? Anyway, the display's picture quality is perfectly good for day-to-day use, and the touchscreen is sensitive and precise.
So is a Super AMOLED screen better than a regular AMOLED screen? To be honest, there are no major differences, unless you spend ages comparing the two screens under a magnifying glass. If you do decide to do this, you'll notice the new-generation display is, in fact, slightly better. According to Samsung, Super AMOLED technology consumes even less energy, but we'll come back to battery life later.
Is the Super AMOLED screen better than the iPhone 4 Retina display? It's the same story as above really. The colours look brighter on the Galaxy S and more neutral on the Apple smartphone. Comparing the resolution shows that the iPhone 4 displays sharper text, for example, and on a web page zoomed in to the same level on both phones, the pixels are less visible on the iPhone.
In other words, the Galaxy S has a good screen. In fact, it could well surprise some of the more sceptical among you.
Android OS with Touchwiz 3.0 UI
Samsung has tarted up the Android operating system with the TouchWiz user interface, now in version 3.0 as featured in the Wave (which ran on Bada, Samsung's own OS). This is intended to improve the user experience for those who may find it tricky to get to grips with Android in its 'raw' state (Note that although the pure Android OS isn't particularly easy on the eye, it's not really that difficult to get the hang of).
Users shopping around for an Android smartphone (for fast access to all Google's software suite perhaps?) can now choose between the HTC Sense interface or Samsung's TouchWiz UI. The merits of both are entirely subjective, so we recommend you try playing around with both before you decide which kind of phone to buy.
In the Galaxy S, users have seven homescreen pages to customise and organise with the phone's main applications (accessible by pressing the physical button under the screen), with the widgets proposed by Samsung, or with applications downloaded from Android Market or Samsung apps. We checked out the Samsung store but the choice wasn't so great. We then headed straight back to Android Market, but unfortunately we weren't able to download any applications after visiting the Samsung store. In fact, we had to totally reset the phone (restore factory settings). Let's hope a firmware update corrects this bug soon.
The Samsung user interface certainly has its advantages. It's practical, and helps you escape from the underlying Android most of the time (even though Android isn't really all that bad! Remember, this isn't Windows Mobile 6.5 we're dealing with!). Navigation is intuitive and you'll have no trouble finding your way through the phone's menus. We particularly liked the shortcut bar which has three customisable options.
Next we tested the Swype text-entry system for e-mails and text messages. Once you get the hang of it, this mode allows you to type quickly, as you can simply slide your finger from one letter to another (without having to accurately hit each key) until the predictive text function suggests the right word. However, it can take a while to get the hang of. After writing a few messages we started to get used to it, but we still weren't entirely convinced. Actually, we preferred writing in the classic QWERTYY mode. Hats off to Samsung for developing an original text entry concept though, as Swype will certainly please some users!
(Almost) faultless responsiveness
Let me explain that 'almost' right away. On the whole, the Galaxy S responds to commands quickly, even when several applications are open and running at once. The high-end spec (Samsung Cortex A8 processor at 1 GHz and 512 MB RAM) certainly helps keep things speedy. However, the interface sometimes slows down a little. We noticed this when navigating though the home pages, searching contacts or scrolling on web pages. It's only a very slight slowdown and it's not too annoying, but hopefully a firmware update will help correct this soon.
A Galaxy of multimedia
With a screen like this, it's difficult to imagine that this handset wouldn't be geared up for multimedia use. Internet, films, photos, home movies, games—oh yes—we can see it all now! And guess what? On the whole, it's really not bad!
Let's start with the AllShare content sharing feature. Like the Wave, the Galaxy S can read multimedia files wirelessly on a DLNA-compatible device (or vice versa), such as computer or the hard drive of a Samsung DLNA TV.
The Galaxy S can film video in several different formats, including 1280 x 720 pixels at 30 fps. When playing your clips back, you'll notice the sound isn't very good—it sounds like everyone's shouting. The picture quality in videos is fine and footage flows smoothly. We reckon it's good enough for filming clips now and again. There's no digital zoom function but the Galaxy S does have a TV output port for watching your clips back on the big screen.
One excellent feature, found in Samsung handsets for a while already, is the ability to play DivX and Xvid files, even in 720p resolution, with no need to reformat them like on the iPhone 4 (unless it's jailbroken). All the qualities of the screen (see above) really come into their own here, as videos play smoothly, in bright colours and with sharp contrast (finally, genuinely deep blacks!).
Sound quality is decent enough and the music player does the job just fine. There's not much else to say really other than, as usual, we recommend you ditch the rubbish earphones supplied and pick up a decent pair if you really want to make the most of the audio player. Another word of advice: don't turn the volume up to max if you're listening to music or the radio (FM radio with RDS) via the speaker, as at full blast it has a particularly unpleasant saturated sound. You'll also soon find out that to use the built-in speaker properly, you have to place the Galaxy S facing screen-down on the table, as the speaker is on the back of the phone. Otherwise the music player is easy to use thanks to its practical and logically designed interface.
The 5-Megapixel digital camera doesn't take amazing pictures, but it's still better than average for a smartphone. Although there's a selection of scene modes to play around with, including a panoramic mode, there's no flash. When the light starts to fade, photos soon become full of noise, but in bright daylight the results aren't too bad, in spite of a sometimes blatant lack of definition. It's certainly an improvement on the Wave, even if the iPhone 4 still outdoes them both. Two good features in the photo mode are worth pointing out: first of all the on-screen focusing is fast, and second, the interface allows you to share your snaps on several sites almost instantly (Facebook, Picasa, Twitter etc.).
Finally, let's look at the battery life. With fairly intensive use (in 3G and sometimes in Wi-Fi), the Galaxy S easily lasts the day. Note that you can boost battery life by closing applications you're not using. A long press on the physical button under the screen shows you the last six applications you used, which stay running. To be able to close them, you need to download the Task Killer application from Android Market.