Samsung Captivate: AT&T's Best Android Phone
This spring, Samsung introduced the first of its Galaxy S phones, Android powerhouses to rival the HTC EVO 4G, the various Droids (both Motorola’s and HTC’s), and of course, the iPhone 4. AT&T’s version of the Galaxy S, the Samsung Captivate ($200 with a two-year contract, as of July 12, 2010), is by far AT&T’s best Android offering. But Samsung’s TouchWiz interface isn’t for everybody, and in my tests the phone was a bit sluggish at times. On top of that, AT&T is at it again with its blocking of third-party Android apps.
Lightweight Design, Gorgeous Display
The Captivate is amazingly thin and lightweight. The European Galaxy S looks quite similar to the iPhone 3GS, also on AT&T; to prevent confusion, I suppose, the Captivate has a patterned, rubberized battery cover. Measuring 0.39 inches thick, the Captivate is thinner than the EVO 4G and the Droid X, but slightly beefier than the ultraslim, 0.37-inch iPhone 4. It is the lightest of the bunch, weighing a scant 4.2 ounces.
The Captivate’s featherlight weight is due in part to its Super AMOLED technology, which Samsung introduced at Mobile World Congress on the Samsung Wave. Super AMOLED technology puts touch sensors on the display itself, as opposed to creating a separate layer (which Samsung’s old AMOLED displays had), making it the thinnest display technology on the market. Super AMOLED is fantastic--you really have to see it in person. Colors burst out of the display, and animations appear lively and smooth.
The Captivate’s 4-inch display is larger than that of the iPhone 4 (which is 3.5 inches), but smaller than the screens of the Motorola Droid X and HTC EVO 4G (which are each 4.3 inches). Despite that smaller size, the Captivate outshone both the Droid X and the EVO 4G in my casual side-by-side comparisons. The side-by-side with the iPhone 4 was a closer call: The iPhone 4’s display appeared slightly sharper, but I thought the Captivate’s colors looked more natural. It’s really hard to declare a winner in this matchup--both displays are stunning.
I also tried to do some side-by-side bright-light tests with the iPhone 4 and the Captivate, but July in San Francisco doesn’t exactly mean sunshine and clear skies. In the foggy outdoors, the Captivate was brighter and more visible, but I’d still like to pit the “Retina display” against Super AMOLED on a sunnier day.
Sluggish TouchWiz 3.0 Interface
The Samsung Captivate runs Android 2.1 (“Eclair”) with Samsung’s own TouchWiz 3.0 user interface. Overall, this version of TouchWiz is a lot better than the older iteration on the Samsung Behold II for T-Mobile, which was slow and difficult to navigate.
Though this version is an improvement, I encountered some familiar issues with TouchWiz 3.0. Despite the 1GHz Hummingbird processor, the phone lagged slightly when I flipped through menus and scrolled down contact lists or Web pages. Here’s hoping the Captivate will get a speed boost when it receives the upgrade to 2.2 (“Froyo”).
Like HTC and its Sense offering, Samsung has its own social media aggregator. Social Hub combines streams from your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts into a single view. It is a useful feature if you need a simple way to keep track of your networks. One random feature is Mini Diary, which lets you create blog entries with photos, weather info, text messages, and more. When I first tried Mini Diary on the European Galaxy S, I couldn’t figure out how to get my entries off the device. Samsung followed up with me after my original review, thankfully, and confirmed that you can indeed post entries (though only those with photos) to various social networks or send them to friends via text. After you create an entry, you press the Menu key in the bottom-left corner, and it gives you MMS and Publish options. If you choose Publish, you can send your item to Facebook or MySpace.
My biggest problem with the TouchWiz interface is that it is somewhat overdone--so much so that the result doesn’t even look or feel like an Android phone. And if you’re not a fan of the TouchWiz interface, tough luck: You can’t turn it off.
The TouchWiz music player is touch-friendly and easy to navigate. It showcases album art nicely, too, with an iTunes Cover Flow-style user interface. Sound was clean over my own earbuds, and decent via the external speakers.
Video over the preinstalled MobiTV application looked and sounded great on the Captivate. The playback was smooth with no pixelation, artifacting, or stutter. Video over AT&T’s Cingular Video service was far worse, however: Playback of the World Cup’s best goals resembled an animated oil painting, as it was far too blurry. Audio also sounded hollow and tinny through the service.
One of the most intriguing features of the Captivate is the Samsung Media Hub, which will come with all of the Galaxy S phones. Media Hub is Samsung’s answer to iTunes, a store for purchasing music and video. Unfortunately, Media Hub is not yet available to users right now; according to my contact at Samsung, Media Hub will launch this fall. Customers will be able to download the service via an over-the-air update.
Good 5-Megapixel Camera
We put the 5-megapixel camera of the Galaxy S through a modified version of our PCWorld Labs test for point-and-shoot digital cameras, along with the iPhone 4, the Motorola Droid X, and the HTC EVO 4G. Unfortunately our test panel was not very impressed with the photo quality of the Galaxy S, as it earned the lowest score out of the four and an overall word score of Fair. It finished ahead of the EVO 4G in exposure quality, but landed in last place in our color-accuracy, sharpness, and distortion tests.
On the other hand, the Galaxy S took second place in overall video quality. Its performance skewed heavily toward good performance in bright light. According to our panel, its bright-light footage looked a bit underexposed and slightly grainy in a full-screen view, but great at smaller sizes. The autofocus searches a little before locking on to a crisp image. In low light, the footage was a bit too murky and undefined to earn a better rating. The handset’s microphone, meanwhile, picks up audio a bit too well: On the Galaxy S our audio clip sounded far too loud and blown out, whereas some of the other smartphones in our comparison barely picked up the audio at all.
Out of all the powerful smartphone cameras I’ve tested lately, those of the Galaxy S phones have the cleanest, most user-friendly interface. Unlike with the iPhone 4, here you can pick from a wide variety of shooting modes (Vintage, Smile Detection, Panorama, Continuous, and many more) and easily tweak the camera’s settings according to your environment and subject.
One unfortunate change between the European Galaxy S and the Samsung Captivate is the omission of a front-facing camera/camcorder. Sprint’s Galaxy S model, the Epic 4G, has a front-facing camera for video chatting.
Overall, I was pleased with the Captivate’s call quality. My contacts’ voices sounded clear, with ample volume and no background hissing or static. I had pretty good reception and coverage all over San Francisco.
Data speeds were also quite fast. I tested the browser only from my office and my apartment, but Web pages and assorted apps that use data connectivity launched and loaded pretty quickly.
AT&T customers discouraged by the iPhone 4’s antenna issues (among other problems) will find the Samsung Captivate a worthy alternative. Its display is on a par with the iPhone 4’s, and its camera’s advanced settings allow users to have a lot more freedom in their photo shoots. The interface can be a bit slow, but that isn’t my biggest issue with the phone: AT&T is again blocking users from downloading apps not approved by the Android Market. A lot of neat betas are out there, and if every other Android user can download them, why can’t AT&T customers?