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Summary:

AT&T customers looking for a high-end smartphone not made by Apple now have a worthy alternative in the new AT&T Captivate, a $199 handset running atop Google’s Android platform. This thin and light device is fast, easy to navigate and offers similar functionality to Apple’s iPhone.

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UPDATED: AT&T customers looking for a high-end smartphone not made by Apple now have a worthy alternative in the new AT&T Captivate, a $199 handset running atop Google Android. This thin and light device is fast, easy to navigate and offers much of the same functionality as an iPhone when it comes to web browsing, running mobile applications and capturing high-definition video content.

For the past week, I’ve been using a Captivate, on short-term loan from AT&T. (Note: the AT&T Captivate is a variant of the Samsung Galaxy S, models of which will be available on every U.S. carrier.) Aside from some minor glitches and annoyances, the phone is excellent. It runs version 2.1 of Google’s Android operating system, but doesn’t use the stock Android interface. Instead, Samsung customized the user interface, making it very reminiscent of Apple’s iOS4 — complete with a four program dock and screens that slide horizontally. (In fact, that’s one of the annoyances I have: there’s no way to currently customize the four apps for the dock. Update: thanks to the commenters below for pointing out the method to customize the dock! Use the Customizable Grid option in Applications, then click the Menu button for an Edit option.) Otherwise, the user interface is well designed and it’s easy to navigate around. And I expect Captivate owners to do plenty of navigating on the seven home screens thanks to the large, vibrant display.

The AT&T Captivate uses a bright, 4-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen display. In addition to the large size, the screen is Samsung’s answer to the problem that OLED displays have — in direct sunlight, you can’t read them. Captivate’s Super AMOLED screen, which offers OLED’s benefit of beautiful colors that pop, is an improvement, but you can see that the display looks a little washed out under direct sunlight in our image galley below. Indoors or outside under shade, the Captivate’s screen is stellar. I have noticed a bluish tint, but only by comparison to other handsets, so it likely won’t be a detractor for most people.

Unlike the many HTC Android devices that run on the 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, the Captivate uses a Samsung 1 GHz Hummingbird processor. In my daily use, I found the Captivate nearly as snappy as my Qualcomm-powered Google Nexus One. Occasionally, I saw a little lag in the Captivate when tapping buttons, but the difference is marginal. And when the Captivate gains Android 2.2 — Samsung is shooting for September — the phone should experience a performance boost in browsing and apps, just like my Nexus One has.

A 5 megapixel camera is integrated into the back of the Captivate, which takes stills and also boasts 720p high definition video recording. However, the phone lacks a dedicated camera button and an LED flash — in fact, the only hardware buttons on the phone are the power button and volume adjustment. I’m impressed with the images and video taken with the Captivate — especially the panorama mode that stitches together eight stills — but found a glaring bug that should be addressed in a future software update. When one shoots in portrait mode, the camera software doesn’t rotate the controls — nor your images on a consistent basis — from landscape mode. For example, I uploaded a portrait photo on my Facebook page, a nice integrated sharing feature, but the image posted in landscape mode. I corrected it on the web directly through Facebook, but I shouldn’t have to do that.

Back to the single hardware button for a second — you’d better learn to like it because it is currently the only way to wake up the Captivate if the display is off. Unlike other phones that have at least one more hardware button, the Captivate uses four touch-sensitive buttons under the display. You can tap the screen or these buttons, but they won’t wake up the phone. Instead you have to press the small power button on the side and then swipe across the screen to unlock the device. The touch-sensitive buttons work very well for navigation although they can be difficult to see when not lit.

AT&T-specific apps are pre-loaded on the Captivate, which I find both good and bad. Folks that want to use AT&T Navigator or AT&T Music, for example, will be happy because such pay services are now only a tap away. I’ve used them in the past and these extras work well, but I personally prefer other third-party alternatives — some free, some paid. Unfortunately, the pre-installed AT&T apps can’t be removed from the Captivate. You can remove them from the home screens so that you don’t see them, but they’re still on the phone, using up storage. In fairness, Captivate comes with a relatively large amount of internal storage — with 16 GB of on-board flash memory, which is more than most current Android phones. And the phone has an internal microSD slot for additional memory expansion.

 

There’s not much else bad to say about AT&T’s newest Android phone because it’s a great implementation of the Google Android platform. Plus, I could actually use it as a phone. Conversations were clear and I had no dropped calls on AT&T’s network — although where I live, AT&T provides excellent coverage. The speakerphone is loud and clear, although with only one microphone, Captivate doesn’t provide any noise-cancellation features — when on a handsfree conversation, callers could easily tell I had them on speakerphone. Carrying this phone is breeze too, thanks to the light 4.5 oz weight and slim, 9.9mm profile.

Browsing is a treat on the Captivate thanks in part to the display and also because of a few tweaks added to the stock Android browser. You can double-tap or pinch to zoom, of course, but there’s a one-touch button that seeks out and adds RSS feeds on a web page. I found this to be a simple method for adding feeds to my Google Reader account. And although I prefer using the auto-brightness setting for the device display to save battery life, you can adjust brightness directly in the browser application — a nice touch.

Captivate’s 1500 mAh battery got me through a full day more often than not over the past week. In fact, the battery lasted longer than with any other Android phone I’ve tested or used. And I have to give kudos for the battery cover design. Captivate has one of the easiest covers to remove for easy battery access — you just slide down the bottom part of the phone and the cover lifts off. Captivate gets bonus points for a little sliding door that covers the micro USB port too — catch a closer look in the video overview below.

The handset has many more features — too many to list here in detail, but the ones that impress include stereo Bluetooth 3.0, customizable system fonts, DLNA support, a 6-axis accelerometer and the very useful Swype input method. In fact, I like Swype and even Samsung’s keyboard over the stock Android input method, but you can choose between the three. Although I’m an unabashed fan of my Google Nexus One, I’ve enjoyed using the Captivate immensely and feel that AT&T finally has a solid, high-end Android smartphone to compete with it’s iPhone 4 offering. It may fall short of the iPhone in some areas — no front facing camera, for example — but this is a fast Android phone that is great for browsing, apps and phone calls. I have the review unit for a bit longer, so don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.

Related GigaOM Pro Research (sub req’d):

To Ship or Not to Ship — Product Launch in the Smartphone Era

By Kevin C. Tofel

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  1. Just wanted to throw out that you can customize your docked icons the same way you rearrange them on your applications screen.
    Just set your view to customizable grid and then edit and you can drag and drop them just the same as you do any of your other apps

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    1. Thanks Josh – I was stuck in the customizable grid setting and didn’t hit the menu button to see the Edit option. Makes all the difference in the world and I now have a Gmail icon in place of the old Email app in the dock. Appreciate it!

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      1. Glad I found your site. Customizing the 4 statics apps at the bottom of each screen was a great tip and definitely improved usability of the phone. It took me awhile to understand how to do this.

        Here are the steps to execute this tip:
        1. Click the Applications button in the bottom right to goto the Applications screen.
        2. Click the Menu button (leftmost hardware button at the bottom of your phone)
        3. Select View Type setting
        4. Select Customizable Grid option
        5. From the Applications screen, click the Menu button (leftmost hardware button at the bottom of your phone)
        6. This time click the “Edit” option.
        7. Drag away the application icon that you do not want listed in your static 4 app icons. You should now have an empty slot.
        8. Drag the new application that you would like included as one of the static 4 app icons.

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  2. Would you recommend a rooted Captivate over a jailbroken iPhone 4? Also, does rooting the Captivate void the warranty?

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  3. The Samsung Epic on Sprint does have a front-facing VGA camera.

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  4. you call those icons “reminiscent” of iOS4? you must be kidding me. the icons look like Microsoft designed anno 1995

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    1. I called the user interface reminiscent of iOS4, not the icons. Same four program dock on every screen and app pages are swiped horizontally. I didn’t mention anything about icon design.

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      1. Of course, that’s just Samsung’s interface. It’s very easy to change to any of the other home screen interfaces that are available on the android marketplace.

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  5. I bought the Captivate about a week ago and I really like it. I’ve had to do a few customizations and load new apps, but now it does almost everything the way I want. I think when 2.2 the last few items should be fixed (like voice dialing via bluetooth).

    You can change the four applications that are in the dock, but it is such a convoluted process, I’m surprised anyone found it.
    Start on the applications screen
    Hit the menu button and select view type.
    Change it to customizable grid
    Hit the menu button again
    Hit the settings button

    You can now move icons on and off the dock. Once you’re done you might want to hit menu again, hit view type, and select whichever grid you would normally use.

    The other big flaw in this unit is that the GPS is fubar. It turns out that the AGPS settings don’t work, so it has a really hard time getting a first lock or getting a lock when there’s bad satellite visibility. If you search the net for the issue you can find the instructions for fix it. You change a few settings to point to a different server. Samsung/AT&T really need to issue a fix for this ASAP. The GPS was pretty much non functional before I made the change.

    Enjoy the Captivate.

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    1. Darryl, thanks for this info, which is sure to help new Captivate owners. When I get a chance, I’ll have to swap out the Email icon from the dock because I use the Gmail client. ;) I noticed some minor GPS wonkiness using Foursquare but thought it was that specific app — good to know about the potential GPS challenge!

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      1. the gps fix is on its way according to samsung, they will push the update over the air via 3g network or you may have to download the update through your phone or computer. it is not proven yet theat the gps fix will work, but the details on the fix says that it will. we wont know until it comes out. for people who depend on using gps location i recommend you wait until october, safe to say thats when the gps fix and update as well with android froyo 2.2 should be released by and reviews on the new fix, update and os update should begin. all in all, i recommend the captivate because of its expanse of usability without it having many other issues, other than the gps(if its an issue for some users).

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  6. Victoria Martinez Monday, August 2, 2010

    Great review. I actually returned my iphone 4 to purchase this phone. I love the ability to customize my phone with fonts, colors, widgets, etc. Just thought I would let you know that you actually can change the four icon dock at the bottom. You go into applications and change the view type to customizable grid and it allows to change them.

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  7. But can it captivate more than any of the other samsung Galaxy s phones is the question. If it can get it and if it can’t screw at&t and their shotty service. Check out Tmobile or verizons. It’s never to late for a big change.

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    1. Of course, that’s what its called isn’t it? . =) haha jk man but yeah its a great phone.

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  8. Great post, Kevin! I had to return my Blackberry to my former employer and I recently bought a Samsung Captivate and was really impressed with the user interface, graphics and overall design. I did though run into some issues with the email application (which I think you mentioned that you didn’t use). I needed to sync manually as the auto sync wasn’t very reliable for my hotmail and yahoo accounts. I was also disappointed that the email app doesn’t have a spell check feature. Hopefully these will be fixed in future sw releases.

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    1. David, I use GMail, so of course the Android phone syncs well with it. Since I don’t use alternative mail solutions, I can’t easily test them. :( I noticed that the spell check features (system wide) weren’t on, so that’s something to check, unless its a specific feature lacking for the Email app.

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  9. The phone is awesome overall, but the GPS issues are terrible. I am currently calling my AT&T rep to see if he has heard anything from Samsung about it. I have tried all the various suggested fixes online (change server to supl.google.com, turn on Skyhook, change mode to MsBased, etc.), but none of them have improved things much at all. I am totally unable to lock GPS indoors and it takes several minutes outdoors. I drove 30 miles yesterday using the GPS with Google Navigation. The GPS signal dropped several times during that short of a drive. I really want to like and keep this phone, but if I don’t get a fix from Samsung soon, I’ll be returning it and getting stuck with a stupid iPhone.

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  10. I wanted to comment has anyone else noticed you cannot take a picture while using the phone? I remember being able to do this on the Iphone 3G.

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