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Can AT&T’s Newest Android Phone Captivate Like an iPhone? Yes!

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UPDATED: AT&T (s t) customers looking for a high-end smartphone not made by Apple (s aapl) 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.

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66 Responses to “Can AT&T’s Newest Android Phone Captivate Like an iPhone? Yes!”

  1. SchManiel

    I’ve had the Samsung Captivate for two weeks now and LOVE IT!. My office of 30 people, 15 of them IT folks, all have the iPhone (either 3Gs or 4) and when they see the Captivate, their mouths start watering :o) I love everything about this smart phone. The app store is awesome. I love the ability to customize each screen and the WiFi ability saves me from going over AT&T’s new 2GB limit.

  2. otpirate

    I think this phone will definitely take away from the iphone share of the market. I have tried both and am glad that i did not commit to the iphone4. Very happy with the captivate. Still need to figure out how to get my laptop to recognize the phone. Not too worried though, I’m sure it’s just a driver or software update.

  3. Rob Sherman

    I also purchased this phone after having my shiney new iPhone drop calls every time I drive over a long bridge. Despite being a really fast stable “mini” tablet, it kind of needs tobe a great phone–and the 3GS I gave away to my son had consistently better voice call quality!

    Sooo I joined the Android revolution and this phone helped to win me over.

    TIP: Search “captivate” on the “AT&T” portion of the Android store…there are some significant free apps. Most notably “QuickOffice” a MS Office viewer/editor type application easily on par with the $16.00 Documents to Go app. But there are some other useful apps as well…

    Consider me Captivated! rofl.

  4. Cole Baird

    hey i was wondering, since this device has no front-facing camera, would i still be able to download the application fring, or skype, and still be able to videochat with someone only using the front camera?

    Thanks !

  5. Thanks for the review. I just got my Captivte yesterday. I agree with all your observations and so far like the phone very much. I am new to android so can you tell me if you can adjust the homepage on the browser?

  6. xfernand

    I had been a RIM customer for years. Then I switch to Apple and I had many problems with the iPhone 3GS so was trying to stay away from the new iPhone 4. I absolutely hated to go to the Apple store to hear their geeks rambling about having to reinstall the OS because of corruption. After 3 iPhones and countless trips to the mall I decided to stay away from Apple for good. The Samsung Captivate is an absolute delight to work with. This is my 2nd week with it and it is absolutely flawless. Android will dominate the market in less than 24 months. This is the best decision I made and I see some iPhone users eventually converting.

  7. Hello, has anyone had trouble clicking on phone numbers from a calendar entry. I am very used to this function from my Babcock days. My friends can do it on their Motorola X and HTC incredibles.

  8. Hi Kevin,
    I have bought a Galaxy S a week back and initial feedback is positive. However, the battery life is poor to average. Given that the phone was primary designed for data usage and multimedia, both sap out the battery very quickly. Secondly, the GPS module seems to be off the mark and takes time to get the location updated.
    Overall, I would say that this is poor men’s Ferrari ! :)

  9. Dr. Julius Hibbert, M.D.

    Why is everyone sweating the Captivate as though it’s not the same phone as the Vibrant but with a different body? The only Galaxy S phone that is really different from the others is the Epic 4G on Sprint because it has a hardware keyboard and even then it’s still the same phone. I can’t speak to the Fascinate because I don’t know any details about that version of the phone. What is with you tech bloggers and AT&T? The Vibrant on T-Mobile was released before the Captivate. It’s the same phone. Review that one and stop encouraging AT&T! Sorry about the rant but I’m just very sick of AT&T

    • Fair point, but I try to rotate around different devices for different carriers because we can’t review every single phone out there. (Although that would be fun!)

      I covered both the mid-tier T-Mobile myTouch Slide 3G and the Verizon Droid X recently and at jkOnTheRun, we’ve had extensive coverage of the HTC EVO 4G on Sprint.

      • Dr. Julius Hibbert, M.D.

        Thanks for the reply Kevin and, again, sorry for the rant. I don’t want you to think that I don’t appreciate the work you and James do on this site. I’ve just been frustrated by what some times seems like a preference for AT&T among device manufacturers in spite of the various problems that carrier and its cutomers have been experiencing . I say seems because I don’t know what really goes on behind the scenes.

        Dell’s choice of AT&T as their exclusive carrier partner for the Dell Streak and the possibility that AT&T may be the cause of the Streak’s botched US release (no proof but it’s possible) makes me wonder why more companies don’t cater to the other gsm carrier here in the US or do as Samsung has done with the Galaxy S and give people a choice of carrier while still offering the carrier some differentiation. It just feels like we don’t get any real choice here in the US when it comes to cell phones.

      • I think the main reason to review this phone is because, for those of us stuck with AT&T (on a family plan with someone hooked on the iPhone), this is the best android phone or phone other than iPhone available.

  10. B. Good

    BEWARE! AT&T removes the built in “FM Radio with RDS” app and replaces it with “AT&T Radio” which is streaming radio. The user manual even warns that AT&T radio is data intensive and recommends users purchase an unlimited data plan to use it. Of course, AT&T no longer HAS an unlimited plan!!!

    Also, AT&T locks out the free built-in voice dialing so they can try to sell you their $5/mo voice dialing service. Note that T Mobile’s version of this phone, the Samsung Vibrant, still includes this free feature.

    And I’m pretty sure they lock out tethering and hotspot capabilities as well.

    Bottom line, KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GETTING before you buy.

    • That’s my biggest fear about getting another AT&T branded phone.. that they’ll cripple the phone and abandon it. I got burnt when they blocked Nokia from offering E62 updates, and have loved the flexibility of my unlocked N95. Do I risk my freedom by getting a phone-on-contract?

    • Lonnie Lee

      two apps, a must have…

      1.) Samsung Kies download.
      FREE TETHERING!!!!! windows 7 and 64 bit at that, TESTED AND WORKING !!!

      2.) Side loader Wonder machine
      load non market apps legally.

      btw, my gps DOESN’T WORK AT ALL. tried all the “fixes” with no avail. no satellite reception WHAT SO EVER. i think the electronic compass component was soldered on backwards, all my compass apps point in the opposite directions. if no fix soon, im going to wait until the holiday season phone release of the atts ”top secret”next android phone…

  11. I’ve been using the phone for a couple weeks and really like it. A flash would be nice but not necessary and they need to fix the GPS software like yesterday. GPS is also borked on the T-Mobile Vibrant.

  12. The iPhone 4 is a dramatically better device. If you are on AT&T you would be foolish to believe this phone is even close. I can see Android on another carrier but the only reason to suffer with AT&T is the iPhone. Just another foolish article from Kevin whose decided his schtick would be Android.

    • The iphone 4 gets blown away by this. iphones suck if u have at&t and you want a fast smart phone this is the way to go it is way faster than the iphone4 why suffer with slow fake multitasking and that when u can have fast and seamless from the captivate

  13. Gazoobee

    Great review. Clear and unbiased.

    You haven’t sold me on the product though. I still don’t understand why people think Android has a good UI because it always looks clunky and weird to me, but … each to their own etc. Apple probably needs the competition.

  14. Lots of positives to this phone, but I’m about to return it after 2 weeks due to the GPS (can’t get a lock consistently so using as a navi is useless), overall lag, and a few random reboots when the phone.

    On thing I didn’t expect was that the more I used the phone, the more TouchWiz grew on me.

    If the phone worked as advertised I or if Samsung gave any indication that a firmware upgrade was imminent, I would be keeping it, but I’ll revisit when the Froyo update comes out.

  15. The size is great, colors great but three things drive me nuts:
    1. No voice calling
    2. And the “Phone locked” deal which you need to ‘swipe’ to release
    3. Phone goes black when on a horizontal (table top) and on bluetooth, seconds after making a call. The only relief from this is to call on speaker and then switch to bluetooth.

    Signal strength isn’t bad, better than the iphone 3gs which I replaced twice in 3 days because it went black and froze.

    Clarity of speech is great, call quality great and vibrant colors on the interphase

    AT&T still don’t show it as an available phone after buying a ringtone in their ringtone section online. After buying and using their free bonus code, the resulting text message turns out to be a broken hyperlink

    All in all this could be a keeper is they come out with an Andriod 2.2 upgrade in the next 2 weeks!

  16. Rodney Reynolds

    I don’t think it is better than the iPhone4 which according to the legendary Walt Mossberg of Wall Street Journal fame still ranks as the best smartphone today. I tend to agree with Walt 100 percent on this.
    The only thing for sure about the Samsung Captivate is that it totally punks the Nexus One to shame. The hardware specs alone say there is not a chance in hell that your N1 is faster.

  17. 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, 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.

  18. 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.

    • 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.

  19. 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.

  20. Victoria Martinez

    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.

  21. 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.

    • 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!

      • 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).

  22. 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

    • 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!

      • Anit Parikh

        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.