Blog Post

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

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.

Related GigaOM Pro Research (sub req’d):

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

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

  1. Hi. I really appreciate your review. Like any smartphone there is the good, the bad, the ugly, but there it is hard to find ugly with the Captivate. I am an Iphone 4 user as well, my hubby has a 3GS. I’m considering dropping a line, getting an Itouch for my apps and keeping the Captivate and the Iphone 4 (giving that to hubby) and selling the 3Gs…lol. The reason is: the Captivate does get better call quality (who would have thought, wow, its a phone), and also I love the customization. Yes, Itunes has more apps, plain and simple, that is why I’m getting an Itouch. Here is is Jan and no Froyo yet, what gives on that?

    • Samsung has provided the Froyo update for Galaxy S phones to the carriers, but they still have to test – T-Mobile just started to roll it out and Sprint says it’s coming soon. I’d expect the same from AT&T in the near future, which will give the Captivate a nice speed boost.

  2. I bought the captivate just after thanksgiving. Love the phone. I have to say the dominant reason for buying the phone… the screen size and quality, android’s swype capability for the keyboard (no more thumbing of keys…former blackberry user), the battery life (long for a phone that has to power a big bright screen), and the fact it is the Android operating system (the operating system that will dominate the market sooner than later…which in turn means the most apps and devices will be available going forward)..I never buy devices with proprietary operating systems.

  3. I have just purchased three AT&T Samsung Captivates. Question I am having is do you think that the Iphone gets better reception than the Captivate. My husband works in Louisiana and I live in Texas. Iphone verses Captivate? What would be your suggestion. I am just wanting to have good reception. Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Lendy

  4. Prabhakar

    Samsung Galaxy S, I made the biggest mistake of my life by buying this piece of shit. I had to restart my phone or remove the battery every now and then (atleast 20-30 times a day).

    Period Google and Android sucks on the usability experience.

  5. I have a big gripe with the camera program. It’s virtually impossible to take photos one handed in landscape mode. If I use my left hand, the hand obscures the screen. If I use my right hand, how do I reach bacwards towards my palm to push the (soft) shutter button? In order to do it my grip becomes so tenuous, there’s too much danger of dropping the phone. It screams for a shutter button at the top of landscape viewing image. In landscape mode you’d just have to drop your index finger half an inch, in portrait mode you could reach across with your thumb. Left handers fogeddaboudit. The lens is under your hand no matter how you grip it with your left hand. And why does exposure adjustment go away when antishake is on? Wazzup wid dat?

  6. I was one of the people suck on Apple. I thought the iPhone was the most amazing phone in the world. I had the iPhone 3gs and lived with someone that had the iPhone 4. I was looking at this phone just because my dad was getting one and my upgrade was the next day. I got mine 5 months ago and i love it! My friends are all getting one and i also noticed that all the Best Buy workers switched from iPhones to the Samsung Captivate (Now that has to mean something). The only problem i have is AT&T’s “cheaper” data plans which f**ked me over, max data plan is 2Gb i used .5Gb in one day…. All in all i love my Captivate.

  7. great phone. easy to use, practical. much better than my old unlocked htc phones. processor is much faster, i love using them. the gps and email are great for my business and my partner loves his for the speaker phone he’s always on that thing. our new unlocked mobile phones have a great web browser, we can check out stocks in less than one click!! my wife and daughter love theirs for the faceboook, games and apps! also got our cell phone unlock codes and blackberry unlock codes for free! got our last couple captivates at unlockthatphone.com 2 thumbs way up

  8. Thanks. I’m just trying to figure out how annoying the non-‘sideloading’ option would be. I’m actually looking to get this phone for my wife to replace her dying Symbian phone. She isn’t too technical so I imagine the market apps would be sufficient. I’m planning on keeping an iPhone for myself.

  9. I *love* this phone, but I’ve had a single problem – Every replied email has the recipient’s address repeated 4 times on it. It is strange and prevents me from using it for business purposes because I don’t want anyone to receive 4 emails (or even a single email with their name in the TO field 4 times). This is reproducible 100% using the Email application that comes with the device. The dedicated Google GMail application I haven’t tried as much, and if it doesn’t have this problem I’d use it, but I don’t know how to make it auto-sync.

    Anyone else see this? It can’t be only me. I send over WiFi, which who knows could be a factor.

    • Yes, AT&T often removes the option to “sideload” apps on the Android devices they sell. That means you can only install apps from the Android Market; you can’t get an .apk file (the installation for a 3rd party app) and manually install it.