Samsung EPIC 4G: Oh That Screen!


Samsung has a hit with the Galaxy S series of Android (s goog) smartphones, and they have one on just about every carrier. The EPIC 4G is the new phone on the Sprint (s s) network in the U.S., and only the second to have integrated 4G (WiMAX) capability. The most impressive feature of the EPIC is the gorgeous Super AMOLED 4-inch display. The screen is so bright and vivid it’s the first thing folks notice when they see the EPIC. Then they open the sliding QWERTY keyboard and find the second great thing that separates the EPIC 4G from the crowd.

I’ve been using the EPIC for a few days, and my impression is favorable. Samsung has stuffed some distinctive hardware into the small case that sets the EPIC apart from the crowd: QWERTY keyboard, Hummingbird processor, Super AMOLED display and 4G. The phone is surprisingly light in spite of the 4-inch screen, and is comfortable in the hand. It has a distinctive front that is totally black when idle that is attractive.

Samsung isn’t using one of the common processors found in most phones; it’s using its own 1 GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird Application Processor. The Hummingbird lives up to its name, with performance as fluid as that of any phone I have tried. I can only imagine how good performance might be once Samsung offers the Froyo update later this year. The EPIC ships with Android 2.1, a bit of a disappointment when other phones are already shipping with Froyo.

Two of the most distinctive features of the EPIC 4G are the keyboard and the Super AMOLED display. The backlit keyboard is the best I’ve used on any phone. The key spacing is perfect; the chiclet-style keys are separated for easy use and Samsung has included big hardware buttons to duplicate the four touch-sensitive buttons on the screen. This is very handy, as it eliminates the need to take your hand off the keyboard to do system functions. What really sets the EPIC keyboard apart from the crowd is the number key row. There’s no need to type a special key to enter numbers, as they’re all right where they should be for simple entry. The only questionable keyboard design decision is including a dedicated “smiley face” key on the keyboard, while the more commonly used “@” key requires a Fn-key to type.

Did I mention how great this display is? The Super AMOLED screen is no Retina Display, but it’s a very nice display that doesn’t seem to cause eye strain. The brightness is stunning, and colors pop. I’d love to see this type of screen on every phone.

There are a few design choices on the EPIC I don’t like, some minor and one very annoying. The microUSB port for charging and connecting the EPIC to a computer is on the top of the phone. This sounds trivial, but I find it inconvenient for plugging the phone in to charge. Power cords for these phones are short enough as it is, and it means the phone usually sits upside down on the desk while charging.

The most irritating thing about the EPIC design is the design of the four touch-sensitive buttons below the screen (used for performing system functions). These buttons are the standard Menu, Home, Back and Search buttons found on most Android phones, and they’re used frequently in operating the handset. Samsung has chosen to go for aesthetics over function, and the buttons aren’t visible unless the screen is touched. Compare pictures 2 and 3 in the gallery to see the buttons disappear. This turns tapping a function button into a two-step process: one step to light the buttons up so you can see them ,and the second tapping the button. There needs to be a setting to keep these four buttons lit all the time, because they time out quickly. I also find the buttons hard to hit properly to activate the functions. There’s haptic feedback to tell you when the button press has been detected, and it’s often the only way to determine your tap didn’t register. The Back button is particularly hard to activate properly, and this button is used all the time on Android phones. I find it necessary to press this button really hard to get it to register: unusual for a touch-sensitive button.

Samsung included a dedicated camera button, something I wish my EVO offered. Hitting the button for a second fires up the camera app, and photos are snapped by hitting it again. The 5 MP camera on the EPIC is a decent performer, but, like most phone cameras, won’t replace your dedicated camera. It has a flash and auto-focus feature that work well, and a 4x digital zoom to get in close. Operating the phone is standard fare: hit the Menu button to access all the settings when you want to configure the shot manually. The auto-focus feature works like that on my EVO 4G, and lets you tap any object in the viewfinder to make it the main object for focus in the shot. A warning is in order for those with privacy concerns: The EPIC had geotagging of photos enabled by default. I didn’t realize this until I took a few test photos and then looked at them in the Gallery app. All were appended with my exact home address, so had I uploaded them somewhere, the location information would have been appended. I wish all OEMs would disable this by default.

Video recording is also standard phone fare, with either VGA or 720p options. I find the quality of recorded video is better than that on my EVO, with everything nicely focused, and the camera handling background lighting variation quite nicely.

The EPIC 4G ships with a 1500 mAh battery, and I’ve seen good battery life so far. The phone easily lasts all day on a single charge, and I haven’t done much tweaking to achieve that performance. It’s easy to access the battery to swap in a fresh one if needed. The microSD card is easily accessed above the battery compartment with the back removed.

The decision to ship with Android 2.1 means no Flash 10.1 is available, which may be an issue for some, depending on which side of that fence you are on. Flash aside, the operation of the phone is fluid, and as fast as any Android phone. The EPIC uses the Samsung TouchWiz interface, which is only slightly different from standard Android or the HTC Sense interface found on many phones. TouchWiz foregoes the Phone and Launcher buttons on the screen, and puts a fixed dock with four icons that provide access to the Phone dialer, Contacts, Messaging and Applications.This dock is visible on all seven of the home screens on the EPIC.

I’ve tried several methods suggested by others for swapping these four icons for others of my choosing. None of these methods have worked, so it seems users are stuck with these four. It’s not a big deal, as there’s plenty of room for icons on the seven screens to customize the interface.

The Applications icon fires up the app launcher, and instead of scrolling up and down, it scrolls right and left by swiping. That took me a little while to get used to, as other Android phones go up and down. Users can toggle between two views in the launcher: grid and list.

A very nice feature that TouchWiz includes (not found on other Android phones) is in the notification slider (see picture 5 in gallery). The top of the notification area always has toggles for all the phone radios to facilitate access. Pull the shade down, and you see toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G and GPS. Each icon grays out when the radio is turned off and turns green when active. Other Android phone makers should take note of this feature.

Sprint has pre-installed the standard fare it puts on all Android phones. Sprint Navigation is there and free to use. I use it a lot, and find it much better than Google Maps Navigation, as it’s more accurate and easier to operate in the car. There’s also Sprint TV for viewing free content ,which looks incredible on the beautiful screen of the EPIC.

The EPIC also has a mobile hotspot app for sharing 3G/4G connections with up to 8 devices. The service costs $29.99 per month and is unlimited (4G only) for that price. There is a 5 GB cap for 3G sharing.

The EPIC 4G is available for ordering for $249.99 with activation, after a $100 mail-in rebate. Sprint requires the Everything Data plan, which starts at $79.99 per month including the $10 “Premium Data” add-on.

Samsung is pushing the envelope with the Galaxy S line of smartphones, and the EPIC 4G may be the best of the bunch. The big, beautiful screen coupled with the best-in-class QWERTY keyboard make this a very nice phone. The speed of operation on the Sprint 4G network has been great. The touch-sensitive buttons on the front of the phone are poorly designed, and hard to operate, although not a deal-breaker. Some EPIC users have reported problems maintaining good GPS fixes while using that feature. I haven’ seen that problem, but Sprint has acknowledged it’s an issue and has a fix coming soon. Hopefully that fix will have Froyo attached.

To see the EPIC 4G in action, check out our nice unboxing video and the Android smartphone smackdown video.

Related GigaOM Pro Research (sub req’d): To Ship or Not to Ship — Product Launch in the Smartphone Era

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