Saturday, June 5, 2010

Samsung Galaxy S (I9000)

Though Samsung has produced Android phones before the Galaxy S (I9000), none have gotten as much attention as this model. This is because the company has really given this phone the best it has to offer, including a brand new processor and an improved display technology called Super AMOLED. So, is the I9000 better than what's offered by Samsung's competitors, particularly Android specialist HTC? We find out.


One of the best things about the Galaxy S has to be its 4-inch Super AMOLED display. This has a resolution of 800 x 480 pixels (WVGA) and measures 4 inches diagonally. An Android phone with a similar screen is the Sony Ericsson Xperia X 10, though its resolution is slightly different at 854 x 480 pixels.
The "Super" moniker for the screen identifies it as one using Samsung's new AMOLED technology. The advantages compared with regular AMOLED are that it's thinner, brighter, uses less power and has better screen legibility under direct sunlight. One of the first things we observed about the touchscreen was that it's very sensitive to our fingertip touches. It responded to the lightest of touches, which is good when you want to type fast and not worry about missing letters. Watching videos was a good experience, thanks to the large display and eye-popping colors reproduced by the panel. Furthermore, you can watch DivX HD videos stored in the memory without messy format conversions, perfect for those who plan to use the Galaxy S as a media player.
We took the Galaxy S out under direct sunlight, comparing it with the HTC which is equipped with a regular AMOLED screen. At maximum brightness, the Galaxy S did not appear to do any better or worse than the Desire in this test. Now, this isn't a bad thing. As we've noted in the HTC Desire review, this meant text was readable under direct sunlight, so most people will do fine using a browser or following a map when under the noon sun.
Even with such a large screen, Samsung has managed to keep this Galaxy slim and light. Its thickness is a mere 9.9mm, while the weight is 118g--which is quite light for such a large device. In comparison, the iphones' thickness and weight are 12.3mm and 135g, respectively.
Admittedly, some may still find the Galaxy S a little large with a footprint of 122.4 x 64.2mm. This is almost identical to the HTC  120.5 x 67mm, and we all know how big the HD2 is.
There are three buttons below the screen, two of which are touch-sensitive--the Menu and Back keys. Between those two is the physical Home button. There's no directional pad, so navigating the interface will rely solely on the touchscreen. This could pose a problem when moving the cursor in text fields as it is sometimes difficult to get the cursor exactly where you want using a fingertip touch. Fortunately, Samsung has implemented onscreen arrow keys in its software keyboard to address that. More on that later.

We like the sliding cover for the micro-USB port. (Credit: Damian Koh/CNET Asia)

Like the Samsung Wave, the micro-USB port on the Galaxy S has a sliding cover. We like this small design implementation as it keeps lint out of the connector while not being as fiddly as some pull-out rubber port covers. Near the micro-USB port on the top edge is a standard 3.5mm jack for audio output.
Other buttons are scarce with just the power toggle on the right edge and volume controls on the left. The back is where you'll find the speakers and a 5-megapixel camera with no flash. There is also a secondary camera in front for making video calls.
Though the Samsung will likely be positioned as a high-end smartphone, it's a pity the materials used didn't feel more premium. While the plastic back cover was attractive, it would have been better if the Galaxy S had a metallic finish like the Samsung Wave.


You can't have a high-end Samsung phone without every single feature crammed in, and the Galaxy S is no exception. Connectivity-wise, it comes with HSPA for high-speed downloads and uploads over the cellular network. It has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS for satellite navigation. An FM tuner is also built-in for those who prefer their music and news from the airwaves.
The I9000 is equipped with Android 2.1 (Eclair). With the Galaxy S, you get all the standard Android features including tight integration with Google services such as Gmail, native Microsoft Exchange support and a Webkit-based browser that supports multitouch gestures but not the Adobe Flash plug-in.

TouchWiz 3.0 For Android

Now that we've the standard things out of the way, let's look at what makes the Galaxy S unique, software-wise. Samsung's custom interface is called TouchWiz 3.0 for Android. TouchWiz has been used in other Samsung mobile phones and this version for the Galaxy S is in some ways similar. On the Home page, there's a fixed dock with four shortcuts to Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Applications. The rest of the Home pages (which goes up to seven screens) are pretty much what you find in other Android phones. This means you can fill them up with either widgets or shortcuts and is fully customizable.

Tapping on the Applications shortcut will bring up the main menu. Instead of one that slides upward from the bottom, the pages of apps scroll horizontally. This is consistent with Samsung's TouchWiz interface from its earlier devices. The dock at the bottom doesn't change in the menu page aside from the Applications button which now shows Home instead for getting out of the menu back to the Home page.
While different from the default Android interface, Samsung's implementation is quite good. It's not too complicated and can be easily edited to your liking. You can move icons around without much trouble, similar to how it's done on the iPhone. Another thing we liked is that new applications automatically get added to the last available page. Google's default interface puts apps in alphabetical order and there's no way to arrange them. What's more, in the process of editing the main menu, you can even delete programs completely. Yes, you don't have to enter the settings page and go through a series of submenus just to delete all the apps you want purged from the system. You can increase the number of menu pages according to how many apps you have. We went up to 26 pages before getting tired of going further. Essentially, there're lots of menu space for apps, so the 2GB ROM for storing programs can be put to full use.
Now, here's the bad news. Samsung has made it impossible to delete a lot of preinstalled programs. This is fine for most such as YouTube and the FM Radio app--you don't want to end up without those. But in our SingTel-branded set, there were dedicated icons for operator services such as InSing and AMPed. AMPed is a music download service which some will never use, yet you cannot get rid of the application. InSing is even worse--all it does is bring you to the operator's online portal in the browser. Imagine that, a browser bookmark that takes up one slot in your menu and cannot be removed. Though we understand that operator relationship is important to a manufacturer, the way these "apps" have been forced to remain in the Galaxy S is too heavy-handed. This is after all a Google Android smartphone, and we believe many of its intended customers want to be able to fully customize it. Right now, the best solution is to shift all the apps you don't want to see to the last page of the menu.
Samsung has also tweaked the notifications bar that resides at the top of the screen. As with the vanilla Android, you access the bar by pulling it down. In Samsung's implementation though, you get four shortcuts embedded in the notifications page--Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Silent and Vibration. This makes toggling these features really convenient. Ordinarily, this is achieved by entering the settings page or downloading third-party widgets that reside on the Home page. We did notice a bug in the notifications bar when it informs you of a new text message. When you tap on the notification and get brought to the new SMS, the little message notification refuses to go away until you exit the message thread, which involves pressing Back at least twice. Generally, once a user is done reading or replying to a text, he will simply press Home or turn off the screen, In the case of the Galaxy S, this will cause the new SMS notification to remain on the top bar.

Social-Networking Addons

Integrating social-networking services appears to be a big deal for any Android phone these days and the Galaxy S is no exception. For starters, you can integrate your Facebook and Twitter friends into your Contacts list. This is similar to what's available in HTC Sense, though not quite as polished. For starters, setting it up takes quite a while. In the case of Facebook, you are shown your entire list of friends, which have to be sifted through to select who to appear and link with your Google contacts. For those with thousands of "friends" who are not friends that ought to appear on your mobile phone, this can be quite a chore. HTC nailed this by showing only those the software feels matches a contact in Google. If it missed out one, you can manually add it.
After linking a contact with your friend's Facebook profile, the person's profile picture will appear on your contacts list. What really annoyed us was that this photo appeared mangled because the Contacts application simply fitted it into a square without scaling it properly. Fellow CNET Asia writer Damian Koh, for example, uses a profile picture in portrait mode, so he appeared squashed horizontally on our review phone. Though it seems trivial, let's not forget phones are becoming the primary avenue of access to many social-networking services and individuals' profile pictures are a crucial part of that. To see so many stretched and squashed faces of friends throughout widgets and in the contacts page is very uncomfortable, to say the least, and shows a lack of attention to detail.

Text Input

Text input methods included with the Galaxy S are the Samsung keyboard and Swype. The Samsung keyboard is a simple one that's pretty effective. The size of the screen makes tapping buttons very accurate, and without much practice, we were able to type very quickly.
However, it could do with a little more complexity. The letters don't serve two purposes, so you can't, say, simply press and hold M to get a question mark. Except for the full stop (which gets a dedicated key on the QWERTY page), all other symbols require switching to the symbols page. Pressing and holding the symbols key will bring up an editing page which gives you arrow keys and other editing tools like select and copy. In the browser, the address bar doubles as a search field. The Samsung keyboard detects this as a URL field only and replaces the spacebar with ".com", so search for phrases that require spaces becomes a chore. As with the extra features in the contacts application, the Samsung keyboard isn't poor, it just needs refinement.
The other text input option is Swype. This lets you move your fingers in a single motion to "link up" letters. It's an interesting take on the QWERTY keyboard and requires only one hand. We found it pretty effective, but have to admit it takes some getting used to and may not suit everyone.

Other Software Features

Other applications bundled with the Galaxy S include ThinkFree Office (for viewing and editing documents) and augmented reality browser Layar. Others proprietary to Samsung include Social Hub and Write and Go. Social Hub puts all your email and social-networking accounts in one place for easy access--we didn't find this very useful and ended up with our dedicated apps most of the time. We felt Write and Go was more useful as it lets you pen a thought before deciding if you want to send it as an SMS, email or as a status update on Facebook or Twitter.
Though tethering is not supported natively by Android 2.1, Samsung has included a feature called Mobile AP. What this does is to make the device act as a wireless access point, tapping on the phone's HSDPA Internet connectivity. This worked without a hitch and, to our surprise, used WPA encryption for the Wi-Fi network, which gives stronger security compared with WEP.


Photos taken with the Galaxy S' camera were of very good quality. They showed colors accurately and performed well indoors even without flash. Video recording is supported up to 720p resolution. Video quality looked good as long as expectations were kept in check--this is no Canon Legria camcorder.


One word of warning when using the camera--the photos look better on the device's screen than on the computer. While this is generally true for all digicams and mobile phones because the small display hides blurriness and noise, it's especially pronounced for the Galaxy S. The Super AMOLED seems to brighten all the colors. So once you view it on a color-corrected monitor, the images just don't seem so great anymore.


Samsung is to perform better when it came to CPU performance and graphics. This was evident in our day-to-day use of the device. Web browsing was smooth and the smartphone generally felt snappy throughout. We downloaded a few graphics-intensive games and the I9000 handled them perfectly.
That's probably thanks to the new Samsung Hummingbird processor complete with PowerVR SGX graphics. This is rumored to be a variant of what's found in the Apple iPad and is jointly designed by Samsung and Intrinsity. Intrinsity was recently bought by Apple.
512MB of RAM is available for running applications, while there's 2GB ROM for installing apps. This is part of the internal 16GB memory, so 14GB is left for storage and appears as a removable drive when the Galaxy S is connected to a PC. There's also a microSDHC card slot for expansion if the onboard storage not sufficient.
Though the Super AMOLED screen is supposed to be more battery-efficient, the Galaxy S didn't do much better than the HTC Desire. With two email accounts and all social-networking services set to auto-sync, we got slightly under 24 hours of use before the battery depleted fully. Tweak these settings and it's possible to go about 1.5 days on a single charge.
Call quality was good, with the other party able to hear us clearly. We did not experience any dropped calls or reception abnormalities during our test period, either. Take note that this phone also supports video calls, something many Android smartphones are not capable of.


The big question on everyone's mind is probably this: Should I buy this over the HTC Desire? One thing we can say for sure is that HTC's Sense UI is definitely more polished than Samsung's TouchWiz for Android. This extends to integration of social-networking services, text input and even the quality of custom widgets. The HTC also feels more solid physically and has an LED flash for lighting up dark subjects.
However, the Galaxy S has its own advantages, the most prominent of which is the large 4-inch Super AMOLED screen. The powerful processor is another big plus, which performs admirably whether it's during general use or for CPU-intensive tasks.
Weighing these factors based on their own merits, we would say the two are neck-and-neck. When we reviewed the HTC Desire, Froyo had not been announced yet. Now that we know it adds significant user features and greatly unlocks the potential of the smartphone's processor, whether or not an Android device gets this upgrade becomes an important factor. While both manufacturers have committed to such an update, there has been no estimated timeline given.
Though it's hard to make guesses for such matters, HTC does have more experience when it comes to pushing out updates for Android phones. It is after all the most experienced Android manufacturer around and one of Google's closest partners for the mobile OS. In the meantime, if Samsung will be taking a number of months to get Froyo ready, we hope it will at least resolve some of the niggling issues we had with the software in an intermediate update.
If you liken the two Android handsets to cars, the Samsung would win in a drag race, while the HTC would beat it in a track full of turns. Choose the Samsung Galaxy S for its raw power and potential for greatness given the right software tweaks. But if a polished UI and ease of use are what you looking for in an Android phone, the HTC Desire would fit the bill.
Depending on where you are in Asia, the Galaxy S will be available at different dates starting from June. Its retail price is pretty steep at S$1,098, but the smartphone can be had for much less if you factor in subsidies that come with mobile plans. Contact your local operator for more details.


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