As a platform-agnostic manufacturer, Samsung's most recent smartphone efforts have been a mixed bag. Last year's Icon range featured a Windows Mobile phone and a Symbian phone alongside the Korean company's first Android, the Galaxy Icon. This approach achieved mixed results, but in 2010 Samsung is not pulling any punches. The Galaxy S is brimming with features within its hardware that is as slick to use as it is familiar.
For the last three years tech critics have accused all the major manufacturers of appropriating Apple's iPhone design, but none has deserved the criticism as much as Samsung does with this latest release. The front of the Galaxy S is a spitting image of the uber-popular handheld; it has similarly rounded corners, a stainless steel trim and a central "home key" below the touchscreen. The back of the phone is more like Samsung's handsets of the recent past, with a large square camera lens in the top-left corner, and a flat back that differs from the iPhone's curved posterior.
The Galaxy S is also bigger, sporting a 4-inch capacitive touchscreen display and makes use of Samsung's Super AMOLED display technology. This is the next evolutionary step in the AMOLED screen tech we've seen previously on the HD Icon and Omnia Icon, and also on the HTC Desire and Google Nexus One. Next to a regular AMOLED screen, the Super AMOLED glimmers with deeper colour and contrast, giving the on-screen image a richer and sharper appearance, not to mention the dramatic improvement in the viewing angle. The capacitive touchscreen is also very usable, with all finger gestures responding well with the phone's software.
When Samsung released the original Galaxy it did so without any customisation to the Android platform. For the Galaxy S, Samsung has skinned almost every screen of the system, applying a new home screen, a sideways-scrolling applications menu and unique apps for common tasks like messaging and the calendar, as well as a suite of widgets to play with. These modifications give Samsung's Android a fun, cartoony feel, but rob the phone of the sophistication we see from HTC's latest Androids running the Sense UI. Samsung's widgets are also ugly and often useless, but as is the beauty with all Android phones, you can simply remove any widget you don't like having displayed.
The phone itself feels cheaply made compared with top-tier handsets from Apple, Nokia, HTC and Sony Ericsson, especially at first glance. The glossy plastic body lacks the premium feel of other phones, and the 119-gram weight and 9.9mm depth of the Galaxy S helps make it feel less substantial than you might expect from a phone of this calibre. All we can say is that looks can be deceiving — after using the phone for the period of this review we have never suspected it was any less sturdy than most phones we see, and the lighter weight is a bonus when holding it to web browse for long periods of time.
Features, and more features
Like the original Samsung Omnia, the spec sheet for the Galaxy S need only stipulate that the kitchen sink is not included — it has just about everything else you could imagine in a phone. It checks all the major communications and connectivity boxes, with HSPA (7.2Mbps downlink, 5.76Mbps uplink), Wi-Fi including the 802.11n protocol, and Bluetooth 3.0 with A2DP stereo streaming profile.
The advanced Wi-Fi network chip will come in handy for those who plan to use the Galaxy S as a media streamer. Packed with DLNA streaming, the Galaxy S is capable of connecting to a compatible device, like a PS3, PC or flat panel TV, and can stream media stored on the internal memory or microSD card. It can also stream media directly to the phone, or detect media on a PC or server and stream it to a TV, like a multimedia go-between.
If there's one thing the Galaxy S does very well it's browse the web. The stock browser on this phone does a fantastic job of bringing the full web to the small screen, with options to optimise the browser view for mobile devices and the option to set the browser to display in landscape mode only for a wider page view. Importantly, the browser loads the page's structure and text before images so you can start browsing the content while the images load in the background.
Like all Android phones, the Galaxy S comes with a suite of Google apps pre-installed, including Google Maps, Google Talk, Gmail and Google Buzz. You can also connect to an MS Exchange mail account and sync contacts with Facebook, Twitter and MySpace and view updates using a Samsung-designed home screen widget.
As mentioned above, the Galaxy S makes an excellent middle man between media you have on a PC and the flat-panel screen you'd prefer to watch it on, but it also does a decent job of making the media and displaying it on its excellent screen as well. For Movie buffs, the Galaxy S supports DivX and XviD video formats, alongside the standard MP4 and H.264 files we see on all Android phones. It also plays a bunch of audio file formats including MP3, AAC, WMA and FLAC (that's right audiophiles, FLAC).
On the back of the phone you'll find a 5-megapixel camera lens, but no flash strangely enough — the iPhone comparisons continue. The camera software is good, with options to set scene and focus modes. There is also touchscreen focus settings, which lets the user define the focus point in a shot by touching their subject in the viewfinder. The resulting photos are better than average camera phone pics when taken under optimal lighting, but still show plenty of digital aberrations if you bother to scrutinise the images on your PC.
For the most part the Galaxy S is a speed demon — swiping between menu screens is like pushing pancakes over slightly melted butter, and the web browser is as fast as any we've used. We have experienced some moments of significant lag, and sometimes in relation to common tasks. Errant apps running background tasks tend to be the culprit here, so be prepared to be vigilant of memory usage if you start to experience any slow down.
The earpiece speaker of the Galaxy S is loud and clear, though we've found audio during calls to be a little distorted. SMS messaging is enhanced tenfold by Samsung's decision to include a Swype touchscreen keyboard which, along with the phone's haptic feedback, goes a long way to making the use of an on-screen keyboard feel a whole lot more natural. Battery life will obviously differ from user to user, but in our experience the Galaxy S comfortably made it through each working day but needed charging overnight. That said, our colleagues at CNET UK criticised the Galaxy's poor battery life, so it will all depend on how you use it.
The Galaxy S could definitely do with a sprinkling of individuality, especially for customers looking for a viable iPhone alternative, not an iPhone look-alike. But its flaws are mostly skin deep, and once you immerse yourself in the class-leading 4-inch display you're bound to forget any misgivings you had when you first pawed the stiff, plastic chassis. The Android system will appeal most to tech-savvy punters, who will likely appreciate the attention Samsung has given to this phone's multimedia capabilities.