Verizon now has a second 4G LTE smartphone joining its ranks, the Samsung Droid Charge. This sweet Android handset delivers some of the fastest data speeds we've ever seen, has a beautiful 4.3-inch super AMOLED display, and a great camera. But is this $299 smartphone worth 50 bucks more than the Thunderbolt?
Flat with softly tapered edges and a gently pointed bottom lip, the Samsung Droid Charge is one massive surf board of a smartphone. Black in the front and what Samsung calls Mirror Gray in back, its plastic design doesn't scream high-end. The smooth back surface is pleasantly iridescent, changing color in different angles, but it's slippery and attracts fingerprints easily.
That said, the Droid Charge is trim, measuring just half an inch thick, and it weighs just 5 ounces. The HTC Thunderbolt, Verizon's other 4G LTE device, is slightly thicker (0.56 inches) and heavier (6.2 ounces), but it uses sturdier, more premium materials. At 2.7 inches across, the Droid Charge is wider, making the device a little uncomfortable to hold one-handed. Considering its size, we wish the Droid Charge had a kickstand like the Thunderbolt does.
The Charge's power button is on the right side within easy thumb reach for right-handed users. Also on the right is a microHDMI port under a plastic flap. The opposite side holds a microUSB port and two volume keys, which small hands may find a stretch to operate. Above the 4.3-inch display is a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. Four physical Android buttons with familiar icons for Back, Home, Menu, and Search sit below the screen. These buttons are backlit but are too dim for our tastes.
The phone's fat chin houses a speaker. On the back you'll also find an 8-MP camera with flash. Removing the back cover reveals a microSD card slot occupied by a sizeable 32GB card and a separate Verizon 4G LTE SIM card slot, both accessible without having to remove the battery.
Display, Keyboard, and Audio
A huge part of the Samsung Droid Charge's appeal is its gorgeous Super AMOLED touchscreen. Measuring a vast 4.3 inches (800 x 480), it offers amazingly high contrast with deep blacks and vibrant colors. The HD trailer of The Green Lantern on YouTube looked spectacular. Another upside is this screen's virtually unlimited viewing angles, so sharing with a crowd isn't a problem. We preferred the Droid Charge's display to those on HTC's Thunderbolt (4.3-inch LCD, 800 x 480), the Evo 4G (4.3-inch LCD, 800 x 480), and the Droid Incredible 2 (4-inch Super LCD, 800 x 480). We had no trouble viewing the Droid Charge's display outdoors in bright sunshine, either.
Instead of the stock Android keyboard, the Charge uses Samsung's keyboard. Its large square keys are easy to hit and provide a slight buzz of haptic feedback. In portrait mode, we also appreciated the long space bar. Long-pressing within any text field will give users the option of switching to Swype, a text-entry method that uses lines to connect letters and swiftly spell words.
The large speaker at the phone's base played music that was loud enough to fill a medium-sized room. That said, bass was noticeably lacking when we played the booming dance track "Paper Romance" by Groove Armada.
Software and Interface
It's a bit of a downer that a premium smartphone such as the Charge ships with Android version 2.2 Froyo instead of the latest flavor, Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Still, Samsung spruces up the older OS with its TouchWiz user interface. The lock screen displays the current time, date, pending notifications, and network status. To unlock, users simply drag a puzzle piece horizontally across the screen, fitting it in a virtual hole.
There are seven customizable home screens which users can populate with widgets and apps of their choosing. By default, the main home screen features a Sense-like weather clock by WeatherBug. Sorry, no full-screen weather animations here. Swiping left or right cycles through the screens. In addition, pinching any home screen brings up a view of all seven at once.
The fifth home screen is pre-loaded with micro widgets for weather, stocks, news, and calendar, providing bite-sized chunks of current info. A Feeds and Updates widget lets you know what your Twitter friends are up to, and lets you make quick status updates. A Buddies Now widget lets you add thumbnails of favorite contacts for fast calls and messaging.
On the bottom of each home screen are four virtual buttons for Applications, Contacts, Messaging, and Phone. Swiping a finger from top to bottom from within any app or screen displays the notification shade. It highlights system-wide alerts and has buttons to toggle Bluetooth, GPS, mobile data, screen auto-rotation, and Wi-Fi.
Specs and Performance
Under the hood of the Samsung Droid Charge is a 1-GHz Hummingbird CPU with 512MB of RAM and a 32GB SD card. Even so, the handset's performance was mixed. On the Linpack benchmark, for instance, the Droid Charge managed a score of 13, slightly below what we see from the typical Android device (14.4). By comparison, the HTC Thunderbolt (1-GHz Snapdragon) notched a much higher 27.5 on this test, while the HTC Droid Incredible 2 (1-GHz Snapdragon with an updated MSM8655 chipset) turned in an even higher 37.6.
Within the CPU section of the Benchmark test, the Droid Charge scored a nimble 1,569.1, which is almost 400 points above the Android average. That's enough to best the Droid Incredible 2 (1,152.9) but not the HTC Thunderbolt (2,103.9). The Droid Charge fared better in the An3DBench graphics test, scoring 6,925. That showing is more than 800 points higher than the average (6,088.5), and it also schools both the Droid Incredible 2 (5,995) and the HTC Thunderbolt (6,209) on this test.
During everyday use, the Droid Charge was responsive when navigating through menus as well as launching apps and web pages. We saw nothing but smooth gameplay when checking out Let's Golf 2. A few times, though, we did notice slight delays, usually when waking up the phone from sleep or when digital accounts were syncing.
4G and Web Surfing
Besides the luscious display, the other huge draw to the Droid Charge is its smoking 4G LTE data connection. On our speed tests we recorded some of the fastest download rates we've ever seen from a phone. In the heart of midtown Manhattan we logged consistent white-hot download speeds of 16.6 Mbps and 5.3 Mbps uploads. Out in Queens, things slowed down. There, the Droid Charge sucked down data at a respectable 7.8 Mbps, but uploads stayed at a below-average (for LTE) rate of 1.8 Mbps.
By comparison, the HTC Thunderbolt averaged 8.3 Mbps downloads and uploads in the 4 to 7 Mbps range (in hotspot mode). We will update this review once we are able to test both devices side by side in the same location.
Web pages loaded quickly on the Droid Charge, with mobile versions of The New York Times and ESPN.com opening in about 4 seconds. The more complicated full desktop version of Laptopmag.com took a bit longer, at an average of 18 seconds.
Our only major complaint is that the back of the Droid Charge became hot when using its LTE radio for extended periods.
A dedicated Mobile Hotspot application allows the Droid Charge to share its Internet connection for up to 10 Wi-Fi devices at once. The Thunderbolt supports up to eight simultaneous connections. We quickly connected the Charge and our test MacBook laptop and enjoyed download speeds of 11.7 Mbps and upload rates of 6 Mbps. That's pretty awesome.
Apps, Music, and Video
Samsung's TouchWiz interface lays out the Android app tray very much like Apple's iOS. Set against a black canvas, icons for applications have colorful square backgrounds. Besides the usual Verizon Wireless services software, important staples include an e-mail app that takes care of standard POP and webmail accounts and provides access to Microsoft Exchange servers.
Handy additions from Samsung include a Voice Recorder and Clock with world, stopwatch, and alarm functions. A Desk Cradle turns the phone into a desk-side clock complete with night and day modes (Samsung plans to sell the Droid i510 Desktop Dock cradle for $69.99 to accommodate the Charge). A Daily Briefing app displays in portrait orientation and combines weather, news headlines from the AP, and calendar info. The task manager and file explorer are other thoughtful touches.
Pre-installed entertainment apps include the Blockbuster and Bitbop video stores, Kindle eBook, and Samsung's own Media Store for movie rentals and purchases. For music, Rhapsody and Slacker service apps are on board.
The Droid Charge comes with demo versions of Let's Golf 2 and RockBand games. The ThinkFree Office mobile suite allows for viewing and editing of Office files.
Music and Video
A nod to Samsung's portable music device legacy, the Droid Charge's Music Player offers a range of equalizer effects, visualizations, and even a virtual 5.1 channel mode. There's also a slick disc view with fancy jukebox-like animations. The TuneWiki application aggregates the phone's music and video library and gives one-tap access to YouTube, Internet radio, device-stored content, and music search features. Video playback is handled by a no-frills video player (though virtual 5.1 is here too), and Samsung's Allshare communicates with DLNA-compliant devices to share media over home networks.
Camera and Camcorder
Shutterbugs will be glad to know that the 8-MP camera on the Droid Charge takes great pictures. In the photos we took, grass was lush and green, red and yellow flowers popped, and blue skies and white clouds were idyllic. The Charge's camera offers plenty of settings, such as autofocus and manual ISO. Several scene modes are available, including portrait, night, and sports. The Outdoor visibility setting pumps up the screen brightness. Special effects are here, too, such as Black and White, Negative, and Sepia. Sadly, the Droid Charge doesn't come with video chat software, but users can download apps such as Fring or Qik.
The Droid Charge's video camera can record movies in up to 720p HD resolution. Test clips we shot looked clear and detailed when we played them on a large desktop monitor. Users can share pictures and video directly from within the camera app via e-mail, Allshare, Bluetooth, or through services such as Picasa and YouTube.
Overall, the Droid Charge offered excellent call quality. Callers said we sounded rich and clear, and voices on our end were easy to hear, with no clips or distortion. The phone's earpiece gets plenty loud, as does the speakerphone. A nice feature is noise cancellation, which strives to cut out distracting ambient din. We found it worked well, eliminating the annoying hiss of a nearby kettle. Users can switch the function on or off mid-call.
Samsung rates the Droid Charge to supply 11 hours of usage time and standby of 280 hours. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, the phone ran for a good 6 hours and 42 minutes when continually surfing web pages in 4G mode. That outlasted the HTC Thunderbolt's poor runtimes both in 4G (3:56) and 3G (5:47) modes. This showing also compares well to the Evo 4G, which ran for 5:39 on Sprint's WiMax network (this also happens to be the current smartphone average).
Pricing and Value
The Samsung Droid Charge costs $300 with two-year contract. Verizon charges $29.99 for unlimited data access to its 4G LTE service, but up until May 15th the mobile hotspot service is free. After that it will cost $20 per month for 2GB of data.
Yes, $299 is a lot to spend on a smartphone. But the Samsung Droid Charge offers a lot for your money: blazing LTE speeds, a large and bright display, and an excellent camera. Its main 4G LTE rival on Verizon, the $249 HTC Thunderbolt, offers comparable performance, a more elegant Sense UI, and better build quality. However, we give the edge to the Droid Charge because it lasts longer on a charge and has a superior display. While we'd prefer dual-core power at this price, overall the Droid Charge is well worth the splurge.