Now that Samsung's Galaxy S phones have landed at AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, Verizon Wireless is last in line--which is not necessarily a bad thing, considering Verizon customers have plenty of strong Android phones from which to choose, including the Droid X, Droid 2, and Droid Incredible. So what does the Fascinate bring to the party on Big Red? This handset has the same vibrant AMOLED screen we loved on the earlier models, and unlike AT&T's Captivate and T-Mobile's Vibrant, this model includes an LED flash and mobile hotspot feature. Yes, Sprint's Epic 4G has these features, too, but its slide-out QWERTY keyboard adds bulk. Still, this $199 smart phone has a number of flaws, mainly attributable to Verizon's content deals with other companies. So how does the Fascinate stack up to the Droids?
The Fascinate has a nearly identical design to the Vibrant; it measures 4.8 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches and, like the Vibrant, has rounded corners, unlike the Captivate's more square design. The device is all black, save for a thin strip of chromed plastic around the edge. Below the keyboard are four touch buttons (Settings, Home, Back, and Search) that are backlit in white, but after a few seconds, the lights turn off, making it difficult to figure out their placement in the dark.
The back of the Fascinate has a subtle square pattern, broken up only by the 5-megapixel camera and LED flash.
Weighing 4.2 ounces, the Fascinate is considerably slimmer and lighter than the Droid X (5 x 2.6 x 0.4 inches; 5.5 ounces) and Droid 2 (4.6 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches; 5 ounces). As such, it's less noticeable when slipped into a pocket.
Ports include a 3.5mm headphone jack and a microUSB port (covered by a sliding hatch) on its top. The left side has volume control buttons, and the right has a power switch. Call us old-fashioned, but we always like a camera button, too. Given its ability to record 720p video, an HDMI port wouldn't have hurt, either. Instead, you're supposed to use AllShare, which streams content over Wi-Fi to DLNA-compatible TVs and other electronics.
As with the other Galaxy S devices, the Fascinate's AMOLED screen is, well, fascinating. Its 4-inch display size is between the Droid 2 (3.7 inches) and the Droid X (4.3 inches), although it has a lower 800 x 480-pixel resolution compared to 854 x 480 for the two Motorola devices. As with other the other Galaxy phones, images and videos viewed on-screen were amazingly crisp and bright. Even the background--a koi pond with water that ripples when you touch it--seemed more vivid.
The Fascinate features a custom gray keyboard with white letters on a static black background. While the haptic feedback made it nice to know when we had pressed a key, it slowed our typing down. We suggest turning this feature off.
The Vibrant also features a Swype keyboard, where you draw a path between letters for text entry. Swype technology has a learning curve, but it works well once you get the hang of it. Unlike the Vibrant, a button on the left-hand side of the keyboard lets you quickly switch between the Swype and the standard keyboard, a nice touch.
Samsung's custom Touchwiz 3.0 interface is present on the Fascinate, and it has a very iPhone-like appearance, which is a good thing. Along the bottom of the home screen are four static icons for phone, contacts, messaging, and applications. The Fascinate's application screen has a static black background on which you swipe left to right to view your installed apps, instead of the traditional vertical scrolling for Android phones.
Instead of a Google search button at the top of the main home screen (as with the Vibrant), Verizon chose to go with Bing as the default search provider, and annoyingly, you can't change it. Bing is also the only search option from within the browser. The engine delivered decent results, but the lack of choice is bad for consumers.
A total of seven home screens can be customized with widgets, folders, and shortcuts. Swipe to the left, and you're presented with a Feeds and Updates widget that displays the last 16 social networking updates from Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. From here, you can reply to messages and even edit retweets before sending. On the next screen, the Buddies Now widget lets you add friends to a scrollable wheel so you can quickly e-mail and message them. It would be even better if it showed whether they were online.
Specs and Performance
The Fascinate packs the same powerful Samsung 1-GHz Hummingbird processor and 512MB of RAM as the Vibrant and Captivate. While swiping between screens and opening apps, we rarely encountered stuttering or pauses, and when we did, they were barely noticeable.
Not surprisingly, the Fascinate returned roughly the same results on our benchmark tests as the other Galaxy S phones. The scores were also on a par with 1-GHz Motorola phones such as the Droid 2 and Droid X.
While the phone itself only has 2GB of storage, Verizon includes a 16GB SDHC card with the phone, similar to other Galaxy S devices.
E-mail and Messaging
Like every Android phone, the Fascinate has a dedicated Gmail client and a separate mail application, the latter of which isn't as polished as Gmail (it seems a bit slower), which is a bit frustrating when you're in a hurry. Business users will appreciate the built-in Exchange support. The messaging app takes a cue from the iPhone, wrapping messages in a bubble (though not color-coded) and works quickly, even when attaching pictures to send via MMS.
The Fascinate was slightly faster than other Galaxy phones during browsing. Over 3G, it loaded the full New York Times site in 9 seconds and the mobile version of ESPN in 5 seconds (versus 7 seconds on the Vibrant, 9 seconds on the Captivate, and 10 seconds on the iPhone 4). Laptopmag.com loaded in 17 seconds, compared to 19 for the Vibrant, 25 for the Captivate, and 27 seconds for the iPhone 4. Over Wi-Fi, the Fascinate loaded ESPN in 3 seconds, NYTimes.com in 7 seconds, and Laptopmag.com in 11 seconds.
Unlike the Vibrant and Captivate (but similar to the Epic 4G), the Fascinate comes with a mobile hotspot feature that lets you connect up to five devices to the phone via Wi-Fi. When streaming a Hulu video to our laptop using this connection, the quality was just as good as over Wi-Fi. This service costs $20 per month.
Aside from the ever-growing Android Market (which still plays second fiddle to iTunes), Verizon puts a number of its own apps on the Fascinate. Included are Samsung's AllShare, which, when connected to a local network, lets you stream multimedia to or from the Fascinate to any device on the network. That includes Samsung TVs and set-top boxes like Blu-ray players.
Other apps include Car Cradle, which brings navigation controls to the front (including view map, voice search, and contacts) and arranges them in a landscape format; this app is best used with the optional car cradle ($39.99). Desk Cradle is intended for use with its eponymous accessory ($29.99), and shows the time and date prominently, with icons for Alarm, Voice Search, Gallery, Daily Briefing, and Music.
Also on the Fascinate are apps for Bing, Blockbuster, ThinkFree Office, V Cast Music and Video, VZ Navigator, Nuance voice commands, Skype Mobile, and Write & Go, which lets you jot down brief memos and save them locally or e-mail them to contacts.
Music and Video
The media player interface on the Fascinate is more along the lines of a high-end PMP, a major step up from most Android phones. In portrait mode, album art is arranged along the left-hand side and is large and colorful. In landscape mode, albums can be arranged in "disc view," which arranges the icons like CDs in a carousel, a sort of cover flow-like system.
As a video player, there's not a lot of premium content you can get to maximize that Super AMOLED display yet, but the upcoming Samsung Media Hub has promise. This service will let you rent and buy movies and TV shows over Wi-Fi.
Like the Vibrant and Captivate, the Fascinate has a 5-MP camera, but unlike those two phones, the Fascinate has an LED flash that worked well; even in a completely darkened room, the flash provided enough light to take fairly decent pictures at short range. In the light, pictures were even better. A brick wall bathed in sunlight glowed red, and we could see the subtle variations of green as the sun filtered through the trees.
The same was true for 720p videos. When we watched them on our notebook, video was smooth, and orange pylons seemed to jump off the screen. The Fascinate's camera also did a good job adjusting the aperture as we moved the phone from the street to the bright blue sky; the street wasn't shrouded in darkness, nor was the sky washed out.
In lieu of Google Navigation, the Fascinate has VZ Navigator and Bing Maps, both of which are less attractive and intuitive than Google Maps and Google Navigation. For example, there's no pinch-to-zoom when looking at a map; you have to use the magnification controls at the bottom of the screen. Additionally, there's no integration between the two apps. If you search for, say, Starbucks using Bing Maps, it doesn't provide spoken turn-by-turn directions; VZ Navigator offers that feature, but the Fascinate doesn't launch that app automatically. We expected tighter integration, although VZ Navigator offers its own local search capabilities.
Adding insult to injury, VZ Navigator costs $10 per month. Fortunately, you can download the free Google Navigation suite (Latitude, Maps, Navigation, and Places) from the Android Market.
Calls made indoors using the Fascinate were clear and loud. Outdoors was another story. When making calls from a New York City street to both a landline and another cell phone, calls were mediocre at best. Owing to a lack of noise cancellation on the Fascinate, background noise made our call sound like static; when a truck rumbled by, our voice was completely obscured.
After running our LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via 3G) twice, the Fascinate lasted an average of 5 hours and 41 minutes. Surprisingly, that's about an hour longer than the Captivate and Vibrant, but the Droid 2 and Droid X both lasted more than an hour longer--2 hours, in the case of the Droid X.
Verizon Wireless customers looking for a great Android phone have a tough decision to make. Should they get the big and fast (and long-lasting) Droid X, the Droid 2 with its improved keyboard, or the Droid Incredible because of HTC's great Sense interface and bright AMOLED screen? Notice that we didn't include the $199 Fascinate on that list. While its screen looks better than what you'll find on any of the above phones, and it packs in a great camera, Verizon's de-Googling of the phone will be a deal-breaker for some. We can deal with having to download Google Maps, but it was a poor decision not to offer Google Search at least as an option. We hope Verizon changes its mind.