Samsung Captivate (AT&T) Review

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$199

Pros: Sharp and vibrant Super AMOLED screen; Helpful Daily Briefing feature; Excellent HD camcorder; Good audio player and sound quality; Strong call quality;

Cons: Camera lacks flash; No mobile hotspot app; Can't sideload apps

Verdict: Thanks to its jaw-dropping display and good performance, this high-end Android phone finally gives AT&T customers a worthy iPhone alternative.

Attention Android fans: you can finally call AT&T home. Although the carrier's Google phone lineup has been somewhat lackluster thus far with the awkward Motorola Backflip and capable but tiny HTC Aria, the Samsung Captivate (part of the Galaxy S series) is a seriously powerful and beautiful device. It sports a dazzling 4-inch Super AMOLED screen and a zippy 1-GHz ARM processor. Samsung also provides a social networking widget for one of seven customizable home screens and a handful of useful apps. And, like the iPhone 4, this device can record HD video. Other features, however, aren't fully baked yet, such as the Samsung Media Hub for downloading movies and TV shows (it's coming this fall). Also, you can't sideload apps. So is this $199 device worth the splurge for AT&T customers, or should they stick with the iPhone 4?

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Design

With its 4-inch display, the Captivate strikes a nice balance between the 3.5-inch iPhone 4 and 4.3-inch Android beasts like the HTC Evo 4G and Motorola Droid X. This device provides plenty of screen real estate without weighing you down, measuring 0.4 inches thin and weighting 4.5 ounces. It's slightly taller and thicker than the iPhone 4, but a bit lighter (4.8 ounces) despite the larger screen. We easily slipped the Captivate into our pocket and barely noticed that it was there while walking around New York City.

Made mostly of plastic, the Captivate doesn't feel as high-end as the metal-and-glass iPhone 4, but it doesn't feel cheap either. The phone's sleek front is basically all screen, with the exception of four backlit touch buttons along the bottom of the device (Menu, Home, Back, and Search). The sides and back are dark gray, and the metal back plate has a cool checkered pattern with an embossed Galaxy S logo. We like the rounded corners on the top and bottom, though sometimes it's hard to immediately tell which end is up.

The top of the Captivate houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and a microUSB port hidden behind a sliding cover we could do without. A volume rocker is on the left side, and a small power button is on the right. The 5-megapixel camera lens sits on the back left side of the phone. What's missing? Unlike the Evo 4G and Droid X, there's no HDMI output, although you can use DLNA to wirelessly stream HD content. (Samsung sells a separate TV-out cable.) There's also no front-facing camera  as found on the iPhone 4 and Evo 4G.

Super AMOLED Display

All we had to do to wow onlookers was turn the Captivate on and start a slideshow. The 4-inch Super AMOLED did the talking for us, thanks to its super-high contrast and incredibly wide viewing angles. Plus, Samsung's technology now plays nicer in direct sunlight, so the picture doesn't wash out. A photo we took of a fruit stand really popped, and the high-def video we recorded with the Captivate's camcorder looked highly detailed and silky smooth when playing it back in a dimly lit room.

Still, we prefer the iPhone 4's display. It has a higher resolution (960 x 640 pixels vs. 800 x 480), and when we loaded that same fruit stand photo on both devices, the Captivate's image had a bluish cast to it; the iPhone 4's screen was more accurate. When we loaded the same websites on both phones, the iPhone 4's image was brighter.

Software and Interface

The Captivate features Samsung's Touchwiz 3.0 interface, which is less in-your-face than previous iterations and is iPhone-like in some ways. You get a total of seven home screens with a default blue animated wallpaper and bubbles that float around the display. On the main screen is the Google search box, plus shortcuts to Contacts, Messaging, Camera, and the Android Market; you can easily add others. Four main icons remain at the bottom of the screen when you swipe to the left or right: Phone, E-mail, Browser, and Applications. Unfortunately, you can't change these options.

Swiping to the left presents a Feeds and Updates widget that aggregates the latest 16 social networking updates from Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter ( you can click to show 16 more). We synced Facebook and Twitter. From this widget you can reply or retweet messages, though you can edit the latter before sending. You can also comment on Facebook posts. Some will find this widget fun, but we think most users will gravitate toward standalone Android apps with more functionality. A separate Buddies Now widget lets you see specific contacts' social networking updates and text messages at a glance.

More useful is the Daily Briefing, which delivers weather updates, news from AP Mobile, stock info from Yahoo Finance, and your daily calendar in one handy widget. The content doesn't auto-refresh by default, but you can change that in the settings. To the right of the main home screen is basically a billboard for AT&T services (including AT&T Music, AT&T Navigator, Mobile Video, MobiTV, and Yellow Pages Mobile ), most of which are either too expensive or inferior to free apps available elsewhere. The good news is that you can delete all of these options.

These and other AT&T services, however, can't be removed from the separate Applications menu, whose black background emulates the iPhone. (At least Samsung has good reason for imitating Apple; the Super AMOLED screen uses little to no power when displaying black, so it saves battery life.) Here you'll find three screens populated with app icons, but you can easily switch from grid view to one long list if you prefer. If you select the customizable grid option (instead of the default alphabetical grid) you can also delete applications, complete with iPhone-style minus symbols.

Where Samsung stands out from other Android phones is the little enhancements it added to standard features. For instance, in the notification drawer area you'll always see shortcuts for toggling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off, as well as a silent button and vibration button for activating those modes quickly. We also like that within the contacts menu you can swipe to the right to call them and to the left to send them a text. The Activities tab within Contacts shows a stream of social networking updates, similar to the Feeds and Updates widget.

Keyboard and Swype

The Captivate features a unique touch keyboard with white letters on a black background, but this didn't impact usability at all. What we didn't like was the haptic feedback, which felt as if it was slowing us down. Once we dialed down this setting we were able to type quickly with good accuracy in landscape mode. Portrait mode felt more cramped but was still workable. You can also switch to the standard Android keyboard.

Don't feel like pecking? Swype is also on board for text entry, which lets you draw a path from letter to letter with your finger. Entries worked pretty well in our tests, but it involves a learning curve. We also wish it were easier to change modes without digging into the settings menu.

Specs and Performance

Samsung packs the Captivate with its own 1-GHz Hummingbird processor and 512MB of RAM. You also get 16GB of RAM, which can be expanded to 32GB. During testing the phone was fast most of the time, but in some instances we noticed a delay when opening apps or switching between screens (say, exiting the browser to the main menu).

The Captivate also includes a six-axis accelerometer, which is supposed to enhance gameplay. Too bad Samsung doesn't include any games to show off this capability, nor are there many compelling time-wasters in the Android Market. The only neat demo of this effect is in the Gallery; when you tilt the phone you can see the thumbnails of your photos and videos move.

E-mail and Messaging

Like most Android phones these days, the Captivate features separate Gmail and e-mail applications, which is frustrating. We used the Gmail app, which delivered new messages quickly (as expected). Business users will appreciate the built-in Exchange support. The text messaging app, which wraps your texts in little conversation bubbles, worked fine.

Web Browsing

In side-by-side test with the iPhone 4, the Captivate offered comparable speeds over AT&T's 3G network. In the same location at the same time, the Captivate downloaded ESPN.com in 9 seconds versus 10 seconds for the iPhone 4, and the two devices loaded Yahoo.com in 10 and 13 seconds, respectively. Apple's device took a slightly longer 27 seconds to load a review on Laptopmag.com, compared to 25 seconds for the Captivate.

In general, pinch-to-zoom actions were fast and smooth, but double-tapping to zoom in and out stuttered (as with other Android phones). Our only real complaint is that you can't force desktop versions of sites to load, like NYTimes.com, though alternative browsers like Dolphin will do the trick.

Unfortunately, this Android phone also doesn't offer a mobile hotspot app, so you can't use the Captivate as a Wi-Fi router like the HTC Evo 4G and Droid X. Android 2.2 software, once that becomes available for this device, will allow physical tethering via USB.

Apps

The Captivate can access tons of apps in the Android Market (80,000 and counting), but you can't sideload apps not sold through that storefront. This is an AT&T restriction, but Samsung says it may offer a workaround in the future. All of the apps we tried worked well, including Facebook, Pandora, and Twitter. Samsung also bundles a handful of apps, including Calculator, Memo, Mini Diary, Voice Recorder, and Where. The coolest utility is Write and Go, which lets you enter an update that you can post to Facebook and/or Twitter or send as a text message.

AllShare is Samsung's app for sharing media files via Wi-Fi with other DLNA-certified gear. We actually prefer Motorola's approach on the Droid X because you can connect and then decide what to share. With the Captivate you have to select the media and then connect to the other device, so it's not as easy to switch between, say, pictures and videos.

As we mentioned above, most of AT&T's own apps are relatively underwhelming or too pricey. However, we enjoyed watching a highlight reel of the best goals from the World Cup in the Mobile Video app, though you can't have Wi-Fi on. The preloaded apps that truly add value include AT&T Address Book (for syncing contacts with the cloud), FamilyMap for locating family members (though this starts at $9.99 per month), and Where (free location-based info). You won't find a service for locking down or remotely wiping your device if it's lost or stolen, as you can with the iPhone and Motoblur Android devices.

Music and Video

This is where Samsung is able to flex its muscles. The interface for the music player looks and feels like what you'd find on a high-end PMP. For example, when playing tunes you'll see album art wrapped around little CDs (who cares if they're dated?) that you can scroll through Cover Flow-style. If you hit the menu button at the top of the screen you can zoom through artists or albums by letter with all of them arranged in a sleek-looking circle. 

The device also supports 5.1 sound when you have headphones plugged in. Samsung even includes a comfy pair of earbuds with comfy gel-like tips. When streaming Pandora the quality was better than you'd expect with stock earphones. The speaker on the back of the Captivate sounded tinny but produced a decent amount of volume.

The Captivate has a longer way to go on the video front, and that's because Samsung hasn't yet launched its Media Hub service. This promises to let users download premium TV shows and movies, although pricing hasn't yet been set. What we do know is that Media Hub will also be offered on Samsung PCs. A 1080p clip of Iron Man 2 we sideloaded also looked crisp (though stretched), as did an HD trailer of Tron: Legacy on YouTube.

Camera and Camcorder

Samsung didn't  just cram a 5-megapixel camera inside the Captivate and call it a day; the company went the extra mile by including features you'd normally find on its point-and-shoots. For example, there's a great Panorama mode that stitches together seamless photos. You'll also find a bunch of dedicated scene modes, including Night, Portrait, Sports, and more. We especially like that you can move the focus area around just by dragging it with your finger.

Overall, outdoor photos had plenty of detail with only a hint of blur. Too bad the Captivate doesn't include a flash. Shots taken in dimly lit environments didn't hold a candle to the iPhone 4, which benefits from both a flash and illuminated sensor.

Indoor videos suffered from the same issues, but the 720p footage we captured of midtown Manhattan traffic looked crisp and smooth. We could even make out graffiti on a van across the street. With the right lighting, the Captivate could easily take the place of a Flip camera.

Maps and GPS

We're not sure why, but you have to jump through some hoops to get the free Google Maps Navigation app to work on the Captivate. Not only did we need to download a new version of Google Maps, but we also had to download a separate Android speech-to-text app from the Market. After that it was smooth sailing.

Those who prefer a premium app can give AT&T Navigator a whirl, which after the first 30 days costs $9.99 per month. It has a friendlier interface than Google Maps Navigation and offers perks like alerts for traffic delays along your daily commute, but we suspect most users will stick with the free app.

Call Quality and Battery Life

During our testing other callers reported that we sounded clear on the Captivate, and we had plenty of volume on our end of the line. And, of course, the Captivate doesn't have a sore spot like the iPhone 4. We didn't experience any degradation regardless of how we held the device.

During our first round of testing, we unplugging our Captivate at 6 p.m. and used it to stream Pandora, check e-mail, and surf the web on our 1.5-hour commute home, then left it on overnight. After commuting back in we still had a quarter of the juice left before plugging the phone in at the office around 9 a.m. Bottom line: thanks to the power-efficient Super AMOLED screen, you should be able to make it through a full workday of use on a charge.

Pricing

Like the iPhone 4, the Captivate costs $199 with a two-year contract, and the 2GB data plan costs $25 per month. Text messaging costs $10 extra. Your bill can add up quickly if you opt for AT&T's services.

Verdict

The fact that the Samsung Captivate is the best Android phone on AT&T almost goes without saying. The combination of its Super AMOLED screen, 1-GHz processor, and HD video recording make it a no-brainer. But is it better than the competition? We prefer the iPhone 4 because of its more premium design, better camera, and superior app selection (mostly games).

However, the Captivate delivers comparable performance and a more customizable interface, and it offers a bigger screen than the iPhone without the bulk of the Evo 4G or Droid X. (You also don't have to worry about that pesky Death Grip issue.) We'd like the Captivate even more if it had a camera flash and mobile hotspot app, but overall it's a very good Android phone that will get better once Samsung rolls out its Media Hub service.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Carrier AT&T
Form Factor Candybar Touchscreen
Operating System Android 2.1
Networks GSM 850/900/1800/1900 MHz, HSDPA 850/1900/2100 MHz
Data HSDPA
Data EDGE
CPU 1-GHz ARM Cortex A8
RAM 512MB
Internal Memory 16GB
Memory Expansion Type microSD Card
Display (main) 4 inches (800 x 480)
Display (secondary)
GPS Yes
Bluetooth Type Bluetooth 3.0
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Camera Resolution 5 MP
Audio formats supported MP3
Video formats supported MPEG-4
Video formats supported H.264
Talk / Standby Time 13.5 hours (2G), 6.5 hours (3G)/31 days (2G), 24 days (3G)
Ports microUSB
Ports 3.5mm headphone
Size 4.8 x 2.5 x 0.4 inches
Weight 4.2 ounces
SAR Rating (Head)
SAR Rating (Body)
Company Website http://www.samsung.com/us