Rating: ★★★★½

Pros:

  • Amazing screen, great picture quality and sensitivity
  • Touchwiz UI is the best to grace Android yet
  • Camera great for shooting in well-lit areas

Cons:

  • Connectivity can hang at times
  • Camera suffers in low-light

Apple set a standard for smartphone makers to reach over three years ago. Since then, everyone and their mother has been playing catch-up, but it wasn’t until recently that anyone actually caught up. In some ways, that’s because of the OS, which Android has only recently bested iOS in a handful of ways in over the past six months. But now, it doesn’t matter what carrier you’re on, there’s a phone out there for you. That’s all thanks to one company, and one line of phones: Samsung, and their model Galaxy S.

The Galaxy S phones are nearly identical. Four models for four major US carriers. The Fascinate is Verizon’s baby, though with the exception of Sprint’s Epic 4G, the Fascinate is the cornerstone of all Galaxy S phones. And quite frankly, it’s a damn fine phone that is a serious step up from Motorola’s Droid 2.


From left: HTC Desire, Samsung Fascinate, and Droid 2

Samsung’s Fascinate doesn’t look all that special at a first glance. The front glass pane is dark tinted, and a metallic rim is visible all around. The high-gloss back is a polka-dot matrix, one which held at arm’s length looks grey instead of patchy. The only flashy portions are the front Verizon and Samsung logos, and the back Galaxy S logo. Everything else about the design whispers sleekness and poise, without the flashiness or girth many of today’s smartphones embellish.

The volume rocker and power/standby button are both very tight and very close to the phone, which makes both too hard to press easily. The volume rocker tends to stick, whereas the power button doesn’t read keypresses well. The USB connector has a sliding cover, which has led to a new bad habit carried over from slider phones: opening and closing the flap.

What’s really impressive about the Fascinate isn’t the outside, but rather the Android OS, with Samsung’s Touchwiz 3.0 software. Don’t get me wrong, the Fascinate is remarkably thin and light. At first, it even feels too light, but when you’re in the car looking for directions or on a plane watching a film, this featherweight feels like a champ. The Fascinate doesn’t feel or look cheap, but it lacks that solid feel many competing smartphones have. The sleekness of this handset is great for dropping into a pocket. It’s the best smartphone for that.

Touchwiz 3.0 is all about the little things. The pull-down bar has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and Airplane mode buttons right there for easy switching. Three of the four main applications (the ones which stay in place when moving between pages) are customizable, something many Android phones still don’t do. But most importantly, it’s fast. Battery life is on-par with today’s smartphones, lasting about a day (just over), so users will charge the Fascinate nightly.

Unlike Motorola’s slow tacked-on software, Samsung’s is quick and snappy. Other phones, like the Nexus One or Palm Pre or iPhone, are still faster and smoother, but for an Android device with many added benefits through additional software, the Fascinate is surprisingly fast. The only slowness is an almost abrupt stop-and-go twitch for onscreen graphics, though it’s hardly noticeable except when using the touchscreen exceptionally quickly. And that speed comes with significantly less RAM than the Droid 2 (384MB vs 512MB).


Color and light contrast is the big difference between the Fascinate’s SuperAMOLED and Apple’s Retina display.

In fact, every aspect of the Fascinate has proven to be profoundly excellent. The SuperAMOLED screen is perhaps the greatest contrast to that of the iPhone 4, pushing better light and color contrast above pixel count and density. It’s not as easy to read on, but viewing pictures or watching movies is better thanks to the difference in colors and lights and darks. And thanks to the design of OLED screens in general, there’s less eyestrain. One could watch an entire movie at maximum brightness without much bother. The screen does suffer in direct sunlight as all OLED screens do, and is barely visible in very bright conditions, an area where the iPhone 4’s LCD has remained ahead.

The screen itself is also very sensitive, and the best I’ve seen since the iPhone and Palm Pre. Typing on it is the best I’ve seen across any Android device, by far. It’s still not perfect, but I think that the hardware is mostly dead on, and that the software needs additional tweaking to reach perfection.

My cheeky photography assistant rushing me to finish up while showing off the SuperAMOLED display

As I mentioned before, it’s the little things. The phone book has an iPhone-esque scroll function, where letters sit on the right side and scrolling a finger down will go to the corresponding letter. The phone’s sleek design and light weight build, while at first awkward, remarkably comfortable in the pocket and hand. The Fascinate even works well as a replacement Wi-Fi hotspot for up to four hours (under heavy use). In fact, the more I use the Fascinate, the more I’m convinced that what’s really holding it back is Android. The leaps and bounds this phone jumps is just amazing.

Photography with the Fascinate is fairly good. Well-lit rooms and shooting outdoors had some very good shots (see below). On a trip to New York, I was able to test it out in the city, and was impressed with the quality of photos taken. Low-light images are poor, and the flash tends to wash colors out. Video quality is the same, with excellent 720p video in good lighting, but once again quality suffers as ambient light diminishes. Still, the video camera is good enough to fully replace any standalone 720p camera you may own.

Voice quality is excellent. Voices come in clear over Verizon’s network, and recipients said we sounded good in test calls. The speakerphone is tinny and slightly muffled, but clear enough to understand. Call quality was great, but I was surprised to see more dropped coverage than other Verizon phones, including the Droid 2 and older models. Verizon is usually better than AT&T on the iPhone, but the Fascinate had bad days where it couldn’t get a clear signal for up to 15 minutes, or couldn’t find a 3G network to connect to. Several times, in both LA and NY, I couldn’t use the 3G Wi-Fi hotspot feature because of this. I did not have any trouble with making phone calls nor did I drop any calls.

As far as Android-based phones go, Samsung has set itself apart from much of its competition with their Galaxy S phones, and the Fascinate is a prime example of that. It has everything an Android user could ever want: a great screen, quick and easy-to-use UI, and a wonderful design inside and out. Verizon customers ready to upgrade need not look farther than the Fascinate. Phones like this make Android great.



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.