Rating: ★★★★½

Pros:

  • Screen has excellent contrast and touch sensitivity
  • Fast as heck, very smooth UI
  • Takes excellent pictures and video in decent lighting

Cons:

  • Keyboard too easy to make mistakes on, some poorly placed keys
  • Battery life suffers when 4G antenna is on, whether 4G is available or not

We already saw the Samsung Fascinate, a great phone for Verizon, one that is nearly similar to two other Galaxy S models, the AT&T Captivate and T-Mobile Vibrant. The Epic 4G is almost identical on the software front, but side by side, it couldn’t look more different from its thin counterparts. Sporting a full QWERTY keyboard and a 4G antenna for the faster over-the-air internet speeds, this Galaxy S model is not like the others. But does it surpass them?

The Fascinate felt light, and in some ways, dinky. It wasn’t frail, it certainly felt that way. The miniscule weight made the Fascinate feel like it was missing something, and the Epic 4G is the exact opposite: it’s a heavyweight. It’s almost twice as thick, mostly thanks to the pull-out QWERTY. And it’s rock solid.

What’s instantly noticeable above the other Galaxy S phone models are the sturdier physical buttons. They provide more push and click when pressed, a far cry from the Fascinate, which has mushy buttons. The volume rocker is solid and does not accidentally change the volume too much with a gentle press, and a double-press dedicated camera button is comfortable to press.

Finally, the back cover uses a sturdy rubber coating that is better suited for the hand than the Fascinate’s glossy surface. However, while better for grip, the back cover is also prone to scratches, which will peel off some of the glittery rear. The speakerphone is seated just at the outer rim of the back cover, which is at a slight angle so the sound can bounce off a flat surface and not muffle the audio. The five megapixel camera protrudes near the top of the phone, but not so much that it sticks out in the pocket.

It’s the other physical buttons that are more problematic. The physical keyboard, intended to be a convenience, often isn’t. Typing on it feels good at first, due to the easy-to-press keys, but as I began writing full words and sentences, the two major flaws became clear: some keys are improperly placed, and all the keys lack the proper spacing for fast typing. Typing itself was generally OK, so long as I typed slowly, but typing quickly makes it too easy to press multiple keys simultaneously. This wouldn’t be such a problem if correcting typos were a problem. And thus the ill-placed backspace.

More specifically, the home button. Samsung included the four Android keys (Home, Menu, Back and Search) beside the QWERTY, and where we normally find the backspace and enter keys on the top right of the QWERTY, instead sit the home and search keys. For fast typists like myself, I constantly press the search or home button whenever meaning to press enter or backspace, respectively. This annoyance is constant, and I fear I’ll never accustom to it so long as I continue typing on a standard laptop or desktop keyboard.

Thankfully, typing on the screen is accurate, and the 4” screen is large enough to never need the physical keyboard. The Super AMOLED screen, identical to all Galaxy S phones, produces excellent color and light contrast, but is not great in very bright and sunny conditions. It is very touch -sensitive, almost as accurate as the iPhone or Palm Pre, but after a brief look at the Samsung Focus, it’s my belief that the Android software is responsible for the insensitivity with the touch interface, not Samsung’s hardware. The Epic 4G is still using Android OS 2.1; there is no word on updating to 2.2, which may or may not be better for displays.

One note with the screen: the glass below the screen, where the Android buttons are, tends to miss ‘button’ presses. Most Android phones I’ve tested had no such problem, but the Epic 4G just doesn’t read the glass beneath the screen well.

The Droid 2, Epic 4G and Fascinate, respectively

What Sprint considers most exciting on the Epic 4G is that 4G, the faster over-the-air internet where Sprint has, until very recently, been the only service provider with this high-speed data coverage. 4G is indeed fast, though not widely available. Many major cities do have 4G available, and in Santa Monica where I tested the phone, the Epic 4G bounced in and out of wireless range of the 4G network, which is based in downtown Los Angeles. Switching between 3G and 4G does drain the battery, and the phone would last over a day with 4G disabled, but significantly less with 4G on. That’s both with 4G actually enabled, or when the phone just searched for a 4G network. Battery life only lasted about 3/4ths of a day with 4G on.

While I don’t have specific numbers for 4G speeds, two things were clear while testing: first, there is a significant speed boost, though unless you are streaming full films or using your phone as a Wi-Fi antenna, it won’t make a difference to 95% of users. Second, the few Sprint-specific functions that are advertised to work better on 4G really don’t. Sprint TV works well on both 3G and 4G, and while pixelated, that is due more to the screen’s 800×480 resolution not matching the shows playing. I watched several videos on both 3G and 4G, and saw no difference in quality. Yes, 4G had less wait time to watch, but even areas with moderate connection strength could play video fine over 3G.

Telephony, as I’ve found with Sprint time and time again, is excellent in the Los Angeles area, where Sprint has been and is most likely still the best all-around service provider. The Epic 4G connects quickly to calls and rarely dropped service, and even then did so in long-standing problem areas. Sound quality is clear on both ends, as is the speakerphone quality.

Photography with the Epic 4G is good, as I found with the Fascinate. Colors aren’t completely accurate, but are 90% of the way there. Flash tends to wash the colors out, which is on par with most cell cameras these days. In good lighting, pictures come out as good as any point and shoot. With the 4G, photography using natural lighting provides high quality stills, though not using the Flash slows down the lens too much for good pictures in artificial lighting or medium-low light conditions. If you plan on using the camera a lot, do it during the day, or when the picture in question has great lighting all around. Below are some photos I shot with the Epic 4G.

Videography works similarly, recording up to 720p. With good lighting, the Epic 4G can easily replace a standalone camcorder, but I wouldn’t recommend using it to record in low-light conditions. It won’t replace your larger camcorder for the kid’s dance recital, though it manages well enough for YouTube quality. As long as the image is filled with light, taking stills or video will work great.

If you asked me whether the Epic 4G is better than the Fascinate, I couldn’t give an answer. The software is identical (except for the service provider apps), and the hardware is both better and worse. The QWERTY keyboard feels good, but it isn’t suited for business users, or anyone who hasn’t forsaken their computer for a cellphone. Meanwhile, the other physical keys are far better than the Fascinate’s. It feels sturdier, yet compared to the Fascinate’s slim design, I’d take Verizon’s phone because it is better in the pocket.

Of course, most of us are tied to our service provider, so the Epic 4G only really contends with the HTC Evo 4G, as the only other 4G phone currently available. But choosing between the two isn’t like picking between the Droid X or Droid 2. The Epic 4G is the best Android phone for sprint, thanks to a combination of great software and good hardware, and easily one of the best Android phones currently out. Though as we’ve seen with Android phones over the past year, that may not mean much. For the time being, however, the Samsung’s Epic 4G is a great phone to upgrade to.

The Samsung Epic 4G can be purchased from Amazon for $150 after signing a new 2-year contract.



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.