AT&T Samsung Captivate (Galaxy S) review

The Galaxy S, when announced, had a full 4 hours to bask in the limelight of this year’s CTIA in Las Vegas before Sprint outshone it with the HTC EVO 4G, the country’s very first 4G phone of any kind. While the EVO’s specs were clearly more breathtaking, the Galaxy S still had nothing to cry about.

It was assumed at the first announcement that the Galaxy S was just one particular phone that during this summer would have a heyday of a marketing campaign and would launch on all four major carriers in the US. What we never expected at that show, however, was that the Galaxy S would turn into a series of phones; each phone in the series appear to have the same specs but have a different look from the rest.

It was a stunning concept, and a marvelous one at that. Very seldom will all four carriers come out with an identical phone. The only ones in recent times that come to my memory are the Motorola RAZR V3, and Blackberry Pearl/Curve. Back then, it wasn’t the phone itself that played a major role in which carrier you chose to be with — it was the network itself. Boy, were those the days. But now, it’s all about exclusivity. Consumers choose AT&T because of the iPhone or Sprint because of the EVO 4G, not as much because of the network. The roles have completely reversed.

Enter the Galaxy S series. Samsung feels so strongly that this series should be its flagship that it’s investing millions of dollars in ensuring it’s available on every major carrier as well as marketing this series to the entire country. And as a result, this will be the first attempt of any phone maker in at least 3 years to bring every carrier together in unison with one phone.

It’s my quest to discover each US member of the Galaxy S family, and find out exactly how they differ and how they compare with each other.

First up on the list is the Samsung Captivate for AT&T. The Captivate was the first of the four to show up at my door, even though it’s the second to be released. I’ve spent a full week using the Captivate as my primary device and would now like to share my feelings about it.

First Impressions of the Samsung Captivate

With the exception of the no-subsidy Nexus One, AT&T has lacked a relevant Android offering. I figure that due to the company’s investment in the iPhone, it didn’t want to introduce a true Android handset that would possibly be looked at as an iPhone competitor. For the first time we now see a true Android device that has the same types of specs and price as the current 16 GB iPhone 4.

At first look, I notice that this is a phone I could be proud to show off to friends and family as my device of choice. Huge screen with beautiful and vibrant display, easy-to-use UI, classic look, and is incredibly thin, just to name a few things.

But don’t think that this review is going to be a Captivate lovefest, because the honeymoon is over and it’s time to tackle the nitty-gritty. No handset is perfect and thus there are certainly some things about it I would like to change. For me, my primary handset of choice currently is the iPhone, so there will be some things it does better and, naturally, a few things it does worse. We’ll dive into that more.

Design of the Samsung Captivate

The Captivate captures the spirit of the original Galaxy S phone released in Europe and Asia, though it may have a slightly different design. Much like the other Galaxy S variants, the insides of the phone and the stuff you see on the screen are all the same with few differences.

I enjoy the look of the phone, though I’m still getting used to the feel. Just staring at the phone gives me an impression that Samsung knew what it was doing in making the Captivate — a large squared-off front that transitions into a softly-curved back with a metallic look on top and bottom, with textured back panel that does not feel cheaply made at all.

Not everyone is going to dig the squared edges and corners on the front. I found that having the harsh edges made it difficult at times to handle with just one free hand, especially when using the Swype keyboard or other more mundane tasks that work just fine when using a smaller phone. With that said, I personally liked the look of the phone and found it to have an elegant style to it.

The Captivate takes an incredibly minimalistic approach to its outside design. There are only two actual buttons on the entire handset, one on each side, and nothing eye-catching on the back besides the camera lens.

On the front we find a 4” capacitive touchscreen. The screen is easy to manage; I only rarely experienced a time that I pressed the wrong button or link, and those times were because they were so close to each other.

Also directly underneath the touchscreen are four touch-sensitive buttons: options, home, back, and search. To me, these are really the only buttons I need in order to get by.

The one button on the left is volume control, while the one button on the right is the power/handset lock button.

Samsung got creative up on top of the Captivate. Located next to the 3.5 mm headphone jack is a MicroUSB power charging port (which by itself is not new or innovative) that cleverly uses a tiny sliding door to cover and uncover the port whenever you need it. As simple a concept as that sounds, I’ve never seen a phone that uses the same method to cover its ports when not in use. It’s better than the traditional plastic or rubber plugs that most phones use as covers, because it can’t be ripped off and it doesn’t get in the way when you get ready to plug your charger in. Not to mention that when closed, the cover blends into the rest of the phone seamlessly. Just skimming over the phone you may never even realize the charger port is there. I absolutely love it.

I also briefly mentioned the back. The upper and lower portions have a metallic look and feel, and overall don’t feel plasticky at all. On the upper part I see the 5 MP camera lens, and that’s it. Again, it’s integrated into the design so well that if you don’t look closely the first time, you could look right past it without noticing. The middle portion, the back cover, takes up the majority of space and has a black/grey checkerboard look.

A couple notes on the screen itself, which features Samsung’s new Super AMOLED technology. Super-AMOLED is meant to give a much higher resolution at a lower energy consumption and lower amount of sunglare. After putting the Captivate’s Super AMOLED to the test, I can tell you I absolutely love the screen res. Perhaps the iPhone 4’s retina display is technically better, but when comparing the two it’s very difficult to notice a huge difference. The Captivate screen is incredibly bright and the colors are very vibrant. With the exception of the iPhone 4, it has the most beautiful screen I’ve seen in a phone yet (disclaimer: I have not yet reviewed the other Galaxy S phones, but I imagine the screen res will be identical. I’ll let you know.).

However, it doesn’t do so well in bright sunlight. I still had a large amount of glare and found it difficult to see. Super AMOLED technology is supposed to reflect 80% less sunlight, which normally is what causes the glaring effect. So perhaps the 20 other percent was present in such bright sunlight (noon on a hot summer day), and that for lower levels of sunlight the screen performs okay.

In regards to the screen’s power consumption, I’ll defer comments until the performance section.

TouchWiz 3.0

The Captivate features Android 2.1 in connection with TouchWiz 3.0 UI. In the past I have not been a fan of TouchWiz, especially on Android; for instance I felt that it bogged down the performance of the Behold II, but that was an earlier version of TouchWiz built on an earlier version of Android. So it’s a completely different ballgame now.

TouchWiz 3.0 feels a lot more solid than its predecessors ever did. It offers seven main screen panels instead of the default five, and offers several different types of widgets: Buddies Now, Feeds and Updates, and Daily Briefing are the highlighted widgets (more about this later). The app tray is also completely revamped to look more — dare I say — iPhoneish? It starts out with three different screens with several preloaded apps, and increases as you add more apps. These apps even have a look similar to what you find on an iPhone. Soon you can slide your finger multiple times left or right to satisfy any iPhone hunger you might have. You can also edit the app tray so instead of all apps appearing alphabetically, you can drag your apps around and put them wherever you want. This is a feature missing from most Android phones, though I must admit that if I use an app enough times, I drag it onto my main screen as a shortcut (or at least put it in a folder with like-minded apps for easy access). So it’s nice to be customizeable in every area of the phone to satisfy the nastiest of critics, but I prefer not to use the app tray this way since it’s a bit redundant to me as it is.

Another welcome improvement in TouchWiz 3 is the notification bar. On top of the standard-issue notifications you’d find on any Android, is the presence of shortcuts for toggling different modes: WiFi, Bluetooth, vibrate mode, and music playback. I love having toggle buttons for all these, because they are so frequently used on my phones.

When in your address book, the Captivate allows for easy calling and messaging by simply swiping your finger across the person’s name; swiping left will start a new message, while swiping right will dial their number for you.

I’d love to say that TouchWiz doesn’t sluggishly drag the processor behind with it, but I did notice that in spite of using a 1 GHz processor, there was still a delay going into and out of certain apps. For instance, pressing the home button usually causes a short 3-4 second delay before it actually takes you to the home screen. Same with deleting emails out of my inbox. I just come to expect an even snappier performance from a 1 GHz CPU in a mobile device, so it was disappointing. At least TouchWiz 3.0 did a much better job of integrating with Android this time around.

Features of the Samsung Captivate

Swype just recently became available for the Android platform, and in a very timely manner Samsung managed to have Swype offered on its Galaxy S lineup as a preloaded option. It doesn’t come up by default, but is easy enough to switch to by going into the phone’s settings.

I have reviewed Swype once before, in my review of the Samsung Omnia II. I enjoyed the concept of a texting keyboard that enabled me to move my finger to each letter in my desired word without even lifting that finger, and loved that it was smart enough to understand what you wanted to type with few errors.

For the most part the Android’s Swype worked fine — it’s supposed to be a new improved version, after all — but I became frustrated the more I texted with it turned on. Anytime I texted a standard word that was easy enough to guess, the keyboard interpreted my message just fine. But anytime I had my own custom word or typed something not found in a dictionary (or at least buried deep within it), the keyboard couldn’t recognize what I was trying to type, and it ended up taking twice as long as a result.. Other little annoyances happened, such as when I was typing “an” and Swype predicted “Obama” as the primary alternative instead. Keep in mind, folks, that practice does make perfect on a new style of keyboard like the Swype, and it just takes some extra time to get used to the nuances that come with it. And if you can’t get used to it, the Captivate also comes preloaded with Android and Samsung keyboard versions instead and it’s easy enough to switch over to them.

Multitasking worked perfectly fine on the Captivate. Samsung set up the phone so that by holding down the Home button for a couple seconds, a multitasking screen would pop up, showing the 6 most recent apps used. I found this especially helpful when toggling back and forth between Pandora, email, and my Twitter client. On the flip side, however, several apps can remain open in the background without you knowing it and can drain the battery rather quickly as a result. For that I recommend finding a decent task manager that can kill all active and unwanted apps.

The Captivate also features a few different widgets, presumably integrated into the TouchWiz 3 UI. Buddies Now is a widget that is slightly akin to speed dials, or even a Rolodex. Add some contacts, and then with each contact you are presented options to call or message them. Daily Briefing can give weather updates, AP breaking news and Yahoo! Finance as frequently as you would like. And finally, Feeds and Updates is the TouchWiz way of letting you easily update and keep track of your social networking.

Another strength of the Galaxy S series is the camera, capable of taking 5 MP images and 720p video recordings. When taking pictures it’s easy to just tap the area of the screen you want to focus on before actually snapping the shot. I think there is a little skill involved in it, though, since I took several pictures of my 10 month-old daughter and only had a couple turn out really well. The video, on the other hand, turned out great. I had no problem hearing the audio from it and the videos I took of my daughter were smooth and crisp. No choppy bits, no drag, no pauses. Here are a couple pics taken with the Captivate.

The Captivate can hold up to 16 GB internal memory plus as much as 32 GB more when using a MicroSD storage card. Because of this, I took advantage of the memory and loaded up a good portion of my MP3 collection. I downloaded the DoubleTwist player, which scanned all of my iTunes files in and began loading them into the Captivate automatically. The Galaxy S series is also capable of accessing Samsung’s latest PC Studio software, called Kies, which gives you full access to all of your files and allows you to back up everything — including text messages, photos, videos, and others.

Once I got into the music player, I found it to be very user-friendly. I didn’t have any problems navigating through the different albums, artists and playlists that I had set up. I noticed that my album art had also been loaded in for me. However, no matter how user friendly a music player can be, the only thing that truly matters is how it actually sounds. And the audio quality is excellent. I experienced the music player using both a pair of Skullcandy headphones and a Jabra Cruiser connected to my car stereo. My Skullcandy set produced some incredibly rich bass, while the Cruiser allowed me to listen to my music comfortably in the car (my car doesn’t have the best stereo system ever, but is sufficient). If you are listening to different genres of music, take full advantage of the EQ in the Captivate’s music player in order to get the best possible sound.

The Captivate also features AllShare, which gives you DLNA media-sharing access. DLNA allows you to play files (stream multimedia) from your Captivate wirelessly on another media player, play a file from the server on your phone, or use the phone as a remote, all courtesy whatever local WiFi network you are connected to. I haven’t had much of a chance to play with this feature yet, though it looks as if it has a lot of possible benefits. I will try to focus on this in a future review.

Performance of the Samsung Captivate

WiFi generally worked fine when I was connected, but it had a few issues recognizing my home WiFi network whenever I came back within range. On several occasions it couldn’t automatically connect with my router until I went into the settings and manually asked it to connect. Once connected, the WiFi worked great.

I also noticed a few random bugs in the Captivate which I am not sure is prevalent in every phone, but sure was in mine. The biggest bug that I replicated on a regular basis was in the web browser. In doing research for an article I was writing, the browser crashed on me on multiple occasions. After crashing, I would go into the app again only to find that all the open windows had disappeared and the site I was looking at was gone. A couple times, the windows would just come back in magically all by itself, only to disappear again a few minutes later. In frustration, I figured it was an issue with the default browser so I downloaded Dolphin and used it with the same exact results.

The accelerometer worked good; almost a little too good. It was incredibly snappy, but that meant it would be triggered with the slightest twitch. There were many times that I had to adjust back to portrait mode because I had moved somewhat, causing the screen to switch to landscape mode.

Voice command works well. I tried it on both calling and Google searches, with a few easy mistakes on the phone’s part at first. I quickly learned a few tricks to get the software to recognize my voice more easily, and so it wasn’t a huge problem as time went by. This is a good tool to take advantage, since there are increasingly more and more speech-to-text apps becoming available for us.

When making and receiving calls, I had no problem hanging on to the call and hearing the people on the other end of the line without hassle. I didn’t have any static in my calls, and I could talk and be heard clearly. The speakerphone was a decent volume, but not the loudest I’ve ever heard before. Dropped calls were a rarity.

I mentioned earlier that I felt that TouchWiz makes the Captivate a little more sluggish than a 1 GHz Hummingbird processor should feel. There are more delays and pauses than I’d like to see, though it’s only really a difference of a couple seconds from where it should be. Yes, we reviewers can be picky sometimes, but that’s why we’re here!

With that said, I was impressed with the Captivate’s battery life. Android is a notorious battery sucker due to all the extra constraints it gets bombarded with in even regular daily use, but the 1500 mAh battery, new processor and power-conserving Super AMOLED screen contribute to a better battery life than I expected. Typically in normal use (push email, notifications, multitasking) there was no sweat in the phone lasting all day, if not longer. For today’s smartphone, this is rather top-notch.

Conducting tests on AT&T’s 3G network, I had good results running the app several times. I averaged 2.1 Mbps down and 270 kbps up. Certainly these results could be different depending on location, but at least the Captivate gave a solid performance in an area with strong 3G.

Overview of the Samsung Captivate

So is the Samsung Captivate well enough off to topple the iPhone 4? After all, the specs are eerily similar to each other. It’s hard to say — certainly, the iPhone is the winner in display, OS updates (and performance, for that matter), and has a front-facing camera for FaceTime. But the Captivate has the support of Android 2.1, soon to be updated to Froyo, with the open-source goodness it entails; it has the larger screen; and it has the MicroSD capacity for music and app lovers. Frankly, I feel it’s more a matter of personal preference of OS and brand.

Whichever floats your boat, I know that my experience with the Captivate was a pleasant one. All the bells and whistles I need are there, plus a lot of extra ones that will satisfy any gadget junkie like myself. It performs flawlessly as an actual phone, with only slight lags in the processing power.

Overall, for $199 with contract and no mail in rebate on AT&T, the Captivate is a worthy handset and is poised to be the best Android competitor to the iPhone on AT&T’s network, at least for a few months. It’s definitely a phone that I feel proud to show off to friends and family.

Enjoy the gallery of pics below. I will have a video uploaded for this review shortly.

Get Samsung Captivate Android Phone (AT&T) for FREE from Amazon

Author: Brad Molen

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  • potential_smartphone_buyer

    Nice unbiased review. I guess the only thing holding me from going for captivate is the app market, which is very mature on the apple side and has a lot of catching up to do in the android side.

  • Phillygirl1201

    Thank you! I was on the fence about buying this phone but I am in route to the At&t store at the mall. Thanks keep up the good work!

  • Captivate Captive

    Hi bradmolen,

    I just got the Captivate on Sunday and I'm very happy with it except that mine does not have the voice dialing capability. But you say that yours does. How did you get it to work?
    I just spent an hour on the phone with Samsung and they finally told me that the Captivate does not come with this feature installed and that I would have to use a third party solution to get it. Although the specs of the phone clearly state that this feature is included.

  • Stephen Lee

    You can just hold the search button to start voice search, then say “Call John Smith at home”.

  • poff