AT&T gets serious with Samsung's Galaxy S

Samsung Captivate on AT&T

Finally (finally!), AT&T has a competitive Android smartphone with the launch of the Samsung Captivate. It's as simple as that. Moreover, it's arguably the first smartphone AT&T has carried that could pose a real threat to the iPhone, laying waste to a conspiracy theory that the carrier would forever shun Android in favor of its Apple cash cow.

The Captivate, of course, is AT&T's version of the Samsung Galaxy S, a phone first announced at the CTIA trade show in March 2010 (watch the presentation here). Its shining features: A 1GHz "Hummingbird" processor, 4-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen, and an all-new Touchwiz 3.0 user interface. The other U.S. carriers (as well as others worldwide) also have Galaxy S-class phones coming out, including the T-Moble Vibrant, Samsung Fascinate and Sprint Epic 4G.

Where does the Captivate stand out (and stand apart from its cousins)? And is it really poised to knock the iPhone from its perch as the only smartphone on AT&T really worth considering? Answers to all that (and more!) after the break.

(For more from the Galaxy S class, read our T-Mobile Vibrant review)

The hardware

Your (mostly) basic black slab

The first thing you'll notice about the Captivate (and all of the Galaxy S phones, actually) is how light it is. At 4.5 ounces, it's 0.3 ounces lighter than the iPhone 4, and a full 1.5 ounces lighter than the Motorola Droid. And it's a mere 0.39 inches thick. At first, it feels like it could fly out of your hands. But you become accustomed to it quickly enough, and soon enough all other phones feel heavy.

Unlike its more-rounded Galaxy S cousins, the Captivate has an angular design, not unlike the HTC Pure, an HTC Windows Mobile phone also on AT&T. It's not quite as attractive as the versions, but you're also less likely to confuse it with an iPhone, so the change makes sense.

Samsng Captivate
Capacitive buttons on the Captivate. (Say that 10 times fast.)

The Captivate has four capacitive buttons beneath its touchscreen in the menu-home-back-search configuration. A standard volume rocker switch is on the left bezel. The top bezel houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and microUSB port for charging and syncing. The microUSB port can be hidden behind a small sliding door when not needed, which helps keep a clean look, as well as keep out any dust and dirt. The port's design, however, makes it a little tough to insert the plug by feel. That's a small niggle but quickly becomes and annoyance if you're plugging it in several times a day.

Samsung CaptivateSamsung Captivate
The Samsung Captivate volume rocker and power button.

Traditionally on smartphones, the power button resides on the top bezel. But on the Captivate, it's been moved to the right-hand bezel. It takes a little getting used to, but it's also easily reachable by your index finger when holding the phone.

Flip the phone over and you have the 5-megapixel camera and metal battery cover. The latter is done up in a carbon fiber pain job. And while the metal battery door brings a less-plastic feel to the phone, it's also easily scratched, so you're going to need to be careful when setting it down. Or, consider a case.

Samsung CaptivateSamsung Captivate
The 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB port, and rear camera.

The battery door is held in place by the rear bottom panel. You slide it down to remove the battery door, then snap it back in place to secure everything. It's a very sturdy mechanism, and we have zero worry that things will come apart when you least expect them to.

Samsung Captivate
The Samsung Captivate battery, microSD card and SIM card.

Beneath the battery door are the 1500mAh battery (interchangeable with its T-Mobile counterpart), SIM card and the microSD card, which can be removed without first removing the battery. Speaking of the battery, we got a full day's work out of the captivate without too much concern. Your mileage will vary, of course. But there were no apparent battery hog issues.

Introducing the Super AMOLED touchscreen

Samsung introduced its Super AMOLED series of touchscreens at Mobile World Congress in February, but at the time it was just a disconnected technology, big on promise and short on practical examples. But Super AMOLED quickly has lived up to its billing. Colors are as rich as they've every been, and the contrast is first rate, thanks to blacker-than-black blacks. (They're pretty darn black.)

Even better was that Samsung promised the screens would be far less reflective outdoors, and we've found that to be the case. In normal outdoors use, you can see the screen much better than we could on a Nexus One with a regular old AMOLED screen. (Or maybe the auto-brightness sensor is quicker.) Direct, blinding sunlight is still an issue, but only until you move the screen to a new angle. The bottom line is you'll notice the difference.

Under the hood

The Captivate (and all of the Galaxy-S class phones) is powered by a 1GHz Cortex A8 "Hummingbird" processor. And on top of the pure processing horsepower, it's a monster of a graphics machine, besting every phone we had at our disposal in our informal, unscientific tests.

The Captivate has 512 megabytes of RAM, and 16 gigabytes of internal memory, of which 1.7 gigabytes are available on which to   store applications, which should be plenty of room. (When Android 2.2 is released for the Galaxy S, you'll be able to store applications on the microSD card or, presumably, the internal storage.) Our review unit came with a 2GB microSD card, and the phone will handle up to 32GB.

Don't worry about all those numbers, though. Just know this: It's fast, and it has a ton of memory.

The software

The all-new Touchwiz 3.0

Captivate home screens
The seven home screens of the Samsung Captivate.

The Galaxy S line of smartphones runs Samsung's Touchwiz 3.0 user interface atop Android 2.1. (An update to Android 2.2 is expected later this year.) Now, before you roll your eyes at the sound of the word "Touchwiz" (Those of you coming from Windows Mobile should know what we're talking about), you need to give this one a chance before blowing it off.

First things first: It's colorful. Some of that has to do with the Super AMOLED screen, but the color palate definitely is on the happy side. Touchwiz uses the familiar home screen metaphor, with seven at your disposal, on which you can place widgets, icons, folders, whatever.

Samsung Captivate
Edit entire home screens.

One new (and very cool) feature that Touchwiz adds is the ability to rearrange entire home screens at once, or delete unused home screens. You're still limited to maximum of seven, but if you only use two, you can delete the rest. It's a nice little addition. Also, three of the four icons docked at the bottom of the screen can be changed to whatever you want. (The Applications/Home button cannot be changed.)

Samsung CaptivateSamsung Captivate

The home screens haven't been completely cluttered with worthless apps and widgets (and we applaud Samsung and AT&T for including the Android Market on the main home screen). Google Maps and AT&T Navigator live side by side, and YPmobile (Yellow Pages), AT&T Music, MobiTV and the old Cingular Video are also present on a home screen. Another interesting tweak is that the three blank home screens tell you to "Press and hold this page to add content" -- a great little instruction note to Android newcomers. Another cool tweak is widgets built into the notification bar. Sure, third-party apps can do this for you, but Touchwiz took care of it.

Some of you will love Touchwiz. Some of you will hate it. Yes, it's another skin in lieu of stock Android. But Samsung's done it in a way that isn't as ... intrusive as other skins. And if you don't like it, you can install another launcher on top of it. (Go ahead. We now say it's OK to do so.) But give Samsung's customizations a chance. We think you'll like them.

Samsung widgets

Samsung CaptivateSamsung has plenty of widgets included in Touchwiz 3.0. On the home screen by default are "Feeds and updates," which tie into your Facebook, MySpace and Twitter accounts, and Samsung's "Daily Briefing" widget, which displays weather, stocks, news and calendar information on a single screen. It's a counterpart to the Daily Briefing app, which does the same things in a full-fledged application.

Other Samsung widgets available are:

  • Buddies Now: A Rolodex of contacts of your choosing. Easily text or call from this widget.
  • Calendar clock: An analog clock with calendar.
  • Days: Sort of a daily journal, can include photos.
  • Dual clock: Two clocks, two time zones. Great for traveling.
  • Yahoo Finance Clock: A basic analog clock with stock info of your choosing.

Pre-installed applications

Call it what you want. Crapware, bloatware, whatever. Yes, AT&T's pre-installed some apps. You got a subsidized phone out of it. That's the way it works. Anyhoo, pre-installed apps include:

  • AllShare
  • AT&T Family Mapp
  • AT&T Hot Spots
  • AT&T Maps
  • AT&T Music
  • AT&T Navigator
  • AT&T Radio
  • Instant Messaging
  • Mobile Banking
  • MobiTV
  • Where
  • Write and Go
  • YPmobile

Yeah, that's kind of a lot. But even after all that you still have about 1.7GB of space left for application installation, so it's not a huge deal. We'd prefer not to have carrier-installed apps, but that's the way it is. You can root the phone and clean them off if you want.

The Android Central Sideload Wonder Machine
The Android Central Sideload Wonder Machine - sideload all you want.

Oh, speaking of applications, yes, AT&T once again has disabled sideloading (the ability to install applications from somewhere other than the Android Market) by default. And that's too bad, but at least it's being consistant. If you do want to sideload, we recommend the Android Central Sideload Wonder Machine (yes, that's its real name), which lets you sideload apps leagally, and without having to root your phone.

The keyboards

Samsung Captivate Swype KeyboardSamsung Captivate Samsung keyboard
The Swype keyboard, left, and Samsung's custom keyboard.

The Captivate obviously doesn't have a physical keyboard, so you'll be doing all of your typing on the touchscreen. Samsung has its own keyboard loaded as the default. And it's OK. There's also the stock Android keyboard, if you prefer that, or you can use one of our favorites, Swype.

The camera

Samsung Captivate camera
The Samsung Captivate's camera app.

The Captivate has a rear-facing 5-megapixel camera with autofocus. It has no flash. But it makes up for that in settings, with a number of shooting modes (single-shot, panorama, vintage, etc.), scene modes (landscape, sports, night, etc.), exposure settings, timer, resolution options, white balance, effects (negative, sepia, b/w), ISO, contrast, etc. Shutter response is very quick. Low light quality is still pretty good. The volume rocker will let zoom in up to 4 times normal.

Samsung Captivate camera test
(Images open in full resolution in a new window.)

One thing you will need to watch out for, however, are your own grubby fingers. Because the camera is so close to the edge of the phone, it's easy to get a digit in the way of the shot.

Samsung Captivate camera testSamsung Captivate camera test
(Images open in full resolution in a new window.)

Video recording by default is set at 480p and is pretty darn good. The Captivate also will shoot in full 720p, which results in a better picture but much higher file size.


(For a 720p video test, see our Samsung Vibrant review.)

Other odds and ends

  • Phone calls: Crisp and clear. This is an AT&T phone, however, so your network quality may greatly vary depending on where you live.
  • GPS: It locked on OK for us (others have had issues, however), though the compass was a bit wonky until we calibrated it (i.e. waving the phone around wildly).
  • Accelerometer: Actually, it's a "Six-axis sensor." And it smooth as butter. Great for gaming.
  • Speakerphone: Pretty good. Not the loudest we've heard, but it's not the worst, either.
  • TV Out: There's TV-out capability via the 3.5mm headphone jack, if you're into that sort of thing.

So should you buy it?

Samsung Captivate and friends

With all due respect to the HTC Aria (and a passing nod to the Motorola Backfip), it's pretty refreshing to see a top-of-the-line Android smartphone on AT&T. We're even willing to overlook the whole app sideloading thing. And we're almost willing to believe that AT&T's turned a new leaf in regards to Android. That's not to say that the Galaxy S class phones don't stand on their own. They most certainly do, and the Captivate most certainly does.

(Actually, we'll go one further and suggest that maybe, just maybe, the Captivate is a message to Apple from AT&T that it's not the only game in town. But we'll leave such conspiracy theories for another time.)

If you're looking for an Android phone -- or any smartphone, for that matter -- on AT&T, the Samsung Captivate is a no-brainer.

 
There are 36 comments

pmjohnson99 says:

What a great and thorough review. MobileCrunch did a review on the Galaxy S line and I gave them what-for in the comments on their shoddy work. I think they are a bit biased for that "other" black (and eventually someday white) slab.

Mattism78 says:

Thanks for the good review. If it weren't for the Epic I'm sure I'd have one of these in my hands as I was reading this.

Simba501 says:

EXCELLENT REVIEW!!!

gmachinenet says:

excellent review! very clear and informative! if I didn't already own it, I'd go buy it! I'd like to mention that playing movies off of my home server via wifi, was a breeze and looked B-E-A-utiful!!

gbhil#AC says:

great review as always Phil. Nice to see an actual Android user reviewing top notch Android phones, your pros and cons jive with what ours will be much closer than lots of other reviewers do.

jeversion1 says:

ok first things first, ive looked at a billion reviews on this vs the iphone and this is probably the best. I have an iphone 4 and this phone actually. I used the iphone for work if that lets you know where i work lol but anyway...Best review out you always do a good job which is why i keep coming to the site. 2nd how do i get to do the stock android or swype do i have to download them because i couldnt find that in the keyboard settings. I did like how the samsung keyboard has the option for the arrow keys when you hold down the 123? button. Nice touch. Lastly if only you could fix or give me tips on the facebook app, i hate that i dont get notifications unless i do it manually. It might be the only thing i miss from my iphone besides the retina display lol. anyone have any ideas email me at jeversion1@gmail.com

jeversion1 says:

oh and if anyone is wondering if you place your iphone 4 micro sim in the right area the Captivate will actually use it just fine, thats how i switch back and forth for work.

bwv565 says:

**OOPS this comment was meant for the comment below this one**

I agree. Isn't it a phone first and multimedia device second? This *is* a sign of the times.

bkj216 says:

Its amazing that a smartPHONE review devotes so little to the actual PHONECALL quality lol. Just a sign of the times

mr.saving says:

What's there to say about call quality? I think he summed it up fairly well...if there were major issues, I'm sure he would have addressed them. (sans being on AT&T's network,lol)

Actually I noticed that people are getting back to being certain phones have good call quality. They are pretty sick, and so am I, of phones being good at doing everything else other than calling. And I've watched his overviews and other vids and the call quality is really high on this phone.

zoltrix says:

How about a comment on whether the Captivate or Vibrant is the best overall?

Keeping the carrier out of mind, which phone do you prefer Phil?

How about the other 2 Galaxy S phones?

(i posted this in the other review too)

HAAS599 says:

I believe he preferred the shape of the Vibrant.

zoltrix says:

and other than the shape, that's the only difference?

zer0chance says:

A lot of Captivate (and other Galaxy S model) users are having trouble getting GPS location fixes. Any experiences with this in the process of reviewing the phone?

kevlars9 says:

Phil!! you need to put cm6 on your evo. It makes it even better, and the speed boost is simply amazing.

gyroslice says:

i've read several reviews about the samsung galaxy s class of phones and TouchWiz seems to be the main negative. It is possible to turn off TouchWiz and run stock android?

jeversion1 says:

as far as i have read no its not unless you root the phone and install a custom firmware without the touchwiz say...regular android. I actually dont mind it. Its not as good as sense but Its not motorola overkill either with the original blur.

bobaka says:

I got one friday.. love it.. we're married now

ps no problems with gps here so far

I should say no problems with gps after using the fix below.
without the fix gps lock is sometimes 20 seconds sometimes
much longer.
with the fix gps lock in seconds

http://www.androidcentral.com/quick-fix-gps-issues-your-new-samsung-gala...

writerman says:

Great review!

I don't know how you consistently have such good content in your reviews but you really need to be applauded. It's not too long but it's long enough and informative. Thanks again for convincing me further to get this phone.

hodedofome says:

Makes you wonder why they didn't include a front facing camera and make this phone complete. It would then be a direct iPhone competitor in every way. LOVE the contrast on this phone. My Evo looks just pitiful next to a Galaxy during video playback :)

Zotz says:

My son and I have had our phones for about a week, and are exceptionally happy with them. The look is slick and professional. The screen is beautiful even when turned way down (good for battery life). Touchwiz is a cool UI. The phone runs a multitude of apps flawlessly. Pandora stays live as IP switches from 3G to office WiFi. After adjustments, GPS works as well as my old Moto Q's. Lack of LED 'flash'? Don't need it. Lack of front camera? Don't want it. Plan to root soon. Looking forward to Froyo!

D88ee says:

I love my Captivate!
Unlike the review here stated though, I experienced my battery being eaten alive in the first week or so. Being new to Android as a whole, I figured I was using it too much. However, I've installed a task killer of sorts which has helped dramatically! Those darn AT&T pre-installed apps just run in the background whenever they want (AT&T Navigator specifically)... really annoying, but I think I've finally got a grasp on how to control it.
It really is a superb phone!

BugDad25 says:

Does anyone have comments on compatability of Samsung Captivate with Apple MacBooks. I heard they have problem with syncing calendars, address books, etc with the Macs. Any truth there?

ktbiers says:

So I'm one of those broke people out there who chooses Cricket as their carrier, but I was recently offered and accepted a job and am now searching for a new carrier and have decided to choose AT&T. Next step: choose a phone. As everyone knows, ANDROID technology is now the "new thing," so of course I'm going to be getting a phone that uses ANDROID. Now let me tell you right off the bat, I've never been one of those technologically inclined people and have always gone with the simple yet dumbed-down "nicer" phones, but I think it's finally time for me to start stepping up my game. I was first interested in the Motorola Backflip because while it is an odd concept, I found it to be quite clever, but then I encountered the HTC Aria. I did some research about it and discovered that, of course, it is much better than the Backflip. But after some more investigation and exploration of up-to-date technology I found that the Samsung Captivate would be my best bet. I've read countless reviews and after reading this one, my decision has only been confirmed. I'm the type of person who needs a good camera with great color and picture quality, and this phone seems to be the best fit for me. Last week my boyfriend got the Samsung Ally through Verizon and loved it immediately, but then after a few days of use he soon realized that it wasn't as up-to-date and advanced as he needs. He's the type of person who's always had the newest and most up-to-date technology, opposite of me, lol, and after researching all of the other phones out there that use ANDROID he is sadly disappointed. Now don't get me wrong, the Ally is an amazing piece of technology as far as I'm concerned, but apparently not amazing enough for him;). So guess who gets to buy two brand new Samsung Captivates and pay for a contracted family plan with her first pay check from her new job? That's right, me. But I don't mind, I just want him to be happy. So now that I have most likely exhausted you all with this "short and sweet" comment, I would like to say thank you, Phil, for confirming my decision in purchasing a Captivate, two for that matter. And if anyone needs a fairly used Samsung Ally, let me know I guess, because we probably won't be needing it a few weeks from now. Wish us luck!

lilleediver says:

I read on letstalk.com you can get the captivate for $99 even with a regular upgrade. Read and/or listen to details.
Overstock.com has similar deals. The prices are dropping. I'm going to wait a week or 2 because I have to return my current (new) phone.

RogueCheddar says:

You stated in your review "Also, three of the four icons docked at the bottom of the screen can be changed to whatever you want. (The Applications/Home button cannot be changed.)" - How exactly did you go about doing this please?

nyeark says:

I had the same question after I bought my Captivate, it was a little wonky but here it is:

Go to Applications
Menu button->View Type
Change to 'Customizable Grid'
Menu button->Edit

You can now swap the three bottom-left icons with any of your applications. Menu->Save when you're done.

Menu->View Type again if you want to go back to Alphabetical listing; your choices for the bottom three buttons will stay the same.

RogueCheddar says:

Thanks nyeark!

1414H77 says:

To each his own. My experience with the Samsung Captivate was very different- a very, very disappointing phone. See my forum thread about going from the EVO to the Captivate and then back to the EVO. It's a phone with a lot of potential, but with, at least to me, several major flaws.

http://forum.androidcentral.com/htc-evo-4g/28888-evo-captivate-back-24-h...

jrv#AC says:

The review doesn't mention what wireless 802.11 protocols are supported.

Also, charging methods are of interest. The Nexus One has contacts on the bottom to charge in the desktop dock so that a plug need be inserted into the phone.

MWolfe#AC says:

The phone ruined a overseas vacation. Despite ordering international roaming and data, the phone would not connect to ATT international partner networks. My credit card was denied because it was being used in another country and the bank could not call me to confirm it was me. I had no communication at the airport. I ultimately had to buy a local phone.

When we arrived back in the US the phone would not reconnect to the ATT network. Again I had no communication at the airport. When I got to the motel I called ATT and they said I needed to do a factory reset which would wipe out all my data and applications. In fact they said this would be required every time I took a international trip. I had to go to ATT store for yet another simcard and avoided factory reset. I am on simcard 5 now for problems connecting to the ATT network.

I have owned the phone for 4 months and have aprox. 50 hours on the phone with tech support & a dozen trips to various ATT stores. This phone is nothing but a glorified data storage device with a nice screen. It was ruining our quality of life until I purchased a back up phone. I had to buy a GPS unit because the GPS on this phone is useless and will only get you within a mile of where you are. The battery last about 4 hours. The ATT data plans are not sufficient.

It is ridiculous that you need to carry 2 phones when you are with ATT and they don't care. I would advise not to get involved with ATT or this phone if you need a reliable device or value peace of mind.

gessneruk says:

Great review for a very cool phone.
I have had my Galaxy S Captivate for about 2 weeks now and I love it - the thing works well and now that I have my data plan usage under control I am happy as can be.

Here is a blog of how I took control of the whole data usage problem...

http://dataplangotcha.blogspot.com/2011/02/cracked-data-plan-problem-no-...

Check out how I did it.

Bill Tran says:

- The phone works well for me. I have the phone for 6 months, only problem for me so far is the phone book: lack capacity to store more than one phone number of the same name on phone book, which means you have to create multiple name for the same person in order to store phone numbers. I don't know how to transfer my phone book store on my sim card to my Galaxy. My previous phone Samsung Eternity was better about this.