The Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G hit T-Mobile last month offering solidly mid-range specs and a landscape slide-out keyboard. I’ve been testing it out for the last week or so on Mobilicity in Canada, and I’ve generally been happy with my experience. There are a lot of software customizations loaded up that take a bit of getting used to, but once you learn ‘em, they can be definitely be useful.
Though the software customizations are a bit overwhelming at first, some of the motion controls are really cool. The keyboard is a welcome change from the norm of on-screen versions. Battery life was very respectable, and could get me through two days with light usage.
For the sake of having a physical keyboard, you'll have to deal with some extra girth, which contrasts sharply to the super-slim all-touch alternatives out there. The slide mechanism is too stiff, to boot. The specs are squarely mid-range, which may not be good enough for power users.
The software on Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G is jam-packed with an overwhelming array of customizations, which are occasionally useful, but require a fair bit of setting up and testing to see if they’re worth the trouble. I was plenty satisfied with the keyboard performance, though the slide mechanism was a little too tight for my liking. With five rows and dedicated keys for voice search, e-mail, and texting, it’s hard to go wrong.
Inside this review
Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G hands-on video
Battery life was solid and got me through a day of moderate usage, and in some cases made it through two on a single charge. Samsung lists the 1800 mAh battery as getting through 10 hours of talk time and 14 days of standby, but your mileage may vary depending on network and usage. The call quality was perfectly fine during my usage, but there aren't any secondary microphones on here, which may be a deal-breaker if you do a lot of talking in noisy environments.
Is it weird that I like the capacitive buttons on here? I hate having valuable screen real estate constantly being gobbled up by what are static, universal elements like home, back, and menu buttons. Holding the home key to launch into multitasking and the menu key for search is a bit of a throwback, but I find it still works perfectly well. Giving these keys some space outside the display ensures that all of the screen is being used entirely for visual content, and that sentiment extends to the keyboard.
Say what you will about sliders being fatties, but a physical keyboard clears up a lot of room on the screen and ensures higher-quality typing. Of course, a gesture-based keyboard that comes preloaded for those times when popping out the physical keyboard is just too much of a chore (to be fair, I do find the slide mechanism a little stiff).
How does the keyboard itself perform? Well, I wasn't as blown away as Phil was with the Photon Q, that's for sure. There’s a full five rows here, so needing to use secondary symbol keys is kept to a minimum. For the times you do need to access secondary characters, there are enough keys to cover any symbol you could reasonably need to use. There are even dedicated keys for initiating voice input, e-mail, and new text messages. It’s a little weird that the 1, P, and A keys are considerably larger than the others. I’m sure there’s some very good ergonomic reason for that design decision, but it’s well beyond me. Otherwise, the key spacing is great, and the travel is sufficiently clicky for enthusiasts of hardware keyboards. The keys are also backlight in dark conditions, which is something of a must-have if you're going to bother including a physical keyboard.
The 4-inch 480 x 800 Super AMOLED display will leave many wanting for something sharper, especially if they’ve grown accustomed to higher-end devices. On the plus side, the 1.5 GHz dual-core processor and 1 GB of RAM keeps things fluid and responsive, which is much more important to me than screen resolution. All of the usual sensors are here, including NFC, Wi-Fi with hotspot, DLNA, and Direct functions. There's no HDMI-out unfortunately, though the Relay earns a few bonus points for having an LED indicator light. 8 GB of storage are included inside, plus whatever you can cram onto your microSD memory card.
In terms of sheer looks and design, the Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G is fairly simple and straightforward. The trim on the home button gives it a bit of extra pop, and makes it easy to find and use thanks to the extra tactile feedback. The slight, soft texture on the rear feels neat, but doesn’t really afford much extra grip. Luckily the subtle curve of the device on all sides makes it perpetually comfortable to hold. When open, there's enough room for your thumbs to stretch out and not feel cramped, while the rear has a perfectly good lip to rest index fingers while tapping away. The glossy titanium paint job on the trim looks nice out of the box, but it’s easy to imagine it wearing down and chipping away in the long haul.
The Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G runs Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich and is chock-full of motion-based customizations. If you’ve got a contact pulled up in a call log or elsewhere, you can simply put the phone to your face and it will start calling them through a feature called Direct Call. Smart Alert shows missed calls and messages as soon as you lift your device when it’s face-down on a table and the ringer is set to silent. You can double-tap the top of the device to jump right to the top of any list. Holding two fingers and tilting the phone can initiate zooming in and out of web pages or images. Of course, all of these can be toggled on and off in the settings menu to keep things from getting too maddening, but even figuring out if you want certain features enabled is a bit of a chore and requires a fair bit of trial and error. Some of the more useful motion features I enjoyed was tilting to switch home screens when moving icons and widgets, and the flip-to-mute function.
Beyond the motion stuff, there are lots of solid UI additions, though in some cases, such as the notification area, things get a little cluttered. The lock screen provides quick access to shortcuts in the address bar, the home screen indicator lets you quickly jump from one home screen to the other, and there’s full landscape support for the home screens. The pop-up after hitting the volume key can be expanded with sliders for volume levels for different notifications, not just calls.
S Voice is here as usual, allowing for audio control of a wide variety of system functions, like calling friends, opening apps, and controlling music. It’s still a little sketchy in terms of reliability and breadth of function. Though I wouldn’t put it in the same league as Siri, there are plenty of third-party options available. Unfortunately, you won’t get Google Now on here without some wrestling, since it’s running Android Ice Cream Sandwich.
There are a bunch of preloaded apps on the Samsung Galaxy S Relay. Some, like Evernote, Slacker, and Facebook, are handy, especially since I would have downloaded them anyway. Others, like TeleNav GPS and T-Mobile TV are shoved on by the carrier and can't be removed by normal means. Samsung's Media Hub video rental service shows up, and is as unappealing as ever, especially when crammed up against Google Play Movies and TV and T-Mobile's video service. T-Mobile's Lookout security app is a nice addition; a little remote security is always nice to have out of the box.
In addition to the standard Google music player, Samsung has included their own as well. It does all of the usual stuff, plus has this neat Music Square thing that analyzes your library based on various musical factors. Then, when you tap a square on the grid, it pulls up music based on how exciting or calm, passionate or joyful you're feeling. It's pretty hit or miss about what goes where, but the idea gets points for originality. The app also allows access to music shared on the local Wi-Fi network, which works seamlessly if you already have your folders set up for sharing. Samsung's music app played nice with in-line pause-play controls with headphones (though not volume control). Stereo Bluetooth also worked perfectly fine, volume and track control included. Playback control shows up in the notification tray, but again, that can easily add to the clutter.
The 5 megapixel camera produces decent pictures, and hosts all of the usual software adjustments you would expect, such as panoramas, various scene mode, exposure, ISO, and white balance control, geotagging, and a timer. There are even a few artsy filters if you’re into that kind of thing, but there are plenty more options Google Play for photo enhancements. I wasn't particularly thrilled with how the Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G handled close-ups, and tended to blur noticeably in low light. Video options were sparse; some level of image stabilization would have been nice, or the nifty anti-wind feature on the Photon Q.
The bottom line
This Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G is the best slider you can find on T-Mobile right now. That might not be saying much considering there are only two others to compete with, plus in the grander scheme of things, the Motorola Photon Q has slightlty more impressive specs. Still, I’ve been plenty happy with the Relay, and not only for its keyboard. Samsung has crammed a lot of software customizations on here, which may be overwhelming at first, but really adds a ton of flavour and function to the core Android experience.
The only real clincher here is if you’re willing to sacrifice top-of-the-line specs for the sake of being on T-Mobile and having a physical keyboard. If that sounds like a fair trade-off, you can pick up the Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G from T-Mobile here for $149.99 on a two-year contract.