|Introduction & Specifications|
The most popular and powerful Android phones currently available are quite possibly members of the Samsung Galaxy S line. Powered by Samsung’s very own 1GHz Cortex A8-based Hummingbird processor and featuring a four-inch Super-AMOLED (active matrix organic light-emitting diode) capacitive touchscreen with a 480x800 resolution, it’s no wonder that Samsung has already sold over 5 million Galaxy S-branded phones. The latest member of the Galaxy S family is the Samsung Epic 4G Android Smartphone, which adds two unique features that the other Galaxy S handsets lack: a slide-out keyboard and 4G capabilities.
The Epic 4G is available through Sprint for $249.99 (after a $100 mail-in rebate), with a two-year contract. If you want one without a contract, it will cost $499.99. The least expensive plan available for the phone is $69.99 per month, which includes 450 “Anytime Minutes” for voice calls, and unlimited data and messaging. For $99.99 per month you can get a plan that offers unlimited voice calling. Sprint also offers a number of family plans that range in price from $129.99 to $189.98 for two lines (additional lines cost $19.99 per month per line). Regardless of which plan you choose, you’re also required to add a $10 per month “Premium Data” service, for access to Sprint’s 4G network—whether you use the 4G connection or not. Factor in taxes and fees, and the least expensive service plan will wind costing you roughly $90 per month.
Sprint’s 4G network utilizes WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) mobile broadband technology, which currently has a theoretical maximum throughput of 40Mbps. Sprint claims that the average download speed on its 4G network is between 3 to 6Mbps, with “peak” download speeds above 10Mbps. On our tests, which you can see here, we saw 4G throughput speeds that varied anywhere between 1.82Mbps and 7.96Mbps for downstream connections, and from 0.33Mbps to 1.16Mbps for upstream connections—depending on the particular test. For comparison, the fastest 3G downstream connection we’ve seen is around 1.4Mbps, with the average 3G connection speed usually well below 1.0Mbps. The speediest 3G upstream speed we’ve seen is around 0.7Mbps, with the average more like 0.4Mbps.
Price: $249.99 (after a $100 mail-in rebate), with a two-year contract; $499.99 without contract
The Epic 4G comes with one other cool feature. For an additional $29.99 per month, you can add Sprint’s “Mobile Hotspot” service, which allows you to use the Epic 4G as a wireless Internet router for up to five connected devices. Any device, such as a laptop or iPad, that connects to the Epic 4G via a Wi-Fi connection, can piggyback on the Epic 4G’s mobile broadband connection. This works whether the Epic 4G has a 3G or 4G connection—obviously 4G will be much faster.
Compared to many of today’s handsets—including other Galaxy S phones—the Epic 4G feels somewhat bulky and heavy. But this is a necessary evil to accommodate the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The Epic 4G’s footprint is a reasonable 4.9 x 2.5 inches, but it is a chunky 0.6 inches thick. And at 5.47 ounces, it’s certainly not the lightest phone available. As a point of comparison, the Captivate is 0.39 inches thick and weighs 4.5 ounces.
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On the right side of the unit are the power button and camera button. The camera button launches the Camera app, or shoots a picture if the Camera app is already running. The left side of the handset is where you’ll find the volume rocker button. On the top of the unit are the headset jack and the Micro USB plug. When you’re not using the USB port, you can pull out a small door to protect the plug from getting dinged or mucked up with pocket lint. The microphone is located on the bottom edge of the phone.
Around the back of the handset are the camera lens for the 5-megapixel camera, an LED flash, and the external speaker. The back cover comes off to provide access to the removable battery and microSD card slot.
On the front of the phone, above the LCD are the proximity sensor, light sensor, speaker, LED status light, and the lens for the VGA front-facing camera. Below the LCD are the Menu, Home, Back, and Search buttons. These four buttons are touch sensitive and momentarily light up when you touch this area or the LCD. When these buttons are not lit, the section below the LCD is pitch black and sometimes makes it difficult to find the exact button you’re looking for. As a result, we invariably touched the wrong button, until we got into the habit of touching the LCD first to light the buttons up. Unlike some other Android handsets, such as the HTC Incredible, the Epic 4G lacks a trackball, which some applications require.
From left to right: The Epic 4G's back, bottom, top, right, and left sides.
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The slide-out QWERTY keyboard is very comfortable to use and the keys are spaced far enough apart that all but the largest of fingers should have no problem pressing the intended keys. The keyboard is backlit and includes dedicated Menu, Home, Back, and Search keys, as well as an emoticon key and four-directional (arrow) keys. There’s even a set of dedicated number keys on the top row. A Fn key provides access to additional input options, such as math symbols, parentheses, punctuation, the “@” symbol, and “.com”. Typically when you use an Android device in landscape mode, the Android home screen does not auto rotate, no matter what the device’s settings are (many apps will auto rotate, however, depending on the screen’s orientation). But when you slide out the Epic 4G’s keyboard, its home screen conveniently rotates to a landscape orientation; as long as the keyboard it out, even the unlock screen appears in landscape mode.
The Epic 4G runs Android 2.1 (Éclair) with Samsung’s Touchwiz 3.0 skin sitting on top of it. Samsung promises that it will upgrade the Epic 4G to Android 2.2 (Froyo) at some point, but it has not stated when this will happen. At the time this review posted, however, the rumors were swirling that the Froyo update was imminent. There are a total of seven home screens to which you can add widgets, shortcuts, and folders. You can also pick custom wallpapers that pan across all seven home screens. At the bottom of every home screen are the same four permanent app icons: Phone, Contacts, Messaging, and Applications. Perhaps just to be different, the Epic 4G’s Applications screen scrolls sideways, instead of up and down like it does with the default Android OS or even most other Android devices for that matter.
From left to right: The default main home page,
a home page with Sprint-branded widgets, the phone interface.
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Note that we’ve come across a handful of Android apps where their respective developers state the caveat that their apps either don’t work right or are not supported on Samsung Galaxy S phones, such as Skype. We suspect that this is a function of compatibility issues with the Touchwiz 3.0 interface, and suspect that these issues will eventually be resolved.
From left to right: The first page of default apps,
the second page of default apps, the Sprint Football app.
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A number of Sprint-branded apps come pre-installed on the phone. One is Sprint Zone, which gives you access to your account, news from Sprint, tips and tricks, and suggested apps to install. Two sports-related apps that provide, news, stats, and video clips are Sprint Football and NASCAR. Sprint Navigation is a GPS-based navigation app; but we found it took a frustratingly long time for the app to generate routes—sometimes upwards of several minutes.
The Media Hub app.
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The Epic 4G also comes with a number of multimedia-minded apps. The Media Hub app is an application that lets you rent or purchase TV shows and feature-length films that you can watch on the phone. Sprint TV has similar offerings, at least as far as TV clips and full TV shows go—some of the content is free and some you must pay for. The AllShare app connects with other DNLA devices over a Wi-Fi connection so that you can stream music, videos, or photos to the Epic 4G. You can also stream media from the Epic 4G to other DLNA devices; or you can even play media from one DLNA device onto another DLNA device, essentially using the Epic 4G as a remote control.
From left to right: The AllShare app,
the Sprint Hotspot app, the Epic 4G's Wireless & networks settings.
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From left to right: Samsung widgets, the Feeds and Updates widget,One of the Epic 4G’s preinstalled apps is an e-mail client, simply called Email. It’s a useful app for connecting to POP3, IMAP, and Exchange accounts. This app is really just a renamed version of the free Android e-mail app, K-9 Mail. As far as we could tell, there was no difference in functionality between the two versions. Business users will appreciate ThinkFree Mobile, with which you can create, edit, and view Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. Another useful app is Swype, which makes text input a breeze when using the onscreen touch keyboard—text input is much more accurate with Swype than with the default Android OS onscreen keyboard.
the screen that appears when you tap the AccuWeather Clock widget.
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Tap the Program Monitor widget to see the active applications (left),
installed apps (center), and memory information (right).
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Finally, the Epic 4G also comes with a number of Samsung-branded widgets you can add to the home pages. A number of these are clock widgets, which display information that is commensurate with their names: AccuWeather Clock, Calendar Clock, and Y! Finance Clock. Buddies now is a widget that shows social network updates from users you add from your contacts. Feeds and Updates is a widget that shows the latest status updates from Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. The Program Monitor widget shows you how many apps are currently active, using green-colored graphics; if the device’s CPU is getting hammered by any of the apps, it turns red. Tap the widget to see to the Active application screen, which shows each active app and the option to end any of the individual apps or all of the apps. You can also select the Package tab to see all of the installed apps, with the option to uninstall any of them. The Summary tab shows how much of the phone’s RAM is being used, how much space remains for additional installed programs, and how close to full the external SD card is.
The phone feels very sturdy and fits well in our hands, and the keyboard slides and back with ease—the Epic 4G is a well-made device. It also has one of the strongest haptic feedbacks we’ve felt in a phone—when the Epic 4G vibrates, it’s not kidding around.
To say that the 4-inch Super-AMOLED screen is gorgeous, would be an understatement. It’s very bright, and is even visible in many outdoor lighting scenarios--albeit, it doesn't do so well in direct sunlight, and sometimes the glossy screen throws back annoying reflections. The screen also displays very rich colors. As such, it is a pleasure to view photos and watch videos on the screen. Its 480x800 screen resolution might not be quite in the same league as the iPhone 4’s 960x640 Retina display, but it certainly gives it a run for the money. The speakers also sound very impressive, spitting out clear-sounding audio that can get surprisingly loud. The bundled stereo headset also dishes out great-sounding audio.
To learn more about Samsung's Super-AMOLED technology, check out this video (note: there is no audio):
The rear-facing, 5-megapixel camera also impresses. As long as the lighting is good, the image quality of the photo the Epic 4G captures is relatively sharp. You’re not going to throw out your digital camera and replace it anytime soon with the Epic 4G, but its good to know that it can capture decent-looking images when it’s the only camera you’ve got, or when in those situations when you need to take a picture and then send it somewhere. The camera can also capture 720p video, which also looks decent, but can't compare with the quality you'll get from a real camcorder. The front-facing camera is limited to VGA resolutions, and as such, the image quality leaves much to be desired. As it stands, there are few apps that can even take advantage of the front-facing camera--Fring and Tango being some of the few exceptions.
Sample photos shot by the Epic 4G.
(Click to enlarge; note that these are the full-size, 2,560x1,920,
1.5MB, images pulled directly from the phone)
With all this talk about everything the Epic 4G can do, it’s easy to forget that you can also use it to make and receive phone calls. Luckily it does so very well. Call quality sounded great on both ends, and we had great luck with signal strength and no dropped calls during our testing in the New York City and the surrounding areas.
One thing we don’t like about the Epic 4G is that it has the propensity to get very hot when it’s used for an extended period of time. We experienced this mostly when running apps—especially games—and when playing media.
|Performance Testing Overview and Battery Life|
In everyday use, the Epic 4G was one of the zippiest phones we’ve ever had the pleasure of using. Apps loaded quick and files loaded fast. When the Froyo update is finally made available for the device, its performance will only get faster.
Battery life is one of the Epic 4G’s weak points, however. In our day-to-day testing of normal use with 4G, Wi-Fi, and GPS on, the phone’s battery would frequently run out of juice before the day was over. We also ran a movie playback test to see how the Epic 4G would fare with less power-hungry settings. We left the phone’s 3G radio on, but both the 4G and Wi-FI radios were turned off. We also turned off GPS, but left Wi-Fi location services on. Volume and brightness were set to 50%, and the phone’s power-savings mode was enabled. We played back a movie that had been ripped from a DVD. The movie is a 480x320, H.264, 1,148Kbps bitrate, AAC 2-channel audio, MP4 video file. We got 4 hours and 31 minutes of video playback before the low battery alert appeared; once this alert appears, the Epic 4G won't play video files until it is plugged in to charge.
We also conducted some formal performance testing, to see how the Epic 4G fared against a number of other smartphones. We compared the Epic 4G to the Samsung Captivate, HTC Incredible, Dell Streak, and iPhone 3GS. Our HTC Incredible didn’t have network access, so we only tested its Wi-Fi connection on our throughput testing. Many of the tests we ran were based on Android apps, so we were fairly limited in terms of which tests we could also use to benchmark the iPhone.
For our testing, we took a “kitchen sink” approach here. This means that we ran nearly every mobile benchmark we could easily get our hands on. Admittedly, some of these tests—especially some of the Android app-based benchmarks—are from sources completely unknown to us, so we can’t necessarily vouch for the reliability of all the tests here. As we continue to refine our smartphone performance testing, we’ll better hone our methodology. Therefore, take the results presented here with a few grains of salt.
We tested the Epic 4G’s throughput over 4G, 3G, and Wi-Fi connections. The HTC Incredible was tested only over a Wi-Fi connection. The Dell Streak and iPhone 3GS were testing over both 3G and Wi-Fi connections. Both the Dell Streak and iPhone 3GS were tested using an AT&T Wireless 3G MicroCell signal booster, so they both were tested with very strong signals (full bars). The Epic 4G is on the Sprint network and we did not have a comparable device. This means that the 3G throughput results below are admittedly unfair. That said, you are always going to be limited by the signal strength at whatever location you happen to be in. So as to the network testing, you can regard the results below as what you would experience if you happened to be in the exact location we did our testing. All the Wi-Fi testing, however, was conducted under identical circumstances, so the Wi-Fi results are directly comparable.
On all four tests, the Epic 4G consistently had the speediest Wi-Fi upload and download speeds; although the Dell Streak wasn’t far behind it on some of the tests. As to data throughput over the mobile Internet providers' networks, the Epic 4G’s 4G connection easily had the fastest download and upload throughput across the board. The Epic 4G brought up the rear in terms of 3G download throughput, but it had the disadvantage here, as both the Dell Streak and iPhone 3GS were able to take advantage of the 3G MicroCell signal booster. Despite the 3G MicroCell signal booster, however, the Epic 4G still pulled in faster 3G upload speeds than both the Dell Streak and iPhone 3GS.
All four tests below are based on Android apps, so we weren’t able to include the iPhone 3GS in any of the comparisons.
The Epic 4G also dominates on all four CPU tests. On the Linpack test, the Epic 4G even manages to best the Samsung Captivate, which is another Samsung Galaxy S phone. These performance numbers just confirm what we already experienced in our hands-on time with the Epic 4G—it’s wicked fast.
As we experienced with the CPU testing, the two tests here were conducted using Android apps, so there are no iPhone 3GS comparisons for these tests either.
The performance of the Epic 4G and Samsung Captivate are essentially identical on the An3DBench graphics test—which happens to be more than twice as fast as what even the HTC Incredible could churn out. We don’t have scores for the Captivate for the Neocore test, but the Epic 4G is the undisputed performance leader of the three phones tested. The takeaway here is that the test results indicate that Epic 4G is an excellent option for watching HD video and playing games.
There is little doubt in our minds that the Samsung Epic 4G is one of the best Android phones currently available. It’s lightning fast when running apps—with the promise of even speedier performance when it’s upgraded to Froyo. The 4G (WiMAX) connection was also plenty speedy, providing a non-frustrating mobile Internet experience.
The 4G connection comes with a couple of caveats, however. Actually getting a 4G signal is very much a function of geography and sometimes just plain luck. Availability is still very limited, with the promise of more areas coming online in the near future, sounding vague at best. You might get lucky, like we did, and find unofficial 4G coverage that was still being tested. Sprint also charges an additional $10 surcharge for the Epic 4G’s 4G capabilities, whether you actually use the 4G connection or not.
The gorgeous-looking, 4-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen has one of the brightest and crispest displays we’ve seen to date on a phone, and the audio quality is also very impressive. The Epic 4G comes with some great multimedia features to take advantage of the device’s capabilities, such as the ability to view content streamed over Wi-Fi from another DLNA device, and the ability to purchase, download, and watch TV shows and movies. Other noteworthy features are the 5.0-megapixel, rear-facing camera with built-in LED flash. The front-facing camera is a nice touch too, but the image quality leaves a bit to be desired.
The Epic 4G will also appeal to business users and those who do a lot of typing on their devices. Certainly the onscreen keyboard with Swype makes input easier, but power users will truly appreciate the Epic 4G’s spacious and comfortable pull-out keyboard. We put the phone in the hands of a number of users, and the overwhelming consensus was that the Epic 4G had one of the best phone keyboards they’d seen.
Unfortunately, the physical keyboard also adds to the phone’s thickness and weight. Numerous other comparable phones (that don’t have physical keyboards) are notably thinner and somewhat lighter. If you don’t need the pull-out keyboard and can’t utilize the 4G connectivity capabilities, you might be better off considering one of the other Samsung Galaxy S phones, such as the Samsung Captivate.
A couple of additional chinks in the Epic 4G’s armor are its disappointing battery life, propensity to get hot after prolonged use, and its relatively expensive price tag. You can somewhat ameliorate the battery life issue by being judicious in terms of which settings you enable (for example, turning off 4G, Wi-Fi, and GPS when you don’t need them will help significantly). And despite the heat issue, the phone never got too hot to handle and its performance never seemed to be adversely affected. With a $250 price tag (after a $100 mail-in rebate) with a two-year Sprint service plan, the Epic 4G is one of more expensive phones currently on the market. That said, we found the Epic 4G selling for $149.99 on Amazon with a two-year Sprint contract—but there’s no guarantee that this will deal will still be available by the time you read this.
Despite these caveats, the Epic 4G’s strengths far outweigh its drawbacks. Not only do we recommend the Epic 4G, but we’d even seriously consider it as our next phone.