AT&T Samsung Captivate Review

att-samsung-captivate

We’ve had our hands on the AT&T Captivate for the last several weeks, so we thought it was just about time for a proper review. AT&T’s version of the Galaxy S has a vibrant (pun intended) 4-inch Super AMOLED display, 1 GHz Hummingbird processor, 7.2 Mbps capable HSPA radio, 5 megapixel camera with 720p video recording, Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0 and much more. The device is running Android 2.1 with some serious UI customizations from Samsung. What’s the verdict? Hit the jump to find out!

Size/Form

Describing the size of a phone is always a difficult task as it is largely subjective. In our DROID X review we described Verizon’s latest Android flagship device as “not too big,” and here we can say that the Captivate’s dimensions (4.18” x 2.5” x 0.39”) and weight (4.5 ounces) are — for us — just right. The phone feels extremely thin in your hand and it feels feather light for a phone its size. It easily fits into jean pockets, has smooth but not rounded edges, and really is quite handsome.

The form of the Captivate is slightly different from other Galaxy S models being released in the States. We’ve heard a lot of you in the comments describe it as “less iPhone 3GS-ish” and we would say that is fairly accurate. The phone has a less rounded body and ditches the large home button that is on the European model of the Galaxy S. While the phone’s front and sides are constructed from plastic the back battery door — complete with carbon fiber print — is made of metal. We usually are a little sheepish on phones with plastic bodies, but the construction of the Captivate feels really solid. All the buttons are tight and don’t wiggle or yaw, and the lines on the phone are extremely tight and well-placed. The two things that we would say are out of the ordinary, or unique to the phone’s form, are the micro-USB port (which has a sliding plastic cover to protect it) and the way you access the battery (that is by pulling down on the bottom rear plate of the phones frame). Neither of these two things are a negatives (we actually kind of like the sliding USB cover) but they are features that make you say: “hmm, that’s different.”

Screen

Let’s just get this out of the way. The screen is by far the phones best feature. The Captivates 4-inch WVGA Super AMOLED display is bright, like really bright. Colors explode off the screen, watching movies is a treat, and the extra screen real estate makes browsing the web really enjoyable. The resolution is 480 x 800 and displays 16 million colors, for those of you wondering. The touch sensitivity on the device is very good, although we did have lag issues with certain keyboard layouts (that we’ll cover later in the review). Samsung’s Super AMOLED display and the iPhone 4’s Retina display could battle to the death for the top smartphone screen crown… and we wouldn’t care who won. Both screens are simply amazing.

Camera

One of the big gripes about the Captivate’s camera (aside from the fact that there isn’t one on the front of the device) is that it lacks a flash of any kind. And that won’t be an issue for most. We’re not sure what Samsung did with the software in this thing but whatever it is: Bra. Vo. The 5 megapixel auto-focus camera takes really sharp images indoors and out, and holds its own in moderate light settings. The camera includes a 4x digital zoom feature and has several modes to shoot in: Single, Beauty, Smile Shot, Continuous, Panorama, Vintage, Add me, Action shot, and Cartoon. The camera also has geotagging (not on by default), anti-shake (not on by default), and a plethora of other options and settings ready to be tweaked. We enjoyed using the camera, and unless you often take pictures in dark settings that require a flash, we think you’re going to enjoy it as well.

Outdoors - Sunlight - Close Range - Default Camera Settings

Outdoors - Sunlight - Close Range - Default Camera Settings

Indoor - Moderate Light - Close Range - Default Settings

Indoors - Moderate/Low Light - Close Range - Default Camera Settings

Video Camera

The video camera, much like the still camera, works really well. You’re not going to be disappointed. The video camera defaults to shooting in 720 x 480, but we know you… you’re going to crank that baby up to 1280 x 720 for some 720p recording fun. Video playback is smooth, with no lags or jagged frames, and the camcorder seems to autofocus very effectively. The audio quality during video recording is also surprisingly good. Not quite as good as the DROID X, with its three microphones, but better than the iPhone 4. Audio is crisp, maybe a little high on the treble, but clear and totally acceptable for a smartphone video camera. The camcorder also shows you a live on-screen counter of just how large your video is getting (which we find very useful), and has a setting labeled “fit to MMS” you can turn on before recording.

Captivate Video Recording

Phone

The phone is pretty standard, no real frills or thrills here. We wish there was some sort of visual voicemail system built into the device, but if you have Google Voice (if not we recommend signing up) that can easily be taken care of (thanks Android!). The speakerphone is loud and the sound is very accurate (this goes for media playback as well).  Sound from the earpiece is not quite as clear as that emanating from the DROID X or iPhone 4, but it isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Not much else to elaborate on here, moving along…

Captivate Phone

Email

Email is obviously something that we rely on heavily, and unfortunately our Exchange email experience wasn’t all that great on the Captivate. You can view, read, and compose email just fine (although Samsung’s UI customizations make the compose screen feel crowded) but you can’t file messages into folders. You can view standard Exchange folders such as Drafts, Trash, and Sent, but you are unable to view folders you’ve created. This is something we rely heavily on. Also, email on the Captivate seems to come in 2-3 minutes slower when it is on Wi-Fi. We had an iPhone 4 and the Captivate setup to check the same Exchange and Gmail account with push enabled. If Wi-Fi was on, the Captivate would have a 30 second to two minute delay as opposed to the iPhone 4. Turn Wi-Fi off and the problem goes away. Not deal breaking, just something we noticed and thought we would pass along. The Gmail application that is bundled with most Android phones is present on this handset, runs as expected, and works as advertised.

Software Customizations

This is where our personal style preferences and subjectivity really start to creep into the review. We don’t really care for Samsung’s TouchWiz 3.0 customizations featured on the Galaxy S series… we prefer stock (or at least more stock) Android. The home screen is great; seven customizable screens, widgets, pretty standard. But there is this four icon dock at the bottom that you can’t customize Apparently you can change them. It has Phone, Email, Browser, and Applications or Home (depending on where you are in the OS) located in it by default. The Captivate has three software keyboards to choose from: a Samsung keyboard, the stock Android keyboard, and the SWYPE keyboard. The Samsung keyboard (which is on by default) does not offer any kind of spelling correction — which we feel is a must have feature on a soft keyboard — and also doesn’t have a button to invoke Google’s awesome voice-to-text system. The SWYPE keyboard is standard, and the stock Android offering is the one we’ve been using.

We’ve been able to get the Captivate to lag and /or hang when using voice-to-text or trying to navigate around the device very quickly. We’re fairly sure this isn’t an Android or hardware issue, but rather an issue with the UI that Samsung has running on top of Android. It isn’t reproducible 100% of the time, but it happened frequently enough that we wanted to mention it. Plus, it is pretty frustrating to see a brand new phone do this. Software hindering great hardware.

One thing we were really excited to see on the DROID X was a passcode timer. The timer allows you to sleep your phone and not require a passphrase, or pass-pattern, for a set amount of time. This feature is not present on the Captivate and is missed. By default, the screen dims after 30 seconds and if you have this feature enabled you are required to put your pass-pattern in every time (there is no option to use an alpha-numeric passcode).

One of Samsung’s customizations that we did like was in the contacts application. If you swipe to the right on a contact (think iOS deleting gesture) your Captivate will call that contact, swipe to the left and you text message that contact. It is a pretty clever use of the swipe motion and makes dialing/texting from your contacts list infinitely easier.

Contact Swipe

Like most Android phones distributed by carriers, the Captivate comes with software that you aren’t going to want. For example: AT&T Navigator is on there, and can be utilitzed for $9.99/month… even though Google Navigation is free, better, and… um, free! Again, this isn’t a problem specific to the Captivate, but since AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Hot Spots, AT&T Maps, AT&T Music, AT&T Navigator, and AT&T Radio take up the first 6 out of 7 spots on your first page of apps, the issue gets exacerbated. You can’t put the applications into folders but you can re-order them (or switch to an alphabetized list view) so that helps a little.

Default Home

Official Specs and Pricing

The official spec sheet for the Samsung Captivate looks like this:

  • 4.18” x 2.5” x 0.39”
  • 4.5 ounces
  • 4 inche WVGA 480 x 800 pixels Super AMOLED, displaying 16 million colors
  • Talk time 5 hours 50 minutes, standby 300 hours
  • 7.2 Mbps UTMS/HSPA cellular radio (850/900/1900/21000 MHz)
  • 5.0 megapixel autofocus camera with 4x digital zoom
  • 720p video recording (MPEG4, ACC, ACC+, H.263, H.264)
  • 16 GB ROM
  • 512 MB RAM
  • micro-SD card expandable up to 32 GB
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • Wi-Fi (b/g/n)
  • A-GPS
  • Android 2.1
  • 1500 mAh removable battery

Conclusion

The device’s heavily customized UI really does tax the phones list of impressive resources at times. And for this reason alone we are not overly impressed with the Captivate. This phone could be a case study of how marginal software can taint the experience of an amazing piece of hardware (we’re talking about TouchWiz 3.0, not Android).

This is Samsung’s first serious play at a high-end, top-of-the-line Android smartphone, and it is a great start. In our opinion the Samsung Captivate would make a great smartphone for those who are new to the world of Android or those who aren’t Android purists. In other words, for most it will do…

Let’s face it, these days buying a smartphone is about compromise. You are going to have to prioritize your lists of smartphone wants against your lists of smartphone needs and render a decision. If an amazing screen, solid camera/camcorder, and the Android operating system are the top three items on your checklist, consider this phone a winner. If, like us, you are looking for a little more refinement from your smartphone, you might want to hold off until this bad boy is updated to Android 2.2 (or gets rooted) and re-evaluate.

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