Sprint Samsung Epic 4G Review

The Samsung Epic 4G is Sprint’s second 3G/4G hybrid Android device. Although its form does not resemble that of the Captivate, Fascinate, or Vibrant, it has been adopted into the Galaxy S family of handsets. Physical appearance aside, the device comes complete with the standard set of Galaxy S equipment — TouchWiz 3.0 interface, 1 GHz Hummingbird processor, and 4-inch Super AMOLED display — but sets itself apart by being the only device to have a full QWERTY slide-out keyboard. The Epic is poised for an August 31st release on the Now Network. We’ve been putting this bad boy through its paces for the last few weeks, so hit the jump and lets do this thing.

Hardware/Build

Overall, we found the build quality of the Epic 4G to be very good. The device’s official dimensions are 4.90 x 2.54 x 0.56 inches and it weighs in at 5.46 ounces; which is about an ounce heavier than the Captivate. The back and sides of the device are constructed completely from plastic and there is an aesthetically pleasing chrome bezel that divides the phone into two hemispheres. The back cover of the phone has a metallic finish to it and there is 360-degrees of chrome around the 5 megapixel shooter, a nice continuation of the device’s design traits. The battery door is removed by prying it off the device (we have to say this is one of our least favorite ways to get at a battery) and seems a little on the thin side. The thin door does affix itself very securely to the device; there is no wiggle or give when you put the back-cover back on and push on it.

Going around the outside of the handset: on the top you have a 3.5 mm headphone jack and micro-USB port with sliding door. We’ve heard some people say that they don’t like the little USB door that Samsung has put on the Galaxy S line of phones; one common complaint is that the USB cord falls out easily when charging. We can’t say that we’ve experienced this in any way, and well, we kind of like the door. It keeps lint, dust, and other foreign objects out of the USB port when the device is in your pocket, purse, or even — *shudder* — murse. The left side of the device has volume up and down keys and the bottom of the device is nearly naked except for a pin-hole for the voice receiver. The right side of the device has a dedicated camera button towards the bottom and a power/sleep button towards the top. Switching to the back of the device… that’s where the camera and LED flash are housed, which are both towards the top of the phone and centered, as well as an opening for the speakerphone. The front of your Epic 4G has the earpiece at the very top of the phone which sits right above a shiny Sprint logo. To the immediate right of said logo is a red LED notification light and to the right of that is the unit’s front-facing VGA camera. Towards the bottom of the front panel you have a Samsung logo with the standard menu, home, back, and search buttons directly under it.

The Epic’s slider mechanism is mechanically assisted and works as expected. Once you slide the screen more than halfway up the keyboard, the internal springs jump into action and snap the device into the full-upright and locked position. The slider is guided by two rails on the rear of the display-housing and it does a great job of holding the device in place with minimal wiggle when it’s splayed open. Some of you may prefer the cold, stiff feeling of the Motorola DROID’s non-mechanical sliding mechanism, but as far as mechanical sliders go, this is one of the better ones we’ve seen.

Keyboard

The keyboard on this device will be, in all likelihood, the one piece of hardware you interact with the most (it is why you’re considering this phone isn’t it?). After several weeks of use we have to say the keyboard has really grown on us. The keys are boxed, separated, and raised like that of a MacBook or one of the newer HP laptops. What makes the keyboard a little different is that the keys are not “offset” as they are on a standard keyboard. Look down at the keyboard on your computer, to go from 6 to y to h to n to the space bar you have to draw a semi-diagonal line. On the Epic that offset is not present. If you are used to a phone with an offset, horizontal keyboard the keyboard on the Epic will take about a week to get used to.

A few things we really love about the keyboard are the dedicated number keys, arrow keys, and secondary symbols available. There really isn’t much to say about the dedicated number keys, other than the fact that they are there and that they weren’t added at the expense of the rest of the keyboard (Dear OEMs, If you have room… put number keys!). The arrow keys are also appreciated as it makes editing text far easier and allows you to keep your hands on the keypad and navigate the phone’s UI. The secondary symbols included on the keys (the lettering that is in yellow) are also fairly extensive and save you from hitting “Sym” then looking at the grid of icons that pop-up on the screen. It isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but we found them saving us tons of time; several of our frequently used passwords have some obscure symbols in them.

The backlight on the keyboard and the backlight on the soft keys operate independently from each other. By default, the soft-keys turn off their backlighting after six seconds, which, in our opinion, is way too short. We recommend jumping into the settings and upping the time to 15 or 30 seconds. Since the soft-key symbols (menu, home, back, and search) aren’t actually drawn on the bezel — they are only backlit — when the backlighting goes out you are left blindly pawing at the lower half of your Epic trying to find said keys. There is also a toggle switch that allows you to make the backlight times of the keyboard and soft-keys sync up, which can make your life easier.

There is a dedicated “emoticon” button for those of you who prefer to express your inner feelings by using three ASCII characters, and our only — rather small — gripe about the keyboard is that we would have preferred the “Shift” key to be above the “Fn” key… but that’s just us.

Battery

We’ll just come right out and say it: the 1500 mAh battery on this device is average. We took the handset and fully charged/discharged it twice. We then set up the device with an Exchange and Gmail account set to synchronize via push, put the phone down, and set a timer. After about twenty-nine hours the phone was beeping, politely asking to be charged. The unit had 3G and Wi-Fi on (in good coverage areas) and 4G off and we did not turn the device’s screen on at any point during the test. On the scale of smartphone batteries we’d say that is about average; not great but not poor.

If you happen to be in an area with 4G coverage — and plan on leaving your Epic’s 4G radio on todos los días — you can expect the battery life of the device to go down significantly. We were testing the phone in Boston — even though it isn’t officially lit up with 4G there is still 4G signal to be had — and managed to squeeze about 15 hours out of the device with moderate emailing, text messaging, and web-browsing. We also saw 4G downlink speeds of around 5 Mbps which were very, very much appreciated.  The device lasted about 3 hours and 30 minutes — from full charge to 6% charge — while being used as a mobile hotspot and connected to Sprint’s WiMax network. 4G is definitely one of the things that sets this phone apart from other high-end smartphones — duh — but it is quite taxing on your battery.

For the next battery test we set the screen timeout function to 30 minutes (that’s as high as it can go) and continued to muck with the phone every twenty-eighth minute so the screen would continuously stay on. The device persevered for just under three hours before throwing in the towel and needing a recharge.

Depending on how you use and abuse this phone will ultimately determine what your battery life is. But the super-bright, Super AMOLED display and 4G radio (which are all good things) aren’t going to help your cause any.

Phone

The phone component of the device is good; there are no real hiccups or anomalies to report here. The voice quality emanating from the earpiece is loud and crisp; if you have the volume all the way up you do get a tiny hint of buzzing but kick it down one level and that all goes away. The speakerphone is also loud and you hear your call-mate(s) clearly; the speaker works really well for media too.

The Epic uses the standard Android dialer, with the TouchWiz color scheme, but does add several neat features. If you dial a number not in your phonebook (using the number pad) the phone prompts you to add the number to an existing contact or save the number as a new contact upon call termination. There is also a dedicated text message button on the number dialer. If you dial a number and hit the text icon, you are bounced into the messaging application with the dialed number already in the “To” field. Not reinventing the wheel, but still nice touches. The device also includes a Sprint-run visual voicemail service for those who don’t know, or don’t want to know, what Google Voice is.

Camera

As we mentioned in our “initial impressions” post, while the auto-focus still-camera is very good, it is also sort of in the hands of the user in low-light settings. Shooting images outside — or in good indoor lighting — yields clear photos. Shooting inside — or in low-light–  can at times be frustrating, as the devices flash doesn’t always know when it is needed and when it isn’t.

Like the Captivate and Fascinate, the Epic has a ridiculous amount of options and settings to tinker with from within the camera application itself. The modes are: single shot, beauty, continuous, self shot, smile shot, panorama, vintage, action shot, add me, and cartoon. Single shot, beauty, continuous, panorama, vintage and cartoon are all pretty self-explanatory. Self shot activates the devices front facing VGA camera and will allow you to snap a quick photo of yourself; which we don’t recommend considering the difference in quality from the rear facing camera. Smile shot allows you to press the shutter button and spin the camera around, the device will fire when it detects that your pearly whites are in frame. Action shot allows you to make a panoramic picture from a moving object; you can see below what we did in our apartment with a swiveling desk-chair.

The GPS tagging and anti-shake modes on the camera are off by default; we would have preferred to see them on and recommend using them. GPS is convenient and the anti-shake mode helps compensate for the small amount of jitter your phone will inevitably be doing when you press the shutter button.

As you probably know, the video camera on the device shoots in sweet, sweet 720p HD. The video camera offers far fewer configurable options than the still-camera, but there still are a few bells and whistles to play with: Flash on/off, exposure, and “Limit for SMS” mode to name a few. The video the Epic shoots is not spectacular, it isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it is not as crisp as the 720p video you get from the DROID X or EVO 4G. We’ve got a sample video below; we’ll let that speak for itself.

The front-facing camera is good for using the Qik video chat… and that’s about it. We wouldn’t recommend firing this bad boy up for anything but that (see example images below). The video quality during a Qik chat matches that of the EVO 4G; no real improvements or differences to report.

All things considered: this is a camera on your high-end smartphone and as such it is more than suitable for most users. If you’re a photo fanatic, don’t leave your SLR or point and shoot at home. If you just like capturing life’s random moments in good quality, no problems here. As for the video camera, it is on par with all the other major smartphones out there, but it certainly isn’t a stand-out feature of the device.

Official Specs

The official wrap sheet for the Epic 4G looks like this:

  • 4-inch Super AMOLED capacitive touch-screen display  (480 x 800)
  • 1 GHz Coretex A8 Hummingbird processor
  • Android 2.1 with TouchWiz 3.0
  • 512 MB RAM/512 MB ROM
  • CDMA EV-DO rev. A/WiMax
  • Wi-Fi b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • a-GPS
  • rear-facing 5 megapixel camera with 720p video recording and LED flash; front-facing VGA camera
  • micro-SD card slot
  • 4.90 x 2.54 x 0.56 inches
  • 5.46 ounces

Software/UI

What makes these phones both fun, and painful, to review is that even phones within the same device family have a litany of different features; the Epic 4G is no different. In our initial review we said the device felt a bit snappier when compared to AT&T’s Captivate and it may have something to do with things that this device does not have. It does not use Samsung’s Music Player that is present on the Captivate (just the stock Android player colored to match the rest of the phone’s UI). The Daily Briefing application and accompanying widget are also not on the Epic 4G. Some of these applications have services that are constantly running/updating in the background and could be the source of the Captivate’s and Vibrant’s UI weight.

Another thing that is missing from the Epic, aside from the aforementioned, is the ability to customize your application list and dock icons. Sprint refers to the dock icons as “primary shortcuts” in the user guide, which leads us to believe you are pretty much out of luck in terms of moving these bad boys around. Your two options for customizing the main applications layout are “list view” or “grid view.” “Custom view” is not present as it is on other Galaxy S devices. So sad.

One nice UI touch we appreciate (aside from the one found in the dialer) is the two-click access to the task manager. If you hold the “home” soft-key, which invokes the application switcher, you are presented with a list of open applications and an option to go directly to the task manager. This makes closing unwanted tasks fairly easy; although not quite as easy as a program like Advanced Task Killer.

Programs that are pre-loaded on the Epic include: AllShare, Amazon MP3, Asphalt 5, Sprint NASCAR, Qik, Sprint Football, Sprint Hotspot, Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV, SprintZone, and ThinkFree Office.

The device ships with Android 2.1. There isn’t much else to say about that fact. Froyo is due to hit the device in the September time frame according to Samsung. If Android 2.2 is on you list of “must haves,” then you’re out of luck for the time being.

A quick note on GPS…

While the GPS unit on the device isn’t quite as bad as the one on the Captivate it still isn’t on par with other smartphones. We get a GPS lock almost instantly that gets us to within 20-30 meters, but getting a lock down to 2 or 3 meters takes close to 60 seconds. Hopefully Samsung rolls out a fix for this ASAP; we know there are a lot of Galaxy S owners out there who are frustrated.

Conclusion

The fact that Sprint now has two high-end, 4G, Android handsets in the marketplace is really an impressive feat. The Samsung Epic 4G is an amazing device and certainly one worthy of standing on the same pedestal as the HTC EVO 4G. The device is quick, responsive, and — perhaps most importantly — you feel like you are using Sprint’s flagship device (even if technically it isn’t). Would we have loved a key on the keyboard moved and maybe a better video capturing experience? Yes… but that didn’t really hinder our overall impression of the device.

At the end of a phone review we always ask ourselves: could we use this device day-in and day-out as our primary phone? And we are happy to report that in regards to the Epic 4G the answer is: absolutely. Combine the flexibility of Android with a rock-solid keyboard and high-end features and you have yourself a winner. We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Epic 4G to anyone and truly wonder which of the two 4G handsets Sprint considers its flagship. The device is priced $50 higher than the EVO 4G, but if you need to have a physical keyboard — and don’t mind the TouchWiz UI and Android 2.1 — it’s money well spent.

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