Samsung DROID Charge review

I’ve spent more than a week living and breathing alongside the Samsung DROID Charge, Verizon’s second 4G LTE smartphone, and and it had some pretty big shoes to fill following Verizon’s first 4G LTE smartphone, the HTC ThunderBolt. The DROID Charge is loaded with all the trimmings you could ask for, including a huge Super AMOLED Plus display with colors that will blow your mind, an 8-megapixel camera that can shoot HD video, and of course, support for Verizon’s 4G LTE network. But do all of these features make it worth the $299 you’ll have to drop in order to own one? Hit the break for my full review to find out.

Hardware / Display

Samsung told me that the “pet name” for the DROID Charge was the “Stealth,” and that’s certainly an accurate description of its industrial design. The area below the phone’s large 4.3-inch screen tapers down to a small chin, and its rounded edges, glossy mirror gray finish, and sharp accents around the camera lens definitely add to its fighter-jet style. Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus display is one of the clearest, brightest, and sharpest screens I’ve ever seen on a smartphone. The display offers even deeper blacks than the Super AMOLED screen on Samsung’s Galaxy S phones, which is really saying a lot. Colors are stunning and you really just have to see it to understand the beauty, but a beautiful screen this size comes at a cost; the DROID Charge definitely has a bit of heft at just over 5 ounces, but at just 0.46-inches slim it easily slid into my pocket.

Unlike the Galaxy S devices before it, the DROID Charge has hardware keys below the screen instead of touch-sensitive buttons. The keys have nice bounce and each has a soft white backlight that illuminates while the screen is activated. Under the hood the DROID Charge runs on a 1GHz processor, which is a bit lower powered than the dual-core NVIDIA Tegra 2 devices that have started to infiltrate the market. Still, there’s 512MB of RAM that helps speed things up a bit, and our unit came with a 32GB microSD card so there’s more than enough space to store videos, music, and photos. A 32GB microSD card runs about $60 on Amazon, so I’m starting to see why the DROID Charge is priced as high as it is.

One feature that I really enjoyed using was HDMI-out. You can purchase movies from Media Hub for about $9.99 each, or move files over to the phone using your USB cable, and then output them to an HDTV using a mini-HDMI cable. There were a few hiccups in the frame rates, but otherwise the movie played without a hitch. I’ll revisit this a bit more in the camera section of the review.

Software

Here’s where things get a bit stale: The DROID Charge runs Android 2.2 (Froyo) with Samsung’s custom TouchWiz user interface on top. I’m not a big fan of TouchWiz — it’s too cartoony looking, the widgets are always larger than necessary, and they don’t use screen real estate efficiently. There are several useful features, like the ability to sync Twitter or Facebook with your address book, but generally TouchWiz turns me off. Thankfully, the DROID Charge’s processor hummed along just fine despite the UI, which can slow things down just a bit on other devices. There are  also other small issues that drive me mad about TouchWiz, though — like its black e-mail interface — and at times I just wish Samsung had stuck with a vanilla version of Android on the Charge.

The Charge’s virtual keyboard mirrors those on Samsung’s Galaxy S devices, and I’m not a fan. The space bar is too small and seems to be positioned too far to the left; half the time I try to type a space I end up hitting the period button instead. This, of course, is where third-party developers come in, and I definite;y recommend installing your third-party keyboard of choice on the Charge.

There’s a fair amount of bloatware on the phone including VerizonApps, a Guided Tour, VZ Navigator, TuneWiki, City ID, Bitbop, and more. Thankfully, though, Verizon chose to use Google as the default search option on the DROID Charge, which is a welcome change from the Fascinate.

Calling / Data

The call quality on the DROID Charge was clear during my tests and I had no issue with dropped calls in New York City or during a trip to Orlando for BlackBerry World. Friends and family on the other end of the line said I sounded good, and the ear speaker was loud enough even while walking on busy streets. The speakerphone had adequate volume as well, but voices were distorted at higher levels. Callers said I sounded fine on speakerphone and they couldn’t tell I wasn’t directly talking into the handset.

The DROID Charge is Verizon’s second phone capable of placing phone calls while surfing the Internet, and this feature worked perfectly during my tests. I looked up a quick place to eat lunch while I had a friend on speakerphone, and I didn’t notice any drop in call quality or data speeds. BGR Editor in Chief Jonathan Geller, in his ThunderBolt review, wondered if perhaps the poor voice quality on that phone was related to the talk / surf feature, and I’m glad to report that’s not the case with the Charge.

Data speeds on Verizon’s 4G LTE network regularly exceeded 20Mbps on the downlink in New York City, and I typically saw upload speeds around 4Mbps. The download speeds are faster than you’ll find on any other U.S. carrier hands-down and are even on a par with home network connections.

There are drawbacks to being an early adopter, however. During my first week of testing Verizon’s 4G LTE network, it went down for just over 24 hours. Users weren’t compensated for the downtime, and I couldn’t even access a 3G network during the outage. That’s a big deal, especially for business users or those of us who rely on our smartphones throughout most of the day. Similarly, while tethered to a laptop, I noticed that the signal dropped a number of times, and there are reports from some websites claiming the same issue — hopefully this is something that will be fixed in a future software update. I’m not dinging Verizon, though; it’s the first to roll-out such a high-speed network and there are bound to be small hiccups along the way.

Battery Life

The DROID Charge moniker is quite fitting as I found the 1,600mAh needed frequent charging under heavy 4G use. The phone offered up better battery life than the 4.5 hours Jonathan saw with the HTC ThunderBolt, but it still wasn’t great. Generally, I was able to go from about 7:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. with moderate usage on 4G.

If you need to save battery life, there’s an option under wireless network settings to use a CDMA network only. This let me place voice calls and use Verizon’s slower 3G EV-DO network for surfing the Web. It’s definitely a welcome change over the HTC ThunderBolt, which didn’t ship with that option, although an app is now available. With 3G enabled, I was able to get through a full work day with moderate usage. Unfortunately there isn’t a widget to quickly switch networks out of the box; that would certainly be a welcome addition, but I’m sure Android enthusiasts will whip something up to fix that.

Camera

There’s an 8-megapixel camera on the DROID Charge, and I used it to shoot a bunch of photos during a trip to Florida. Images were crisp and colors looked true in daylight. Photos look amazing on the Super AMOLED Plus screen, and they just had a little distortion when I pushed them out to my 32-inch TV using HDMI-out. Pictures snapped under incandescent lights had a decidedly orange hue to them, but were otherwise perfectly acceptable.

A night shot taken of a neon sign, without the flash, had brighter colors bleeding into the darker areas of the screen, even with the camera’s anti-shake feature activated. In lower light conditions, the single-LED  flash did a decent job grabbing our subject, too, but I prefer the dual-LED option on phones like the HTC ThunderBolt.

I shot several HD video clips in 720p, but the DROID Charge defaults to a 720 x 480 resolution, so you’ll want to be sure to activate the HD option for better video. The frame rates were fluid when I played the video back on the Charge’s display, and I was just as blown away when I watched the same clip on my TV using HDMI-out. The video and audio were both crisp and I didn’t notice any pixelation, even when panning the video around. One issue I did run into, though, is that the phone required a reboot when I unplugged the HDMI cable and then tried to plug it back in again to resume playback.

Wrap-up

If you’re looking for 4G speeds, the Samsung DROID Charge is the phone to beat — but you’ll need deep pockets. Sure, I’d take HTC’s Sense user interface over TouchWiz any day, but the DROID Charge offers a few things HTC’s ThunderBolt doesn’t, namely a gorgeous Super AMOLED Plus display and an out-of-the-box option to turn off 4G to save on battery life, which meant I was able to get through a full day with moderate usage when I didn’t need to surf the Web at blazing fast speeds.

The DROID Charge is priced at $299, which is $50 more expensive than its only 4G LTE competitor, the ThunderBolt. That’s for good reason, however. It offers better battery life, a killer display, clearer phone calls, and a much less bulky design — easily worth the $50 difference. Sure, Verizon has a number of new 4G LTE smartphones coming down the pipeline, but if you want in on the carrier’s blazing fast data now, the DROID Charge is your best bet, hands-down.

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