Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Epic 4G (Sprint)

THE GOOD: The Samsung Epic 4G has a knockout Super AMOLED display, a 1GHz processor, a front-facing camera, an impressive QWERTY keyboard, a 5.0-megapixel camera with an LED flash, and supports Sprint's 4G WiMax network. It is capable of acting as a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot for up to five devices.

THE BAD: The Samsung Epic 4G is the bulkiest of the Galaxy S phones and also the priciest. It also requires a costly data plan.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The Samsung Epic 4G is a multimedia powerhouse with features the other Galaxy S phones don't have. Unfortunately, it comes with a big price tag.

Editors' note, August 18, 2010: Upon further analysis, we have upgraded the rating of the Samsung Epic 4G to 8.7. Portions of the user interface section were taken from our review of the Samsung Vibrant since both phones have the TouchWiz user interface.

Out of all the phones in the Samsung Galaxy S series, the Epic 4G strikes us as the most desirable for power users. Like all Galaxy S phones, the Epic 4G has a large Super AMOLED touch screen, a 1GHz Hummingbird Cortex A8 processor, and it will have access to Samsung's upcoming Media Hub store. The Epic 4G layers on several enticing extras that its line mates don't have–such as a slide-out keyboard, a front-facing camera, an LED flash, and most intriguing of all, it supports Sprint's nascent 4G WiMax network. The latter feature makes it the second 4G phone in the U.S. after the HTC Evo 4G.

Perhaps the Epic 4G's biggest downside is its price. At $249.99, it is the most expensive Galaxy S phone that Samsung makes, and that price is with a new two-year service agreement and after a $100 mail-in rebate. As with the Evo 4G, Sprint charges a mandatory $10 per month for its 4G data. According to Sprint, the price is justifiable because of the extra services you get for the price–4G speeds, unlimited data, and the use of it as a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, which costs an additional $29.99 a month–but we think the add-on should be optional since its 4G service is not available nationwide.
However, we think the Epic 4G truly deserves its name as its design and feature set make it the all-in-one powerhouse in the Galaxy S family.

While it is not the sexiest of the Samsung Galaxy S models–that honor goes to the Samsung Vibrant for T-Mobile–the Epic 4G is not a bad-looker either. Its rounded edges, curved corners, and glossy black surface give it a sleek and elegant look that is minimalist and eye-catching. Yet, at 4.9 inches long by 2.54 inches wide by 0.56 inches thick and 5.46 ounces, the Epic 4G is perhaps the SUV of the Galaxy S phones and might be a tight fit in most pockets. Still, we appreciate its heft as it contributes to a decidedly solid and durable feel in the hand.

The Samsung Epic 4G has a very impressive 4.0-inch Super AMOLED display.

The Epic 4G's 4.0-inch Super AMOLED display absolutely mesmerized us. It can display 16 million colors and has a WVGA resolution, which enables it to display vibrant graphics and fantastic looking video. The screen also has a wider viewing angle and a higher contrast ratio when compared with a traditional LCD. Thankfully, unlike older OLED displays, the Super AMOLED screen also looks great under bright sunlight.

We found the touch-screen display to be quite responsive. It didn't take long for it to register our taps, and flipping through menus and lists felt intuitive and second nature. If you like, the Epic 4G provides vibration and sound effects as touch feedback, though we didn't think it was necessary. The accelerometer kicked in very quickly, less than a second, to change the screen orientation when we rotated the phone. We're also glad that the Epic 4G has a proximity sensor, which turns off the screen when we hold the phone to our ear during a call. As for input methods, you can use Swype or the standard Android virtual keyboard. Underneath the display are four touch-sensitive keys for the menu, home, back, and search, which are standard for Android phones.

The Samsung Epic 4G is the only Galaxy S phone with a physical keyboard.

While you can always use the virtual keyboard, the Epic 4G also has a slide-out physical keyboard. Just slide the display to the right and you'll find an incredibly spacious QWERTY keyboard with five whole rows of keys. The physical keyboard gives you a dedicated row of number keys as well as four physical versions of the touch-sensitive controls we mentioned earlier. As we're not big fans of touch-sensitive controls, we're very pleased with the latter. Not only is the keyboard well spaced, but also the keys are highly clickable, with just the right amount of tactile response when pressed. It's certainly one of the better mobile QWERTY keyboards we've tested.

The Epic 4G's other physical controls are the volume rocker on the left spine, and the power/screen lock key and camera button on the right. The phone has 3.5mm headset jack and a Micro-USB port on the top, while its back houses the camera lens and an LED flash. We should note that the Samsung Epic 4G is the only Galaxy S phone with an LED flash for the camera. It is also the only Galaxy S phone to have a front-facing camera, which is located to the upper right of the display. The microSD card slot is located behind the battery cover.

Sprint ships the Samsung Epic 4G with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset with interchangeable ear bud covers, and reference material. You can also purchase a docking station and a battery charging station, which are available separately. For more add-ons, please check our cell phones accessories, ringtones, and help page.

User Interface
Like the rest of the Galaxy S series, the Epic 4G runs on Android 2.1 with Samsung's TouchWiz 3.0 interface. The latter is definitely improved from previous versions, with some enhanced functionality and a more polished look.

To start, there are new widgets, including one called Feeds & Updates and another called Buddies Now. Feeds & Updates streams updates from Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, and you can choose to display content from one, two, or all three of the social-networking Web sites, as well as set the refresh rate, ranging from 30 minutes to once a day. Buddies Now is like a favorites list and lets you immediately call or text those contacts, as well as comment on any of their updates. There are a number of other Samsung widgets, Android widgets, and other shortcuts, all of which can be added to one of seven home screens.

The home screens can also be personalized with live wallpaper, but there are two elements that remain on each screen: the pull-down notification tray on top, which now includes wireless manager and profile functions, and the toolbar along the bottom with quick-launch buttons to the phone dialer, contacts, messaging, and applications. Pressing the latter takes you to a nice grid view of all your apps; they're spread out over several pages, which you can swipe from side to side. The menu icons are also neatly arranged inside squares for a more unified look. We much prefer this layout over the standard Android one, where you have to scroll up and down. It feels more natural, easier to navigate, and is easier to use than the standard Android interface.

Also, for those worried about how the TouchWiz interface may interfere with future Android updates, according to Samsung, the entire Galaxy S portfolio will be upgradeable to Android 2.2, and it has made tweaks to the user interface that will make it easier to adapt it to future Android versions. However, the company also noted that without really knowing what Google has planned down the line, there may be a time where updates can't be supported because of hardware limitations or other factors.

The Samsung Epic 4G is a CDMA phone that supports 3G and 4G connectivity–3G is in the form of EV-DO Rev. A, while 4G is in the form of Sprint's WiMax. While we weren't able to test the 4G connectivity at the time of this writing, you can read our review of the HTC Evo 4G to get some idea of our experiences with Sprint's 4G WiMax service. Like the Evo 4G, you can use the Epic 4G as a mobile Wi-Fi hots pot for up to five devices. However, bear in mind that this mobile broadband hot spot service costs an extra $29.99 a month.

Unsurprisingly, the Epic 4G comes with a few basic smartphone features like the speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, text and multimedia messaging, visual voice mail, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS. The latter is compatible with Sprint's Navigation service, though we're slightly partial to Google's Maps with Navigation app. The phone book is limited to available memory and there's room in each entry for multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, IM handles, group IDs, photo caller IDs, and more.

You can merge all your contacts from your various email and social network accounts into your phonebook with Samsung's Social Hub feature. The phone is often smart enough to link the contacts for you, but we found we had to do some manual linking for a few of our contacts. As for e-mail, the Epic 4G works with Gmail in addition to your own POP3, IMAP, and Exchange accounts, and you can view a combined in-box for all your e-mail if you like. As with the other Galaxy S phones, this works best if you have relatively few e-mail folders– too many of them will result in a rather cluttered interface. The calendar also syncs nicely with your Google or Outlook calendar.

Since the Epic 4G has a front-facing VGA camera, it makes sense that Sprint has included the Qik video chat app with the phone. With Qik and the front camera, you are able to make and answer video calls provided the other person also has a Qik account. You can also video chat with someone who has Qik running on a PC. The Qik video chat service is free, but there's a premium service that provides higher resolution and video archiving for $4.99 a month. You can use Qik with Wi-Fi, 4G, and 3G networks, but its video is noticeably choppier when connected via 3G.

Other apps on the Epic 4G include the alarm clock, the Android Webkit Web browser, the calculator, Facebook, the memo pad, Google Talk, ThinkFree Office, the voice dialer, Google voice search, the Asphalt video game, and YouTube. Since it is a Sprint phone, you also get a few standard Sprint apps like Sprint Zone, Sprint Navigation, Sprint Football, Nascar Sprint Mobile, and Sprint TV. You can get more apps via the Android Market.

The Epic 4G's beautiful Super AMOLED display makes the phone well suited for watching media. You can watch content from YouTube and Sprint TV, though the video quality from both sources doesn't quite do the display justice. Thankfully, eventually you'll be able to rent and purchase content on the Epic 4G from Samsung's Media Hub that will launch later this year. According to Samsung, its service will include both TV shows and movies; however, we don't yet know the names of the content partners. If you like, you can load your own videos–the Epic 4G supports MP4 video formats in addition to DivX- and DivX HD-encoded media files. The phone is also compatible with Samsung's AllShare service that lets you wirelessly share stored media (that includes pictures, HD video, and more) to other DLNA-certified home electronics.

As with all Android phones, you can purchase and download songs from the Amazon MP3 store, and of course, you can load your own music via USB or microSD. The music player has 5.1-channel surround sound and it has a pretty album cover interface similar to Apple's Cover Flow. The phone only has 1GB of internal memory, so we would advise the use of microSD cards for storing media. The Epic 4G can take up to 16GB microSD cards.

The Samsung Epic 4G has a 5.0-megapixel camera and an LED flash.

Last, but definitely not least, is the 5.0-megapixel camera, which can record video in HD. Its picture quality is pretty impressive. We thought the images looked sharp and colors were nice and natural. Low-light shots weren't so hot, but, thankfully, the Epic 4G has an LED flash that helped considerably. Some of the camera settings include ISO, blink and smile detection, and panorama mode.

The Samsung Epic 4G took pretty good photos.

We tested the Samsung Epic 4G in San Francisco using the Sprint Nextel service. Call quality was very good for the most part. There was a tiny bit of voice distortion in our caller's voice as well as the occasional static, but that didn't ruin the overall call. They came through loud and clear, albeit a little tinny.

Our callers said the same about us; they detected no background sound. However, they said the voice quality was noticeably tinny and harsh. Still, its voice clarity wins out in the end, and they had no major complaints with call quality. The same goes for the speakerphone– as expected, there was a slight hollowness and echo effects to the calls, but it was overall clear and clean.

We tested the handset's 4G support in Seattle using Sprint's and Clearwire's WiMax network. On the whole, coverage was reliable, though it can be spotty depending on your exact location. We found reliable service in the airport and its immediate surroundings, the downtown area, the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and the city of Renton, Wash. We also took the Epic 4G for a ride on Seattle's light rail between the airport and downtown. We bounced back to 3G a couple of times during the trip, specifically in the Tukwila and Rainier Beach areas. We also didn't get 4G service in tunnels, but that's understandable.

When we were connected, the service was strong and graphics-heavy Web sites loaded quickly. Airliners.net fully loaded in 15 seconds and Giantbomb.com took 25 seconds. In contrast, mobile sites like CNN took barely any time at all. YouTube videos were fast, as well, and we downloaded apps from the Android Market. It took about 15 seconds to download a track from the Amazon MP3 store, which is comparable to our experience on the Evo 4G. For your reference, Sprint says its 4G WiMax network can provide wireless speeds up to 10 times faster than today's 3G, with average download speeds ranging from 3Mbps to 6Mbps and peak download speeds of up to 10Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps. Compare that with 3G's average download speeds of 600kbps to 1.4Mbps and peak download speeds of 1.3Mbps.

Connected via Sprint's 3G network, the phone performed well. We loaded the BBC mobile Web page in just 5 seconds, and the full CNET page in just 12 seconds. We experienced only a few seconds buffering time for YouTube videos, even in high quality. We enjoyed the high-quality YouTube videos for the most part, but we still noticed some artifacts and inconsistent color tones in the background. The default MP4 video file that Samsung provided looked much better because of its HD quality.

The 1GHz Hummingbird Cortex A8 application processor did its job well. Apps launched quickly, and we didn't experience too many hiccups with menu transitions and multitasking.

The Samsung Epic 4G has a 1,500mAh lithium ion battery with a rated battery life of 7.5 hours talk time and 21 days standby time. The Epic 4G had a talk time of 6 hours and 43 minutes in 3G. According to FCC radiation tests, the Epic 4G has a digital SAR of 0.68 watt per kilogram and has a Hearing Aid Compatibility Rating of M3/T3.

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