Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Fascinate (Verizon Wireless)

THE GOOD: The Samsung Fascinate offers a gorgeous Super AMOLED touch screen, a 1GHz processor, and a great multimedia experience. The smartphone can be used as a mobile hot spot.

THE BAD: GPS positioning isn't always accurate. For now, you can't save apps to an SD card or voice dial over Bluetooth. Search is locked to Bing.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Sleek and powerful, the Samsung Fascinate is another strong addition to Verizon's Android lineup. Its user interface won't appeal to everyone, particularly seasoned Android users, but it's a good smartphone for the masses.

Editors' note: Portions of the User interface and Features sections were taken from our reviews of the other Samsung Galaxy S models, since the devices share a common UI and similar core features. This review has also been updated with information about Bing.

As Samsung's Galaxy S devices have hit T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint, Verizon Wireless customers have had to stand idly by waiting for their turn at the company's new Android phones. That time has finally come. The Samsung Fascinate will be available online starting September 8 and in stores September 9 for $199.99 with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate. Like the others, the Fascinate offers a gorgeous Super AMOLED touch screen, a great multimedia experience, and smooth performance. It's a great addition to Verizon's lineup to be sure, but where does it fit in the carrier's already strong portfolio of Android devices?

It is certainly always good to have variety, but we also think the Fascinate is well suited for the consumer who is just getting into Android and smartphones. Samsung's custom TouchWiz interface offers an easy-to-understand presentation of menus that makes the transition from feature phone to smartphone a little easier. By the same token, we know TouchWiz isn't going to appeal to everyone, particularly Android purists and business users who might want something a little more polished and less bubbly, and for them, we'd recommend the Motorola Droid X or the HTC Droid Incredible. Still, if it's more a general all-purpose smartphone you're after, the Samsung Fascinate is a fun one to use.

Out of all of the Galaxy S devices, the Samsung Fascinate most closely resembles the Vibrant. The handset features a clean and attractive slate design with rounded corners, and it is slim and light at 4.92 inches tall by 2.53 inches wide by 0.39 inch thick and 4.1 ounces. Though we dubbed the Vibrant as the sexiest of the series, in some ways the Fascinate is better. For one, it does away with the bump on the back, giving the phone a more streamlined design, but more importantly, it feels more solid. Admittedly, we prefer the higher-quality build of the Motorola Droid X, but we're also thankful that the Fascinate doesn't feel as plasticky or as slick as the Vibrant.

The Samsung Fascinate features a similar design to the Vibrant.

On the front of the device, you'll find the same 4-inch Super AMOLED touch screen that graces the rest of the Galaxy S series, and like the others, the Fascinate's display is gorgeous. The screen's sharpness and pinch-to-zoom support make it easy to read text, and it also displays deep and rich colors, such that the multimedia experience is particularly wonderful. Also great is the fact that you can see the screen even in bright sunlight.

The touch screen is quite responsive, always registering our taps and smoothly moving through home screens and lists. Both the built-in accelerometer and proximity sensor worked well. The Fascinate offers two methods of input: Swype or the stock Android keyboard. The latter is easy to use, even in portrait mode, but once you experience how quickly you can compose messages using Swype, it might be hard to switch back to anything else.

On back, you'll find the phone's 5-megapixel camera and flash.

Below the screen, there are four touch-sensitive shortcut keys: menu, home, back, and search. If you're not already aware, a long press of the home button will bring up a task manager presenting you with shortcuts to the last six apps you used for easier multitasking. On the left side, you'll find a volume rocker, whereas the right side features the power/lock button. The top of the device houses the 3.5mm headphone jack and a Micro-USB port. The camera and flash are located on back, but there's no dedicated camera key, so you'll have to use the onscreen button to take pictures.

Verizon packages the Samsung Fascinate with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a 16GB microSD card, and reference material. There will also be a number of additional accessories for the Fascinate available at launch, including a desktop cradle ($29.99), a vehicle mount ($39.99), and extended battery with back cover ($49.99).

User interface
Like the rest of the Galaxy S series, the Fascinate 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 sites, as well as set the refresh rate, ranging from 30 minutes to once a day. Buddies Now is like a favorites list and allows you to immediately call or text those contacts, as well as comment on any of their updates. There are a number of other Samsung widgets, as well as 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 wallpapers, and on each screen you get a 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 app, contacts, messages, 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 to get to. We much prefer this layout over the standard Android one, where you have to scroll up and down. It feels more natural and easier to navigate.

Admittedly, we missed some elements of the HTC Sense, such as the Leap screen, which provides a thumbnail version of all your home screen panels, but TouchWiz does a good job of making Android quite easy to use, almost to the point that it doesn't even look or feel like an Android phone. For that reason, we think the Fascinate is better suited for consumers or first-time Android users than something like the Droid X is.

Finally, for those worried about the TouchWiz interface interfering with future Android updates, Samsung has already said that the entire Galaxy S portfolio will be upgradable to Android 2.2 and that it has tweaked the UI to make it easier to adapt to future updates. 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 Fascinate shares a lot of the same core features as the other Galaxy S and Android models, but as a Verizon phone, you also get a number of carrier services and other extras. This includes V Cast Music and Video, Skype Mobile, NFL Mobile, and VZ Navigator. The Fascinate can also be used as a mobile hot spot for up to five devices, but just be aware that you will need to sign up for Verizon's Mobile Broadband plan, which costs an additional $20 per month and has a 2GB data cap. If you go over, you will be charged 5 cents per MB in overage fees. (By comparison, Sprint's mobile hot spot plan for the Evo 4G costs $29.99 per month, but there is no data cap). If you want to keep tabs on your data usage, Verizon actually offers a handy widget you can add to your home screen that will take you to that information.

As a phone, the Fascinate offers a speakerphone, speed dial, voice commands, conference calling, visual voice mail, and text and multimedia messaging with threaded chat view. Bluetooth, 3G, GPS, and integrated Wi-Fi are also all onboard.

You can sync the smartphone with numerous e-mail accounts and social-networking sites, including Gmail, POP3 and IMAP, Microsoft Exchange, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Exchange aside, setup usually involves simply entering your log-in and password and the phone will do the rest, pulling in contact information, photos, and so forth. The system will do its best to merge the address book data from the multiple accounts, but more often than not, you'll find that you have to go back and link some contacts together, as we did after syncing up our Gmail, Outlook, Facebook, and Twitter accounts.

The smartphone offers a unified in-box and calendar, though you can choose to keep your accounts separate if you prefer. Fortunately, unlike the Vibrant and Captivate, e-mail folders aren't displayed in a tabbed interface. Instead, you press the Menu button and select Folders for a list view, which is neater and much more manageable than the tabbed method. The Fascinate also offers the Write and Go app, from which you can compose a message on a notepad and then select your delivery method, whether it be an SMS, an e-mail, or a status update, so you don't have to find and launch each individual app.

Other apps and personal information management tools preloaded on the Samsung Fascinate include ThinkFree Office Blockbuster On Demand, Bing, Kindle for Android, EA's Need for Speed Shift, Tetris, a voice recorder, an alarm clock, and a calculator. The Android Market has more than 70,000 apps in its catalog and also offers a dedicated Verizon channel. For the time being, you'll only be able to download apps to the phone's internal memory (2GB) since the capability to save apps to an SD card is a feature of Android 2.2. We should also note that thanks to the partnership between Verizon and Microsoft, Bing is set as the default search engine on the Fascinate and can't be changed; the only way to use Google search is to actually go to the Google site itself, which is annoying.

The Fascinate is equipped with a 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash and HD video capture. Camera options include different scene modes, metering, ISO settings, antishake, and blink and smile detection. The camera has autofocus, but you must first tap the screen to focus and then press the capture button. Overall, picture quality was decent. Photos were mostly sharp, but we wish the colors were slightly brighter on indoor shots. The camera did quite well with pictures taken outdoors. You can share your photos and videos via Facebook, MMS, YouTube, and so forth, and the handset is also DLNA ready. Like the Vibrant, the Fascinate doesn't have an active front-facing camera for video calls.

We thought colors could have been brighter, but overall, we were satisfied with the picture quality.

Like the rest of the Galaxy S series, the Fascinate will support Samsung's Media Hub, so you'll be able to rent and buy TV shows and movies when the service launches later this fall.

We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900; EV-DO Rev. A) Samsung Fascinate in New York using Verizon service and call quality was good. On our end, calls were loud and clear, without any type of background noise or voice distortion to interrupt conversation. If anything, we wished audio was a little more balanced and richer as it could be a bit harsh at times. Friends were quite complimentary of the phone's performance; we only received one complaint regarding a slight echo.

Speakerphone quality was decent. Like many handsets, there was a slight hollowness to the calls, but overall, it was clear and volume was loud enough that we could still hear our callers in noisier environments. We paired the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones without problem, but unfortunately, the Fascinate doesn't support voice dialing over Bluetooth out of the box. This capability will be added once Samsung and Verizon release the Android 2.2 update for the Galaxy S series.

Verizon provided reliable 3G coverage throughout Manhattan. We didn't experience any dropped calls, during our testing period, and 3G data speeds were admirable. CNET's full site loaded in 18 seconds, whereas the mobile sites for CNN and ESPN came up in 5 seconds and 4 seconds, respectively. We also used the Fascinate as a mobile hot spot for our MacBook Pro, and based on five tests, we averaged download speeds of 1.01Mbps and upload speeds of 0.31Mbps.

YouTube videos loaded within several seconds, and played without interruption and with synchronized audio and picture. You can also switch to high quality; clips take slightly longer to load, but at least it will be easier on your eyes. Our own videos played beautifully, and though we already thought sound quality was pretty good through our On-Ear Bose Headphones, you can enhance the audio even more by switching on 5.1-channel surround sound (note that you can activate this feature only when you have headphones plugged in).

Performance was not an issue on the Fascinate, as the smartphone's 1GHz Cortex A8 Hummingbird processor kept things running smoothly. We were able to launch and switch between apps without incident, and there wasn't any lag when we were playing games or using the multimedia features. The only major problem we had with the device was with navigation.

GPS issues have plagued the Samsung Vibrant and Captivate–users have complained of slow acquisition times–but, fortunately, we didn't experience this on the Fascinate. The smartphone was able to lock onto our position in less than a minute, sometimes within a few seconds. That said, we did have problems with accuracy. Usually the phone was spot-on with our location, but at times it would be off by a block and sometimes by even a few blocks. With such mixed results, we didn't feel confident using the Fascinate as a navigation device.

The Samsung Fascinate ships with a 1,500mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 7 hours and up to 13 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, the smartphone provided 6.5 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. During our review period, however, we were able to get a full day's use out of the smartphone–e-mail, Web browsing, music playback–before needing to recharge at the end of the night. According to FCC radiation tests, the Fascinate has a digital SAR rating of 0.57 watt per kilogram and a Hearing Aid Compatibility rating of M4.

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