Mobile : Expert Review: Samsung Vibrant (T-Mobile)

THE GOOD: The Samsung Vibrant boasts a brilliant Super AMOLED touch screen and comes preloaded with a number of entertainment goodies, including a full-length copy of "Avatar." The Android-based smartphone also offers 16GB of internal memory, full wireless options, and great call quality.

THE BAD: The phone feels plasticky and slick. Battery life isn't the greatest. There's no camera flash.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Sleek and fast, the Samsung Vibrant is one of T-Mobile's top smartphones for entertainment, but its feature set takes a toll on the battery life.

Editors' note: We have updated the review and ratings since the original publish date to reflect new devices on the market.

Samsung admits that it hasn't really attacked the U.S. smartphone market as aggressively as it's done with basic handsets, but the company's planning to change all that with its Galaxy S series. Launching with all four major U.S. carriers, as well as a couple of regional providers, the Android-based Galaxy S models come with impressive stats, such as large Super AMOLED touch screens, 1GHz Hummingbird Cortex A8 processor, and an entertainment content store. But is it too little, too late? Well, after spending some time with the Samsung Vibrant for T-Mobile, we don't think so.

Sleek, fast, and packed with entertainment features, the Vibrant shines as a multimedia device and beats T-Mobile's other top Android offering, the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G Slide, in that department. However, battery life is a concern; if you plan on taking full advantage of the Vibrant's multimedia capabilities, you'd be wise to carry an extra battery or charger with you at all times. The Samsung Vibrant will be available from T-Mobile starting July 15 for $199.99 with a two-year contract.

Design Out of all the Samsung Galaxy S series models, we'd have to say the Samsung Vibrant is the sleekest and sexiest one of the bunch. The look is rather familiar, but the combination of the slim profile, clean design, and rounded edges is really pleasing to the eye. Also, at 4.82 inches tall by 2.54 inches wide by 0.39 inch thick and 4.16 ounces, the Vibrant makes for a nice travel companion, slipping easily into a pants pocket and feeling lightweight in the hand. That said, the handset feels plasticky and slick. We wouldn't say it's fragile, but it definitely left a lot to be desired, especially compared with the solid and durable Nexus One.

The Samsung Vibrant is incredibly slim and light, but it also feels plasticky.

Glancing at the Vibrant's 4-inch Super AMOLED touch screen, it's easy to see how the smartphone got its name. The display supports 16 million colors and has a WVGA resolution, making it sharp and yes, vibrant. Images look amazing, text is easy to read, and you can actually see what's on the screen in the bright daylight. When compared with the iPhone 4's Retina Display, the Vibrant's screen definitely looks more saturated, showing richer colors and deeper blacks, but on the other hand, the iPhone's display is a tad crisper. We'll be running more-precise tests to measure the screen quality of these phones, so definitely check back for those results.

In the meantime, we can say that the Vibrant's touch screen was quite responsive during our review period. It always registered our taps, and the scrolling experience was smooth and fast. In addition, the built-in accelerometer was quick to change the screen orientation when we rotated the phone. The Vibrant comes with multiple input methods, including Swype, a standard Android keyboard, and Samsung's own keyboard.

On back, you'll find the Vibrant's 5-megapixel camera.

There are four touch-sensitive buttons below the display: menu, home, back, and search. You won't find too many physical buttons on the Vibrant, but you do get a volume rocker on the left side, and a lock/power key on the right. The top of the device houses the Micro-USB port and the 3.5mm headphone jack. The camera is located on the back as usual, but alas, no flash.

T-Mobile ships the Samsung Vibrant with an AC adapter, a USB cable, an alternative back cover, a wired stereo headset, and reference material.

User interfaceLike the rest of the Galaxy S series, the Vibrant 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, but there are two elements that can't be changed: 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 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 for the general consumer, TouchWiz does a good job of making Android quite user-friendly, almost to the point where it doesn't even look or feel like an Android phone. Also, for those worried about the TouchWiz interface interfering with future Android updates, Samsung has already said that the Vibrant and the entire Galaxy S portfolio will be upgradeable to Android 2.2 and that it has made tweaks to the UI that will 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.

FeaturesThe Samsung Vibrant is a quad-band world phone and offers a speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, text and multimedia messaging, and the full range of wireless options: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, and GPS. The phone book is limited only by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts), and there's room in each entry for multiple numbers, e-mail addresses, IM handles, group IDs, photo caller IDs, and so on. You can merge contact information from various accounts, such as Facebook, Outlook, and Gmail.

We had no problems syncing up our Gmail, Yahoo, Outlook, and Twitter accounts to the Vibrant, but there were a number of instances where contact info for the same person wasn't merged, but to be fair, we've experienced this on every Android phone. Plus, it's easy to link up contacts. Samsung also added a sweep feature in the Contacts app where if you swipe from left to right, you can automatically dial a person's number or if you swipe right to left, you can send a message.

We've already talked a little bit about supported e-mail clients, but to reiterate, the Vibrant works with Gmail, POP3, IMAP, and Exchange accounts and provides a combined in-box and calendar. You can also view each account separately if you wish. The in-box provides a tabbed view of all your folders, but as we found out, it can get a bit unruly if you have a lot of them. Fortunately, there is a search and sort function. One other messaging tool that Samsung throws in is an app called Write and Go, where 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.

Some other extras included on the Vibrant are a Mini Diary app, the ThinkFree Office Suite, Layar's reality browser, TeleNav GPS, visual voice mail, a calculator, a voice recorder, and a memo pad. Additional apps, both free and paid, are available through the Android Market.

Obviously, all the aforementioned features are important and make up the core of the device, but with the 4-inch AMOLED touch screen, multimedia plays just as an important role and T-Mobile's fully aware of it. Like the HTC HD2, the carrier is shipping the Vibrant with a number of extra entertainment features, including a full-length copy of "Avatar," Amazon Kindle for Android, the Sims 3, MobiTV, Slacker Radio, and a month of free in-flight Wi-Fi access through Gogo Inflight Internet.

As usual, you can also purchase and download songs from the Amazon MP3 store, and the music player offers 5.1-channel surround sound and an attractive Cover Flow-like interface. One area where Android has trailed iOS in terms of multimedia is video, since there isn't any type of video store for Android. However, users of the Galaxy S devices will eventually be able to purchase movies when Samsung's Media Hub is launched later this year; it will include content from "some of the biggest names in entertainment."

Without a flash, some indoor shots looked rather dull.

Finally, you get a 5-megapixel camera with HD video recording. There is no flash, but you get a number of editing options, including some advanced ones like ISO settings, blink and smile detection, and panorama mode. Without a flash, the picture quality of indoor shots was a bit dull and also slightly blurry. Video quality was respectable for a camera phone. Aside from the traditional avenues of sharing photos and videos–Facebook, MMS, YouTube, and so forth–the Vibrant also has TV-out and DLNA capabilities and offers 16GB of internal memory, plus an expansion slot (supports up to 32GB cards).

PerformanceWe tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Samsung Vibrant in New York using T-Mobile service, and call quality was excellent. The audio on our side of the conversation was clear and rich with little to no background noise or voice distortion. We also had no problem using an airline's voice-automated response system. Our friends were also complimentary of the call quality and didn't report any major problems or complaints.

Speakerphone quality was pretty much what we expected; there was a slight hollowness to the calls, but it was still clear enough and loud enough to hold conversations. We paired the Vibrant to the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones with no problem, but for now, there is no support for voice dialing over Bluetooth. This feature will be added with Android 2.2.

T-Mobile's network provided mostly reliable 3G coverage throughout Manhattan, though it did drop to EDGE several times at CNET's offices in Midtown. However, 3G speeds were good. The full CNET News site loaded in 10 seconds, and mobile sites for CNN and ESPN came up in 6 seconds and 5 seconds, respectively. YouTube videos took just a few seconds to load and played back without interruption, and when viewed in high quality, the clips were quite watchable. "Avatar" looked amazing on the Vibrant, as did the MP4 videos we loaded onto the device. The 5.1-channel surround sound enhanced the movie-viewing experience, though we preferred to keep it off when just listening to music.

The Vibrant features Samsung's 1GHz Hummingbird Cortex A8 application processor, and for the most part, it kept the smartphone running smoothly throughout our testing period. Apps were quick to launch, and we didn't encounter any crashes. The only time we experienced a slight delay was when we launched the photo gallery, as it took a few seconds to load up our albums.

The Samsung Vibrant comes with a 1,500mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 6.5 hours and up to 18 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests we were able to get 6 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. That said, the day-to-day battery life isn't stellar. After a few hours of browsing, e-mail, and listening to music, battery levels were at a little less than 50 percent, so we'll definitely be keeping tabs on this as we continue testing. According to FCC radiation tests, the Vibrant has a digital SAR rating of 0.89 watt per kilogram and has a Hearing Aid Compatibility Rating of M3/T3.

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