As close to the perfect phone as we've seen
Versatile, attractive, and powerful, Sprint’s new Epic 4G smartphone comes as close to perfection as any mobile device we’ve seen. It’s built on a state-of-the-art hardware platform; it has a fantastic touch-screen display; and for those who care about such things, it has a jumbo-sized physical keyboard and a front-facing camera. In fact, the only substantial criticism that we can lob at it is that power users will be initially frustrated by its relatively meager battery capacity.
Samsung's Super AMOLED display is flat-out gorgeous.
The Epic 4G is a Samsung Galaxy S-series phone optimized for Sprint’s WiMAX network. The core of the platform is Samsung’s own 1.0GHz Hummingbird CPU, supplemented by Imagination Technologies’ PowerVR SGX 540 graphics processor. Like most phones these days, the Epic comes with 512MB of system memory and 16GB of storage courtesy of an included add-in MicroSD card.
As with the other entries in the Galaxy S series, the Epic 4G is equipped with an outstandingly vibrant four-inch Super AMOLED. If you’re not familiar the technology, the AM in AMOLED stands for active matrix pixel mapping, and OLED is an acronym for organic light-emitting diode (a film of organic compounds that emits light in response to electric current and therefore doesn’t require a backlight). Samsung’s proprietary Super AMOLED features an integrated capacitive touch-screen, which renders the screen considerably more readable than devices that have touch-screens layered on top of their displays. The Epic 4G’s 480x800-pixel screen is 160x160 pixels shy of the iPhone 4’s 3.5-inch display, but it holds its own in a side-by-side comparison; in fact, several staffers here actually prefer the Epic 4G’s screen over the iPhone’s.
Out of the box, we appreciated the Epic 4G’s sleek black exterior and decidedly non-iPhone design aesthetic. The Epic 4G’s slide-out keyboard takes full advantage of this smartphone’s capacious dimensions and had us smiling out loud: The chiclet-style keys are surprisingly firm and responsive, and the large size allows for comfortable spacing between the keys. Plus, we could switch back and forth between Android apps and screens using the Menu, Return, Home, and Search keys even while in landscape mode.
The Epic 4G slide-out QWERTY keyboard renders just a wee bit thicker than smartphones with on-screen keyboards.
Another nice byproduct of a physical keyboard is keyboard shortcuts for copying/pasting as well as accessing email, contacts, messaging, and more. It’s nice to be able to quickly dash off messages using SWYPE or the customizable virtual keyboard, but it’s really, really nice to be able to slide the keyboard out, flip the phone into landscape mode, and type longer messages. Truth be told, we didn’t think any device would ever rival the Blackberry’s keyboard. We were wrong.
The caveat here, of course, is that if you don’t cherish a keyboard—and some people don’t—you’ll probably want a slimmer device because the Epic 4G is burlier than most smartphones. At 4.9 inches long by 2.54 inches wide by 0.56 inches thick, it’s almost a half-inch longer than both the iPhone 4 and Droid 2, and it’s 0.3 inches thicker than the HTC Droid Incredible. Its 5.46-ounce weight renders it about 15 percent bulkier than the iPhone 4 and the Incredible, but about a half-ounce lighter than Motorola’s Droid 2.
The Epic 4G's camera boasts only 5.0 megapixels, but it takes great snapshots. The iPhone 4 is on the left, the Epic 4G is in the middle, and the HTC Droid Incredible is on the right.
Given its state-of-the-art platform foundation, we were surprised that the Epic is outfitted with only a 5.0-megapixel camera. Thankfully, it’s a quality camera that comes close to rivaling that of the iPhone in terms of picture quality. (In the pictures above, the iPhone is on the left, the Epic 4G is in the middle, and the Droid Incredible is on the right.) The Epic 4G can shoot 720p video, and you can use the camera’s light to illuminate darker scenes. Few apps take advantage of the front-facng camera today—we tried it with the free video-chat program Fring—but we expect to see Skype and more in coming months.
In our book, a smartphone doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it can’t be exceedingly slow. While there aren’t many applications and games available today that really push Android hardware, we expect there soon will be. The benchmarks we ran did produce some significant deltas, especially in the area of graphics performance. In most of the CPU-intensive benchmarks—LinPack, SpeedPi, and the generically named Benchmark—the Epic 4G ran five to 10-percent faster than our zero-point smartphone, the HTC Droid Incredible. With the 3D-oriented benchmarks An3D Benchmark and NenaMark, however, the Epic’s new PowerVR SGX 540 GPU propelled it to almost 100-percent performance increases over the Incredible.
Unfortunately—and this is rapidly becoming a constant refrain with high-end Android phones—this performance comes at the expense of decreased battery life. After we run benchmarks on the smartphones we test in the Lab, we like to live with them for at least a weekend to gain a better understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and real-world battery life. Here, the 4G produced slightly disappointing results. Out-of-the-box battery life was so poor we suspected something was wrong with the phone, so we reset it. This almost doubled the battery’s performance.
Love the screen; hate the battery life.
We were able to prolong battery life through the usual means: adjusting our power, screen, and keyboard settings; and by reducing the frequency of email polling and Exchange-server syncs. For what it’s worth, it appears that one of the key culprits was the phone constantly dropping and recovering 4G connectivity while in Maximum Tech’s office in South San Francisco.
Once our power-profile tweaks were complete, we were able to achieve slightly below-average results and the phone could last a full day without a charge. We expect the final version of Froyo (Android 2.2) will also improve battery life, power users will probably want to spring for an extra battery and charger.
4G Group Connection
It’s worth noting that the promise of 6Mb/sec throughput rates via Sprint’s 4G network have yet to materialize unless you live in one of the few coverage areas that receive a 4G signal. And a look at Sprint’s coverage map makes it clear that 4G coverage is sparse. When it’s there, it’s great: We experienced a nice 3x boost in data rates. But unless you live right near a tower, don’t count on it. The Epic’s 4G connection does offer one tremendous advantage over other phones on the market today. You can use the phone as a mobile hotspot, providing Internet access to as many as five other devices.
One other complaint we have about the Epic 4G is that the GPS locator doesn’t lock onto a GPS signal quickly and consistently. Sometimes it would display our location immediately; other times it would take several minutes to lock in. This is a significant liability because it prevents you from relying solely upon your device for directions. You can set the phone to use a wireless signal to determine location, but this typically results in much less desirable results.
One final quibble: The initial set-up and configuration isn’t as cut and dried as it should be, especially when compared to HTC’s Droid Incredible. There are no initial prompts to help you get the phone up and running, for instance; you’re pretty much left to figure things out on your own.
But when all is said and done, the Epic 4G’s combination of power, functionality, and flexibility render it highly desirable—and the front-facing camera’s potential hasn’t even been tapped yet. If you’ve been waiting for a great 4G phone with a slider keyboard, your wait is over.