[Review] Samsung Galaxy S (I9000-GT) on Optus

Around a month ago, Optus signed an exclusive one-month exclusive on the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy S, the flagship of the Samsung mobile phone range. The phone has to date sold more than 300,000 units in Korea alone, countless numbers in the US under the 5-pronged approach – Sprint Epic 4G, Verizon Fascinate, T-Mobile Vibrant, AT&T Captivate and the US Cellular Galaxy S, all based on the same hardware with minor differences in between.

It’s well on it’s way to becoming one of the world’s most popular GSM smartphones (in various guises), so I picked up one of these units on the $49 plan to replace my trusty and brilliant Nexus One, which in turn replaced my charismatic HTC Hero. There are no regrets here, I’ll explain why. Note that this review was done with the out of the box Samsung/Optus software.

The Good Stuff:

The physical form – At just 9.9mm thick, this is one of the thinnest smartphones around, and at 118g is the lightest phone I’ve ever used (if you don’t count feature phones), it is noticeably lighter in the hand than the N1 and the iPhone4. Easy to wield, and surprisingly durable even with the plastic shell, in the endurance video the screen was immune to keys, nails and a variety of metallic objects. It also survived a number of drop tests onto the road. Good design and durability, without resorting to exotic materials.

4″ Display – The most striking feature is Samsung’s 4″ Super AMOLED screen, which has the standard HDPI (800×480) resolution. The brilliant contrast ratio, improved brightness, improved viewing angle and reduced reflectivity make it a joy to use for everything, including squint-free web browsing and viewing videos. Personally, I’d prefer a bigger 4.3″ display, however I agree that 4″ is the sweet spot between having a usable size and not being too large and unwieldy, especially for those with smaller hands. In addition, the multi-touch sensors do not suffer from the ‘crossover’ flaw found in the Nexus One/Desires. If Samsung know how to do one thing, it’s make excellent screens, as evidenced by their great range of PC and TV options. I’ve spent much time just admiring the screen and how deep the colours are.

Hardware – What differentiates this phone is an entirely new CPU, an ARM Cortex-A8 based S5PC110 clocked at 1Ghz, which boasts a PowerVR SGX540 to power GPU-based functions, propelling it ahead of the Snapdragon-based HTC and Sony Xperia devices. A Linpack test showed upwards of 8Mflops performance, vs the 6Mflops of the Snapdragon. In general usage functions you’d be hard pressed to notice a difference, however most people will agree that scrolling is silky smooth, almost iPhone-like and in 3D applications such as games, the PowerVR chip (90m triangles/sec) blazes along compared to the competition (Snapdragon 22m triangles/sec). I tested Neocore 3D benchmark at 74fps, vs 23fps for the Nexus One (running Android 2.2). I also ran some 3D games such as Asphalt HD and Nova, which were smooth as silk, where they stuttered on the N1. The battery is also slightly larger at 1500mah, which I found to last comfortably through a day of average use.

Camera Software – The camera itself is standard issue at 5MP, taking decent pictures, noticeably but not substantially better than the N1/Desire’s camera. Where it excels is due to Samsung’s porting of it’s point and shoot camera software across to the phone, enabling a huge range of functions including long exposures, scene modes, panoramas, focal modes, exposure adjustments, adjustable ISO’s, metering and anti-shake technology. Despite lacking a flash of any kind, the camera’s low-light performance was adequate, although the flash would be handy, especially for a flashlight. There is also a front-facing camera and the video-recorder does 720p out of the box.

Storage – The standard Android 2.1 requirement is having 512MB of ROM space (where the OS and programs/data/cache) sit, with an optional user-inserted MicroSD for further storage. Samsung has decided to go one step further by also including a non-removable 16GB of internal space, which they call ‘Internal SD’. On top of that, you can also insert up to 32GB of MicroSD to boost the phone storage up to 32-48GB of storage. Useful for those who don’t want to use an SD card or want a huge amount of space for videos, however this implementation has it’s problems as we will discover later.

Media consumption – The included Samsung video player plays popular video formats such as XVID and DIVX without issue. It even plays 720p .MKV video, although I found the format that the audio is encoded in is important. With some it stutters, with some it plays smooth as silk. They are definitely positioning this device for media consumption. TV Output via an optional cable is also available that plugs into the specialised audio jack, though don’t expect HD quality. The included headphones are surprisingly high quality, being very comfortable and producing high quality sound, which also facilitates the FM Radio function.

Samsung TouchWiz – The default loadout for the Galaxy S is using a slightly modified version of Android 2.1, called TouchWiz. It’s not as comprehensively customised as HTC’s Sense UI, however it does include some useful features such as the aforementioned media player, Wireless Hotspot capability (which is not present in 2.1 Vanilla), and a range of custom Live Wallpapers, widgets, ringtones, lockscreen with notifications, alerts, clock (including a quaint ‘gentle wakeup’ function), blue theme, customisable fonts and social hubs. There are quick toggled to Wifi/Silent/etc in the notifications bar, in addition to a quick brightness adjustment slider. I did find the Samsung phone dialer and SMS applications to be an improvement over the Vanilla versions, although it doesn’t have the amount of features of third-party options such as Handcent. The standard TouchWiz launcher, even though it did allow for customisable number of homescreens, did not allow for quick access buttons to be changed, nor was as smooth in use than third party options. If you want the impression of ‘smoothness’, check out the large amount of 3rd-party homescreens available, such as LauncherPro.

Swype – Along with a custom Samsung-spec keyboard which includes handwriting recognition and better key layout, Swype 1.56 is preloaded onto the phone. For those that are unaware, Swype allows you to trace your finger across letters without having to lift for each letter, allowing for extremely quick text input. It’s intelligent, brilliant, makes typing a joy instead of a chore and I can’t imagine going back to a standard keyboard. Note that you can load alternative keyboards such as Swype onto any Android phone easily.

Community – Generally, tweaking and development occurs in the third-party space proportionally based on the popularity of the phone. Already, due to the huge uptake of these devices, the mod community has been hard at work, presenting a large range of alternative ROMs (including the latest Samsung JP(X) Froyo ROMs) and modifications to the OS to improve functions. Considering it was the 3rd party community that first brought 720p recording, Wireless-N function and SD card application storage to various Android phones, the possibilities are endless.

Bootloader & Rooting– For the more adventurous, the phone has an unlocked bootloader (accessed by booting the phone holding the power / volume up  / home buttons) which allows for easy root (less than 1 minutes work). It does not require exploiting some unpatched security vulnerability: it’s like this by design. Whether the average user even needs to root an Android device is arguable. All the Android users I know are perfectly happy with their default setup: they can do everything they want, and if they don’t like something, most likely they can change it (keyboard, launcher, etc). In any case, during rooting if anything goes wrong, you can put the phone into emergency download mode (power / volume down / home) which allows you to access it via USB. In short, it’s hard to brick this one. You can also un-root the phone if you want to do a warranty claim.

The Bad Stuff –

Some missing hardware – The trackball or trackpoint on the HTC devices, possibly due to being used to them, has been a mainstay of my phone usage up to now. Scrolling through long pages or using it to correct typing was useful, however the Galaxy has no such feature. It also misses the ‘search’ button, although the use of this was limited. The flash as mentioned above would have made this the perfect all round phone. In the Galaxy’s defense, the home button is large and easy to press, unlocks the screen (instead of fumbling for the power button) and the capacitive menu and back buttons are precise, versus the occasionally vague capacitive buttons on the N1.

ROM Update speed – An issue that has long plagued users of nearly all Android phones is the slow rollout of system updates. HTC Hero owners waited more than 8 months for a 2.1 update, and Desire owners are now just receiving their 2.2 updates. Such is the case when manufacturers and carriers decide to apply their own customisations, it adds delays. However, Samsung has indicated an official 2.2 update in August, which is reasonable and they appear to be fully committed to supporting their Android devices. Leaked releases indicate that the 2.2 update is nearly bug-free and stable. If you’re finicky for the latest releases right now, then you’ll want to root your device.

Bloat – As with many OEM supplied phones, or pretty much anything that isn’t a Nexus One or G1, the manufacturer will implement their own customisations to the phone, which may be slight or varied (outlined earlier in this article), onto which the carrier (in this case Optus) will load their own software. The good news is the Optus software is limited to around a half dozen ‘apps’, some of which are as simple as a link to a webpage. With root access, these can be easily removed, although it’s arguable as to whether they cause any performance hit. Due to the nature of the phone, a number of background Samsung apps also run, mostly to do with social network integration. Aftermarket ROMs will no doubt do away with this bloat sooner rather than later. Note, the only useful Optus app I found is the ‘My Account’ app which allows you to check your account usage quickly, this is located in /system/app/ma_galaxy.apk if you want to back up / reinstall later. It’s arguable whether the everyday user will notice this however.

SD Card Storage – This is the big one, so bear with me as it gets a bit complicated. As mentioned before, the Galaxy S has it’s 512MB NAND internal storage, 16GB ‘internal SD’ storage and an optional microSD slot. Where other phones mark the user MicroSD as /sdcard/, the Samsung marks the internal storage as /sdcard/ and the external as /sdcard/sd. The good part is no longer are users limited to the leftover 120MB or so for app storage on other phones, but instead have a massive 15GB or so of leftover storage, which allows for nearly limitless app installations. This overcomes the big obstacle that even Froyo fails to address elegantly, which is app storage space. The bad news is that even though the NAND flash is quick, the memory Samsung has chosen for internal storage is not. Keeping in mind that applications, cache and data are stored on the internal SD by default, you can see where this leads to. Under heavy I/O load, the internal SD stutters and stalls at times, churning along and causing CPU usage spikes that I monitored. Some users symptomise this as ‘micro lags’, especially during I/O intensive tasks, such as application install/removals and cache reads and writes. In my case it was more noticeable as I was unused to this behaviour, since the plain jane N1 ran smoothly everywhere. Some users don’t notice it at all, and it doesn’t affect the stability of the phone in any way.

Continued – There are three possible solutions here – The first two require rooting your device and moving the data / cache to either the internal NAND or the external SD card. I decided to undertake the 2nd option, which requires partitioning the external card with a user-defined size (I chose 1GB) ext3/ext4 partition. After a once-off move of assets across to the card, with the total process taking around 15 minutes, I found no more issues, everything ran very smoothly. However, this does require some degree of technical know-how, although there are clear instructions available. The Quadrant benchmark (a system-wide benchmark) jumped from 740 using the internal storage, to a whopping 1740 using an ext4 partition, which even outpaces a Nexus One running 2.2. For those that don’t want to mess around, the Samsung 2.2 official release for the Galaxy S will most likely fix this issue, as well as being able to address the full range of RAM on the device (currently limited due to the older Linux kernel used in the 2.1 release). In short, try it out, see if it does/doesn’t bother you, if it does, then know that it will be fixed.

No customised recovery–  Coming from a Nexus One, I was used to the extremely useful option of a third party recovery loader, such as Amon_RA’s, which allowed for quick access to exact-image Nandroid backups, quick Dalvik wipes and ability to update specific zips. However, there currently exists no such recovery loader, with the nearest option being a system app called Clockwork Recovery. It too allows for system imaging, however it’s not as elegant or reliable. No doubt that it will be sooner rather than later before this is available. It’s also arguable whether the everyday user will need this at all.

Conclusion –

So there you have it, a solid all-round phone that innovates and excels. Using this phone back to back with an iPhone4, I can definitely say the iPhone4 ‘feels’ more solid, although I can’t imagine using a 3.5″ backlit LCD after using the 4″ Super AMOLED, not to mention all the other downsides. It loses in resolution, but you’d be hard pressed to pick it: nobody I know with an Android WVGA device has complained about not having enough pixels or blurriness. Here, contrast ratio and brightness are king for media consumption and web browsing. Android is well on it’s way to being the number one mobile OS in the world, a testament to giving consumers the freedom, options and a variety of hardware to do as they wish their own purchases.

In addition, being on a $49 contract with intense competition from the likes of the Desire, X10, iPhones and Legend means that you can pick up currently the world’s most powerful consumer smartphone, bar none, for prices that not long ago were limited to mid-range phones. I’ve used the above phones and can confidently say the Desire and the Galaxy S stand out amongst the rest. The Optus stores I went to also had cases and screen protectors available on the shelf for this device, heralding the momentum of change towards Android in the mainstream. Be sure to press for some discounts / goodies on your contract, they were very negotiable when I went in and I was able to obtain a stellar deal, though stock may currently be hard to find.

If you have any questions about the Galaxy S, please feel free to e-mail me or find me on Twitter, links to the right.

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