Samsung Vibrant: A Standout Multimedia Phone
At a Glance
The T-Mobile version of Samsung's killer Galaxy S line of super Android phones, the Samsung Vibrant ($200 with a two-year contract, as of July 12, 2010) stands apart from its siblings due to the high-quality multimedia apps the carrier has preloaded on the phone. Stellar media features aside, however, Samsung's TouchWiz interface isn't for everybody, and in my tests the phone was a bit sluggish at times.
Lightweight Design, Gorgeous Display
The Vibrant looks pretty similar to its AT&T counterpart, the Captivate, but it has a few subtle design tweaks. Like the European Galaxy S, the Vibrant resembles an iPhone 3GS. In contrast to the squared corners on the Captivate, the Vibrant has softer, rounder corners. The backing is smooth plastic, with an attractive (and very Samsung-esque) design. The phone feels durable and solid in the hand.
Measuring 0.39 inch thick, the Vibrant is thinner than the HTC EVO 4G and the Motorola Droid X, but slightly beefier than the ultraslim, 0.37-inch iPhone 4. It is the lightest of the bunch, weighing a scant 4.16 ounces.
The Vibrant's featherlight weight is due in part to its Super AMOLED technology, which Samsung introduced at Mobile World Congress on the Samsung Wave. Super AMOLED technology puts touch sensors on the display itself, as opposed to creating a separate layer (which Samsung's old AMOLED displays had), making it the thinnest display technology on the market. Super AMOLED is fantastic--you really have to see it in person. Colors burst out of the display, and animations appear lively and smooth. Samsung and T-Mobile were wise to preload the movie Avatar on this phone; the Vibrant's display nicely showcases the beautiful animation.
The Vibrant's 4-inch display is larger than that of the iPhone 4 (which is 3.5 inches), but smaller than the screens of the Droid X and EVO 4G (which are each 4.3 inches). Despite that smaller size, the Vibrant outshone both the Droid X and the EVO 4G in my casual side-by-side comparisons. The side-by-side with the iPhone 4 was a closer call: The iPhone 4's display appeared slightly sharper, but I thought the Vibrant's colors looked more natural. It's really hard to declare a winner in this matchup--both displays are stunning.
Finally, the sun came out in San Francisco, so I was able to test how well the Vibrant's display performed outdoors. I turned off Automatic Brightness on both handsets and set the displays to the maximum brightness. I put the two phones side-by-side in direct sunlight and viewed various Websites. Again, it was a hard call to determine which model handled the sunshine better. The Vibrant's display was a lot more reflective than the iPhone's, so it could make reading and viewing photos more difficult depending on my angle. The Vibrant's colors looked brighter, however, and its text was a bit sharper.
Sluggish TouchWiz 3.0 Interface
The Samsung Vibrant runs Android 2.1 ("Eclair") with Samsung's own TouchWiz 3.0 user interface. Overall, this version of TouchWiz is a lot better than the older iteration on the Samsung Behold II for T-Mobile, which was slow and difficult to navigate.
Though this version is an improvement, I encountered some familiar issues with TouchWiz 3.0. Despite the 1GHz Hummingbird processor, the phone lagged slightly when I flipped through menus and scrolled down contact lists or Web pages. Here's hoping the Vibrant will get a speed boost when it receives the upgrade to Android 2.2 ("Froyo").
Like HTC and its Sense offering, Samsung has its own social media aggregator. Social Hub combines streams from your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter accounts into a single view. It is a useful feature if you need a simple way to keep track of your networks. One random feature is Mini Diary, which lets you create blog entries with photos, weather info, text messages, and more. When I first tried Mini Diary on the European Galaxy S, I couldn't figure out how to get my entries off the device. Samsung followed up with me after my original review, thankfully, and confirmed that you can indeed post entries (though only those with photos) to various social networks or send them to friends via text. After you create an entry, you press the Menu key in the bottom-left corner, and it gives you MMS and Publish options. If you choose Publish, you can send your item to Facebook or MySpace.
My biggest problem with the TouchWiz interface is that it is somewhat overdone--so much so that the result doesn't even look or feel like an Android phone.
The TouchWiz music player is touch-friendly and easy to navigate. It showcases album art nicely, too, with an iTunes Cover Flow-style user interface. Sound was clean over my own earbuds, and decent via the external speakers.
Video over the preinstalled MobiTV application looked and sounded great on the Vibrant. The playback was smooth with no pixelation, artifacting, or stutter. YouTube videos didn't fare so well, and unfortunately you get no option to watch videos in HQ as you do on the HTC EVO 4G.
One of the most intriguing features of the Galaxy S phones is the Samsung Media Hub, which will accompany all of the Galaxy S models. Media Hub is Samsung's answer to iTunes, a store for purchasing music and video. Unfortunately, Media Hub is not yet available to users right now; according to my contact at Samsung, Media Hub will launch this fall. Customers will be able to download the service via an over-the-air update.
A handful of multimedia apps are preloaded on the Vibrant, including The Sims 3, Slacker, the Layar augmented-reality browser, Amazon Kindle, and Amazon MP3. You can also share media files between your phone and your TV using AllShare, a DLNA-connected app.
Good 5-Megapixel Camera
We put the 5-megapixel camera of the European Galaxy S (the same camera is on the Vibrant) through a modified version of our PCWorld Labs test for point-and-shoot digital cameras, along with the iPhone 4, the Motorola Droid X, and the HTC EVO 4G. Unfortunately our test panel was not very impressed with the photo quality of the Galaxy S, as it earned the lowest score out of the four and an overall word score of Fair. It finished ahead of the EVO 4G in exposure quality, but landed in last place in our color-accuracy, sharpness, and distortion tests. It is worth nothing that the Vibrant has no flash, so photos taken indoors or in dimly lit environments don't come out very well.
On the other hand, the Galaxy S took second place in overall video quality. Its performance skewed heavily toward good performance in bright light. According to our panel, its bright-light footage looked a bit underexposed and slightly grainy in a full-screen view, but great at smaller sizes. The autofocus searches a little before locking on to a crisp image. In low light, the footage was a bit too murky and undefined to earn a better rating. The handset's microphone, meanwhile, picks up audio a bit too well: On the Galaxy S our audio clip sounded far too loud and blown out, whereas some of the other smartphones in our comparison barely picked up the audio at all. Read the full test results in "Smartphone Camera Battle: iPhone 4 vs. the Android Army."
Out of all the powerful smartphone cameras I've tested lately, those of the Galaxy S phones have the cleanest, most user-friendly interface. Unlike with the iPhone 4, here you can pick from a wide variety of shooting modes (Vintage, Smile Detection, Panorama, Continuous, and many more) and easily tweak the camera's settings according to your environment and subject.
One unfortunate change between the European Galaxy S and the U.S.-branded Vibrant is the omission of a front-facing camera/camcorder. Sprint's Galaxy S model, the Epic 4G, has a front-facing camera for video chatting.
Overall, I was pleased with the Vibrant's call quality over T-Mobile. My contacts' voices sounded clear, with ample volume and no background hissing or static. I had pretty good reception and coverage all over San Francisco.
Data speeds were also quite fast, but occasionally the phone dropped to EDGE depending on the neighborhood I was in. I tested the browser only from my office and my apartment, but Web pages and assorted apps that use data connectivity launched and loaded pretty quickly.
The Samsung Vibrant is an exciting addition to T-Mobile's growing family of Android devices. The carrier also does a great job of making the phone stand out from the rest of the Galaxy S pack by preloading it with fun apps, throwing in a 2GB MicroSD card, and treating customers to the full-length version of Avatar.