capsule review

Samsung’s Droid Charge a Strong Second LTE Phone for Verizon

At a Glance
  • Samsung Charge

    PCWorld Rating

    The LTE speeds dazzle, the AMOLED display shines, and you get a free mobile hotspot at least for a little while. What’s not to like? Well, the battery life disappoints, but that may not be enough to spoil...

CORRECTION: The original version of this review referred to the phone's micro-USB port as a "mini-USB" port. We regret the error.

It's The Samsung Droid Charge, Verizon’s second 4G LTE phone to hit the market, matches up well against the carrier’s first 4G phone—the HTC ThunderBolt--and may be a better choice for some users. The phone has a truly impressive AMOLED display and superfast data speeds, but it suffers from short battery life and a large design that will turn some people off.

The Charge, which goes on sale April 28, costs $300 with a two-year contract--that's $50 more than the ThunderBolt costs--but it includes a free mobile hotspot capability “for a limited time” (provided that you buy a nationwide calling plan and an unlimited data plan (starting at $30). The Charge’s mobile hotspot can connect ten devices via Wi-Fi or five devices via a 3G CDMA connection.

Key Specs

Like the ThunderBolt, the Charge has a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED screen, runs Android 2.2 (Samsung had no comment about why the phone doesn’t run the newer Android 2.3 OS), and it includes an HTML5 browser. It sports a rear-facing 8-megapixel camera (with flash) and a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera for video chat. A 1GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor (the same model used in Samsung’s Galaxy S phones) sits under the hood; it isn't dual-core, but it's not slow either.

Design

The Charge is larger than the HTC ThunderBolt (left) and the iPhone 4 (right).
The Charge is a largish phone with an oval shape that comes to a soft point at the bottom. It is 5.1 inches long, 2.6 inches wide, and 0.46 inch thick. The Charge is about the same width and depth as the ThunderBolt, but it's noticeably longer.

At just over 5 ounces, it's also noticeably lighter than the ThunderBolt (which tipped the scales at almost 5.8 ounces). Though some users will like the reduction in heft, I prefer the weight of the ThunderBolt: It helps make the smartphone feel like a real piece of gear in my hand.

Like Samsung’s Galaxy S 4G, the Charge has a band of smokey chrome-colored plastic (Samsung calls this “mirror gray”) running around the outside front of the phone, which I think creates a cheap-looking effect. Question: Would Apple or HTC ever use such materials on a phone? Answer: Nope.

Setup for the phone is pretty much like that for other phones in its class. Menu, Home, Back, and Search buttons grace the front bottom, a front-facing camera and an ear speaker reside at the front top, an earphone jack sits on the top edge, the volume rocker and a micro-USB port appear on the left edge, the power button and an HDMI port are on the right edge, a camera and flash occupy the top of the back side, and a speaker is located on the bottom back.

Display is a Difference Maker

Samsung's promotional literature says that the Charge’s Super AMOLED screen “sets a new standard for brightness, clarity and outdoor visibility.” I selected a movie trailer (for Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere) from the Media Hub to test that assertion, and I was impressed: The Charge’s display looks as good as or better than that on any other smartphone I’ve examined. The picture I saw had impressive clarity, and the wide range between the most sunlight-bright whites and the deepest blacks that the screen is capable of displaying was immediately apparent. Colors were vibrant and true-to-life without being overbearing. This was a tough part of my testing, because I didn't want to stop watching the pretty moving pictures.

The fat LTE pipe carrying the video data packets is important here, too. The high bandwidth reduce lost packets to such an extent that artifacting, skips, and jitter in the video become very rare. The Charge has the bandwidth to transfer high-definition video streams intact, and it has the responsive AMOLED screen to display the video well. That’s a pretty compelling combination.

As for the “outdoor visibility” claim, I’m a believer here, as well. I held the Charge and the ThunderBolt side-by-side in direct sunlight, pulled up the phone dialer on each, and could tell that the Charge’s screen was indeed easier to view. Though I could see the ThunderBolt’s dialer, I had to squint a little.

The Overlay

Samsung puts its own TouchWiz interface design over the Android operating system in the Charge and in other Samsung phones. This overlay presents to the user all of the content that the normal Android interface does, but the presentation seems a little more crowded and noisy. To me, HTC’s Sense UI overlay looks more elegant and better organized, but that may be purely a matter of taste.

Camera

Sample image taken with the Charge.
I was moderately impressed with the quality of the 8-megapixel camera on the phone. When viewed on the Charge’s screen, the still pictures I shot contained some of the contrast and clarity I saw in the videos I watched. When I looked at the photos on the large screen, the high resolution of the shots was evident. On certain shots (when I held the camera steady), I could detect the kind of fine detail that is often visible in images shot with single-purpose cameras, but rarely to be seen in smartphone camera shots; click the zoom image at left for an example. On the downside, the images seemed to have a bit of a dark cast to them. The photos were not quite as good as ones I’ve shot with my iPhone, but they were noticeably better than those I’ve shot on my HTC EVO 4G.

The video clips I shot were less impressive. Viewed on my PC screen, the video looked blurred and washed out in response to the smallest amount of motion. I also saw a lot of correction for light balance going on in the footage. The clips that I shot in normal light indoors turned out better, but they still weren't as sharp as I had hoped. All of the videos looked better when viewed on the Charge's screen than when viewed on a full-sized display.

The software interface of the Charge's camera was generally easy to use. One function lets you tap the spot on the screen where you want to the camera to focus, and doing so seemed to help some of my shots. I liked that the camera uses the phone’s volume rocker as its zoom controller, but I was disappointed at the absence of any physical button on the phone for shooting images or video.

Data Speeds

Testing from my office in the South of Market district of San Francisco, I recorded an average download speed of 8.5 mbps and an average upload speed of 3.9 mbps. Running the same test on the HTC ThunderBolt at the same time, I recorded a very similar average download speed—8.25 mbps. (Unfortunately, the FCC cannot accurately record LTE network upload speeds on the ThunderBolt, so I omit that comparison here.)

Samsung Touch Wiz
The Samsung Touch Wiz UI overlay on the Droid Charge.
Shortly after testing the Charge’s data transfer speed, I tested the speed of its mobile hotspot in the same manner. The hotspot connected at an average 14 mpbs for downloads and 8 mbps for uploads. Verizon appears to be allocating more bandwidth to the hotspot because it must provide one pool of bandwidth for multiple devices. The bandwidth allocated to the phone, meanwhile, need be only enough to connect one device.

For comparison, I also ran the speed test on a laptop connected with Verizon’s new Mifi 4G hotspot. The Mifi showed a download speed of 15 mbps and an upload speed of 13.7 mbps. Though the Charge’s hotspot may not be quite as fast as Verizon’s single-purpose hotspots, it’s still plenty fast. Word of warning: Battery life disappears especially quickly when the mobile hotspot is on; for this reason, I recommend using it while the phone is plugged in, if possible.

The Battery Problem

Samsung could have named its phone the Charge because that's the mode the phone is likely to spend most of its time in.

The ThunderBolt has already gained a reputation for having a weak battery. And the first 4G phone, Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G, suffered from the same problem. The 4G radios in these devices demand far more power than those in 3G phones simply because they pull and push so much more data from and to the network.

To test the longevity of the Charge’s 1600 maH battery, I streamed a movie in standard definition from a server on the Web for 4-plus hours, a function that would keep the phone pulling down data from the Web continuously--and keep the display and speaker operating continuously. I then noted the level of battery depletion, calculated the rate of depletion, and finally extrapolated how long the battery would have lasted had the test continued. Since the phone is said to use more juice when the LTE signal is weaker, I tested in place where reception could be called “fair” but not “good.”

Samsung says that the Charge’s battery will last for “up to 660 minutes”--that is, 11 hours. (Technically, of course, a battery that lasted only 2 minutes wouldn't violate the promise of lasting “up to 660 minutes.”) At any rate, in our battery test, the Samsung battery life came up way short of the 660-minute maximum: After 4 hours, 8 minutes of continuous video streaming, the battery was depleted to 37 percent of capacity. At that rate, it would have expired completely in 393 minutes (6 hours, 33 minutes).

In identifying that figure, I assume that the battery continues to expire at the same rate as before when it starts running out of charge; but in my (anecdotal) experience, the rate of depletion accelerates. So the 6 hours, 33 minutes of battery life I calculated may be a little on the generous side.

Still, 6.5 hours of continuous use isn’t too bad. After all, few people keep their phone in continuous use for that long during the course of a day. It seems likely that a user could get through a day without the Charge needing a charge--and that's more than I can say for some 4G phones I’ve used.

Also, 6.5 hours easily beats the ThunderBolt’s rumored battery life of just 4 hours. To check, I ran the same video-streaming test on the ThunderBolt. After 4 hours, 3 minutes of streaming, its battery still had 40 percent of its charge left. At that rate, the battery would have completely expired in 405 minutes or 6 hours, 45 minutes. HTC promises only 6 hours, 18 minutes of usage time for the ThunderBolt.

Call Quality

To test the Charge's voice quality I placed some calls to land-line phones from a quiet spot, and then from a noisy location beside a busy street in San Francisco. The people I called said that they could hear me very clearly but that my voice sounded like a “radio voice”--present, but without much body. I heard the same voice quality through the ear speaker on the Charge: The speaker's voice was clear, but it didn’t sound exactly human, as it does on the iPhone 4.

In my calls from beside the busy street, the ear speaker was loud enough for me to hear the other person’s voice clearly, without my having to turn the volume all the way up. Even better, the person at the other end said that the ambient traffic noise sounded no louder than a dull background noise on his end. The noise cancellation in the Charge must be of fairly high quality.

Bottom Line

Samsung’s Droid Charge is a strong second LTE phone for Verizon, especially for people who like to stream high-quality video, use video chat, or play Web-based games. The phone's impressive AMOLED display and the service's fat LTE pipe for carrying loads of high-quality media down to the Charge make a powerful combination. If you can deal with the not-so-impressive battery life, Samsung’s somewhat cluttered user interface, and the general biggishness of the phone, this might be a good phone for you

Since the Charge is the second LTE phone to hit the market in the United States, however, it must be measured against the first LTE phone, the ThunderBolt. And here the Charge comes up short. The ThunderBolt’s display may not look quite as beautiful as the Charge’s, but its connection speeds are the same or a little faster, its battery appears to be a little better, its physical design is smaller and more elegant, and its user interface provides a more orderly and pleasing environment to work in. In short, if I were choosing between the two Verizon LTE phones, I could choose the one that costs $50 less and still walk out with the better of the two phones.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The LTE speeds dazzle, the AMOLED display shines, and you get a free mobile hotspot at least for a little while. What’s not to like? Well, the battery life disappoints, but that may not be enough to spoil the fun.

    Pros

    • The Super AMOLED screen is impressive
    • 4G LTE service is very fast

    Cons

    • Phone is large, lacking in distinctive design
    • Battery wears out too soon
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