Editor's Note: The Epic 4G's score has been adjusted since the original review as it has not yet received the Android 2.2 Froyo update. We'll adjust the score once it receives the update.
The Samsung Epic 4G ($250 with a two-year contract from Sprint, as of August 20, 2010) stands out from its Galaxy S siblings for a few reasons. Unlike the others, it has a physical keyboard and a front-facing camera, and it's the second phone to run on Sprint's 4G network. How does it stack up against the other 4G device, the HTC EVO 4G? And how does it compare to other mega-smartphones in the Android universe? Read on.
In the last week, I've reviewed three phones with hardware keyboards: the BlackBerry Torch, the Motorola Droid 2, and now the Epic 4G. Keyboard death watch? Not so much. Out of all of these phones, the Epic definitely has the best keyboard. The keys are nicely spaced and have a good clickiness to them.
If you don't feel like using the physical keyboard, you have even more options on the touchscreen. You can use the TouchWiz keyboard, the Swype keyboard, or the native Android keyboard. I found the display quite responsive, and big enough to type on comfortably.
Like the other Galaxy S phones, the Epic 4G sports a 4-inch Super AMOLED display. Samsung's 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. Some reviewers have noted that colors look oversaturated, but I don't really mind the effect. The display also does quite well in bright outdoor light, too, though the phone's glossy hardware sometimes reflects a killer glare.
TouchWiz 3.0 Interface
The Samsung Epic 4G 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, which we saw on phones such as the Samsung Behold II for T-Mobile (a phone that was slow and difficult to navigate).
Although 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 Epic 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 overdone--so much so that the result doesn't even look or feel like an Android phone. Additionally, the skin sometimes interfered with the speediness of the Epic (see the "Performance" section below). According to Samsung, the entire Galaxy S family will be upgradable to Android 2.2.
We put the 5-megapixel camera of the Epic 4G 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 Epic, 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.
In my own hands-on tests outdoors, I was pretty impressed with the image quality. Colors looked bright and natural, and details were sharp. Only a slight bit of graininess appeared in the shots; I had to look really closely on my monitor to see it.
On the other hand, the Epic 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 touch too murky and undefined to earn a better rating. Once the Epic gets an upgrade to Android 2.2, you'll be able to use its flash as a light while capturing video. Perhaps this will fix the issue.
The handset's microphone, meanwhile, picks up audio a bit too well: On the Epic 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.
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.
Notably the Epic also has a front-facing camera for making video calls. Sprint has preinstalled Qik on the Epic for your video-chatting pleasure. I was able to test Qik only over 3G, and its quality was too choppy to really carry on a conversation. I suspect the quality is much better over 4G.
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.
One of the most intriguing features of the Captivate is the Samsung Media Hub, which will come with all of the Galaxy S phones. 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.
Unlike the EVO 4G, the Epic does not ship with YouTube HQ--a big disappointment. YouTube HQ is a feature that enhances certain YouTube videos' quality tremendously. Unfortunately, without HQ, YouTube videos are almost completely unwatchable on the Epic. With such an incredible screen, this omission seems like a big oversight.
Like the other Galaxy S phones, the Epic 4G is powered by a 1GHz Hummingbird processor. For the most part the Epic was incredibly fast, but I did encounter some stalls in the user interface in one particular action. I shared one of my Gallery photos with a friend via Gmail. As the phone was delivering the message, I attempted to browse through more gallery images. The Epic began to stutter and freeze between the images. I then closed the Gallery app and tried to open another--the phone completely froze for about 20 seconds. I was able to replicate this problem a second time when I tried to send another image. My contact did receive both images, but it was disturbing to see the phone freeze up like that as I was trying to send an attachment.
One of the big deals of the Epic 4G is evident in its name: It's the second 4G-support phone on Sprint. And as with the other handset, the HTC EVO 4G, you can use the Epic 4G as a mobile 4G hotspot and connect up to five Wi-Fi-enabled devices to it. Unfortunately, we were unable to test the 4G performance on the Epic, as Sprint's WiMax network isn't switched on in the San Francisco Bay Area yet. I'll update this review once we review the Epic in a 4G-supported area.
Browsing the Web over Sprint's 3G network was sufficiently speedy, however. Call quality was also quite good, though I heard a bit of static on the line in a few calls.
Out of the Galaxy phones I've tested, the Epic 4G is definitely the best, and it's certainly one of the top Android phones available. The nicely designed physical keyboard, paired with the 4G goodness and front-facing camera, makes it hard to beat. The real question is whether it's a better choice than the HTC EVO 4G. It's a close call, but the Epic 4G slightly edges out the EVO.
As a multimedia device, the Epic wins. Although the Epic's display is smaller than the EVO's, its quality is better. The Epic also supports more video codecs, such as Xvid, DivX, and H.264 formats (the EVO doesn't). Then again, the Epic does not have an HDMI port, while the EVO does. In the camera department, the EVO's 8-megapixel snapper wins on image quality, but I like the Epic's user interface better. As for Android skins, it's really a matter of taste. And when it comes to input, the Epic definitely wins for having three software keyboards as well as a very good hardware keyboard.
Again, though, it is a close call, and the biggest difference between the two is the price: After a $100 mail-in rebate, the Epic 4G is $50 more than the $200 EVO 4G. But on top of that, as with the EVO 4G, you must buy a data plan for your Epic (Sprint's unlimited plan is $70, which is less expensive than AT&T or Verizon), as well as pay a $10 fee for 4G (even if 4G isn't supported in your area). And if you want to use the mobile hotspot, that's an additional $30 every month.