Samsung Fascinate Crashes Verizon's Droid Party

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The Samsung Fascinate, which Verizon Wireless will start selling for $199 this week, is the underdog in an Android lineup dominated by HTC and Motorola.

On Verizon, those manufacturers' Droid phones steal the show, benefiting from aggressive marketing and catchy branding. They also happen to be really good phones. How can Samsung's Fascinate, part of the Galaxy S smartphone line that's already launched on every other major carrier, keep up?

In terms of hardware, the Fascinate is sort of a midway point between HTC's Droid Incredible and Motorola's Droid X. That's mostly because of the 4-inch screen, compared to 3.7 inches on the Incredible and 4.3 inches on the Droid X. The Fascinate also has 2 GB internal storage and 16 GB on MicroSD, which is more than the Droid Incredible's 8GB/2GB combination and less than the Droid X's 8GB/16GB. The Fascinate's 1500 mAh battery, while tough to compare in real-world terms, should be better than the Incredible and either on par with or slightly less efficient than the excellent Droid X.

But the main distinction for the Fascinate is Samsung's TouchWiz interface, which looks a lot like the iPhone's 4-by-4 app grid, complete with a tray of favorite apps on the bottom. As my colleague Ginny Mies noted in her review of the Samsung Vibrant - T-Mobile's very similar version of the Galaxy S phone - TouchWiz has a tendency toward sluggishness, and it's pretty far removed from the core Android experience, with added software and a different look and feel. Still, TouchWiz brings a nice music player to Android, with iTunes-style cover flow for album art.

Unfortunately, not all is peachy when wireless carriers and handset makers start messing with the stock Android experience. Reviews of the Fascinate by Slashgear and Engadget note that the phone uses Bing as its default search engine, not Google - probably more fallout from the cozy Bing-Verizon relationship. That wouldn't be so egregious if you could switch search widgets at will, but alas, the only way to remove Bing is by hacking the phone.

Verizon also swapped in its own Navigator app for Google's free navigation as the default for providing directions, but at least this can be changed in the phone's settings.

Because this tends to come up when I talk about new product launches, I'm not reviewing the Samsung Fascinate, I'm just pointing out how it differs from an already strong lineup of Verizon Android handsets. Once the folks at PCWorld headquarters put the Fascinate through its paces, we'll know for sure whether Samsung's underdog can really take on the Droids.

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