Back in the early 90s, I purchased a red Yamaha 750 Special motorcycle. You can read about my vehicular history here, if you so desire.
Anyhow, this particular purchase is noteworthy because it’s one of the first times that I can clearly remember having strong, nagging doubts about a major purchase, but then I balked and went through with it anyhow. Aside from the fact that the bike looked very cool, I more or less hated every moment that I had with that vehicle. It was a “lemon”, plain and simple. When I finally sold it off to another
sucker buyer, I had that overwhelming feeling of ‘whew! I finally got rid of that piece of junk!’.
That pretty much sums up my experience with the T-Mobile Vibrant (a.k.a. Samsung Galaxy S).
It went like this: having owned the iPhone 3GS for a few months, I finally couldn’t take being “yet another iPhone owner” any longer. The T-Mobile Vibrant had just been released, so I stopped by a store to check one out. It was lightweight, fast, bright, and the camera was snappy. It seemed like a good purchase at the time, and getting a (mostly) current version of Android – version 2.1, though a few phones were on 2.2 already – promised that my previous Android frustrations would likely be appeased.
I don’t want to inter-mingle my frustrations with Android and my frustrations with the Vibrant too much, but they are entwined in a few ways that are worth mentioning.
One of the notable features of Android is how “open” it is. The OS is presented to developers and manufacturers with only a few caveats regarding minimum hardware specs, screen dimensions, etc.. Otherwise, it can be slapped on low-end phones, high-end phones, with cameras, without cameras, big, small, with physical keyboards, on-screen keyboards only, and a slew of other options. Case in point, Verizon is currently listing ten different Android phones for sale on their website – pre-owned and tablets excluded. The market has gone from just a few Android phones available at all, to (in my opinion) being obnoxiously over-saturated with them. I’m fine with having “choice”, of course, but a large number of the Android phones out there are flat-out awful.
Samsung made a very interesting move with their Galaxy S line of handsets: basically, design a good “core” device, and then release concurrently on every major carrier, with only mid-to-minor tweaks between them. The Vibrant (on T-Mobile) is probably the most “stock” as far as hardware goes, and then got bundled with a bit of extra memory and the movie Avatar. The Captivate (on AT&T) differs quite a bit on the overall look, but otherwise has little else to offer vs. the stock hardware. Note: I personally like the looks of this phone the best. The Fascinate (on Verizon) features a front-facing camera, but otherwise looks nearly stock. Finally, the Epic 4G (on Sprint) is probably the best-of-breed with a front-facing camera, 4G data speeds, a slide out keyboard, and a camera flash. Now, Google has released the Nexus S, which is basically a Fascinate running stock Android 2.3 and little else to get excited about.
You know what else? Samsung has sold like a bajillion-million of these phones. Their gamble with the Galaxy S appears to have paid off in spades.
Aside from the Super Amoled screen – which, by the way, truly looks great – I can’t get very excited about this phone.
Let me explain.
1) It’s very light. Probably too light, in fact, because it ends up feeling like a toy instead of a quality phone. It seems like Samsung could’ve easily just replaced the back plastic cover with a metal version and improved the overall weight/feel tremendously.
2) The phone creaks in an unnerving way – you can hear and feel it – even when you’re just holding it up to your ear during a phone call. It gave the impression that the phone was cheap and that it could easily shatter if you dropped it from any distance. In fact, no one ever commented to me that it felt like a premium-quality device.
3) The volume rocker is a slow, “clicky” button that’s a hassle to use. It just doesn’t feel right.
4) While we’re on the subject, the Vibrant earpiece was never truly loud enough for me – even at the max volume. I don’t need ear-blisteringly loud, by any means, but it shouldn’t need to be maxed out for a ‘passable’ amount of volume.
5) The capacitive buttons are lousy. Not only did the Search button require a concerted effort to trigger, the capacitive buttons needed to be ‘activated’, if you will, before they could be used. That meant double-pressing, in many cases, if the button backlight ever turned off. Not sure if this is typical of capacitive-button phones, but I’m guessing not. Just a feature of these fine phones.
6) The battery life was ‘ok’ at best, abysmal at other times, and not at all consistent. Some days I could easily get through the day with 40% of my battery remaining (using the stock battery gauge, which was off by a good 10-15%), while other days I’d be tanking by the early afternoon – and this with a couple of short phone calls, light email checking, and not much else. I just never knew what battery life I was going to get from day to day.
7) If the battery life was abysmal, the performance of the phone was, at times, maddeningly poor. Despite the fast processor and abundance of RAM, Samsung somehow managed to cripple these devices through some poor file system choices. You might find the phone generally speedy, and then come across an application that was almost too slow to be useful. The mail program, for instance, could barely move from message to message in less than 3 seconds – it would just lag. After a 3rd party hack to move part of the app storage to RAM, those programs started behaving normally. Not exactly a fix I would suggest for your average joe user, though, and not something that anyone should HAVE to do for reasonable performance. Otherwise, the performance of the phone was frustratingly inconsistent – much like the battery life. At times it was snappy, and at other times laggy as all get out. In fact, this has generally been my experience with Android phones. Maybe I’m just uber-sensitive to phone lag or something.
Not all was completely lost, though. As previously mentioned, the Super Amoled screen is very nice to look at – if a bit overly saturated, which didn’t really bother me at all. The sliding cover for the USB port is nothing short of genius. All manufactures should take note. Finally, the right-hand side power button is, in my opinion, the most natural place for it to live. Although I did accidentally hit it a couple of times, it’s no match for the times that I “didn’t quite hit” the top-mounted power button on most other phones. Personal preference, I suppose, though it’s worth mentioning that most other users were quite stymied to not find the power button on the top edge.
All in all, the Galaxy S devices have a lot of work to do, in my opinion, before they can truly be considered high-end handsets. They ooze “cheapness” and “cut corners”, which leaves the end-user feeling pretty uninspired. Well, it did for me, at least. It really surprised me that Google opted for the Galaxy S design for their next “Nexus-branded” handset. Not a wise move, if you ask me (and you probably didn’t).
Don’t be dismayed, though. For however much the hardware lacked on the T-Mobile Vibrant, the software lacked just as much.
Whatever advances are made via Google to the Android operating system, the manufacture can opt to replace most of those advances, if they so desire – at least the ones you can see with your eyes. In this case, Samsung has replaced a major portion of the user experience with their own TouchWiz UI. Essentially, they’ve gone out of their way to make this Android handset look and act as much like an iPhone as they possibly can.
It’s as awesome as you think it’d be. </sarcasm>
The third screenshot of the app drawer really shows off Samsung’s desire to make the TouchWiz interface an iPhone-clone.
Although the TouchWiz interface does offer a few enhancements that are nice to have – phone control in the drop-down shade, easily text or call a contact via a left or right swipe, decent calendar integration – the majority of it is a mish-mash of design decisions with little coherence.
The default home screen features four main applications at the bottom – a la the iPhone – that remain as-is no matter what screen you’re currently on. Speaking of home screens, the Vibrant features a default of not 3, not 5, but 7 screens for you to swipe between – and many of them are pre-loaded with widgets that are (seemingly) designed to make your phone run as slowly as possible. Removing extra screens is easy enough to do, if you know where to look, though I usually ended up with the wrong screen as my default. I never could get that to work correctly. Lastly, the dots at the top of the screen tell you which screen number you’re currently on. Sadly, they have a jagged outlined circle around the numbers which, honestly, looks pretty poor.
Like many phones these days, the Vibrant came pre-loaded with a bunch of stuff that I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and didn’t plan on using. Some of them can be removed, while others require ‘rooting’ the phone to be rid of them – and those are at your own peril, since you can negatively affect the function of the phone if done improperly. Here’s the deal: if you’re going to include extra applications with the phone, at least give us a clear-cut way to remove them, if we so desire. The pre-loaded stuff shouldn’t feel like a punishment.
Another bit of frustration were the camera and gallery functions. For whatever reason, the AT&T Captivate actually features a *better* camera application than the Vibrant, even though the camera hardware is the same. Thankfully, you could browse the XDA forums and get the Captivate camera app to load onto the Vibrant, but this isn’t something that a family member is going to do (or a co-worker ,or most of my friends, to be honest). The gallery application looked nice enough, but sorted my pictures exactly backwards so that I had to scroll through all of my photos before I could see the most recent one I’d taken. Nice, eh? Also, the photos remained lo-res even when you zoomed in. I never could fix that issue either.
The one saving grace of all this? There are easy-to-find launcher replacements for Android. Though I personally used the excellent LauncherPro, there are others just as worthy: ADW, Helix, Zune Home, and the stock Google interface, to name a few. Any of these is better than TouchWiz. Trust me.
On the positive side, Samsung saw fit to include Swype, which is an incredible on-screen keyboard replacement. Certainly the best keyboard on Android, and it might be the best virtual keyboard on any platform.
All that said, the default software experience on the T-Mobile Vibrant did very little to impress me. In fact, I came away more frustrated than pleased. Not exactly a glowing review.
The T-Mobile Vibrant, while initially fun and exciting, eventually became a continual source of frustration for me. The stock experience was lacking in so many ways: camera application, gallery features, overall phone performance, home screen layout, too much bloatware, and so forth. I eventually concluded that I couldn’t with a clear conscience recommend this phone to anyone, unless they were willing to root it, load a new home screen launcher, replace several of the default applications, use a hack to fix the file system performance, and then deal with the cheap feel of the device itself. All of that made the phone useful, at best, but still nothing to write home about.
Bringing this full circle, owning the Vibrant was a bit like owning a boat: the happiest days were buying the phone and selling the phone. Everything in-between was just frustrating.
Thanks for reading.