T-Mobile Vibrant: basically a lousy device

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.

Or not.

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.

HARDWARE

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.

verizonAndroidHandsets

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). 

SOFTWARE

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.

IN CLOSING

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.

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10 Responses to “T-Mobile Vibrant: basically a lousy device”


  1. 1 Josh December 17, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    :o/ Sorry that you found yourself with another Turd-Mobile. (lol “turd”) I’m sure you’re ready to go with a WinMo 7, but if you ever consider getting another Android, get a Nexus One while they’re still around on eBay…I would swear that you won’t be disappointed…but then I don’t want you to be disappointed and blame me – lol I think your standards may be a tad higher than mine. Maybe there’s one around that you can borrow to try out. :o) The hardware is top of the line, every bit as quality hardware-wise as the iPhone…more actually. What a horrible irony that the marketing tanked on the N1 and has soared with the Vibrant and they just dumped the N1 with no attempt to revive it. :o/ I do envy the screen size sometimes on the Evo, but it is a big phone to palm in your hand. I’m going to be plenty satisfied with mine until they come along with some huge huge advances in hardware. I may pick up a back up when the prices come down some more. What are you using now? I think you implied that you’d ditched the Vibrant? I think I’m going to get onto some of the discussion boards where they’ve had Google people on to take comments and beg them to make a follow up to the N1.

    • 2 yipcanjo December 17, 2010 at 5:34 pm

      I do think that you probably have the very best Android device out there, Josh, and I wish that I’d had a chance to use one, but alas… it is what it is. I’ve already landed on the phone I’ll be sticking with for awhile (LG Optimus 7), but that’s for another blog post 🙂

      That said, I do *inherently* believe that many of the issues that I have with Android are the fault of Android itself — or rather the choices that Google has made in regards to Android. There’s no doubting that it’s VERY successful, and likely will continue to be, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “right” or even “good” — though it does a number of things very well. I’ll be giving a full rundown on my “Thoughts on Android” in the coming weeks here.

      Lastly, I’m happy to know that many folks are perfectly happy with their Android phones. Folks like you! Evidently I’m just darned picky 🙂

      • 3 Josh December 17, 2010 at 6:30 pm

        Looks like a pretty sharp phone you’ve got there! Maybe sharp enough to make me a convert…alas I do like the Google integration with Android and I’m anticipating more to come!

      • 4 yipcanjo December 18, 2010 at 11:06 am

        Thanks, Josh. Yeah… the Optimus 7 is a very nice phone. As far as overall build quality is concerned, I would put it up there amongst the best I’ve ever seen. Just very solid, handsome, and has a great weight to it.

        I’m a Google/Gmail user too, so I was somewhat concerned about the integration there, but it’s been great so far. I’m connecting my work Exchange email/contacts/calendar as well as my Gmail email/calendar (I disabled the contacts sync on that) and it’s working just dandily. No threaded messaging, but it hasn’t bothered me at all. In fact, it’s the best email client I’ve used on any phone.

  2. 5 Josh December 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Oops, those excited faces are supposed to be slant frown guys with big clown noses. : o /

  3. 6 Wifey December 17, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Wow! I must be really slow at work today….

    Love you!

  4. 7 Wifey December 17, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Oops…..Wifey must be really slow. I meant: It must be really slow at work today.

  5. 9 Jimbo James March 8, 2011 at 9:24 am

    A bit of a late reply I know.. but I must interject here for a moment.
    The Vibrant, in stock form, is not the greatest achievement as a phone that I have ever come across, but even in stock form it has more features better interface, physical and software based than an iPhone. That and it is an open platform so you can customize it to how you use it best. Some people prefer the TouchWiz Interface, some prefer the interface given with other launchers.
    The point is, you can choose to use a different interface and not be locked down to one single interface. All Android phones have this option which IMHO make it better than an iPhone ever could be.

    If you want to read a little bit and maybe learn something you can root your phone and add custom ROMS. When you do this, this is when you really open up on the capabilities of this phone. With a little bit of extra customization, it becomes the fastest phone on the market without any lag that you speak of and you are able to remove all of the bloatware that you don’t like that come stock.

    Just think of your new handheld device as the computer it is. You get out of the phone what you are willing to put into it. If you just want it to work, it does that. If you want a different user experience, read, learn install, and customize it.

    These type of reviews really bug me simply because you rant about how terrible you think the phone is, yet explain how you can fix all those issues very easily, yet still call it bad. How is the device bad if all “issues” are easily fixed?

    • 10 yipcanjo March 8, 2011 at 9:48 am

      I appreciate the reply, James.

      If you had read my previous posts, however, you would find out that I’ve owned (3) different Android phones — all of which I had “rooted” and loaded up with custom ROMs. I’m VERY familiar with the Android platform, and I understand the (perceived) benefits of an open platform. Yes, Android is “open”, but (in my opinion) most of the Android handsets are shipping with glaring issues that can *only* be fixed when rooted, if at all. In the case of the Vibrant, some issues were fixable with custom ROMs, but not all — including the daily dropped calls (that have not occured with my other phones), incessant lag, broken GPS functionality, and more. A customizable UI is nice and all, but customizing (or rooting or loading custom ROMs) shouldn’t be necessary in order to get your basic phone functionality working properly, which is what I had to do.

      I’m glad you like your Android phone, James. Many people do. I was *not* happy with any of mine for more than a week, though, because there were so many issues to deal with. It was constantly frustrating. Also, please don’t assume that I don’t know what I’m talking about when I give a personal take on an Android handset. I’ve been on the XDA Developers site for close to 4 years now, loading ROMs on a half dozen handsets. I understand the benefits of an “open” platform, customizable UI, and nearly unlimited choice with making your phone the way YOU want it to be made. I just believe that Android has a lot of work to do before it’s truly great. I also don’t believe that the closed eco-system of the iPhone (for instance) is a wise option either. I would love to see a happy balance somewhere.

      We shall see.


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