Review: Samsung Captivate for AT&T – Does this Galaxy S phone shine?

Image showing the AT&T Samsung Captivate, a Galaxy S phone
Image showing the AT&T Samsung Captivate, a Galaxy S phone

The Samsung Captivate is the Galaxy S variant for AT&T and the Android phone is really, really good – It’s packed full of features, has a good operating system and the screen will blow you away. But with the Motorola Droid X, EVO 4G and Apple iPhone 4, “really good” is not good enough for those wanting the best smartphone out there. How does the Captivate stack up to the rest of the superphones?

(Note: The Captivate is extremely similar to the T-Mobile Vibrant. Check out the full Vibrant review here.)


Image showing the AT&T Samsung Captivate, a Galaxy S phoneAT&T Samsung Captivate
Available now for 199.99 w/ 2-year contract

Specifications (Specs – sheet)

  • 4-inch Super AMOLED capacitive display (800×480)
  • 1Ghz Hummingbird CPU
  • 5-megapixel camera
  • 720p HD recording
  • 3G data connectivity
  • WiFi (b/g/n)
  • GPS (aGPS)
  • microSD card slot (supports up to 32 GB)
  • TV-out via headphone jack
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Six-axis gyroscope for motion controls
  • Android 2.1 TouchWiz 3.0 UI
  • 16GB internal memory

The Good

  • Gorgeous screen is crisp and vibrant
  • Thin and sexy design
  • TouchWiz 3.0 beautifies Android without getting in the way.
  • Strong GPU performance
  • Unique sliding door cover for microUSB port
  • Hot-swappable microSD card slot

The Bad

  • Standard virtual keyboard isn’t as good as competitors
  • TouchWiz 3.0 UI will delay upcoming Android updates
  • No flash with camera
  • TV-out quality could be better
  • Occasional software bugs

Image showing the AT&T Samsung Captivate, a Galaxy S phoneHardware

The most important thing about the Captivate is the gorgeous 4-inch Super AMOLED screen. I’ve been tooling around with the 4.3-inch displays on the EVO 4G and the Motorola Droid X and I didn’t miss that extra space at all with the Captivate.

The colors are vibrant and crisp. Watching YouTube is an absolute delight and just surfing the web is a pleasing visual experience. The resolution is not quite as high as other devices (800 x 480) but that’s only going to matter to the pickiest of you out there. Using the screen in direct sunlight can be a problem, but not as much as on an AMOLED screen like the Nexus One. I often look at my phone before I go to sleep and that screen excels in the dark – it’s bright, lovely and I can verify that it can make some “ooh and ahh.”

I’d still rank the Apple iPhone 4 Retina Display above the Captivate’s screen in terms of sheer “wow factor,” but not by much. In fact, I’d probably give you a different answer depending on when you ask me the question. Just to be clear, the Captivate has an amazing screen.

As for the rest of the handset, it features a few slight tweaks from the original Galaxy S phone and the edges aren’t as round as the T-Mobile Vibrant. It fits well in my hand but there’s definitely a plastic-like feel that’s not extremely appealing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it feels “cheap” but it doesn’t quite feel like a luxury device.

It does look pretty darn good, though. At 9.9 mm thick, it’s sleek and slim and you can tell Samsung put a lot of thought into the design. It may have over-thought some things, though, as some of the design tweaks are innovative but don’t quite hit the mark entirely. For example, on the top of the device is a sliding door for the microUSB port. You won’t have to deal with that cheap plastic cover that’s on the Palm Pre and you don’t have to worry about your phone being a tart with its port exposed to the world. I just wished this compartment was a little bit bigger because some of my chargers didn’t plug in smoothly. The charger that came with the phone fit perfectly but if you use a different charger at work (I have one built for a BlackBerry) it may not be a snug fit. This is a minor annoyance, but I’m holding this phone up to the highest scrutiny possible.

Image showing the AT&T Samsung Captivate, a Galaxy S phoneAnother cool hardware feature that initially bugged the heck out of me is the battery cover – I didn’t know how to take it off. I spent a good five minutes trying to pry that bad boy off and shamefully had to read the manual. It turns out that the hump on the bottom of the device slides down to release the cover and this is actually really cool but not necessarily intuitive at first.

As for the rest of the phone, the standard four Android buttons on the face of the device are virtual buttons and they responded well. The unlock physical button rests on the left side of the device (when it’s facing you) and this took me forever to get used to. I’d still prefer this on the top of the phone but that’s just me. The volume rocker is on the other spine and I felt these could use a little more travel when you push them – it’s nothing deal-breaking though. The standard headphone jack and aforementioned sliding microUSB port rest on top.

Inside, the Samsung Captivate packs all the features you’d expect from a high-end handset including WiFi, GPS (more on this below), Bluetooth, a 1 GHz Hummingbird processor and a 5-megapixel camera. That processor is supposed to offer the best 3D gaming experience on an Android handset to date but it’s going to take time for developers to fully utilize that. The processor was a champ in my testing, as apps launched quickly and I felt very little lag with the device.

Shoot. I realize this hardware section is mostly negative but I’m just picking nits (it’s my job, folks). The display is stunning, the phone feels good in my hand and the slim and sexy design will turn heads. Samsung did a good job at creating a nice smartphone but a few adjustments could have made it a home run.


Image showing the AT&T Samsung Captivate, a Galaxy S phoneSoftware

The Samsung Captivate rocks Android 2.1 and you should know what that means by now: strong integration with Google’s online services, good e-mail experience (especially Gmail), the ability to make and receive phone calls and texts, one of the best mobile browsing experiences and access to a world of new apps thanks to the Android Market. We had previously knocked Android devices like the Droid Incredible because the Android Market didn’t have the variety of apps that are in the Apple App Store but I think we can put that criticism to rest. While Android apps still lack the visual panache of iPhone ones, the selection and functionality has grown tremendously and smartphone fans can easily find cool and useful programs for their Android phones.

So, we know that Android is a good mobile OS, but what about the software Samsung and AT&T loaded on the Captivate? Samsung has layered on its TouchWiz 3.0 on top of Android and this brings additional functionality, some pleasing eye candy and useful widgets without getting in the way. The unlock screen has been changed too, as you just grab a pane on the screen and flick it away to get at your phone. Even cooler, when you have a missed call, the unlocked screen shows a puzzle piece that has to be placed into a hole. This is simple stuff but it definitely makes you notice the missed call.

You get seven home screens to load up with apps and widgets and I generally stay clear of non-standard Android widgets, but TouchWiz had me changing my tune. The Daily Briefing widget is the first thing I look at when I pick up the phone in the morning because it gives me quick, glance-able access to the weather, tasks, stocks and news in a visually-pleasing interface. I also dug the Calendar Clock because it’s a good visual representation of what I have on my plate.

Another subtle but awesome thing is that the controls for WiFi, Bluetooth, ringer control and vibration are now in the pull-down menu. This is simple, useful and brilliant, I say. I love it when companies add functionality to the window shade and I still don’t know if I like the app-switching functionality in the HTC myTouch 3G Slide better than this implementation.

Instead of the standard app launcher, the Samsung Captivate takes a few cues from the iPhone for its app tray. The app icons rest in uniform squares so there’s more symmetry in your app gallery. You also scroll through different pages of apps by swiping to the left and right, and. Blake knocked the T-Mobile Vibrant for being too similar to the iPhone with its UI but I found it to be the right mix of beauty and functionality.

One thing I didn’t like about the software was the standard keyboard. Maybe I was spoiled by the lovely software keyboard on the Droid X but I found the Captivate’s keyboard clunky and slow. Turning on the XT9 hyper predictive text didn’t help much either but it does show promise. This learns what words you generally type in sequence and will try and auto-fill it for you if you hit the space bar. I’m not that predictable with what I write though (I hope) and I’ve grown accustomed to using double space to insert a period. On the upside, there’s Swype preloaded, as well as a variety of keyboard replacements.

Of course, that UI layer means that it will take longer to get future Android updates than if it just had the stock version, but Samsung has promised to bring Froyo to all the Galaxy S devices soon. I can’t wait to see how that improves the AT&T Captivate.

AT&T also put its software fingers in the Captivate pie, as the handset comes preloaded with a plethora of mainly-useless apps. AT&T Navigator works well but I much prefer Google Navigation, Yellow Pages Mobile is okay, as is MobiTV. Apple still trumps Android when it comes to centralized on-the-go multimedia, but Samsung plans to roll out a Media Hub to combat this. It wasn’t online when I tested this phone though but I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

Android continues to be a beast of a smartphone OS and it should only get better with future versions. Samsung has also done a nice job by adding eye candy without detracting from the experience. I ran into a few bugs though, and I’ll talk more about that in the browsing category.

If you’d like to root your Samsung Captivate, follow these instructions. I didn’t do that for any part of the review because I wanted to have the same experience as the majority of customers. Just call me Mainstream Marin.


Image showing the AT&T Samsung Captivate, a Galaxy S phoneWeb browser, Multimedia, Camera

Browser

The Samsung Captivate for AT&T rocks your standard Android browser that’s based on Webkit technology. It works well for most sites and it should only improve once the device gets Android 2.2. The large, beautiful screen makes images stand out and it’s quite easy to make out text. Like most Android phones with current versions of the software, it includes pinch-to-zoom multitouch and the auto-formatting of web pages works like a champ.

Unfortunately, I had a few bugs with the browser. It would just crash on me in the middle of browsing and reopening it wouldn’t bring up the last page I was on, as I was forced to stare at the AT&T/Yahoo homepage garbage that comes standard. This only happened a handful of times but it was very annoying because there didn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to it.

Multimedia

The Samsung Captivate essentially rocks the standard Android music player with a few iPhone-like touches. Like an iPhone, you’ll have the alphabet on the side to quickly seek out the artist, song or album you’re looking for. Playback for audio and video was pretty good, although the speaker wasn’t the greatest quality. That didn’t matter much to me though, as I almost-always rock ear buds when I’m using a phone for music. You’ll get a Coverflow-like interface for tunes and it’s simple to swipe through songs. Again, Samsung’s Media Hub isn’t available but if you already happen to have some video files to throw on, the Captivate’s screen makes for a pleasing mobile video experience.

Of course, transferring files on your phone may be a pain in the you know what. I’ve reviewed and used tons of Android phones and this was the first one that didn’t automatically mount as a drive when I plugged it in. I solved this by downloading the Galaxy S drivers (I also found out later you can toggle it to USB storage in the settings) but it was frustrating at first.

The Android multimedia experience can be greatly enhanced with a few third-party apps. I used the MOG mobile music app to finally hear that Katy Perry song all the kids have been talking about and it’s making me seriously consider paying for a music subscription service. TuneWiki is also solid as ever. Sound off in the comments with your favorite Android multimedia apps, friends.

The Captivate is also capable of doing TV-out via the headphone jack, so check out the video below for an example (Note: the demo is done with the T-Mobile Vibrant, but will work with Captivate as well).

TV-out demo

Camera

While the Samsung Captivate doesn’t pack as many megapixels as the Motorola Droid X, I’ve found this 5-megapixel camera pumps out photos that are just as good as Motorola’s superphone … if you have good lighting. There’s no flash on the Captivate and that’s a big disappointment in my eyes because most of the settings I want to get photos with my phone generally don’t have amazing available light.

Still, the camera is pretty darn good and it comes with all the features you’d expect including digital zoom, face detection, multiple modes, and adjustable exposure and brightness. The camera UI works well for the most part but I had a few grumbles. First of all, the default mode doesn’t give you a little preview of the shot you just took, as you have to jump into a menu for that.

Additionally, I prefer a hard camera button for taking photos. The camera UI is also oriented so that you hold it in a landscape mode with the volume keys on the bottom. These keys are also responsible for the zooming, so I’d prefer them on the top. These are minor niggles, though, as many of the shots turned out well. All photos below were untouched by editing software, except to rotate.

Downtown San Francisco with “Outdoor visibility” turned on:

Indoors, default settings:

Indoors, low lighting:

The big hubbub in smartphones nowadays is the ability to record 720p HD videos, and the Samsung Captivate does this with styles. There aren’t many options for video recording but, as you can see from the video below, the video comes out sharp and crisp, if a bit choppy. Also, the slightest hint of wind will destroy your audio quality when recording.

It’s Android, so it’s simple to upload photos and videos to online sharing sites like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and more. These are video recording samples, recorded at 720p HD resolution with Outdoor Visibility mode on.


Call Quality, data, GPS and Battery Life

Listening to Apple iPhone owners, you would think that rocking an AT&T phone in San Francisco is a complete nightmare. I didn’t have that experience with this Galaxy S phone, as I didn’t drop a single call in a week. Voice quality was clear and stead although people did say I sounded a little muffled when talking. The dialer app works as you’d expect it and I like that you can dial a number or a few letters of a contact to bring up a phone number.

Mobile data was also rock solid, as I was consistently on 3G in most places except for where you don’t expect it like underground on a subway. I used the Xtremelabs app to test my speeds and I was consistently getting about 1 Mbps download and half of that for upload.

I generally don’t comment on GPS because all these devices normally have excellent location-based services out of the box but this Galaxy S phone didn’t come with assisted-GPS standard. That means it only relies on GPS – not cell tower triangulation too – which can lead to inconsistent location services. There’s a fix here but I didn’t experience too many problems. Before I implemented the fix, the Captivate was about a block off on my location to the north. After the fix, it was a block off to the south. So, take that for whatever it means.

The battery life on this Galaxy S phone is about what you can expect from a high-end smartphone, as I was able to get through a full day on a single charge. That drops dramatically if you use the multimedia player a lot (especially streaming services) but it’s nowhere near as bad as the EVO 4G, which was a battery vampire.


Does this Galaxy S phone shine?

The bottom line is that the Samsung Captivate on AT&T is a really good phone that is just short of great due to its lack of Flash and annoying keyboard. The keyboard issue can be fixed but you’re out of luck if you want to take many low-light pictures. Still, this Galaxy S phone is sleek, stylish, powerful and the software tweaks give it more visual flair than your average Android smartphone.

I wholeheartedly recommend the Captivate to anyone on AT&T who doesn’t want an iPhone. Even if you love iOS products, I think you’ll be quite satisfied with this Galaxy S phone.

It’s a great time for smartphone fans, as there are top-shelf devices on all the major carriers and this Galaxy S phone is definitely one of them. Check out our Superphone Shootout for all the details on the hottest devices on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
Superphone Shootout, Round 2


  • Shimmyx20

    I love this phone. Had an iPhone 3G for about one and a half years, and while I really liked that phone, I was itching for something different than iOS.

    Boy am I glad I made that change! I still like my iPhone (and I still carry it around for all the games and songs I have on it), but the Captivate is simply stunning. It has a very fast processor, a”captivating” screen, and Android is a great OS. Still getting used to the differences between the two OSes, but I’m really enjoying the flexibility and customizability I have with this phone.

    I do have an issue with the GPS, in that it takes forever to get a fix. The link that you provided doesn’t work for the AT&T phone according to the comments, but supposedly there is a fix on XDA, so I’ll have to give that a go.

    Battery life seems a little short, but that’s my fault as I can’t stop using this thing!

  • roiji

    i just tried this phone (galaxy s) yesterday and noticed that when using devesh's Flashlight app the Samsung Galaxy Spica's LCD screen is much brighter then the Super AMOLED screen of the Galaxy S…
    i don't know if that's caused by a setting on the phone, i didn't check.
    it hanged on my when i installed and launched Quadrant but that may be because of the stupid 'antivirus free' app someone installed on the phone..
    but still this phone amazes me! i'm getting it on christmas :D

    • enjoimark

      Christmas? Hell, by then there will be far better phones out.

  • zgryfx

    You say "rock" and "rocking" a lot. I don't think it means what you think it means.

    • marinperez

      Ha ha. Noted. Will mix it up buddy.

  • Robert Jordan

    I have this phone, and as far as the lack of flash, the night vision setting more than makes up for that! The thing about having a flash is that it only brightens up what's directly in front of the light. The night vision illuminates the entire picture. Try it in low light, and prepare to be amazed, I know I was! This phone is a beast! I love it.

  • Skyfire

    One way to conserve battery life on the Samsung Galaxy, for those of you who consume a lot of video, is to download Skyfire for your video browsing. Due to our ability to transcode video into Html5, and do the heavy lifting/compression on our end, this can dramatically conserve battery when compared video consumption with other browsers and optimized mobile video.

    • Jesse

      Skyfire is great, Although I do not YET have a Galaxy S ("Canadian") I do however use Skyfire on my Sony Xperia X10

  • dorcon

    Good review. The author writes well, which is unusual for most tech blogs these days.

    Except:

    Reading your review, I felt the need for an app that would convert the word “rocks” to standard English equivalents, e.g., “uses”. The author “rocks” the iPhone, “rocks” earbuds, basically “rocks” everything. Slang has its places, particularly when it fills in gaps in standard English or extends meaning. Using the word “rocks” ad nauseum detracts from your writing and reduces your readability and credibility.

    • Marin Perez

      Yes, yes. I know. I appreciate the feedback guys and gals.

  • Aida1232

    ??? galaxy S ???? ??????? ?????-?????????

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