If you want an Android smartphone with Samsung’s Super AMOLED display, but you don’t want a Galaxy S (or any of its US variants) because it doesn’t have a keyboard, you’re going to want to take a serious look at the Samsung Epic 4G from Sprint. The Epic 4G is basically the Sprint-branded variant of the Samsung Galaxy S Pro, with a bit of 4G connectivity added in for good measure, so you know it’s chock full of fancy features. The Sprint Epic 4G boasts even more features compared to its keyboard-less Galaxy S brethren, so we put our own Epic 4G through the ringer to find out if all those extra features make for a better handset.
Samsung endowed the Sprint Epic 4G with a front-facing camera, 4G data connectivity (on Sprint, where available) and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard – all these specs are unique to the Sprint Epic 4G in the US. There are variants of the Samsung Galaxy S available in The States as the AT&T Captivate and the T-Mobile Vibrant, but they all lack any support for 4G, a front-facing camera, and of course, the keyboard.
So, without further ado, we’d like to formally introduce you to the Sprint Epic 4G.
Available August 31 for $249.99 w/ 2-year contract
Specifications (Specs – sheet)
- 4.0-inch Super AMOLED WVGA (800×480) capacitive touchscreen
- 1Ghz Hummingbird CPU
- 5-megapixel camera with LED flash
- 512MB RAM, 1GB ROM
- 3G and 4G data connectivity
- WiFi (b/g/n)
- GPS (aGPS)
- Video-out capable
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- Front-facing camera for video calls
- Mobile Hotspot feature
- Slide-out QWERTY keyboard
- 4.0-inch Super AMOLED display
- 4G for high speed data (where available)
- Mobile Hotspot feature
- Multi-touch support
- Slide-out keyboard
- Front-facing camera
- View homescreen in landscape when keyboard is open
- Hot-swappable microSD card slot (don’t have to remove battery and reboot in order to change microSD card)
- Physical camera shutter button
- Battery life could be better
- MicroSD under the battery
- Video-out via 3.5mm headphone jack
- No simultaneous voice and data in 3G-only areas
- Big for small hands and tight pockets
- Capacitive touch navigation buttons aren’t always responsive
- Slider mechanism isn’t as solid as we’d like
The Galaxy S hardware is good, but it tends to feel a bit light in the hand. That’s either a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. The Sprint Epic 4G, which is a Galaxy S Pro, feels like a completely different beast. With the added heft of a slide-out keyboard and a few extra internal hardware goodies, the Epic 4G is one solid-feeling smartphone. There are build-quality quirks (more in on this in a bit) related to the slider mechanism, but the handset gets high marks for balancing its extra weight very well.
As far as specs are concerned, the Epic 4G boasts a 4-inch Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen, 1Ghz Hummingbird processor, 5-megapixel autofocus camera (with LED flash), front-facing camera (for video chatting and self-portraits), 3G and 4G data, WiFi (b/g/n), GPS, Bluetooth, 3.5mm headphone jack, hot-swappable microSD card slot, slide-out spring-loaded QWERTY keyboard, and is powered by a customized version of Android 2.1 OS “Eclair”.
The glass itself is of the super-tough Gorilla glass variety, and should stand up to a good deal of abuse. The high-gloss black plastic bezel is a nice touch and complements the metallic trim that lines the lip of the keyboard. What’s strange is that the battery cover is finished in a matte, rubbery material dotted with tiny specks of glitter – not like the . We’d have liked to have seen the entire device finished in a high-gloss black plastic, like the bezel.
One feature that you won’t really see advertised for the handset is its video-out capabilities. You can actually output video via the 3.5mm headphone jack. You’ll need a special 3.5mm-to-RCA cable in order to make this work, but it’s nice to at least have the option.
The custom 1Ghz Hummingbird processor comes to us by way of Samsung’s R&D labs. At the heart of the hummingbird chip is the ARM Cortex A8 processing core – Samsung licenses the architecture from ARM in order to tweak the core and integrate into their own chips. Thanks to the licensing deal, Samsung has managed to create the Hummingbird chip, which leaves the competition in the dust as far as 3D graphics performance is concerned. The Epic 4G comes preloaded with racing game Asphalt 5 to show off the handset’s 3D gaming capabilities.
As far as 3G data is concerned, wireless data speeds were as expected from Sprint. We consistently pulled down over 1Mbps data speeds in San Francisco, but your own mileage may vary. We had a couple quick opportunities to test out the handset’s 4G data speeds, and the results were quite impressive. Download speeds on 4G consistently hit over 3Mbps, with upload speeds capping out at 1Mbps. We briefly hit 6Mbps data speeds, but again, your results with 4G wireless data performance may vary.
Make no mistake, the Epic 4G is a big handset. Sorry to say it, but you really can’t have a huge Super AMOLED display, gobs of power, relatively decent battery life, and a full QWERTY keyboard in a smartphone that isn’t considerably larger than phones without those features. You just can’t. While it’s not unwieldy, the device is a bit wider and taller than an iPhone 4 and roughly 50% thicker than the Apple phone. We’re talking about differences on the couples-of-millimeters scale here, but those extra mm’s translate into a drastically different in-hand feel. Big.
For the most part, though, the Epic 4G’s beefier waistline isn’t going to be too much of an issue for those of you with a need for a physical keyboard. Keep in mind that less than 5 years ago we were dealing with Windows Mobile smartphones that were similar in size and weight to bricks. The Epic 4G proves that we’ve come a long way from those “smartphone dark ages”.
The larger size wasn’t a problem for us (and our big hands and deep pockets), but the Epic 4G is definitely a device that you’ll want to play with in the store before buying.
There’s really only one reason that you’d consider the Epic 4G over another Galaxy S phone or another Android phone – the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. How is it? Well, it’s not BlackBerry good, but it’s good.
The keys on the keyboard are fairly flat, which makes it harder to tell which keys you’re pressing. But, the large spaces between keys makes it easier to type by feel. In the end, the key spacing makes up for the lack of contours on the keys. You also get a dedicated number row as well as shortcut keys for “Home,” “Menu,” “Back,” and “Search.”
As far as tactile feedback, the keys are nice and “clicky.” The keys could stand to be a bit more stiff, but we’re not going to ding the Epic 4G for that.
It’s nice that the keyboard has a dedicated number row, directional arrows, and a space bar in the middle. It would have been nice to have a keyboard with dedicated keys for “@” and “caps lock” as well as a larger “return” key, but those are just small details.
The only problem we can’t get past has to do with the capacitive (touch-sensitive) navigation buttons along the bottom of the display. It’s nice that they’re backlit and blink when pressed, but they can be unresponsive at times – having to hit “Menu” a few times is not fun. We don’t know if the responsiveness issues are limited to our review unit, but we thought you should have a heads-up on that.
Overall, the keyboard is good. It could be better and thinner, but it’s good enough for us.
The Sprint Epic 4G is one of the more impressive Android phones as far as fit-and-finish and build quality are concerned. None of the physical buttons exhibited any “play,” or wiggle. The battery cover snaps on nice and snug, but is surprisingly easy to remove.
The front face of the phone is a smooth sheet of glass. There’s a cutout for the earpiece and space for an LED notification light and front-facing camera, but the glass is otherwise one solid piece. Where are the Android navigation buttons, you ask? The buttons are actually capacitive touch (touch-sensitive) buttons that light up when you tap the lower portion of the phone’s face, underneath the “Samsung” logo.
The aesthetic that Samsung was aiming for here is obvious – a clean face with no physical buttons to clutter the design. We give the Epic 4G high marks on design execution.
The slide mechanism is another story. We’ve seen other QWERTY smartphones with very precise slider mechanisms, so we know that it’s possible to make a slider-phone that don’t do the Wiggle Dance. The Epic 4G is not one of those phones. In the closed and open positions, the display can be jiggled from side-to-side. Grab the bottom of the display and the top of the display with your fingers and rotate clockwise, if you want to try this out for yourself. There’s also a bit of play when tapping on the screen – very slight, and you probably won’t notice, but it’s worth a mention.
Here’s our unboxing video of the Sprint Samsung Epic 4G:
Android phones are more than just hardware. It’s the software that determines the user experience. With the Sprint Epic 4G, the software is part Google and part Samsung. Google is responsible for making Android OS, the mobile operating system that runs this smartphone. Android handles all the nitty-gritty stuff associated with making a smartphone function as a smartphone (email, web pages, phone calls, text messages, Android apps, etc.). But, the user interface is all Samsung’s doing. The Epic 4G is skinned with the TouchWiz 3.0 UI, which basically revamps the homescreen, menus, app icons, etc. with Samsung’s vision of what an Android user interface should look like. TouchWiz 3.0 is a bit iPhone-esque with its app icons and app layout – this will either be a pro or a con for you depending on your stance on the notorious Apple phone.
iPhone is easy to use, and so is the Epic 4G’s homescreen. Unlocking the screen is as easy as swiping your finger upwards on the screen. Doing so takes you to one of seven homescreen panes. Each homescreen is preloaded with a peppering of Android apps and/or a custom Samsung widget – we like the Task Manager widget that display the number of currently active apps and allows you to kill some or all of those active apps. For the most part, this is all standard Android-fare.
It’s when you tap the applications tray that you get a sense for the Epic 4G’s iPhone-esque UI. Rather than scrolling a vertical list of apps, the TouchWiz 3.0 UI serves up “pages” of apps that you flip through with sideways swipes of a finger. If you’ve ever seen an iPhone or an iPhone ad, this should ring a bell. The app badges are also customized with different colors and backgrounds, which is a nice touch, but can make finding apps a little frustrating – we’re used to finding apps by eye, and the customized app badges initially threw us for a loop.
The notifications tray that you drag down from the top of the screen is also tweaked. Pull it down and you’ll see shortcut toggles for enabling and disabling WiFi, Bluetooth, 4G, and GPS. The shortcuts may seem insignificant, but they make it really easy to save some battery juice by powering down unneeded radios.
The widgets are helpful – especially the Task Manager widget mentioned above. Samsung also includes their “Buddy” widget and the “Feeds” widget out of the box. The former widget is basically a favorites contacts list to which you can add pictures of oft-called friends and family. The latter widget serves up social network updates in a single feed. We could do without the Buddy widget, but the Feeds and Task Manager are two widgets that we’d wouldn’t want to do without.
Press and hold the dedicated camera shutter button located on the side of the Epic 4G, and the camera app fires up quickly. We like that the camera app starts up quickly, which makes it more likely that you’ll be able to photograph some fleeting moment of interest.
The camera controls are intuitive, yet full-featured enough to allow you to tweak photos to your liking. Tap anywhere on the screen to tell the camera where to focus – particularly handy for foreground/background shots where you want some objects to be in focus and others out of focus.
You’ll find oft-used settings – like flash, exposure control, and photo mode – by tapping the settings tray icon on the left side of the screen. Snapping a picture is as easy as tapping the on-screen shutter button or using the physical shutter button. With the physical button, you half-press to focus the lens and a full-press to snap the photo.
You can also access more advanced settings through the “gear” icon in the settings tray. You can tweak camera settings like contrast and saturation, photo effects, video recording mode, face detection, metering mode, resolution, etc. etc. The list goes on and one, which is a good thing.
The front-facing camera can be used to take self-portraits of yourself to post on Facebook or whatever else you might want to do with a camera. Image quality here is obviously nothing close to the rear-facing shooter, but it’s good enough to get your point across, whatever that point might be.
Here’s a sample photo showing outdoor photo quality:
Here’s another sample photo showing outdoor photo quality:
Here’s a sample photo from the Epic 4G showing indoor photo quality:
Here’s a sample photo from the Epic 4G showing indoor photo quality with flash:
Here’s a sample photo from the Epic 4G showing close-up photo quality:
The Sprint Hotspot feature is becoming almost standard with high-end Android phones in the US. What is a “mobile hotspot” feature? It’s basically an app that turns your smartphone into a portable WiFi router that you can use to hop on the internet with your laptop or your iPad or PSP. If you’re in a 4G coverage area, you can turn the Epic 4G into a 4G WiFi hotspot, allowing other WiFi devices to surf the web at 4G data speeds. If not, you’re still going to be able to pull down 3G data speeds, which aren’t that bad for in-a-pinch situations.
So, is the Sprint Hotspot worth an extra fee? If you need on-the-go connectivity for your devices, then yes. The cost will be easily paid for by your increased productivity. With a couple taps of your finger, you can turn the Epic 4G into the Mobile Hotspot mood. In 4G markets, you’ll be surfing the web on your laptop at some impressive speeds. That is, unless you like preserving battery power. If you’re just fine with your home and office WiFi networks, we’d save the greenbacks.
2-Way Video Chat
The preloaded Qik app handles all your video-calling needs out of the box. You can also use Skype to do some face-to-face video chatting, but the Qik app will probably be more than enough for your needs. To get started, you simply sign up for a Qik account and the app will import all your contacts. The app doesn’t screen contacts to determine if they’re able to accept video chats, but that’s something we can live with.
Over a 3G data connection, video chats aren’t smooth enough to use on a daily basis. It’s cool to show the feature off to friends and random passersby, but we’re not to fond of video chats with choppy audio or unsynchronized video. Over WiFi or 4G, though, video chats are reliable and video quality isn’t all that bad. We’re not big on video chatting, but if this is the type of thing that floats your boat, you’ll be happy to know that the Epic 4G can handle video-chats with aplomb.
Web Browsing, Multimedia, Camera
The Epic 4G’s web browser of choice is the webkit-based Android web browser. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, the stock Android browser is darn good. You’ll have no problems surfing the web with this browser, unless you’re trying to view embedded Flash content. You’ll have to wait for Google to unleash Android 2.2 OS to the masses, in order to install Adobe Flash 10.1 Player on the Epic 4G. Thankfully, that day isn’t too far away, according to Sprint.
And, with 512MB of RAM to back up the 1Ghz processor, web browsing is speedy and enjoyable. If you have a strong 3G or 4G data connection, you should be able to open multiple tabs and surf away until your fingers get tired of tapping and pinch-zooming. Or, maybe you won’t get tired and end up draining the battery. Either way, the browsing experience is good.
Like most other Android phones, the music listening experience is not the best. If you’re listening to a song through your headphones and you unplug your headphones, the music player will continue to play music through its speakers, rather than pausing playback. The music player itself can also take some time to fully open, which is a problem with most Android phones that run a bunch of apps at the same time. To its credit, though the Epic 4G fires up the Music app faster than any other Android phone we’ve reviewed. Those are the low points. The high points are that the music player widget lets you play songs directly from the homescreen and the Music app’s versatile playlist that lets you organize music by artist, genre, album, etc. iTunes users, you’ll want to use DoubleTwist to juggle all your playlists and songs for you.
Watching high-res video on the Epic 4G is an awesome experience. The Super AMOLED display makes for some of the brightest and color-rich movies that we’ve ever seen on a smartphone. And, since the Epic 4G can handle DiVX codecs, you can watch all sorts of movies in file formats that usually don’t play nice with most other smartphones. Video plays back nice and smoothly, regardless of how many apps you may have running in the background.
The 4-inch WVGA (800×480) resolution capacitive touchscreen makes for a big enough picture that you can enjoy a movie on a plane, but the lack of kickstand makes long-term viewing slightly awkward. On the plus side, the Super AMOLED display does a good job in sunlight – better than any other AMOLED display on the market right now.
The Epic 4G can record video in 720p HD resolution. Switching the camera app into camcorder mode requires just a single finger tap on the touchscreen, with an extra tap to start recording video. You can share your videos to your social networks or upload them directly to your Picassa or YouTube account (which is linked to the Gmail account you used to setup the phone).
Sprint TV is really only going to appeal to a few users and will likely be more of a “see what I can do with my phone” type of feature than a real selling point. We’re not big on the feature and used it only long enough to get a feel for the app. Nevertheless, the Epic 4G’s big screen and 4G data connection serve to make Sprint TV that much more enjoyable. Picture quality and playback are decent with a solid data connection – better with a 4G connection.
The Samsung Galaxy S Pro might use the same 5-megapixel shooter found in the Galaxy S, but it brings along an LED flash light in the Pro. That means the Epic 4G also enjoys an LED flash for low-light shooting.
The auto-focus system isn’t just convenient, it’s fun to use – you tap an object or area in the viewfinder to set your focus and snap a photo with either the on-screen shutter button or the dedicated physical shutter button. Try it out for yourself and you’ll see that it really is entertaining. Unfortunately, you’ll need good lighting to get good photos, LED flash or not.
As with all Android smartphones to date, dark shots are your enemy. Always seek out good light when taking pictures with the Epic 4G. The LED flash might help out in some marginally-lit situations, but we definitely wouldn’t count on taking good low light pics.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Call quality is part for Sprint. We experience no dropped calls and never had to ask if the person on the other end “can hear me now?”. In short, voice calls are clear and reliable. The speakerphone is plenty loud and doesn’t distort voices at higher volumes.
We suggest you don’t get caught up in the hype about Big Red having the best network in the US. Sprint doesn’t really advertise its voice call quality, but for us, calls were as good as we could ask for. Now, getting 4G coverage in our area (SF) is an entirely different story for another time.
For a phone with a 4-inch display and a 1Ghz processor, battery life is not too shabby. You’ll want to make sure you charge the phone every night – especially if you’re using the handset for more than just making phone calls and taking pictures. Watching movies and surfing the web will drain the battery quickly. But, even as power users (constant social network updates, frequent email checks, a few photos, frequent data usage via apps, and perhaps a movie or YouTube clip as daily use), we managed to get a full day’s use out of the Epic 4G. Now, if you use the Mobile Hotspot feature, you should be prepared to have your Epic 4G run out of juice before lunch. Them’s the breaks, folks.
You should also know that the Super AMOLED display didn’t exactly score well in a recent battery life test. The Galaxy S Pro ranked in the middle of the pack, as far as battery life was concerned. In our experience, though, the Epic 4G’s screen is worth the hit to battery life.
If you’re considering a phone in this class (high-end, Android, cutting edge), you’re probably ready to accept shorter battery life performance than, say, a BlackBerry Bold 9700. You can always pack a spare power supply, or an extra battery. Jussayin’.
More features = Better?
Despite its close relation to other Galaxy S variants, the Epic 4G is chock full of features that really make the handset stand out from the crowd. That’s important because we’re going to see more and more Android smartphones in the coming months, so it’s going to get tougher for those devices to grab your attention.
Now, are the Sprint Epic 4G’s additional features make it worth the extra dough, compared to its keyboard-less Galaxy S siblings? That depends. If you absolutely have to have a physical keyboard and you aren’t willing to sacrifice on screen size or processing power and you want badass 3D performance, the Epic 4G is for you.
Slider mechanism issues aside, the Epic 4G feels better in the hand than any other Galaxy S variant we’ve seen to date. The front-facing camera isn’t at the top of our gotta-have features list, but it’s great to have the option to video chat or take self portraits. We’d have liked to have seen a kickstand on the phone, but its absence is not a deal breaker. The keyboard is on the better side of good, but the dedicated number row really helps it shine.
The Epic 4G may not be the prettiest of the Galaxy S bunch, nor is it the sexiest Android phone available today, but it sure does pack a punch. If you can get past the niggling build-quality issues and the sometimes unresponsive navigation buttons we mentioned above (and really, we expect most people won’t think twice about a slightly jiggly display), the Epic 4G is one helluva device.