Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G review: Are phones with solid QWERTY keyboards still in?

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Remember when QWERTY keyboards were all the rage? Well, those times have long passed, but the newest batch of mid-range devices are trying to bring it back. There seems to be a growing need to keep these type of phones around, especially for those who can’t let go the feel of a keypad underneath their fingertips when they get their text-on. T-Mobile is trying to fill that void with its latest budget-friendly handset, the Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G.

The Good
  • Legit five row QWERTY keyboard
  • Responsive Swype typing
  • Smooth performance
The Bad
  • Photo and video capturing is awful
  • Too many pre-installed apps
  • Dated hardware design

Hardware

Don’t expect to be wowed by the hardware on the Galaxy S Relay 4G, as it brings a typical but solid look you’d find on most Samsung handsets. The display on the Relay is average at best sporting a 4-inch WVGA 480x800 Super AMOLED Screen. On the inside, the phone boards a 1.5 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB internal memory expandable to 32GB, DLNA, micro HDMI port, and a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip.

I didn't like the feel of the rubbery keys, as it felt a bit on the cheap side. I also found it really difficult to slide the phone open with one hand, this could be due to the phone being built close to the keys or just having poor build quality.

Design

The handset’s all plastic body is nice to hold, despite it being pretty thick compared to most phones out on the market today. When I carried the device around in my pocket it didn’t feel uncomfortable (mind you, I was wearing skinny jeans). The design looks very similar to Samsung's first flagship Galaxy S, which makes the Relay come off a bit dated. An LED light is placed at the upper left corner for notifications, which I’ve always been a big fan of.

Furthermore, there's a large hardware Home key beneath the display, covered by a capacitive Options key and a Back button. The touchscreen isn't the highlight of this phone, as it's the design of the keyboard.

Software

Where should I start? Lets just say that the software is usable, but it’s disappointing at the same time. It’s bloatware everywhere! The phone is flooded with pre-installed applications from T-Mobile and Samsung; both companies went crazy with the apps on this device. These apps include Dropbox, Evernote, Lookout Security, Slacker Radio, and TeleNav GPS Navigator. T-Mobile went hard on making its presence felt, with its own apps like Access T-Mobile, Game Base, MobileLife Organizer, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV, and visual voicemail.

Of course, most of these pre-installed apps can’t be uninstalled, so you’re stuck with a bunch of stuff you didn’t ask for or needed. However, once you get pass the bloat, there lies a few cool features brought in by the TouchWiz Nature UX experience.

With Nature UX, TouchWiz has come a long way. Samsung’s custom user interface doesn’t annoy me as much as it used to. The custom skin lays on top of Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, but still provides most of what you’ll find in stock Android. Nature UX ushers in its own personal features such as S Beam and S Voice. Sparingly, the functionality isn’t quite the same as Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III, but it’s at least good enough for users.

When I dove deeper into the Relay 4G, I noticed there were some features you guys would like. For example, the phone has a decent email client and calendar that both carry the same TouchWiz flare. As for the virtual keyboard, the handset comes preloaded with Swype.

On one hand, the typing experience on the touchscreen was cramped due to the tightly compacted vertical and horizontal layout -- the text box was weirdly small when trying to type out messages. However, once you open the physical keyboard the text boxes magically expand. Besides the strange spacing issues, Swype was responsive and worked well.

 

Web Browser, Multimedia And Camera

Web Browser

Browsing the web is an okay experience, as pages don’t load lightning fast, but still form at a reasonable speed. I have no idea what’s powering the internet surfing on the Galaxy Relay 4G. That said, if the default browser isn’t your thing just download Google Chrome -- it’s way better anyway.

Multimedia

To no one surprise, music on the phone is ran by Samsung’s TouchWiz music player. The functionality in the player doesn’t pack the most powerful sound punch that you’ll find in HTC’s Beats Audio offerings, but its speaker outputs put out some average tones that don't strain at the loudest setting. Video playback is actually pleasant on the Super AMOLED display, especially when your watching movies, shows, or YouTube in 1920x1080 resolution.

Camera

The camera is a basic 5 megapixel shooter that struggles to offer powerful and colorful full featured images. When I took photos in the daytime it seemed to have trouble showing objects properly in shots taken with low light (shade areas), as the images come out grainy. Pictures taken in decent sunlight also looked dull and boring; it wasn’t the kind of color pop you’ll find in the high end Galaxy S line of phones. I didn’t waste time taking shots in the night.

Other than that, the camera carries some decent tricks to get around its shortcomings. Shooting mode has an interesting concept to it because it features smile shot, which tells the camera to shoot the picture once a person smiles. Moreover, users will find a Carton option, which makes the picture look toon-ish, and lastly, the camera brings Panorama. In addition to ‘shooting mode’, there’s an option that keeps built-in filters. As for video recording, it suffers from the same dullness -- but hey -- at least it records in 720p.

     

 

Call Quality And Battery Life

T-Mobile gets a lot of crap for not having the best of networks, but I found talking on the phone’s HSPA+ service to be an enjoyable one. First, I have to preference that I live in an area where T-Mobile is relatively good, so my experience with calling is definitely a bit skewed. Signal strength was great, as I didn’t experience any dropped calls or strange occurrences during my usage in the city of Hartford.

Battery life was average. I mean, consumers who purchase the phone should get at least a days use out of the 1800 mAh battery if used for just calls and text. However, if you are the type who loves to talk, text, and browse then multiple charges is necessary.

The Final Take

I know, to some of you out there who are fans of vanilla stock Android -- custom skins are the devil. That being said, the vast majority of phone users don’t know the difference. TouchWiz Nature UX is something the average consumer will like on a mid-tier phone with a solid keyboard. A device like this hits the sweet spot for those strapped for cash, as it usually commands a price tag of around $100 to $150 on a two-year contract. If you’re content with intrusive software modifications, and happen to be a sucker for phones carrying fantastic keyboards, then T-Mobile’s Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G is for you.

Photo credit: Claireasabella

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  • Anonymous

    Just curious; do you not know about the feature available in Android 4.0 that allows you to disable preinstalled apps? Basically once an app is disabled it’s not visible in the apps tray, doesn’t run, and doesn’t take up any resources other than the app storage space.

    Mind giving it a try? You just have to go to Settings > Applications > All > (tap on the app you want to disable) > Disable. I did it on my HTC One S to almost all the T-Mobile bloatware and it made for a better experience :)

    EDIT: Wait, I just realized you gave the software 5/10 just because there’s a lot of preloaded apps? Good lord do you fail.

  • Anonymous

    deleted, my mistake

  • TRF

    Yes, physical keyboards are “still in,” even if it’s just for a minority of people. I hope they are still produced in the future. Just because most people don’t want one doesn’t mean that they’re not needed.

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