What's hot: Fantastic Super AMOLED display, fast, lots of storage, nice UI and Android 2.1.
What's not: USB mode is non-standard, could use a few stability tweaks.
Reviewed July 18, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The Samsung Captivate is AT&T’s first high end, or rather superphone running Android. The carrier was late to the Android game, and conspiracy theorists posited that Apple’s iPhone stranglehold had something to do with it. Since the iPhone AT&T exclusive ends in 2011, we can easily say getting some good droids on board is a smart move. While the Motorola Backflip, AT&T’s first Android phone, was distinctly mid-range and daring in its design, the recently released HTC Aria hit the meat of the slate design touch screen market. Alas, the Aria, though a very nice phone, is also distinctly mid-range, leaving AT&T customers wondering if they’d have to jump ship to Verizon for some Moto Droid or Droid X love, or to Sprint for their flagship HTC EVO 4G.
The Samsung Captivate, AT&T’s version of the Samsung Galaxy S (T-Mobile’s is called the Samsung Vibrant), is priced the same as the iPhone 4 and currently requires no fiddly mail-in rebates and annoying Visa debit cards: nice. You get a lot for your money and a lot to show off to your gadget loving buddies: there’s a 1GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor with the PowerVR graphics chip (this is basically the same as the iPhone’s CPU and GPU), an outstanding 4” Super AMOLED display, a sharp 5 megapixel camera, gyroscope, GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth. The phone has 16 gigs of internal storage and a microSD card slot under the back cover (no card is included). AT&T and Samsung throw in a decent set of stereo earbuds, a USB cable and compact charger. The Captivate runs Android OS 2.1 Eclair and Samsung’s tasteful TouchWiz 3.0 software on top of Android.
AT&T changed the standard Galaxy S design from the overseas model that shipped before our US versions. Overall, that’s not a bad thing. While the Galaxy S looks sleek and is incredibly slim (nearly as slim as the iPhone 4), the plastic back looks a little cheap and it attracts fingerprints at an alarming rate. It’s also a little slippery to hold thanks to the iPhone 3GS-style tapered design. AT&T’s version has a metal back with an attractive pattern and the side curves are less extreme. The top and bottom have a very different look that makes the phone look thicker than the Galaxy S and Vibrant, though it is not. Other than the cool-looking textured metal back panel, we wouldn’t say the Captivate is a gorgeous phone, but it’s not bad looking either. The back comes off in an interesting way, and it’s easier to remove than the original S pry-off back, yet it stays firmly in place (watch our video).
The Captivate has 4 touch sensitive buttons and we prefer these to the mechanical buttons on the Droid X. Our only complaint is that they’re faintly masked and are hard to see unless their backlighting is on (we suspect aesthetics overrode usability). The combined power/screen lock button is on the right side and the volume controls are on the left. As with the other Galaxy S variants, the micro USB charging/syncing port is up top, and that makes the phone awkward to use for calls when charging. We like the elegant slider cover over the USB port that’s not a pain in the neck or prone to ripping as are rubber covers.
The display is wonderful. The 800 x 480 pixel display measures 4” vs. 3.7” on the Nexus One and HTC Incredible and 3.5” on the iPhone. That makes web pages and ebooks easier to read. The display is smaller than the 4.3” Hummers (to use Steve Jobs’ phrase): HTC EVO 4G, HTC HD2 and the Motorola Droid X. I don’t miss the 0.3”, but surprisingly the Captivate isn’t much smaller than the 4.3” smartphones. It is relatively light at 4.5 ounces (a bit heavier than the Vibrant due to the metal back). Samsung’s Super AMOLED display is their second generation AMOLED that’s even thinner, more touch sensitive, sharper and viewable outdoors unlike the first gen AMOLED. It’s great stuff, and colors are super-vibrant and the display is extremely bright. For those of you who’ve used AMOLED phones like the Nexus One, colors don’t bloom to the point of distortion. It’s still not as sharp as the iPhone 4’s Retina Display but it’s no slouch either. Most of us mere mortals really can’t see the different between 326 and 220 ppi with the naked eye, but you can tell the iPhone is even sharper. Personally, I’ll take the incredible colors that make every photo and video look better than they are over ultra-sharpness.
Phone and Data
The Samsung Captivate is a quad band GSM world phone with 3G HSPA on AT&T’s bands as well as 2100MHz for use overseas. Reception is average (a bit better than the iPhone 3GS as measured in –db, but not as good as the impressive BlackBerry Bold 9700), and call quality is very good. Call recipients said we were loud and clear even when we only had a middling signal, and incoming voice is very clear through the earpiece. The speakerphone is decently loud and adequate but not what we’d call very good. That’s surprising since multimedia sounds pretty good through the built-in speaker.
The phone has Bluetooth 3.0, but is backward compatible with Bluetooth 2.0 and 1.1 commonly found on Bluetooth headsets and stereo headphones. The Captivate worked fine with a variety of Bluetooth headsets including the Jawbone II, Samsung SBH-500 stereo cans and the Jabra Stone.
The micro USB port (cover open) and 3.5mm stereo jack.
Here's our 10 minute video review of the Samsung Captivate. We compare it to other high end Android phones,
show you TouchWiz 3.0 and test out multimedia and web browsing.
What’s not so captivating? Samsung phones are often a little weird when it comes to USB. Perhaps due to their added profiles like MTP (media transfer protocol, that makes it act like an MP3 player for Windows Media Player) and more recently Samsung Kies. Kies is apparently a syncing protocol for Samsung desktop software that handles media transfer and conversion among other things. We could only find this desktop software on overseas Samsung websites but not on Samsung Mobile USA. When we tried mounting the smartphone in mass storage mode (like a hard drive or flash drive), we had no luck in Windows 7 or Mac OS X. MTP protocol didn’t fare any better. Then we enabled USB debugging mode under Settings/Applications/Development and voila, both the 16 gigs of internal storage and our microSD card appeared. Be sure to go to the Android status bar up top in the home screen after connecting the cable to actually start the USB connection.
We also found the Captivate, as well as the Vibrant on T-Mobile, easier to crash when we played with 3rd party browsers and changing advanced browser settings in the Android browser. When we used the “about:debug” command in the URL bar to show advanced browser settings and selected either desktop or iPhone mode rather than the default mobile mode, the browser crashed and we couldn’t use the browser again until we did a hard reset and wiped out the phone. Samsung’s neat Daily Briefing application suffered a similar fate when we installed the Dolphin web browser before running the Daily Briefing app once to set it up (even though we set the built-in web browser to be the default web browser).
We like Samsung’s customization of Android (other than the problems mentioned above that it seems to introduce). This is not the over the top cartoony TouchWiz of old and gone are the intrusive side-bars. TouchWiz extends the home screen to 7 panels and provides indicator dots up top to clue you in as to which screen you’re on. You can put shortcuts anywhere and everywhere, just as with any Android phone, and Samsung adds 4 permanent ones at the bottom for contacts, email, the web browser and Applications. Speaking of applications, instead of the infinite up/down scrollable list of icons, Samsung breaks them into separate pages, ordered alphabetically and they’ve put backgrounds behind each icon (watch our video to see it in action). Samsung includes custom applications like the Daily Briefing (news, weather, stocks and calendar appointments in one large widget), a social networking widget that handles Facebook, Twitter and MySpace (it’s OK but I’ve yet to see anything other than HTC’s Peep and FriendStream that I’d choose to use over apps available on the Android Market), Write and Go (a note taking application that you can use to send updates via messaging and social networking), My Files (a file manager), AllShare (a DNLA client for streaming multimedia files over your WiFi network) and Samsung Media Hub (not yet ready, but it will offer movie rentals and purchase). Samsung has also customized the otherwise deadly dull Android music player and tweaked the video player, calendar and contacts. Lastly, Samsung provides several on-screen keyboards including xT9, Swype and handwriting inputs.
AT&T’s usual bloatware is on-board, along with their useful applications. There’s AT&T Maps (free but redundant given the phone has Google Maps), AT&T Navigator powered by TeleNav ($10/month with excellent spoken directions), AT&T Hotspots, AT&T Music and Radio (requires a monthly fee), MobiTV (requires a monthly fee but has a great selection of TV programs on demand), Mobile Video (included with the requisite smartphone data plan), YP Mobile, Where and AT&T Family Map. For the most part, we prefer T-Mobile’s bundle of the movie Avatar on micro SD card, Kindle for Android and an Office viewer suite. But then, T-Mobile doesn’t have so many services to sell compared to AT&T. Once again, AT&T has limited app installation to Android Market apps only, and that means no beta testing apps gotten from other sources unless you want to install the Android SDK on your computer and put the phone into USB debug mode to transfer and install them. Why does AT&T do this? Who knows; they’re the only carrier to do this on every Android phone they offer. But for most folks, this likely won’t matter much, since most get apps only from the Android Market’s selection of 70,000 titles.
AT&T hasn’t messed with the usual suite of Google software and it’s all here including Google Maps with spoken directions, the excellent webkit web browser with pinch zooming, Gallery, Gmail, email for POP3/IMAP/MS Exchange/YouTube and Google Talk.
The Hummingbird CPU is an ARM Cortex-A8 family processor that’s basically equivalent to the custom A4 chip used in the iPhone 4 and it has the same PowerVR SVG graphics processor. The Captivate is a very fast phone, and we saw only an occasional pause when quitting an app. The first minute after boot up from power off is slow because Samsung’s multimedia software indexes all music and video files on the SD card and internal memory at boot (and provides status info so you know what it’s up to). Video playback is very good, though we noted some intermittent AV sync loss on very high resolution, high bitrate videos (2,000 kbps, 800 x 480 MPEG4 video). The phone did well with the limited selection of heavy duty 3D titles available on the Android market and it benchmarks higher than the previous king, the 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU used in the EVO 4G and Nexus One. Likewise the CPU and GPU outperform the Texas Instruments chip used in the Droid X. We’d say the Galaxy S family is currently the sharpest knives in the Android drawer.
We benchmarked several high end Android smartphones using Benchmark by Softweg (available on the Android Market). The numbers might not mean much to you, but you can see the Captivate gets the best numbers for CPU and graphics (this app tests 2D but not 3D graphics and 3D is where the PowerVR really shines).
Total graphics score: 31.65
Total CPU score: 772.98
Total memory score: 645.07
Total file system score: 101.22
Motorola Droid X
Total graphics score: 21.08
Total CPU score: 612.14
Total memory score: 138.11
Total file system score: 124.22
HTC EVO 4G
Total graphics score: 25.04
Total CPU score: 656.67
Total memory score: 301.17
Total file system score: 50.49
The Galaxy S family has a 5 megapixel autofocus camera that can shoot video at 720p. Picture quality was very good when lighting conditions were adequate, but noisy in dim settings since the phone surprisingly lacks a flash. The Captivate has night mode and that does help, but not as much as a flash. Again, under good lighting, video quality at 720p was quite good and overall, the Captivate’s camera compares well with the iPhone 4 (except that nagging lack of a flash). The camera is very fast to focus and save photos compared to most autofocus camera phones.
Superphones, even smartphones, aren't known for their stellar battery life. Large displays, fast CPUs, cloud syncing and lots of wireless radios all conspire to drain your battery. Among touchscreen smartphones, the Captivate is just OK. The beefy 1500 mAh Lithium Ion battery and Samsung's intelligent power saving mode (accessible through settings and turned on by default), should equal better than average battery life among big screen Android phones. But with heavy use, the Captivate just barely it through an 8 hour day.
The Samsung Captivate is an excellent high end Android smartphone, and AT&T’s first Android superphone. The smartphone is exquisitely thin, has a wonderful 4” Super AMOLED multi-touch capacitive display and it’s fast. With 16 gigs of storage and a decent media player, it’s great for entertainment on the go, and you can expand that with a micro SD card. We’d like to see some stability improvements with respect to advanced browser settings (these things should never trash an app such that only a hard reset will revive it), and more normal USB behavior that doesn’t require using the USB debug setting. But overall, we have no qualms recommending the Captivate, and in fact I picked one up for myself. If you’ve grown tired of the iPhone OS and/or its closed ecosystem, don’t want to deal with the iPhone’s micro SIM (it’s a pain if you switch phones frequently since no other AT&T phone uses a micro SIM) or are concerned about the iPhone 4’s external antenna, the Captivate becomes that much more tempting.
Price: $199 with a 2 year contract, $499 retail with no contract extension