Cameras and video
The Mega's 8-megapixel camera has continuous autofocus, an LED flash, and Samsung's latest layout for more easily turning on features like voice dictation to take a snap ("Cheese!") and arrows in obvious places to switch camera modes and select filters. Deeper in the settings are resolution choices, white balance presets, the self-timer function, and all the rest.
You'll find fewer camera modes on the Mega than on the Galaxy S4 flagship, but my favorites are still there, including HDR, sport mode, panorama, and continuous shot. Conspicuously, there's no Macro mode in the list, but you can get fairly close as is. Generally, Samsung phones default to the highest-resolution photo available, but not so here. Instead, you'll get the wide angle 6-megapixel shots (16:9) versus the 4:3 aspect ratio for 8-megapixel snaps.
I was happiest with outdoor photos, which often looked vivid and rich, especially in sunlight. The phone won't capture every detail or shadow, but if you're mostly concerned with capturing the moment, the Mega's shooter should deliver. Indoor pictures, and some photos where I was looking for finer details, were less successful. Some images weren't as sharp as I wanted, and others lacked richness. For the price, though, the Mega's camera is a solid performer.
As for video, the phablet's 1080p HD clips (shot at a 30fps frame rate) were smooth, focused, and captured color well. The phone performs best in abundantly lit scenarios and much poorer in low light and darkened conditions. The same goes with the 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera -- this shooter lacks all the sharpness, richness, and detail, and tends to gray out faces, but it is sufficient for casual snaps and for video chats.
The Mega has 16GB internal storage, which you an expand up to 64GB in all with an after-market microSD card.
I tested the Mega's call quality in San Francisco using AT&T's GSM network (850/900/1800/1900MHz bands) and U.S. Cellular's CDMA network (850/1900). Call quality was pretty good overall to land lines and cell phones, though clarity can and will vary from phone to phone and even at different points throughout the day.
On the whole, I noticed that voices sounded better with Samsung's default noise cancellation turned on. Volume was strong at half its levels on AT&T's line, but much weaker with US Cellular's roaming network. I didn't hear any background noise with AT&T, but did hear a low, persistent hum with US Cellular. My main test partner's voice sounded warm and natural with both phones, though the US Cellular version occasionally distorted. Without noise cancellation, my caller's voice came across gauzier, and I heard a few distortion spikes. On his end, he said I sounded fine and natural, and he only noticed a tinge of white noise in the background when he listened for it. Likewise, he could identify a tiny bit of clipping and distortion if he thought about it.
AT&T call quality sample
US Cellular call quality sample
The AT&T version's speakerphone also put in a strong performance on both sides of the call, but grew more echoey the louder I turned up the volume. My test partner didn't sound too hollow, and was very intelligible indoors. I could carry on a longer conversation this way. On his end, he said I sounded a little tinny and echoey, but not more so than you'd expect for speakerphone.
With US Cellular, speakerphone came across a little quiet on both ends of the line. I needed to turn mine up to max volume. Voices were a little tinny and hollow, and also slightly muffled.
Performance: LTE, speed, battery life
Data speed ultimately depends on your provider's network strength in your area. I just so happened to test the Mega using AT&T's San Francisco network, where the carrier has done a tremendous amount of work beefing up coverage. As a result, data speeds were fast, in both diagnostic and real world tests.
The diagnostic Speedtest.net app consistently measured speed in the double digits on AT&T, peaking at 40Mbps downlink and 18Mbps uplink. Speed lows were still in the high single digits, though dead spots do sometimes happen. In the real world, Web sites and data-heavy apps loaded very quickly, photos uploaded fast, and music and videos streamed without delay.
|Samsung Galaxy Mega (AT&T)|
|Download CNET mobile app (3.7MB)||11 seconds|
|Load up CNET mobile app||7 seconds|
|CNET mobile site load||5 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||11.5 seconds|
|Boot time to lock screen||28 seconds|
|Camera boot time||3.7 seconds|
|Camera, shot-to-shot time||1 second; 2 sec. with auto-focus|
Unfortunately, the phone exhibited some rickety handling overall with its 1.7GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 MSM8930 processor (and 1.5GB RAM.) Normal navigation actions were delayed a beat, and handling the phone didn't exactly feel buttery smooth. The way some actions skipped around felt jerky in ways that were unrelated to LTE and data speeds.
This overall impression I had may not detract too much from gameplay, though. If you turn up the graphics complexity settings within a game like Riptide GP2, for example, it'll run well, with a smooth frame rate on its Adreno 305 single-core GPU. Still, this is middle-of-the-road compared to the premium Galaxy S4, whichusing the 3DMark benchmark test for graphics, about 20 frames per second on the Mega and 40fps on the GS4. As another basis of comparison, the Mega scored 8,372 on the Quadrant diagnostic app, compared to the Galaxy S4's score of 11,381.
Speeds on US Cellular's version of the Mega were slower when testing over the 3G roaming network. Speedtest.net diagnostics score the Mega's speeds at under 1Mbps down and up. As a point of comparison, loading up CNET's mobile site took 37 seconds the first time around.
A phone this big demands an equally large battery, and that's why the Mega's 3,200mAh ticker is so essential to performance. The Mega has a rated talk time of 17 or 18 hours over 3G and 4G (you'll get longer over 3G) and about 16 days standby time over 4G. Your actual battery life will fluctuate depending on how often you light up the screen and for how long a duration. Some of Samsung's extra features also lean on the battery, though there is a power saving mode and tool tips let you know which extras take a battery toll. We'll do some more testing in-house, but for now the Mega seems to last a full work day on a single charge.
The Mega has a digital SAR of 0.321 watt per kilogram.
Who the Mega's for
A smartphone as large as the Mega isn't intended for everyone. You'll have to accept the Mega's lower-resolution screen and slightly slower processor, but if you do, you'll also nab it for less than you would a flagship Android phone. The latest Android version, the 8-megapixel camera, and Samsung's software extras help sweeten the deal.
I personally find the Mega's lower screen resolution a deterrent, and the size too large for my tastes. I'd opt for a smaller screen with a higher resolution instead -- like the HTC One or Galaxy S4, which only cost a little more on contract and, with 5-inch screens, are still plenty big.
Another option is to hold out for the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which will also include a stylus and drawing tools, plus at least a quad-core processor and more advanced camera. I expect that the Note 3 will also cost $300, double the price. Therefore, if budget is an issue, you'll want to stick with the Mega for your phablet needs.