While the camera quality isn't always spot-on, the software is familiar. You can tap icons to toggle between the front and rear cameras, and between video and photo modes. There are settings aplenty for shooting mode, focus, effects, and white-balance presets (five in total). Panorama and "smile shot" are built in -- choose the latter and it'll shoot when the subject cracks a grin. You can also apply color tones, geotag images, and turn on the self-timer.
Video disappointingly comes in 640x480- or 320x240-pixel resolutions. Neither is high, but the size options are better for multimedia messaging and for uploading to social networks. The video quality isn't bad for what it is, and I liked that the microphone was able to pick up my subject's voice. However, don't expect crisp, clear, YouTube-ready resolution. This is for fuzzy storytelling only.
Moving to the front of the phone, the 1.2-megapixel took serviceable photos, but with very limited settings. This works for video chatting and for taking self-portraits, as well as using the camera as a mirror.
Compare the Stellar's photos with those of other smartphone cameras in our photo gallery.
I tested the Samsung Galaxy Stellar in San Francisco using Verizon's network. Call quality on the dual-band CDMA handset (800/1900) wasn't terrific, though it was serviceable. Volume was fine at medium-high levels, and I could press the extra volume screen control to boost the call volume. Doing so helped with competing noise, but also made the distorted audio and buzz on my call partner's sibilants more distracting. The best way I can describe the distortion I heard from my caller is a "hot" wave. My caller sounded human, then a little robotic and "hot," then fine again. This never let up during the length of our longest call.
I tested the phone both indoors and outdoors, and experienced one dropped call outdoors.
On my tester's end, my audio sounded a little flat and distorted. I not only sounded almost uncomfortably loud, I also sounded deep and "throaty," like I had a cold, my caller said. He also said I sounded like I was speaking through an old, bad phone.
Samsung Galaxy Stellar call quality sample
I tested speakerphone at waist level. The tinniness persisted and I also heard echo. Both are normal for speakerphones, if not ideal. There was a little vocal straining, and I was glad to be able to use the software volume booster. I could keep a conversation going for some time over the Stellar's speakerphone.
On the other end of the line, my caller said I sounded normal, but volume dropped, and he could hear every time I turned the extra volume on and off while I was speaking; he heard a puff and my voice became garbled during switching. However, if I turned it off and on without speaking, the extra volume had no effect. He gave the entire listening experience from his end a "C" rating.
Network and internal performance
Even though Verizon typically demonstrates very fast upload and download speeds here in San Francisco, not every phone responds the same way, based on the placement and model of its radios.
That said, 4G LTE was pretty fast on the Galaxy Stellar. Peaks ranged between 15 and 19Mbps down and 10 and 13Mbps uplink. Slow downloads and uploads were in the single digits, from 2-3Mbps down to 1-8Mbps up. More importantly, in real-life tests, I was able to download and update apps quickly, and load e-mail and browser pages.
I had no complaints about the Stellar's 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 processor. Sure, it isn't the absolute fastest on the market, but it doesn't need to be. I played a familiar game, Riptide GP. Hold the Stellar up to the Samsung Galaxy S3 and it won't be quite as smooth or responsive, but the game plays fine on its own -- you will be immersed, not distracted.
The Stellar comes with 4GB of onboard memory and 1GB RAM, plus a microSD slot that can take up to 32GB of expandable memory.
As for battery life, the Stellar has a rated talk time of up to 20 hours over 3G and up to 17 hours when the phone's on 4G. Its standby time comes in at 18 days over 3G and up to 9 days over 4G. The Stellar's 2,100mAh battery seems more than equipped to handle daily functions, and anecdotally, this felt like a longer-lasting phone. In our battery drain test, the Stellar played back 8.2 hours of video -- pretty good!
The FCC requires radio emissions to come in below 1.6 watts per kilogram. According to tests, Samsung's Stellar digital SAR measures 0.64 watt per kilogram.
Not everything about the Samsung Galaxy Stellar is a hit, but I'm willing to give the phone a little leeway because of its price-tag-to-value ratio. It excels at the major points for entertainment and written communication, but is weaker in audio and photo. The Stellar remains best for Verizon customers seeking a starter smartphone, but who aren't interested in investing heavily in the hardware -- I'm thinking in particular about a family entering a new member on their data plan.
However, genuine bargain hunters will recall that a free phone on a two-year contract still commits you to at least $90 per month on Verizon's new shared data plans. Take it off the plan and you're spending $330 outright for the phone. I'd probably have other first-choice phones at that up-front price with other no-contract carriers, but on Big Red, the Stellar's value will be hard to beat.