Verizon is quickly becoming the king of 4G LTE phones, but it wasn't until the Samsung Stratosphere strode onto the scene that Verizon could claim a 4G phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard. Try as Samsung and Verizon might to persuade us that the Stratosphere is "A First," with its 4G LTE-plus-keyboard combination, a quick glance at the specs of this fancy Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS with its 1GHz Hummingbird processor, brilliant Super AMOLED screen, 5-megapixel camera, and VGA front-facing camera reveal that it is actually none other than...an updated Samsung Epic 4G!
The Epic 4G, an original Galaxy S series phone, was great for its day when the first phones debuted in 2010. It was sleek, designed for multimedia, and had that great five-row QWERTY keyboard. But times have changed and I'm wondering if this phone has the chops to draw customers away from some of the other choices in Verizon's very strong repertoire. The updated Gingerbread OS and standards-setting 4G LTE speeds are a must, and with four business tools, and some fun add-ons, it's time to see what this phone can do.
The Stratosphere costs $149.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate, and with a new two-year service agreement.
If you're familiar with the Samsung Epic 4G, originally released with Sprint in 2010, you already know exactly what to expect with the Stratosphere: a glossy, all-touch black face with rounded shoulders that still looks elegant in its minimalism. The Stratosphere varies a little in the back cover. Here the soft-touch finish gets a pleasant, slightly nubbly texture that's reminiscent of suede.
Back when the Epic 4G first emerged, its 4.96-inch height, 2.54-inch width, and 0.55-inch thickness made it one of the larger phones available; now it fits right into the middle of the pack in this age of "jumbo phones," and is neither too large nor too small. It's still a bit on the heftier side at 5.8 ounces, but the weight adds a sense of durability that's to be expected in larger phones with greater mass.
The 4-inch WVGA (800x480 pixels) Super AMOLED screen is still impressive, with bright, saturated color that leaps off the display. Unfortunately, it's fallen a little behind, and Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus screen outshines the Stratosphere's face. Even though it's a great screen on its own, a higher resolution would make it look sharper still.
The Stratosphere runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread using Samsung's TouchWiz interface. As with any custom UI, you either connect with it or you don't, and despite some nice touches (like easily accessing system settings in the pull-down notifications menu), I personally think that TouchWiz is getting stale. With the drastically revamped Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich right around the corner, and the strong graphics and smart contributions from HTC's Sense interface, Samsung needs to offer something more beautiful or dynamic to make the interface truly compelling.
As it stands, there's nothing wrong with Touch Wiz per se. You've got your five customizable home screens right out of the box, your choice of some nice backgrounds, the "leap" screen for viewing all your home screens in one view, and a horizontal-swiping treatment to the app tray. It's good, it's reliable, but nothing out of the ordinary. Swype is a virtual keyboard option on the Stratosphere, but you have to choose it if you want it, since Samsung's keyboard is the one that comes preloaded by default.
Above the screen is a front-facing VGA camera for self-portraits and video chats. Below the screen are four touch-sensitive buttons for the Menu, Home, Back, and Search. The power button lives on the right spine, and on the left is the volume rocker. Up top you have the 3.5mm headset jack, and on the bottom is the Micro-USB charging port. The back has the 5-megapixel camera lens, and beneath the back cover is the microSD card slot. The Stratosphere generously comes with 4GB of external memory preinstalled.
Slide open that keyboard to find a very spacious QWERTY complete with five rows (numbers conveniently get a line all their own). The keys are backlit, fully separated, and rubbery; I like how they angle in slightly and snap back after you touch them. Samsung has also added a handful of convenience keys, like ones dedicated to Search, Back, Menu, and Home, plus keys to pull up a blank text message, the browser, and four directional navigation arrows. Keyboards feel different to different hands and my only personal complaints are that the keyboard is slightly flat (as they all tend to be on sliders; this is a height issue), and that at times I felt I had to stretch my fingers to reach some keys. Then again, I also have smaller hands than some.
Like all Android phones, the Stratosphere gives you e-mail, texting, multimedia messaging, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth support (3.0), and GPS. There's also contact-importing and access to a range of Google services, from Gmail, maps with turn-by-turn-navigation, to Google Places, Talk, Search, and YouTube. Essentials include a calendar, a calculator, a clock (plus alarm clock, stopwatch, and timer), an HTML WebKit browser, and a memo pad. Android's basic music player is also onboard, along with a handful of other Google services.