Editors' note: We have updated the review and ratings since the original publish date to reflect new devices on the market. Portions of the User Interface section were taken from our review of the Samsung Vibrant since both phones share the TouchWiz user interface.
Out of the four major U.S. carriers, AT&T was the most in need of a solid Android smartphone, and it's finally got one in the Samsung Captivate. Part of the Galaxy S series, the Captivate is by far AT&T's most powerful and feature-rich Android device, boasting a gorgeous Super AMOLED touch screen, a 1GHz Hummingbird processor, and some great multimedia features. It won't win any beauty contests, and we wish AT&T would stop restricting app access, but overall, the Captivate delivers and is a great alternative to the iPhone 4. The Samsung Captivate for AT&T will be available starting July 18 for $199.99 with a two-year contract (voice plan and minimum $15 data plan required).
Like many of today's touch-screen smartphones, the Samsung Captivate has a slate design that's not particularly sexy. In fact, its design is rather lackluster, but the look is clean and simple. At 4.18 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.39 inch deep, the device is a bit of a handful, but Samsung managed to keep the handset pretty thin, so you can still slip it into a pants pocket. Plus, the Captivate has a much more solid build than the Vibrant, which comes at a price of a little extra weight (4.5 ounces versus 4.16 ounces), but we much prefer that to a cheap-feeling mobile.
The front of the device rocks a 4-inch Super AMOLED capacitive touch screen, which supports 16 million colors and a WVGA resolution (480x800 pixels). It's one of the best-looking screens we've seen on a smartphone, showing off rich and vibrant colors and a sharpness that makes text easy to read. Aside from the brilliance and crispness of the display, there are a number of other advantages to Super AMOLED screens, including wider viewing angles and improved responsiveness. They also consume less power.
The Captivate's touch screen was responsive and fast. We were able to quickly swipe through the various home screens and menu pages, and the scrolling experience was smooth, as was the pinch-to-zoom gesture. The display also has a six-axis accelerometer, which comes in handy for gaming, and it was fast to change the screen orientation whenever we rotated the phone.
Below the screen, are four touch-sensitive Android shortcuts: menu, home, back, and search. On the left side, there's a volume rocker, and a power/lock button sits on the right. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on top, as well as a Micro-USB port, which is protected by a sliding cover. As usual, the camera is found on back, and just as a quick tip: if you want remove the battery door to swap out cells or access the SIM card or expansion slot, slide out the bottom portion of the phone first before removing the door.
AT&T packages the Samsung Captivate with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, and reference material. For more add-ons, check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
Like the rest of the Galaxy S series, the Captivate runs on Android 2.1 with Samsung's TouchWiz 3.0 interface. The latter is definitely improved from previous versions, with some enhanced functionality and a more polished look.
To start, there are new widgets, including one called Feeds & Updates and another called Buddies Now. Feeds & Updates streams updates from Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, and you can choose to display content from one, two, or all three of the social-networking sites, as well as set the refresh rate, ranging from 30 minutes to once a day. Buddies Now is like a favorites list and lets you immediately call or text those contacts, as well as comment on any of their updates. There are a number of other Samsung widgets, as well as Android widgets and other shortcuts, all of which can be added to one of seven home screens.
The home screens can also be personalized with live wallpapers, but there are two elements that can't be changed: the pull-down notification tray on top, which now includes wireless manager and profile functions, and the toolbar along the bottom with quick-launch buttons to the phone app, e-mail, Web browser, and applications. Pressing the latter takes you to a nice grid view of all your apps; they're spread out over several pages, which you can swipe from side to side to get to. We much prefer this layout over the standard Android one, where you have to scroll up and down. It feels more natural and easier to navigate.
Admittedly, we missed some elements of HTC Sense, such as the Leap screen, which provides a thumbnail version of all your home screen panels, but for the general consumer, TouchWiz does a good job of making Android quite easy to use, almost to the point that it doesn't even look or feel like an Android phone.
Also, for those worried about the TouchWiz interface interfering with future Android updates, Samsung has already said that the entire Galaxy S portfolio will be upgradeable to Android 2.2 and that it has tweaked the interface to make it easier to adapt to future updates. However, the company also noted that without really knowing what Google has planned down the line, there may be a time where updates can't be supported because of hardware limitations or other factors.
The Samsung Captivate is easily AT&T's most feature-rich Android phone. It's a quad-band world phone and offers a speakerphone, conference calling, voice dialing, text and multimedia messaging, and the full range of wireless options: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G, and GPS. Unfortunately, you can't use the smartphone as a mobile hot spot like you will with the Samsung Epic 4G, but you do get access to AT&T's Wi-Fi hot spots and a hot-spot locator app is included on the phone.
The Captivate is compatible with numerous e-mail accounts and social-networking sites, including Gmail, POP3 and IMAP, Microsoft Exchange, Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Exchange aside, setup usually involves simply entering your log-in and password and the phone will do the rest, pulling in contact information, photos, and so forth. The system will do its best to merge the address book data from the multiple accounts, but more often than not, you'll find that you have to go back and link some contacts together, as we did after syncing up our Gmail, Outlook, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. One cool thing is that AT&T backs up your contacts to its cloud-based Address Book, so if you happen to lose or break your phone or if it gets stolen, you will still have all your numbers.
The smartphone offers a unified in-box and calendar, though you can choose to keep your accounts separate if you prefer. As we noted in our Vibrant review, the mail in-box features a tabbed interface but it can get a little hairy if you have a lot of e-mail folders. The Captivate also offers the Write and Go app, where you can compose a message on a notepad and then select your delivery method, whether it be an SMS, an e-mail, or a status update, so you don't have to find and launch each individual app.
Other apps shipping on the Samsung Captivate include a Mini Diary app, Mobile Banking, Where, Yellow Pages Mobile, instant-messaging clients for Google Talk, AIM, Windows Live, and Yahoo, a calculator, a voice recorder, and a memo pad. There are also a number of AT&T-specific services, such as AT&T Music and Video, AT&T Radio, AT&T FamilyMap, and AT&T Navigator, on the device, but just be aware that most require an additional monthly fee after a limited complimentary trial period. More apps are available from the Android Market, but once again, AT&T has blocked the ability to install third-party apps on the Captivate by removing the Unknown sources option under Applications settings. This is quite annoying, especially when other carriers don't put the same restrictions on their Android phones.
The Captivate doesn't come with as many entertainment extras as the Vibrant, but you do get the same music and video player with 5.1-channel surround sound, MobiTV, and a dedicated YouTube player. It will also support Samsung's Media Hub, which will provide movie and TV content from some of the "biggest names in the industry." Samsung has not yet released information on partners or a launch date for the Media Hub.
If you'd rather shoot your own movies, the Captivate offers HD video capture via the 5-megapixel camera. You can adjust the white balance and add effects, but the camera offers many more editing options, including ISO settings, antishake, and blink and smile detection. Without a flash, picture quality was pretty dull for indoor shots, and changing the scene mode to Party/Indoor or Night didn't improve the situation too much. The quality of our HD video clips was quite good.
The Captivate offers 16GB of internal memory, plus an expansion slot (supports up to 32GB cards) so you should have plenty of space to store files. You can share your photos and videos via Facebook, MMS, YouTube, and so forth, and the handset also has TV-out and DLNA capabilities. Like the Vibrant, the Captivate doesn't have an active front-facing camera for video calls.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1,800/1,900MHz) Samsung Captivate in New York using AT&T service and call quality was great. On our end of the conversation, the audio was clear and voices sounded rich without any type of distortion. Meanwhile, friends said they could tell we were using a cell phone, but said the sound was good and didn't report any problems or complaints.
The speakerphone did sound a bit hollow, but there was plenty of volume to hold conversations on a busy New York street. We had no problems pairing the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset or the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones. Voice dialing over Bluetooth will come with Android 2.2.
We were able to get 3G coverage throughout Manhattan, and didn't experience any dropped calls during our testing period. Its data speeds were admirable, as CNET News' full Web site loaded in 17 seconds, whereas CNN's and ESPN's mobile sites came up in 6 seconds and 8 seconds, respectively. The Captivate's Web browser is quite good and offers multiple windows and Flash Lite support. YouTube videos took several seconds to load and played back without interruption, but when switching to high quality, the audio and video didn't quite sync up. MP4 videos we loaded onto the device looked amazing, and we were quite happy listening to tunes through our own headphones. We listened to a range of genres, from hip-hop to classical, and sound quality was rich and balanced.
Armed with Samsung's 1GHz Hummingbird Cortex A8 processor, the Captivate kept up with our demands. Occasionally, there were some very brief delays when exiting out of an app, but overall, the smartphone felt fast.
Samsung ships the Captivate with a 1,500mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 5 hours and 50 minutes and up to 12.5 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, we were able to get 6.2 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. In everyday use, including checking e-mail, music playback, and moderate Web browsing, we were able to go a full day before having to recharge. Anecdotally, we were able to get a full day's use, including checking e-mail, music playback, and moderate Web browsing, from the battery. According to FCC radiation tests, the Captivate has a digital SAR rating of 0.42 watt per kilogram.