As the carriers dash to strengthen and expand their 4G networks, more high-quality 4G-capable phones are hitting the market. T-Mobile's Samsung Exhibit 4G is the sixth 4G phone for T-Mobile's HSPA+ network. Like the T-Mobile Sidekick 4G, the Exhibit is a more affordable handset that's still feature-rich without leaning too heavily on your wallet. What helps it stand out is a balance of value with up-to-the minute features. In addition to its speed, it runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread, Google's most current OS. It has a punchy 1GHz processor, two cameras, movie rentals, and live and on-demand programming from T-Mobile TV.
The Exhibit costs just $79.99 after a mail-in rebate and with a new, two-year service agreement, and it comes in black and violet. (We reviewed the black one here.)
The 3.5-inch touch screen has a 480x800 WVGA resolution and support for 16 million colors. The screen itself feels nice and smooth, and looks bright and colorful, as long as you're not trying to use it in direct sunlight, which washes it out. The screen size hits our lower limit of what feels useful for a smartphone. Typing on the Samsung and default Swype keyboards was more cramped in portrait mode, and reading Web sites isn't as easy as on a 4-inch screen, but the Exhibit isn't so dinky to make composition and browsing impossible.
Samsung has bestowed its custom TouchWiz interface on the Exhibit. Translation: you get five customizable home screens preloaded with various widgets, shortcuts, and app icons. You can add two more screens, too, and pinch the home screens for a thumbnail view of all your screens. There are four static onscreen buttons for the dialer, address book, texting, and applications. Instead of scrolling vertically as you would with stock Android to view your apps, TouchWiz has you swipe horizontally. There are also Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and other controls you can access by pull-down menu at the top of any home screen.
We're fairly neutral about Samsung's custom interface, as long as it doesn't get in the way of OS updates, as they sometimes do. Since the Exhibit 4G already runs on Google's most current Android operating system to date, we have no objections.
Above the screen is a VGA camera lens for self-portraits and video chats. Below the screen are three light-up touch-sensitive buttons that correlate to the menu, back button, and search. Just south of those is a central Home button. Press and hold it to see your most recent apps, and to access the preinstalled task manager app.
The phone's right spine houses the power button; on the left spine you'll find the volume rocker and the microSD card slot. The Exhibit comes with a 4GB card preloaded, and ultimately holds up to 32GB. Up top is the micro-USB charging port with a hinged plastic door, and the 3.5 millimeter headset jack. A 3-megapixel camera lens and LED flash are on the phone's back cover. The Exhibit unfortunately doesn't have a camera shutter button, so you'll need to launch the camera and trigger the shutter from the onscreen controls.
Google's app and services are all here: Gmail, search, maps with turn-by-turn voice navigation, Places, Talk, and YouTube. There's a clock, a calendar, a photo gallery, and a calculator, as well a thousands of apps in the Android Market--over 200,000 the last time we checked. Android's built-in music player is pretty basic fare, and as usual, Samsung's TouchWiz interface dresses it up with some cooler graphics.
T-Mobile and Samsung went crazy preloading the Exhibit with apps, which you typically can't uninstall. We won't list them all, but we will touch on the biggies. First, there's Qik, the Skype-owned (now, Microsoft-owned) video chat app that makes use of the Exhibit's front-facing VGA camera. For media entertainment, there's also the Samsung MediaHub, a portal to TV and movie rentals. T-Mobile has its own solution too, with T-Mobile TV, a $9.99-per-month service for streaming live and on-demand programs. It has a free 30-day trial to get you started.
AllShare is Samsung's system for sharing multimedia to DLNA devices. DriveSmart is a native application on the Exhibit that will divert your incoming texts and calls to either your Bluetooth headset or to voice mail, sending a text notice in return that you're driving and can't get to the phone. T-Mobile's other services include Wi-Fi calling, visual voice mail, and shortcuts to online stores. There are also some productivity apps, there's the Lookout app for mobile security (free trial), and there's a social networking app called Write and Go, which lets you update status messages to sites, or send them as a text. Bejeweled 2 and Scrabble are two of the smartphone's onboard games.
We were generally pleased with the camera and camcorder, which both feature Google's usual tools for exposure, white balance, self-timers, and the works. Although we've certainly seen better quality on more premium cameras, the Exhibit did a good job taking outdoor photos, and it struggled less than other shooters on indoor shots, even if not every indoor or night shot was the greatest. Color fidelity tended to suffer indoors, with images darkening and looking less vibrant once the picture processed.
We were impressed that the auto-focus succeeded in mostly stabilizing a well-lit inside image shot from moving exercise equipment. Our biggest complaint was the lag we found in the camera software. We missed a few choice shots waiting for the shutter to snap.
Video replay was smooth, without jerkiness, even while we walked and shot. We did notice a second of pixelation in one video, however. Volume was also high and colors were true, though unsurprisingly sharper and more vibrant for videos recorded outdoors. As usual, you can use photos on your phone or export videos and images to share via e-mail, messaging, and social networks.
The Exhibit has 512MB RAM and comes with a 4GB expandable card preinstalled. It takes up to 32GB memory total.
Speakerphone impressed us with strong volume, although it did decrease slightly for our listeners. We heard a faint rattle at times when our callers spoke, and voices had the characteristically tinny overtones we always get with this feature. For their part, callers said we sounded clear, with no background noise.
4G performance is the looming question on any 4G phone, and from where we sit, the Exhibit largely delivers on its promise. Speeds were pretty zippy on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, although they never came close to T-Mobile's stated theoretical speeds of 21Mbps for downloads and 5.76Mbps for uploads. Part of that is because actual speeds vary by everything from network strength in your location to the network load; that is, how many people are using data at a given time. It's also common for us San Franciscans to clock slower speeds than our New York colleagues. Our diagnostic tests using the Speedtest.net app are in keeping with the trend, averaging from about 4Mbps to 6Mbps down (7.4Mbps was our high) and ranging from 0.36 to 1.37Mbps up in a series of tests.
To accompany the diagnostic results, we also ran the usual real-world tests. It took about 6 to 7 seconds to load CNET's mobile site and only 20 seconds to completely load the graphics-heavy full CNET.com. The New York Times' mobile site loaded in 9 seconds, followed by just 13 seconds to load in full. Even with the stopwatch turned off, speeds were markedly faster with the Exhibit than with your typical 3G phone.
Navigating the phone was no problem with the Exhibit's 1GHz Hummingbird processor. Again, the only complaint is the lag time between pressing the onscreen camera control and having the software process the image; it wasn't as immediate a response as we would have liked.
The Exhibit has a 1,500maH lithium ion battery and a rated battery life of 6.5 hours talk time and 14.5 days. Keep in mind that heavy data usage will shrink how many hours your battery lasts throughout the day, even if you're not a big talker. We had a tested talk time of 6 hours and 18 minutes. FCC tests measured the Exhibit's digital SAR at 0.57 watts/kilogram.