A brand-new phone for AT&T's brand-new Aio Wireless prepaid arm, the Samsung Galaxy Amp does a fairly good job balancing entry-level Android features with cost.
Ringing in at $129.99 off-contract -- or $99.99 during an online promotion -- the Amp has a few notable points in its favor, like its strong call quality (it is a phone, after all), Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and a smooth, compact frame. However, exceptionally cramped storage space forces a microSD card investment on you, it has more-limited software than Samsung's top phones, and the phone lacks 4G LTE support. It also doesn't help that Aio's footprint encompasses only a handful of cities as the carrier starts out.
First-time smartphone seekers, read on to consider the Amp, but you may also want to peek at T-Mobile's $120 Nokia Lumia 521 (which has comparable specs, including the lack of LTE) if you're also open to getting a Windows Phone device.
Design and build
The Galaxy Amp is all Samsung, from its highly rounded corners and black face down to the oblong Home screen button on its chinny chin chin. A glossy gray trim and smooth, finely textured backing on the black back cover add elements of class you don't see in many cheerfully plastic smartphones of this type.
At 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.43 inch thick, the Galaxy Amp feels compact and pocketable by today's gargantuan standards. It tips the scale at 4.4 ounces, making the phone solid and substantial in the hand, even a little heavy compared with larger designs. It's comfortable on the ear, and smooth edges help guide the phone into pockets.
A black bezel frames the 4-inch AMOLED display with its 800x480-pixel WVGA resolution (that's 233 ppi, by the way). Colors are bright and colorful with the brightness level set to half, and the screen is easy to read. Sure, finer details, images, games, and movies won't look nearly as crisp as they do on HD screens with pixel densities in the high 300 and 400 range, but you won't be squinting at the Amp's screen, wondering if it's time to see your optometrist.
The phone's VGA front-facing camera perches above the display; below it, a physical Home button and two capacitive keys navigate you around Google Now, your "recents" list, and settings. On the right spine, a microSD card slot awaits your external storage, near the sliver of a power/lock button. You'll find the volume rocker on the left, the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom, and the 3.5 millimeter headset jack on the top.
Flip the phone around for the 5-megapixel camera module and LED flash just below.
OS and features
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean guides the Galaxy Amp, topped by Samsung's TouchWiz interface. At least, it's one version of TouchWiz. You won't find quite as many features on the Amp as you will on Samsung's other top phones, like the Galaxy S4 series, but there is Easy Mode (which is like Android with training wheels); options to customize the lock screen; and two gesture-triggered controls.
In addition, the Amp supplies full Jelly Bean access to Google Now and enriched notifications. There's all the usual DLNA and VPN support, though Aio Wireless cuts off the hot-spot feature, which other carriers generally ask you to pay for anyhow.
Samsung's default keyboard gives you two options for ways to type. There's the traditional one-by-one pecking, or you can trace the word you want. Swype, another input alternative, also comes preinstalled if you'd like to make a switch. Also onboard is Samsung's S Voice app, which competes with Google Now as a personal assistant.
All the typical Android capabilities are here, too, from multiple e-mail and social networking sign-ins to the full array of Google's apps and services, my favorite being Google Maps and Navigation.
Cameras and video
Image quality from the Galaxy Amp's 5-megapixel camera was decent. Colors came out looking rich and round. Yes, Samsung's shooters can oversaturate some hues, but on the whole, I got casual, usable pictures I could upload or share with friends.
Not having continuous autofocus isn't surprising on a starter phone like this one, but it will add a few seconds to your setup time if you manually focus before snaps. You can also press the onscreen shutter button to start sharpening your scene. In a few photos I shot at dusk, the camera took its sweet time readying the shot before I could capture. If you have squirmy kids or dogs in your life, consider yourself warned.
Samsung limited shooting options and effects for this lower-end device, so while you will see Panorama mode, you won't shoot landscapes in HDR -- though you will get essentials for white-balance and scene options, plus a few extras besides.
On the video side, 720p HD capture is available, but it strangely isn't selected by default, so you'll need to choose it yourself for the highest-quality clips. For smaller videos you plan to upload or share, you could also opt to drop down a few resolution notches.
Video quality itself was perfectly acceptable in 720p HD, especially for the type of phone this is.
I can't say the same for the front-facing VGA camera, which took grainy, blurry photos. While you can use it for video capture and chats, your friends on the other side are going to see a whole lot of blur and not much you.
If you plan to take a few photos and any video, then you're also planning to invest in some external storage -- up to 32GB. The Amp's 4GB limit is really more like 1GB and a little more for your own use, and installing apps and shooting film will eat through that threshold before you know it.
Call quality was impressively strong when I tested the Galaxy Amp (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) in San Francisco using Aio's wireless network.
I could hear my testing partner well on medium volume, and never needed to raise the levels or activate the extra onscreen audio boost control. The call was perfectly clear and voices sounded natural to my ears, although my partner did sound slightly muffled and tufts of distortion cropped up here and there. On his end, my testing partner called the Amp's call quality one of the best he's ever heard. It was clear and loud, and had terrific fidelity without any noise or distortion.
Samsung Galaxy Amp call quality sample Listen now:
Speakerphone was also great overall when I held the phone at hip level. My partner's voice sounded higher, more shrill, and a little buzzy, but I still didn't have to adjust the volume and the call didn't pick up too much echo. On the other end of the line, speakerphone remained excellent, with warm, human voices and only minimal room echo.
Aio's 4G speeds were consistent when I took the Galaxy Amp around San Francisco, but not anywhere near as fast as parent AT&T's LTE network.
Speeds measured through the diagnostic Speedtest.net app consistently hovered in the 3Mbps downlink range and 1Mbps up. Consistency is key, even if these registered as 3G rather than 4G speeds. In real-world tests, mobile-optimized Web sites like CNET's still loaded swiftly enough, and apps downloaded and installed without too much trouble. If you stream video and radio you'll notice a lag compared with faster phones, but for everyday communication use, performance was far from crippling.
The same can be said for internal performance, too. You get what you pay for with the 1GHz dual-core processor, which is far from being Samsung's most high-performing. Again, if you've never used a top-of-the-line device, you won't know the snappiness you're missing. Gamers won't show the fine detail they would on a top-of-the-line device, but that's no surprise.
|Samsung Galaxy Amp (Aio Wireless)|
|Download CNET mobile app (3.7MB)||20 seconds|
|Load up CNET mobile app||10.7 seconds|
|CNET mobile site load||8.6 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||20.6 seconds|
|Boot time to lock screen||36.2 seconds|
|Camera boot time||2.4 seconds|
|Camera, shot-to-shot time||2.5 seconds, with auto-focus|
Battery life should last through your workday on the Amp's 1,500mAh ticker, which has a rated talk time of 7.5 hours over 3G and 16.7 days in standby mode. That's less exact when you're using 4G, but we'll fill in with results from our in-house battery drain test.
As for radiation levels, the FCC measured a digital SAR of 0.77 watt per kilogram.
It's gratifying to see more and more smartphones come in below $150 off-contract. There's always a trade-off between price and features, but I'm gratified that Samsung nailed it on call quality, and the rest of the feature set, if not supercharged, is at least complete.
If you're within Aio's extremely limited startup footprint, the Galaxy Amp is stacked with more up-to-date goodies than Android phones from MetroPCS and Boost Mobile for about the same price. However, no-contract shoppers open to Windows Phone should still check out T-Mobile's Nokia Lumia 521.
As for Aio itself, how well AT&T can wield Aio against T-Mobile, and Sprint's Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile to a lesser extent, comes down to how quickly the network can expand. With the Galaxy Amp and a few other smartphones, Aio is off to a fair start.