Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T) review: Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T)

The value is high and the drawbacks are few and far between on the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate.

Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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8 min read

It's said that good things come to those who wait, and if you've been biding your time while looking for a midrange Android smartphone that won't cost you more than a small chunk of dough, you're in luck, because AT&T just recently dropped the price on the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate from $49.99 to $29.99 with a new two-year service agreement.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T)

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T)

The Good

AT&T's <b>Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate</b> has crazy-fast 4G LTE speeds, a dual-core processor, a nice 4-inch SUPER AMOLED screen, 720p HD video, and a terrific price tag.

The Bad

The Exhilarate's camera has some wobbles and the handset may not see an Android 4.0 upgrade.

The Bottom Line

The value is high and the drawbacks are few and far between on the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate.

Price isn't everything, and even $10 for a terrible handset could be $10 too much. Luckily, the Exhilarate is packed with features very similar to those of its next of kin, T-Mobile's Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G. There's AT&T's 4G LTE, which was crazy-fast during my San Francisco tests, and it has a dual-core processor, a lovely 4-inch Super AMOLED display, and a quite decent 5-megapixel camera. There are a few drawbacks, but the value-to-price ratio is all in your favor. Since AT&T is billing it as one of its first ecoconscious handsets that's built and packaged with a smaller carbon footprint, consider it extra credit.

Samsung's Galaxy Exhilarate is a sweet deal (pictures)

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The Galaxy Exhilarate has a simple, familiar design that falls in line with the original Galaxy S family: rounded corners, a black body with a pair of shiny dark gray accents, and a comparatively thicker build. The backing is a simple matte black with a slightly rubbery feel and lightly tactile pattern that's good for grip. At 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.46 inch and 4.6 ounces, it feels thicker and heavier than the lithe Samsung Galaxy S3. Other than that, the Exhilarate feels fairly comfortable in the hand and I had no complaints about it on the ear. Its width didn't bust my back pocket. It felt bulkier there than some phones, but no thicker than the iPhone 4S with a case on it.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T)
The Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate has a nice 4-inch Super AMOLED display and runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Josh Miller/CNET

To me, though, the overall shape of the phone is far less important than the screen quality. Samsung has given the Exhilarate its now-signature Super AMOLED technology on a 4-inch screen, and the results are as nice as they are on similar screens, like on the Galaxy S Blaze 4G and AT&T's Pantech Burst. The WVGA resolution (480x800 pixels) works just fine for the screen size -- your photos and text won't look grainy.

Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera. Below it are four touch-sensitive navigation controls. On the left you'll find the volume rocker, and up top is the 3.5mm headset jack. On the right spine are the microSD card slot for expandable memory (conveniently accessible) and the power button. The phone's heel has the Micro-USB charging port, an awkward placement that always gets in my way. Turn it over and there's the Exhilarate's 5-megapixel camera lens with LED flash.

Android 2.3 brings with it the certainty of hardware features like Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth, in addition to access to Google's online services, plus essential apps like maps and navigation, the calendar, clock, and calculator combo, and Google's stock music player.

The Exhilarate also has the Swype virtual keyboard as an input option, and is NFC-capable -- though you won't be able to turn on NFC (near-field communication) features in the Settings menu so long as the phone keeps its Gingerbread OS.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate
The Exhilarate isn't the thinnest phone around, but it gets the job done. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung and AT&T have added their usual scoop of branded apps to help you manage your phone and share content with other devices. Starting with Samsung, you'll find AllShare and Kies Air, plus the Media Hub and Social Hub. AT&T adds its scanner and family-mapping apps, AT&T Navigator, featured apps, Live TV (the mobile U-Verse app), and the MyAT&T account management program.

Additional apps that greet you from the app tray include Amazon.com and the Amazon Kindle app, a memo and messaging program, Mini Diary, and Quickoffice.There are no fewer than four voice apps, some Google-issued, including voice command, voice search, voice talk, and voice recorder. AT&T rounds out the list of preloads with its usual YP Mobile yellow pages app.

I had no complaints using the Exhilarate to listen to my Google Music collection with my higher-end headphones. I'm usually pretty easy to please when it comes to audio quality, and the songs were nice and loud and didn't sound tinny or fuzzy to my ears. Your experience could vary depending on the quality of your headset and your music files.

Camera and video
By now, Samsung has figured out how to make a good camera, a fact that it's proven time and again with phones in its Galaxy S II and Galaxy S3 lines, especially. Some of Samsung's 5-megapixel camera modules are very good as well, like the camera on the Samsung Focus 2 Windows Phone. However, the Exhilarate's picture-taking prowess doesn't entirely live up to this legacy.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate
The colors were a little hot in this photo, the wrong petals were in focus, and much of the image is out of focus. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can tap to focus, but it isn't continuous, so if your arm is unsteady, you may knock off the focus before you take your shot. Colors looked natural for the most part, but the phone did tend to bring up brighter hues. One shot I took completely oversaturated the fuchsia color of a certain flower petal. In addition, it couldn't separate the petals or show other details.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate
CNET Car Tech editor Antuan Goodwin sure likes coffee. I'm glad his mug is in focus, because his coffee cup is not. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

On the bright side, indoor shots looked pretty good in scenarios with abundant indirect lighting. The studio shot also looked pretty sharp, but had a grayish tint to the edges, while adding a pink center I've never seen in our photo studio. You can find more studio examples from other smartphones in our photo comparison gallery.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate
The studio shot has a pink center and gray edges. Not exactly natural, but better than other cameras. Josh Miller/CNET

On the controls side of the equation, the Exhilarate has multiple scene modes for portrait, landscape, and so on. Shooting modes like Panorama, smile shot, action shot, and cartoon mode are also present. You can take photos in macro, mess with the exposure values, and add a few color effects like sepia and grayscale. You're also able to manually drop the resolution from 5 megapixels to 1.5, or four other sizes in between. I took all my test shots using automatic settings to see how well the camera did straight out of the box, without any additional adjustments.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate
Murals usually photograph well, but this one positively pops. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera was definitely not my favorite. Focusing was sometimes a challenge since the tap-to-focus indicator never made an appearance. The lens is often close enough that you don't have to compete with such a large field of objects to photograph. The image quality will work just fine for self-portraits and video chats.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate
I had to take this photo twice to fix the focus on the green desk-fuzzy. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Video was also a strong suit of the Exhilarate; the camera shoots in 720p HD video. Clips looked crisp and colorful. There wasn't any choppiness or blockiness, but if I fixed my gaze on the legs of a woman who was walking in the corner of the frame, her motions tended to blur together. Audio also sounded good and strong to my ears, without any extra whining. On the whole, I'm happy with daylight video on this phone. The Exhilarate has 2.5GB of user-accessible storage, and room for 32 extra gigabytes in the microSD card slot.

Call quality
I tested the quad-band Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; LTE 700/1700) in San Francisco on AT&T's network. Call quality was decent, even pretty good. There was no background noise on my end and volume was pretty strong. However, there was a discernible amount of static when my regular test caller spoke, and his voice sounded thick and muddied, though natural. We were able to comfortably carry on several longer conversations.

On his end of the line, my calling partner thought I sounded a little unnatural and hollow, but very clear. Volume was also good, he said. However, more than once he mentioned that the Exhilarate cut off my higher frequencies, just like "an old military phone." That's a little before my time, but I'll take his word for it.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone was good when I held the phone at waist level. Volume was strong at maximum volume, and I could understand everything that my caller said when inside a relatively quiet office, but there were no volume reserves if I had to take the call out on the street, in a car loud with road noise, or in a busy newsroom. The phone also buzzed in my hand with the strength of the speakerphone; this effect was subtler at lower volumes. For his part, my test caller liked the sound of my voice over speakerphone and said I sounded very clear, though a bit indistinct, with roughly the same voice quality as the standard speaker.

LTE and processor
This is my favorite part of this review, because the Exhilarate was an absolute speed demon in San Francisco. It reached diagnostic speeds higher than I've seen on any other carrier or handset, and that's exciting for the phone, for the network, and for the future of the industry.

AT&T's Galaxy S3 was very fast, but the speeds on the Exhilarate blew it away. The diagnostic app Speedtest.net clocked speeds over 40Mpbs downlink four times, peaking at 54.43. Wow. The whiz consistently returned speeds in the 20s and 30s time after time, and the vast majority of speeds were in the double digits. Uplink speeds were also incredibly fast. There were some single-digit returns for 4Mbps and 7Mbps up, but many were in the midteens. I tested in a variety of neighborhoods.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate
Speeds knocked my socks off here in San Francisco. These tests were taken different days in different parts of town. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

One problem I had was that the app frequently crashed between the download and upload tests, citing a "network error." This happened so often, I reinstalled the app. It still occurred, which could indicate hiccups in AT&T's network, despite breathtaking speeds.

I also performed plenty of real-life tests, downloading apps and loading Web sites. The Exhilarate updated and installed 11 Google Play apps in just a few minutes. It also downloaded and installed the Riptide GP game (41.74MB) in 35.5 seconds; that corresponded with a comparatively lower SpeedTest score of 8.99Mbps down. CNET's mobile site loaded up in 3.3 seconds and 2.7 seconds from a clean, uncached browser, and the full desktop view completely loaded in a slower 33 seconds on the first try and 17.3 seconds on the second attempt.

The Exhilarate's 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 APQ8060 processor is no slouch. It did the trick serving up apps and letting me navigate around without delay.

Battery life and SAR
The Galaxy Exhilarate has a rated talk time of 7 hours and 10.4 days standby time on its 1,750mAh battery. I used the phone very heavily during my testing period, and noticed that it didn't last quite as long as other phones -- but it did last a lot longer than some other rival phones in the same category. We'll continue our battery drain tests and will update this section with those results.

Radio emissions are part of every phone, and the FCC requires all cell phones to emit fewer than 1.6 watts per kilogram. According to FCC tests, the Exhilarate has a digital SAR of 0.96 watt per kilogram.

The Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate started off looking good on paper, and got better and better throughout the course of my testing. I'm not sure if the handset is always faster than others, or if I got lucky with my review unit and testing pattern, but AT&T's LTE speeds were on fire. The screen, the processor, and the video deliver; and the price tag that's now 40 percent lower just keeps ratcheting up the value.

There are still trade-offs to be made. The Exhilarate isn't superlative in any category apart from LTE, and I was expecting more from the camera. The phone isn't fancy or slim, and there aren't as many bells and whistles as there are on a flagship phone like the Galaxy S3. Think of it as a really good midrange phone and you'll be happy. Otherwise, you may wind up frustrated at the good-but-not-great camera and a phone that could easily ride Gingerbread for some time.

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T)

Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate (AT&T)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 8