If you're seeking an affordable Android phone on T-Mobile, the Samsung Galaxy Light is a serious choice. There's nothing flashy or even particularly interesting about a this 4-inch, entry-level smartphone that just looks like a slightly mutated Samsung Galaxy S3. Still, its 4G LTE is pretty fast, the screen is bright and colorful, and Samsung has filled it with many of the software extras you come to expect on its phones.
Its $240 all-in price puts the Light at the bottom end of the price range, which is exactly where it belongs. It isn't the least expensive device that the carrier sells -- you can get the LG Optimus F3 for $168 and the Nokia Lumia 521 for $150 -- but it does slide in under the QWERTY-equipped LG Optimus F3Q for $312 and the much better appointed Nexus 5 for $396.
If you don't want to pay the full cost up front, T-Mobile lets you buy the phone for $0 down, and $10 per month for 24 months.
Design and build
Peer at it from just the right angle in just the right lighting and you can make out the Galaxy Light's cocoa-brown color winking at you. Most of the time, though, it just looks generically dark gray or muddy black, though always gleaming with the high-gloss finish that Samsung's been using for years now.
Although it's a tad thick (0.4-inch), it's a compact device with a 4-inch display. The handset itself has rounded shoulders and stands 4.8 inches tall and 2.5 inches wide. It's the first phone in a long time that sinks into my back pocket, though it'll still be a tight squeeze in snug slacks with peewee front pockets. The Light feels good on my ear, and at 4.3 ounces, it isn't too hefty.
Its 4-inch AMOLED display is colorful as always when you glance at the screen and at Web sites, with bright hues that shine out in an 800x480-pixel screen resolution (233 ppi). Although we're seeing ever-higher pixel densities these days on high-end phones, this resolution is appropriate for a 4-inch screen. Sure, it isn't as crisp as an iPhone 4, but you'll be able to read Web pages and take in Facebook albums without strain. The smaller screen means a tinier virtual keyboard that lets you either trace or peck out words.
Below the display, Samsung has adjusted the dimensions of the Light's capsule-shaped physical home button to make it taper at the ends. This gives the impression of a slightly bigger target space in the center of the button. The capacitive Menu and Back buttons lie on either side. You press and hold Home to see your recent apps, double-press to open Samsung's S Voice app, and press and hold the Back button for Google Now.
Ports and buttons fall into the standard Samsung locations, with the power button on the right spine, the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom, the slim volume rocker on the left, and the headset jack up on top. Flip the phone over to locate the 5-megapixel camera and LED flash. Behind the back cover, you can remove the battery and also slide in a microSD card, up to 64GB at the upper limit.
OS and apps
If you define the word as "scant" and not as "illuminating," Light is a descriptive term for the phone's features haul. Samsung paints the Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean OS with its own TouchWiz layer, which gives the phone a specific look and feel, plus a few additional features that you'll find sprinkled around, like gesture controls.
Apart from the basics from Google, T-Mobile and Samsung preload their own apps for managing your T-Mobile account and finding Samsung apps, for instance. Partner apps are really kept to a minimum this time around, which is a nice change from the norm. Lookout mobile phone security is one exception; this app pins to your notifications bar and is hard to cancel -- you'll need to disable it if you'd rather take your chances.
GPS, Wi-Fi, and standard communications standards are a given. The Light's Bluetooth version is nice and current at 4.0, and the phone supports DLNA, Wi-Fi calling, and HD Voice. NFC is here too, and steps in as the major protocol behind the preloaded Isis mobile wallet for making mobile payments at participating cash registers. In addition, you'll find VPN, a voice recorder, and T-Mobile's subscription TV service that you can opt into for $13 per month.
Cameras and video
The Light's 5-megapixel camera is blessed with an LED flash, panorama, and several other modes. It has loads of presets you can adjust to tweak image quality, but if you're a stickler for high-quality photos, this isn't your smartphone.
Images on the Light were absolutely adequate, but the camera dulled colors, while images sometimes looked too "soft." Photos generally looked better outdoors rather than in, and the strong flash should be used judiciously, especially in atmospherically-lit areas. The shooter will autofocus for you, just not continuously, so it'll take time to refocus between shots, which might result in you losing your moment.
Unless you enjoy the grainy, choppily airbrushed look of the Light's front-facing VGA camera, you should plan on avoiding selfies and video chats.
The 720p HD video capture won't look as smooth or detailed on the Light as clips taken at 1080p HD resolutions on other phones, but this handset at least faithfully captured the scene. Colors were still a tad dull, and the camera didn't adjust for new lighting situations as the video changed scenes, but the microphone picked up my voice loudly and clearly while I narrated the action. Video presets and options are minimal but include shortening the length to make it fit an SMS.
You can compare standard studio shots in this photo gallery with pictures taken with other smartphones.
Speeds: Network, battery, and processor
LTE speeds on the Galaxy Light ranged from OK to outstanding when measured via the diagnostic app Speedtest.net. During more prime-time hours, download speeds stayed in the single digits; but in the earlier morning hours when I had the network all to myself, they hovered around 13Mbps down and even spiked at 44Mbps down. Upload speeds consistently stayed in the lower to upper teens.
In real-world scenarios, T-Mobile's network performed admirably, with Web pages loading up quickly enough and images downloading. Videos streamed just fine for me, though your experience always depends on the network strength and congestion exactly where you are.
In an unusual turn vis a vis the rest of the specs, the Galaxy Light amps things up -- at least on paper -- with a 1.4GHz quad-core processor. As with network data speeds, I used a diagnostic app, Quadrant, to check processor performance. The result, a score of 8,500, is a bit faster than the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini (7,398) and just about on par with Motorola's Droid Maxx (8,804). Still, it's far behind a phone like the HTC One, which posted a score of 11,862.
These results are here for guidance, but the real test is how the phone works in your hands.
Navigation and app loading were fast enough not to really notice any lag, though I wasn't bowled over by the speed at which things happened, either. Still, laggy processing power is a major complaint that keeps popping up for phones of this class, so as far as I'm concerned, the absence of frustration is a win.
|Samsung Galaxy Light
|Install CNET mobile app (5MB)
|Load up CNET mobile app
|CNET mobile site load
|CNET desktop site load
|Boot time to lock screen
|Camera boot time
|Camera, shot-to-shot time
|About 3 seconds, with autofocus
Gameplay for the graphically heavy Riptide GP2, however, wasn't as immersive or richly detailed on the Galaxy Light as it is on other, better-appointed smartphones. It just didn't have the same crispness, smoothness, or even pop of color. Comparatively, the whole thing seemed dulled. Then again, the game didn't lag, start, or crash, which is the main thing.
The Light has a smaller storage capacity as these things go, 8GB of ROM. However, you can expand that storage to 64GB. It has 1GB RAM.
A 1,800mAh battery gives you a rated talk time of 12.5 hrs and 19 days standby time. During our lab test for continuous talk time, the device lasted 9.65 hours.
If you keep tabs on radiation, the Galaxy Light has a digital SAR of 1.18 watts per kilogram.
Call quality was pretty impressive when I tested the Light on T-Mobile's GSM network (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) here in San Francisco. Volume was strong at about three-quarters capacity, with just a tiny bit of distortion. My test partner's voice lacked a touch of warmth, but beyond that he sounded human and familiar, and very clear.
My test partner agreed that the call was clear and comfortably loud, with a small amount of distortion that gave me, in his words, a "dull, canned sound." He said I sounded like the higher frequencies in my voice were being cut off or stripped away. As with my experience, the line was completely clear of buzzes, hiccups, and other interruptions.
Samsung Galaxy Light call quality sample Listen now:
The speakerphone wasn't bad when I held the phone at hip level. Volume stayed strong, but I did notice that the voice quality shifted, making it sound like my caller's voice jumped an octave. I heard a little echo and a faint, repeating crackle, but not so much as to risk impeding the conversational flow. My partner agreed that speakerphone volume was consistently good, and that he detected only a little muffling. He was impressed that the phone didn't contribute to the speakerphone's natural echoing.
Buy it or skip it?
The Samsung Galaxy Light certainly isn't the only budget option you have with T-Mobile, but it's a good enough choice to keep you from running off to a rival carrier for a better selection. While nothing stands out about the Light, it doesn't fail in any one aspect, and the price is a very wallet-friendly $240, or $10 a month for two years. Yes, it's half the phone of, say, a Samsung Galaxy S4, but it's also half the price.
I have no qualms recommending the phone, so long as you know that you're getting purely entry-level hardware features and a slightly thicker, smaller in-hand feel. However, for $100 more, you can graduate up to the Nexus 5, which is a much more powerful experience that's still hundreds of dollars less than a premium phone. Definitely choose the Galaxy Light over other cheap T-Mobile Android offerings, like the Alcatel One Touch Fierce and Evolve.