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Samsung Galaxy Ring review: Poor performance overshadows low price

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If you're looking for a budget prepaid Android smartphone, you can do better than Virgin Mobile's Samsung Galaxy Ring. Although the phone's entry-level specs sound fine on paper -- a 4-inch touch screen, dual-core processor, and 5-megapixel camera -- in the real world, the $149.99 Ring falls short of expectations.

Samsung_Galaxy_Ring_35796829-2284.jpg
6.0

Samsung Galaxy Ring

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy Ring</b> has good call quality and a dedicated camera button, and costs an affordable $150 off-contract.

The Bad

It has poor screen quality, lacks 4G, takes dull photos, and has a very slow processor.

The Bottom Line

Pass on the slow, disappointing Samsung Galaxy Ring in favor of LG's superior Optimus F3.

We've seen high-performing smartphones from Samsung before, like AT&T's 99-cent on-contract Galaxy S3 Mini; that makes it extra-disappointing that the Ring drops several rungs below.

Do yourself a favor and opt instead for the LG Optimus F3, another $150 smartphone with comparable specs, which also includes 4G LTE support.

Entry-level Samsung Galaxy Ring ain't no thing (pictures)

See all photos

Design and build
Visually, the Ring is cut from the same cloth as a fair number of other phones in Samsung's lower-end catalog. Unless you know where to look, you'll have a hard time distinguishing it from the Galaxy Axiom (U.S. Cellular), Galaxy Admire 2 (Cricket), and Galaxy S3 Mini (AT&T).

It has the same bubbly, rounded corners and slick, smooth, glossy surfaces. In fact, I more than once grabbed the wrong phone thinking it was the Ring. The device is bluish-gray, with a strange black border around the screen and front-facing camera, almost like a filter. It comes in at about the same dimensions as its cohort, but thicker: 4.8 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by 0.47 inch deep, and weighing 3.4 ounces.

The phone is comfortable on the ear and in the hand, but it feels a little thick in pockets.

Remember that filter over the screen that I mentioned a minute ago? That's not a good thing. When the 4-inch display is resting, it looks gauzy and opaque gray, almost like e-ink, or the surface of an old-fashioned TV. Samsung displays are often reflective, but the Ring's mirrorlike surface bounces back more than most, more even than the Galaxy Admire 2 and S3 Mini that look so similar.

At least colors are bright and rich with the 800x480-pixel resolution (233ppi), but good luck trying to read anything in bright sunlight. My suggestion: try to find yourself a spot of shade.

The Samsung Galaxy Ring has an incredibly glossy finish and a petite frame. Josh Miller/CNET

Typing on the screen's virtual keyboard is a little cramped, especially if you've handled larger-screen phones. Samsung's trace-to-type software can help take the sting out of tapping if you're tired of accidentally writing the wrong thing.

Navigation is Samsung-standard with a physical home button that also pulls up recent apps (this model doesn't seem to have S Voice loaded by default). Press and hold the Menu button to get at Google Now.

A Micro-USB charger sits at the bottom, and is joined by a microSD card slot (up to 64GB) and volume rocker on the left spine. In a nice change from Samsung's usual, the power/lock button is up top, which should cut down on accidental bootups, and there's a physical camera shutter button on the right.

That 5-megapixel camera with LED flash is on the back. The other half of the camera equation, a 1.3-megapixel camera, sits on the front. You'll need to pop off the back cover if you'd like to remove the 1,750mAh battery.

OS and features
Running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean topped by Samsung's TouchWiz layer, the Ring is reasonably up-to-date. I wouldn't hold my breath for any sponsored upgrades to Android 4.2.2, 4.3, or higher, but you really don't miss too much when it comes to major functionality and interface changes.

The Ring gives you Google's standard package of titles, like Navigation, the Chrome browser, YouTube, and numerous doorways into the Google Play store for entertaining content and apps. Android's more essential mobile tools -- a music player, a calendar, a calculator, a clock system -- come with every device.

The dedicated camera button is a nice touch, or would be, if it launched a little faster. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung and Virgin Mobile, too, pepper the Ring with preloads, like an account manager, featured apps, and a news feed. Mobile ID packs load up apps and wallpaper relating to a certain theme -- say, sports -- into a predesigned profile.

If Android seems a little overloaded for your tastes, the now-standard Easy Mode is Samsung's stab at training wheels. It's a nice touch that you'll see in various forms from several manufacturers.

As for basic communications and connections, the Ring has Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth 4.0 covered, but there's no NFC support, so you won't be able to use Android Beam or Samsung's S-Beam adaptation.

Cameras and video
Samsung's usual 5-megapixel camera can take some snappy pictures, with rich, deep color and sharp edges. The Galaxy Ring, unfortunately, wasn't invited to the photo party. Autofocus is always a boon, and worked well here. Pictures, though, came out faded, with dull colors and indistinct edges. There is an LED flash, but as a general rule, the more natural light you can introduce, the better.

The same mediocrity that afflicts the main camera also makes photos taken with the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera dull and mostly blurry, but still usable if your standards aren't high.

This 5-megapixel camera took surprisingly poor photos. Josh Miller/CNET

If you feel like tinkering with the camera settings, you'll be able to adjust resolution size and white balance, and choose from a few filters and modes, such as night and landscape. There's panorama, which is always a nice option to have, but no designated macro mode. Instead, expect to lean in for close-ups.

I'm sad to say that the Ring's 720p HD video let me down. Image capture was fairly smooth, but the camera once again pumped out dull, flat colors and soft edges instead of sharp, defined lines. Videos shot outdoor in natural lighting will look the best, but you can forget about preserving conversational gems.

The weak microphone wasn't able to pick up individual voices amid the din of outside traffic, and inside, a hilarious conversation among two co-workers and me went almost entirely mute from about 5 or 6 feet away, only picking up their audio when I got within 2 feet. Even then, my own audio sounded quiet when played back at maximum volume over the Ring's speakers. Video sounded louder through my high-quality headphones.

All photos were taken using automatic mode. You can click to enlarge each to its full resolution.

You'd never know from looking that this photo was taken on a clear, sunny, blue-sky day. The green and blue are oversaturated, but other colors are muted. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Details are sparse in this sunlit shot. The camera artificially overexposed the sunlight on these blooms. In real life, the white part was a lighter shade of pink. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

This indoor photo, taken in ample light, is passable. I focused on the large silver ball between the red and purple connectors. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Ring's camera couldn't handle the action in this picture: skin tones and colors are flat and dull, and half the background disappeared. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

This indoor shot of our CNET en Español video presenter was much better. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Taken with harsh flash indoor and at night, the Ring couldn't get a lock on CNET reporter Josh Lowensohn, and swathed his companions in unflattering blue light. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This standard studio shot has a fairly even exposure, but flash is strong and colors look muddy. Josh Miller/CNET

You can also compare photos taken with other smartphones in this gallery.

Call quality
I tested the Galaxy Ring's call quality in San Francisco using Virgin Mobile's CDMA network (800/1900MHz bands). Call quality was actually pretty decent, so long as volume was on the highest setting. The background was totally clear, which was nice, and voices sounded human. The major drawback was that audio quality was intermittently pebbly, and never totally smooth.

On his end of the line, my main test partner said I sounded a little muffled and not entirely clear, but pleasant overall, plus warm and natural.

Samsung Galaxy Ring call quality sample Listen now:

The speakerphone was also quite decent when I tested it at hip level. Once again I maxed out the volume, and although warm and natural, voices also had a slight echoey, fuzzy, and pitched quality. My caller liked the speakerphone. Strong volume and minimal echo made up for my voice sounding a tad muffled.

Performance: Processor, speeds, battery
Don't expect much from the Ring's performance, and it won't disappoint. This 3G-only (EV-DO Rev A) phone surfs Sprint's network at a snail's pace here in San Francisco, though speeds may skip along at a faster rate in your neighborhood.

It took between 3 and 5 minutes to download game and app files and load up desktop versions of graphically heavy Web sites like CNET's. Even the legendarily quick-draw New York Times optimized mobile site took twice the time it usually does (which is seconds) to finish serving up its content.

Samsung Galaxy Ring Virgin Mobile (3G)
Install CNET mobile app (5MB) 8 minutes, 27 seconds
CNET mobile app load 17 seconds
CNET mobile site load 60 seconds
CNET desktop site load 4 minutes, 35 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 35 seconds
Camera boot time 3 seconds software; 4.2 seconds hardware
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.5 seconds with auto-focus

While Wi-Fi was much faster, say 12Mbps downlink versus less than 1Mbps over 3G, photo sharing still experienced a multiple-minute delay.

3G speeds weren't the only derailment. The Ring's 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S2 MSM8655 processor may be dual-core, but its sluggish performance suggests otherwise. The camera took a long time to load, screen selections sometimes took a moment to sink in, and graphics-intensive games (like the ever-popular Riptide GP2) didn't seem particularly bright or rich, or render silky-smooth.

On the Quadrant diagnostic test, the Ring scored 2,545 versus the Galaxy S3 Mini's 5,734 score. For reference, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 garnered a (disputed) score of 23,048.

Diagnostic test results from Speedtest.net and Quadrant. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Anecdotally, a battery charge will last you a full business day, from morning to night, as long as you aren't taxing the phone with constant streaming. The Ring has a rated talk time of up to 8 hours and only seven days standby (!) on its 1,750mAh battery. During a battery drain test here at CNET, the Ring lasted 7.5 hours while playing back video. As a reference point, this puts it in the low middle range.

Storage-wise, you're looking at 1GB RAM and only 4GB internal storage, which makes the Ring a strong candidate for an external storage card. Luckily, it supports up to 64GB. FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 0.6 watt per kilogram.

Make this one a skip
It's a shame that the Samsung Galaxy Ring works better on paper than it does in real life, because its $150 off-contract price will fit nearly every prepaid smartphone buyer's budget. Unfortunately, the phone's price and good call quality can't overcome the slow internal performance, the vapid photography, and the wan screen quality. Ultimately, the Galaxy Ring doesn't justify its sticker price. Virgin Mobile customers should choose the LG Optimus F3 instead; it has comparable specs and 4G LTE for the same cost.

Samsung_Galaxy_Ring_35796829-2284.jpg
6.0

Samsung Galaxy Ring

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 6Performance 6