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If you're a loyal U.S. Cellular customer, you've likely come to grips with the carrier's lack of high-end smartphones. With the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator, the scrappy Chicago-based wireless provider hopes to counter Verizon Wireless and AT&T with an LTE and well-designed Android device. Though it wears the Galaxy name, however, the Galaxy S Aviator doesn't quite measure up to Samsung's other Galaxy-branded handsets such as the Galaxy Nexus or even Galaxy S II.
Despite its high-flying name, the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator is not a flagship device, but really a midrange smartphone that sits somewhere between the original Galaxy S and last year's Galaxy S II. As a result, I didn't expect to be wowed by the Aviator's plastic style, but after spending some time with it, I like its solid build quality and how its attractive curves and beveled edges tightly hug its big 4.3-inch screen.
The phone's Super AMOLED (800x400-pixel) display is surprisingly nice to look at, too, with vibrant colors and deep blacks. This was even true when stacked up against the higher-resolution HD Super AMOLED (1,280x720-pixel) screen on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Granted, my test movie, "The Godfather," was 720p, but both phones produced comparably vibrant colors and sharp details.
Measuring 5.1 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.46 inch thick, the phone's black slab shape isn't as trim as the Galaxy S II's (4.96 inches by 2.6 inches by 0.35 inch), its main rival on U.S. Cellular. The Aviator's extra girth feels good when gripped, especially for larger hands like mine. A power key placed on the right side is within easy reach, as is a volume bar on the left. Rounding out the phone's connections are a standard 3.5mm headphone jack for wired headphones and an HDMI port to connect to HDTVs and monitors.
Above the screen is a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera which is lower than the Galaxy S II's (2 megapixels). The Aviator's main 8-megapixel sensor and LED flash on back, however, are on par with its slimmer sibling. I also like the feel of the Aviator's back battery cover that sports a matte-black finish, which does a decent job of repelling fingerprints. Removing the thin cover reveals a 16GB microSD card and LTE SIM card you can access without disturbing the phone's 1,600mAh battery.
Running Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator offers the typical Android experience. There are seven home screens, which you can populate with widgets and app shortcuts to your heart's content. By default, the phone showcases Samsung's helpful weather widget, Yahoo News, YouTube, plus a smattering of other staple apps across its main screens.
Google's services are well represented in the Aviator's app tray, with Gmail, Navigation, Talk, Play Books, and YouTube software preloaded. Basic music and video players are onboard, as well. Useful third-party apps include Kindle, Amazon MP3, and Audible audio book software. Of course, you'll need an account or with these services for the apps to be worth your while.
Samsung also installed its Media Hub entertainment store on the Galaxy S Aviator. The app offers a selection of current movies and TV shows for download to rent or buy. The selection actually looks better than solutions offered by other handset makers, namely HTC and its Watch application. For instance I was able to find the first season of "Caprica" (I don't care what anyone thinks, it's a great show) in the Samsung Media Hub, which was missing from HTC Watch. Of course, I could stream it for free via the Netflix app, which I have a subscription to.
Like other Galaxy handsets, Samsung also overlays its TouchWiz interface on top of stock Android. Aside from its weather app powered by AccuWeather and Media Hub store, which sells Movie and TV show rentals, I couldn't find other flashier TouchWiz functions usually installed on the Samsung Galaxy S II. These include Live Panel Widgets, which increase functionality depending on their size, or zooming in and out of images and documents by tilting the phone while touching the screen with both thumbs.
The 8-megapixel camera is another of the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator's bright spots. Indoor test shots of still life were clear with crisp details and accurate color, even under fluorescent lighting. Moving outdoors, the Galaxy S Aviator had no trouble snapping colorful shots in strong sunlight at a nearby park. The green leaves, and red and purple flowers were vibrant, and shadow details weren't lost since images were correctly exposed.
With a maximum resolution of 720p, video I captured with the Galaxy S Aviator was acceptable, though a bit soft and not as clear as from phones capable of full 1080p HD quality. The handset did pick up ambient sounds, such as birds chirping and splashing water.
The Samsung Galaxy S Aviator's Android 2.3 OS is pushed along by an outdated single-core 1GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor complemented by 1.44GHz of internal memory. As you'd expect, these basic specs resulted in pokey mobile performance. I often experienced stutters simply swiping through the Aviator's home screens, and opening apps lacked the pep I typically see on modern dual-core Android devices.
Running the Linpack Android (single thread) test application confirmed my suspicions, with the Galaxy S Aviator turning in a low 16.2 MFLOPS completed in a long 5.17 seconds. By contrast, the HTC One S (T-Mobile) blazed through the same task in 0.82 second and notched a high score of 102.4 MFLOPS (single core).
Sadly, I was unable to verify Galaxy S Aviator's 4G credentials since U.S. Cellular's LTE network is not currently available in New York City. A U.S. Cellular representative explained that the closest LTE region to me was located in Portland, Maine. Now Maine is a glorious state and Portland a truly excellent city with some of the best microbreweries in the world, but that's just too long a drive, my friend.
Additionally, the Aviator roams on Sprint's CDMA EVDO network here in New York, and the data speeds I clocked using the Ookla Speedtest app were decidedly 3G. Average downloads came in at a molasses-like 0.58Mbps; I measured upload speeds at a faster 0.93Mbps.
Samsung Galaxy S Aviator call quality sample Listen now:
Call quality on U.S. Cellular's roaming network was pleasing, though, and calls I placed were clear and static-free. People on the other end also reported that my voice was easy to hear, but they quickly identified that I was calling from a cellular phone. The Aviator's earpiece doesn't get very loud, either, nor does its small speaker placed on the back side.
Samsung rates the Galaxy S Aviator's 1,600mAh battery to provide 12 days of standby time and a usage time of 5.5 hours. On my anecdotal tests, the phone played video for a full 8 hours and 58 minutes before shutting down.
If you're perplexed by the $199.99 Samsung Galaxy S Aviator and where it fits into U.S. Cellular's roster of smartphones, you're not alone. The device features a great screen and everything users need for a basic Android experience and 4G LTE data where you can find it. Yet, its sluggish performance and steep price give me pause. A better deal would be to spring for the Samsung Galaxy S II, which for the same price offers dual-core processing but without 4G.