Samsung retreads some well-worn turf with the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G for T-Mobile, a Galaxy S phone by design, but with much more power under the hood than the original, thanks to its 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor, 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, and Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread OS.
Similar to other Galaxy S phones, the Blaze 4G packs a strong 5-megapixel camera and a 4-inch Super AMOLED screen. In good news for consumers, smartphones on contract are becoming simultaneously cheaper and more powerful, like this Blaze, which comes in at $149.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate card--the Samsung Vibrant cost $199.99 in 2010. The end result is a satisfying upper-middle-class handset capable of riding T-Mobile's fastest HSPA+ 42 network.
One glance tells you all you need to know about the Blaze 4G's lineage as a Galaxy S series phone. As with other phones in that family, like T-Mobile's original Samsung Vibrant and even the Samsung Focus Windows phone for AT&T, the Blaze 4G is all-black with corners much rounder than the Samsung Galaxy S II's barely rounded rectangle. This Blaze is true to its forebears with a thicker top and more contoured back. The back, incidentally, is fairly smooth and covered with a soft-touch finish. It feels good in the hand, though a little stripped-down, more utilitarian than premium.
Compared with the recent rash of jumbo phones, the Blaze 4G is more toned-down, measuring 4.9 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide and 0.44 inch deep. At 4.5 ounces, it feels neither too light nor too heavy for its size. While it comes closer to fitting into my front pocket than, say, a Samsung Galaxy Nexus or a Samsung Galaxy S II, it slides into my purse and back pocket without any problems.
The screen is a comely almost-4-inch touch screen (3.97 inches, to be exact) featuring Samsung's terrific Super AMOLED display and a WVGA 480x800-pixel resolution. The screen is colorful and crisp, and bright at automatic levels. Of course, it isn't quite as sharp as the Galaxy Nexus' HD AMOLED display, but it will give you an eyeful all the same.
Samsung supplied the Blaze 4G with the customary Samsung Touch Wiz interface to ride on top of Android 2.3.6 Gingerbread, though the OS should be upgradable to Ice Cream Sandwich at some point. Swype provides the virtual keyboard on this phone; if you don't like it, the Samsung keyboard is your other default alternative. Sadly, Samsung left out the standard Android keyboard.
Above the screen you'll see the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, and below it is where the four touch-sensitive navigation buttons sit for calling up the menu, going home, going back, and searching.
Flip the phone over to get a look at the 5-megapixel camera and LED flash. Together, they can shoot 720p HD video. The left spine is where you'll find the volume rocker; the 3.5mm headset jack is up top, and the Micro-USB port is on the bottom. The phone's right spine houses the power button and a miscroSD card slot that comes equipped with a 4GB card for storage right out of the box. If you need more space, you can upgrade up to a 32GB card.
All Android phones come packaged with Wi-Fi, GPS, and some form of Bluetooth (3.0, in this case). You'll also always find support for text and multimedia messaging, multiple e-mail inboxes, and optionally syncing contacts with social networks.
Several Google apps and services are standard, too, like maps, search, voice search, turn-by-turn voice navigation, and YouTube. The phone also has a calculator, a calendar, a clock, a music player, and the browser. There are certain Samsung apps you'll almost always see: AllShare for media-sharing, Kies Air for desktop syncing, and the Samsung Media Hub and Social Hub.
T-Mobile likewise marks its territory with several preinstalled apps. Qik for video chats is one, but you'll also find T-Mobile TV, Netflix, Telenav for turn-by-turn directions, Yelp, and the Polaris Office productivity app. Slacker, Zinio, and Lookout Security also make an appearance.
You'll find even more features if you glance at the settings. T-Mobile provides Wi-Fi calling, which lets you place calls over a Wi-Fi network rather than its voice network, should you choose (it deducts minutes from your plan, unless you add Wi-Fi calling to your plan). There are some mostly great motion options that let you do things like turn over the phone to mute a call. Enabling the hot-spot feature will supply a network connection for up to eight other connected devices. Thanks to the battery, the Blaze 4G is NFC-ready (it's built in).
Samsung has blessed the Blaze 4G with some pretty decent cameras. The main lens on the rear takes photos up to 5 megapixels in size, and on the whole, it takes some nice shots. Sure, photos aren't quite as detailed as they are on Samsung's best 8-megapixel shooter, but they are saturated and vibrant when blown up and viewed on a desktop monitor, as well as on the phone's screen. The camera software has all the features and effects you'd expect to see on a modern smartphone camera, and it's easy to navigate.
The lens will also shoot video in 720p HD. Video quality was pretty good overall, even though the camera had some difficulty adjusting to an abundance of natural light and could fade the picture. My voice recorded fine, but as with all phone cameras, the farther away the subjects are from the mic, the harder they are to hear. Video playback wasn't jerky at all, and the picture was fairly clear, though if you compare this with the crispest 1080p video, you'll definitely notice a difference.
I also tested out the front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera. Photo color was fair, but unsurprisingly pixelated when viewed on the phone or computer screen--not that I mind the natural air-brushed look when I happen to be the subject of said shot and the camera is held so close to my face. The Blaze 4G has 4GB of internal memory, but remember that you can expand up to 32GB after you use the internal memory and the preinstalled 4GB card.
I tested the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G on T-Mobile's network here in San Francisco. A quad-band GSM phone (850/900/1800/1900MHz), the Blaze 4G also supports HSPA+ 42, T-Mobile's fastest-available network, which can theoretically reach download speeds of 42Mbps.
Call quality was strong overall. To my ears, volume was nice and loud at a medium-low setting and voices sounded natural and warm. There was some low-grade white noise every time the caller spoke, but it didn't mar the conversation, and the line remained otherwise clear.
On their end, my callers also experienced high volume. One was excited by the level, and the other called it "uncomfortably loud." They agreed that my voice sounded true to life, and that the line was clear, but they said that when I spoke, I sounded removed, almost as if I were speaking from a large, echoey room.
Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G (T-Mobile) call quality sample Listen now:
Here's a surprise: the speakerphone sounded great from waist level, where I held the phone; it was really loud and clear. Of course there was some echoing because of the speaker on the back of the phone spraying out audio, but the natural quality of the voices came through, and I didn't hear any blips, crackles, or other disruptions. I could comfortably carry on a long conversation over the Blaze 4G's speakerphone if I had to. My callers largely agreed on the points of volume and call clarity, pointing out that it did gain more of that echoey quality.
Internal processing speed and data speed have always been important, but the 4G race heightens the urgency of manufacturer and carriers' effort to sell fast phones. To that end, the Blaze 4G has a zippy 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 processor (based on the ARM Cortex-A7, for you processor nerds). It's safe to say that processing lag never seemed to get in my way.
The phone's 4G speeds, on the other hand, presented a few wobbles during my test period. As a reminder, the Blaze 4G operates on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 network, a souped-up 3G network that theoretically makes it one of the fastest data phones that T-Mobile can offer. At times, there was noticeable slowness when it came to surfing the Web, streaming video, and loading apps that required an Internet connection to download data. It's still faster than 3G, but if you're aspiring to be the fastest draw in the West, you might want to tone down your expectations. For instance, the diagnostic Speedtest.net app reported download speeds ranging from 0.18Mbps to 2, 3, 5, and even 11Mpbs. Upload speeds peaked at a sluggish 1.12Mbps.
One last note on the topic is that every carrier has its weak points when it comes to coverage, so my tests may not sync up with yours if you're in a strong T-Mobile zone.
The Blaze 4G has a 1,750mAh battery that delivers a rated talk time of 7 hours and 9.5 days standby time. We'll continue to test battery drain in-house. FCC tests measured a digital SAR of 0.69 watt per kilogram.
Data speed may not have been as strong as I would have liked when I tested the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G in San Francisco, but I would still recommend the Android smartphone overall. It may not necessarily lead the pack in terms of camera strength or screen size--that honor belongs to phones like the Galaxy S II and the HTC Amaze 4G--but it does offer some really consistent features on a phone that's comfortable in the hand, and $150 is quite reasonable. I would also take data speeds with a grain of salt. I've had no trouble with T-Mobile's phones and network in the past, but the Blaze didn't seem as speedy as promised in my usual haunts. Still, if you don't need a new phone this instant, I might recommend waiting to compare the Blaze with the HTC One S--expected to arrive sometime by late spring--which is an Ice Cream Sandwich phone with an 8-megapixel camera and almost no shutter lag.