Phones with a keyboard are becoming a bit of an endangered species, but those who prefer physical buttons over virtual squares can take solace in the Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G, an Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich handset that runs on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 4G network.
The specs pop it into the high middle range. It has a lovely 4-inch screen, a 1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, and an a 5-megapixel camera that takes quite good shots. It also has a front-facing camera, a spacious slide-out QWERTY keyboard, and some of the best call quality I've ever heard on a smartphone, you know, for those of you who actually place the occasional call.
Not everyone will love the bulkier size (that's a keyboard for you), and I had a few complaints about the keyboard itself, but the price is fair at $149.99 after a $50 mail-in-rebate card and with a new two-year service agreement, and the Relay 4G offers much for those who prefer precision typing.
Design and build
It probably goes without saying (I'm going to say it anyway), but you have to love a keyboard to want this phone. Although it isn't the defining feature of the Galaxy S Relay 4G, the slide-out QWERTY keyboard is likely a major buying-decision factor. So let's start there.
The sliding mechanism seemed tight on my review unit, taking a little pressure to slide open, but it became easier to figure out exactly where to place my hands as I used the phone more. When I didn't get it right, the phone either stuck a little or fumbled out of my hands.
A spacious, full-five-row QWERTY keyboard greets you when you slide the phone open. I love everything about the way it looks: the dedicated number row, the wide and completely separated keys, the polished gray material behind them. The buttons don't rise far from the surface, but they are responsive and tactile; my fingers knew exactly what and where to push down. As someone who makes a point of adding grammar and punctuation to her e-mails and texts, I appreciate the few dedicated punctuation keys. There are also buttons to launch voice commands, arrow around the screen, and initiate a new text message or e-mail.
My one major complaint is that the keyboard's generous roominess isn't for everyone. It's a little wide for my hands, so I found myself stretching to type, which slowed me down. I prefer precision typing over speed, though, so I was still happy to be able to blame all typos on myself, not on a virtual predictive keyboard. Still, I found that I only slid open the keyboard for longer messages and form-filling, and stuck to the virtual one for short writing bursts.
With the QWERTY out of the way, let's talk about the rest of the phone. It's 5 inches tall, 2.6 inches wide, and a thicker 0.53 inch deep to accommodate the keyboard. Since the screen size tops out at 4 inches, the Relay 4G is a manageable, but heavier, item to haul around. It weighs 5.2 ounces.
The rounded corners and grippable, soft-touch material on the back make it a very comfortable fit in the hand, and it's easy on the ear. Samsung keeps the phone looking fairly plain and simple. Apart from the backing material, everything is black, plastic, and glossy, a signature Samsung look. For navigation, Samsung opted for a narrow physical button in the center and Menu and Back capacitive keys on either side.
As I mentioned above, the Relay 4G has a 4-inch WVGA Super AMOLED display, with a 480x800-pixel resolution. Like Samsung's other screens, this one is clear and bright, even on automatic settings. Colors are vibrant and saturated, too. Above the screen is the 1.3-megapixel camera lens, and on the back is the 5-megapixel camera module, accompanied by an LED flash.
Samsung keeps ports and such simple. The Relay has a volume rocker on the left and a power button on the right. The 3.5mm headset jack is up top and there's a Micro-USB charging port on the bottom. Behind the back cover is a microSD card slot.
OS and features
The Relay 4G runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, furnished with Samsung's TouchWiz interface. While there's much to like about the custom TouchWiz layer, on the outside, it looks a lot like Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Those hoping to see Ice Cream Sandwich in all its Google-y glory will be disappointed.
However, the functionality is all there, complete with multiple account log-ins, access to Google apps and services, maps with turn-by-turn navigation, and the Google Play Store brimming with downloads. Connections include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS, and there's also support for NFC and Samsung's S Beam feature, which is like Android Beam on ICS, but more so.
You'll find mobile hot-spot support if it's part of your rate plan, VPN, and Wi-Fi Direct (used in S Beam). You can turn on motion support, which opens up a plethora of gesture-based activities, like lifting the phone to your head while on a contact's details page to make a direct call, turning the phone over to mute a call or pause music playing, and a host of other actions.
As far as apps go, there are a lot on the Relay 4G -- you decide if that's a help or hindrance. You'll find essentials like a music player, clock, calendar, and calculator, plus plenty of third-party add-ons that include T-Mobile apps like T-Mobile TV, T-Mobile HotSpot, a mobile life organizer, and T-Mobile account information.
Other apps include Evernote, Facebook, Dropbox, Lookout Security, Slacker Radio, and the Telenav GPS Navigator. Samsung has a few apps, too, like a media hub and Samsung's take on voice actions, called S Voice. While S Voice can do helpful things like launch apps and turn system settings like Wi-Fi off and on, I didn't find it as accurate as Siri in my tests.
I was largely impressed with the quality of the pictures I took with the Relay's 5-megapixel camera. Sure, they weren't as crisp or well-defined as photos taken with a good 8-megapixel camera can be, and some photos were downright soft. Still, I think people will mostly be satisfied with the results as long as they're not expecting the Relay's shooter to replace a dedicated camera for family portraits. Photos were colorful and some were sharply in focus; for instance, a close-up of an embroidered pillow turned out beautifully, with the textured detail coming through.
Indoor shots taken with plenty of natural light looked best; a flash can tend to blow out shots. Since there's no continuous autofocus, you'll just need to make sure that you tap to focus before taking your shot, or you may wind up with unwanted haziness.
Samsung has added a few extras with Ice Cream Sandwich, including face tagging, smile shot, and panorama mode, but it doesn't have all the camera bells and whistles of Samsung's top-tier Galaxy S3. There are, however, plenty of presets and adjustments for resolution (from VGA to 5-megapixel), white balance, metering and effects, scene modes, and a self-timer.
The phone's 720p HD video quality is equally good. I took the phone outside to CNET's "pop-up park," an outdoor event with blaring music and lots of activity. The microphone did a fairly good job of picking up the voice of my interview subject, though music also got in the way. Also importantly, the picture was clear, sharp, and smooth. I didn't detect jerkiness in any of the test photos, but well-lit video will top most night scenes.
Front-facing cameras are good to have, but don't expect too much from a 1.3-megapixel lens in your face. Photos were acceptable for what they were, and much better than others I've seen, but you won't create a glamour shot out of it.
The Relay 4G has 8GB onboard storage, and up to 32GB expandable memory for storing your multimedia. For a comparison of other camera phone photos, check out this photo gallery.
The Relay 4G has some of the best call quality I've experienced in a long time. I tested the quad-band phone (GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz) in San Francisco on T-Mobile's network. The first thing I noticed is that audio was natural but crisp and the line was crystal-clear. When my caller stopped talking, I couldn't be sure the call was connected, since there was no telltale sign of white noise. That's a very good thing. Volume was strong at medium-high levels, and Samsung included its software audio-booster if you need to turn up the volume. I did hear a little distorted skip from time to time, which is likely a network blip. Overall, the quality was excellent.
On his end, my test partner said that volume was very loud ("hot") no matter my speaking volume, and he preferred to hold the phone a little bit away from his ear. However, he also found my voice extremely clear, with no noise in the background, no muffling, and no interjections or distortions. My vocal fidelity was high, and my caller pronounced the Relay 4G among the best he's heard. Quote: "I love this phone!"
Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G call quality sample Listen now:
We switched to testing speakerphone, for which I held the Relay at waist level. It was everything speakerphone should be -- clear, loud, natural, with only a hint of a buzz in the hand, and no suggestion of tinniness. Audio wasn't quite as clear as the phone was at the ear, but the quality was impressive. The same held true for my testing partner, who said that my volume dropped a bit (not a bad thing since I was coming in so loud) but my voice was very clear and comfortable to listen to. Astoundingly, he said that speakerphone did not enhance the echo.
The Relay 4G has a great 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, which keeps everything zipping along. 4G speeds on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network were also good, consistently in the high single digits and double digits, but download times were faster than the upload times and never broke 1MB per second.
We'll continue testing battery life here in San Francisco, but the rated battery life is promising, offering up to 10 hours of talk time on the 1,800mAh battery and up to 13 days of standby time. In CNET's lab tests, the Relay 4G played 10.6 hours of video on a single charge.
The FCC stipulates that cell phones must not emit more than 1.6 watts per kilogram of radiation. The Relay 4G's digital SAR is measured at 0.47 watt per kilogram.
As personal as any phone choice is, I think that that deciding whether the Samsung Galaxy S Relay 4G is right for you will be equally so. Its keyboard is spacious, but only you can determine if it's the right fit for your hand. I do like everything else that the phone has to offer, and while it isn't top-of-the-line in every way, there were no major drawbacks for a phone of this level. Excellent call quality isn't something you see every day, and believe me, a lot of phones cross my desk. The asking price is fair, too. If you're in the market for a QWERTY smartphone, I'd definitely choose this over the T-Mobile MyTouch Q.