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Samsung Galaxy Stellar (Verizon Wireless) review: Samsung Galaxy Stellar (Verizon Wireless)

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Charge for a device and people can get critical, but give it away for "free," and minor annoyances might suddenly evaporate. That's how it goes with Verizon's Samsung Galaxy Stellar. What makes this phone such a great option, though, is that Samsung and Verizon aren't tossing you scraps; the Galaxy Stellar is fully loaded with 4G LTE, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, a dual-core processor, a 4-inch display, and camera technology that delivers quality outdoor shots, though not a high megapixel count.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar (Verizon Wireless)
7.0

Samsung Galaxy Stellar (Verizon Wireless)

The Good

Verizon's free <b>Samsung Galaxy Stellar</b> has 4G LTE, a nice screen, a fast processor, and very good battery life.

The Bad

The Galaxy Stellar's flashless camera takes poorer indoor shots, and call quality could use some work.

The Bottom Line

A pretty solid entry-level Android 4.0 handset on its own, the Samsung Galaxy Stellar gets a huge bump in value from the $0 price tag.

While the Galaxy Stellar won't blow away those with larger budgets, the cost -- or lack thereof -- sweetens the deal for those looking for a deal on Verizon's network. Free isn't really free, of course; the price comes with the condition of a new two-year service agreement. The carrier now forces new users into a shared data plan, which will raise the price for some. On the flip side, Verizon's 4G LTE network is currently the most extensive.

Verizon's free Samsung Galaxy Stellar is a steal (pictures)

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Design and build
At first glance, the Galaxy Stellar strongly resembles the Droid Razr Charge, also for Verizon. A little smaller, it nevertheless has the same glossy black plastic body, similar port placements, and, most distinctively, a slightly peaked chin. The Stellar is softer and less pronounced than the Charge in that respect.

The handset's 4.8-inch height and 2.5-inch width are barely worth noting, but the 0.47-inch depth is thicker than the slim high-end phones in the Samsung family. Still, a half-inch thickness is within the realm of normalcy, though it feels as hefty as it looks at 4.7 ounces. The slick, reflective coating will help the Stellar glide into loose pockets. Weight aside, it feels comfortable to hold, and my ear had no complaints.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
The Samsung Galaxy Stellar costs you nothing up front for 4G LTE, a dual-core processor, and Android 4.0. Josh Miller/CNET

You'll find a 4-inch Super AMOLED display as your window into Android. The Stellar's resolution is a respectable 800x480 pixels, also known as WVGA. It's fine for the Stellar's screen size, where icons and text look typically sharp and bright on the automatic brightness setting. Support for 16 million colors helps achieve the rich look.

Beneath the screen is where I find my favorite Samsung convenience, a fourth capacitive navigation button that pulls up the menu keys. This is an onscreen control on a lot of Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) phones, but in stock Android, the menu placement can jump around. I enjoy having the context menu where I can see it. This isn't new for Samsung, which has long included a menu button as part of its usual controls. What is different is the use of Google's vertical ellipsis symbol, and the placement all the way on the right, where you'd find it in stock ICS.

Moving on to the physical controls, you'll find the charging jack at the Stellar's chin, the power button on the right spine, the volume rocker and microSD card slot on the left spine, and the 3.5mm headset jack up top. There's a rear-facing camera, and above the display there's a front-facing camera lens. Nearby, you'll also note the blue LED indicator light.

OS and dual mode
An Android 4.0 phone, the Stellar includes several hallmark features, including the capability to view recently opened apps, peer into your data usage, set up face unlocking, and take advantage of some reorganization and housekeeping. Samsung's TouchWiz interface adds a lot of its own aesthetics and software extras, including the quick-access settings at the top of the notifications pull-down menu, and the option to pinch the home screen for a view of all home screens.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
Simple mode on the Galaxy Stellar still retains multiple home screens and all the works. Click to enlarge. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Like AT&T's competing Pantech Flex, the Stellar has a simple bootup mode to help Android newbies to get acquainted. However, it's far less drastic a change than the Flex's, which limits the number of home screens to one and replaces the menu pages with a simple list of settings on a single screen. In contrast, the Stellar keeps the multiple customizable home pages, but does make them simpler. The drop-down menu and app tray remain the same as standard mode.

Any customizations you make to either mode gets saved if you feel like swapping back and forth, perhaps sharing profiles between two people on a single handset.

Features
Some of the pared-down features are what make the Stellar stand out as a starter smartphone. At least 90 percent of the Android experience is the same, from the sign-on for Google and multiple social-networking accounts, to GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and hot-spot support (up to 10 devices).

The lack of near-field communication (NFC) is one difference, and it means that the Stellar won't be able to take advantage of Android Beam or of S Beam, Samsung's enhanced version. NFC would have been a bonus for the Stellar, but its absence isn't necessarily a demerit for this class of smartphone. There is, however, support for Wi-Fi Direct.

The Samsung virtual keyboard is your only option on the Stellar, but it does let you trace words as you would with Swype or SwiftKey (which you can independently download through the Google Play storefront).

Holding and pressing a capacitive touch key won't bring up voice actions, but you'll have your choice of two assistants. Google Voice Actions remains the typical option for voice search through the Google search bar, for example. You can also use Samsung's own S Voice software, which you can load as a separate app. At this stage in the software's development, I much prefer Google's contribution.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
A flash would improve the Stellar's 3.2-megapixel camera. Josh Miller/CNET

Verizon and Samsung have loaded up the Stellar with a ton of apps. Some call it bloatware, others might think of it as a head start. Luckily, ICS lets you hide and disable unwanted apps, though you won't be able to completely uninstall them. Among the haul, you'll see a passel of Amazon-related apps (Amazon store, Kindle, music, IMDb, Audible, Zappos), Amex Serve, several game demos, the Quickoffice productivity app, and a scoop of Verizon apps, like VZ Navigator.

The titles complement Google's preinstalled services like the Maps app with turn-by-turn voice navigation, and essentials like a clock, a calendar, a calculator, and a music player. You're free to download other apps, TV shows, movies, and music from the Google Play store.

Camera
The Galaxy Stellar's 3.2-megapixel rear-facing camera has a slightly unstable personality. Many of Samsung's camera modules have a good reputation, and so long as you're outdoors in abundant natural light, this shooter delivers photos that are some of the best they can be for the limited resolution, from a smartphone. Colors were vibrant and only a little oversaturated (but at least evenly so), and images have defined edges when kept small, so they're ideal for uploading to social networks. However, there's no autofocus, so you have to make sure your manual focus is spot-on.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
The Samsung Galaxy Stellar's 3.2-megapixel camera takes good outdoor photos. This image has been resized; click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There's also no flash. That helps keep the phone's price low, but indoor photos taken in artificial light will take a dive in quality. The difference is especially notable with photos of people.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
Text isn't nearly as clear with the 3.2-megapixel lens. Image resized. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

While the camera quality isn't always spot-on, the software is familiar. You can tap icons to toggle between the front and rear cameras, and between video and photo modes. There are settings aplenty for shooting mode, focus, effects, and white-balance presets (five in total). Panorama and "smile shot" are built in -- choose the latter and it'll shoot when the subject cracks a grin. You can also apply color tones, geotag images, and turn on the self-timer.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
Here's a crop of a full-resolution image, which has not been resized or touched up. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Video disappointingly comes in 640x480- or 320x240-pixel resolutions. Neither is high, but the size options are better for multimedia messaging and for uploading to social networks. The video quality isn't bad for what it is, and I liked that the microphone was able to pick up my subject's voice. However, don't expect crisp, clear, YouTube-ready resolution. This is for fuzzy storytelling only.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
Indoor shots suffered from the lack of flash, even if well-lit. CNET editor Jaymar Cabebe is an unfortunate example. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Moving to the front of the phone, the 1.2-megapixel took serviceable photos, but with very limited settings. This works for video chatting and for taking self-portraits, as well as using the camera as a mirror.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
We flooded the studio with light to compensate for the Galaxy Stellar's lack of flash. It did better than some, but focus isn't as sharp as from similar cameras with more megapixels. Josh Miller/CNET

Compare the Stellar's photos with those of other smartphone cameras in our photo gallery.

Call quality
I tested the Samsung Galaxy Stellar in San Francisco using Verizon's network. Call quality on the dual-band CDMA handset (800/1900) wasn't terrific, though it was serviceable. Volume was fine at medium-high levels, and I could press the extra volume screen control to boost the call volume. Doing so helped with competing noise, but also made the distorted audio and buzz on my call partner's sibilants more distracting. The best way I can describe the distortion I heard from my caller is a "hot" wave. My caller sounded human, then a little robotic and "hot," then fine again. This never let up during the length of our longest call.

I tested the phone both indoors and outdoors, and experienced one dropped call outdoors.

On my tester's end, my audio sounded a little flat and distorted. I not only sounded almost uncomfortably loud, I also sounded deep and "throaty," like I had a cold, my caller said. He also said I sounded like I was speaking through an old, bad phone.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar call quality sample Listen now:

I tested speakerphone at waist level. The tinniness persisted and I also heard echo. Both are normal for speakerphones, if not ideal. There was a little vocal straining, and I was glad to be able to use the software volume booster. I could keep a conversation going for some time over the Stellar's speakerphone.

On the other end of the line, my caller said I sounded normal, but volume dropped, and he could hear every time I turned the extra volume on and off while I was speaking; he heard a puff and my voice became garbled during switching. However, if I turned it off and on without speaking, the extra volume had no effect. He gave the entire listening experience from his end a "C" rating.

Network and internal performance
Even though Verizon typically demonstrates very fast upload and download speeds here in San Francisco, not every phone responds the same way, based on the placement and model of its radios.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar
I used the diagnostic Speedtest.net app to test the Samsung Galaxy Stellar's 4G. Click to enlarge. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

That said, 4G LTE was pretty fast on the Galaxy Stellar. Peaks ranged between 15 and 19Mbps down and 10 and 13Mbps uplink. Slow downloads and uploads were in the single digits, from 2-3Mbps down to 1-8Mbps up. More importantly, in real-life tests, I was able to download and update apps quickly, and load e-mail and browser pages.

I had no complaints about the Stellar's 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 processor. Sure, it isn't the absolute fastest on the market, but it doesn't need to be. I played a familiar game, Riptide GP. Hold the Stellar up to the Samsung Galaxy S3 and it won't be quite as smooth or responsive, but the game plays fine on its own -- you will be immersed, not distracted.

The Stellar comes with 4GB of onboard memory and 1GB RAM, plus a microSD slot that can take up to 32GB of expandable memory.

As for battery life, the Stellar has a rated talk time of up to 20 hours over 3G and up to 17 hours when the phone's on 4G. Its standby time comes in at 18 days over 3G and up to 9 days over 4G. The Stellar's 2,100mAh battery seems more than equipped to handle daily functions, and anecdotally, this felt like a longer-lasting phone. In our battery drain test, the Stellar played back 8.2 hours of video -- pretty good!

The FCC requires radio emissions to come in below 1.6 watts per kilogram. According to tests, Samsung's Stellar digital SAR measures 0.64 watt per kilogram.

Conclusion
Not everything about the Samsung Galaxy Stellar is a hit, but I'm willing to give the phone a little leeway because of its price-tag-to-value ratio. It excels at the major points for entertainment and written communication, but is weaker in audio and photo. The Stellar remains best for Verizon customers seeking a starter smartphone, but who aren't interested in investing heavily in the hardware -- I'm thinking in particular about a family entering a new member on their data plan.

However, genuine bargain hunters will recall that a free phone on a two-year contract still commits you to at least $90 per month on Verizon's new shared data plans. Take it off the plan and you're spending $330 outright for the phone. I'd probably have other first-choice phones at that up-front price with other no-contract carriers, but on Big Red, the Stellar's value will be hard to beat.

Samsung Galaxy Stellar (Verizon Wireless)
7.0

Samsung Galaxy Stellar (Verizon Wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7