Verizon is quickly becoming the king of 4G LTE phones, but it wasn't until the Samsung Stratosphere strode onto the scene that Verizon could claim a 4G phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard. Try as Samsung and Verizon might to persuade us that the Stratosphere is "A First," with its 4G LTE-plus-keyboard combination, a quick glance at the specs of this fancy Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS with its 1GHz Hummingbird processor, brilliant Super AMOLED screen, 5-megapixel camera, and VGA front-facing camera reveal that it is actually none other than...an updated Samsung Epic 4G!
The Epic 4G, an original Galaxy S series phone, was great for its day when the first phones debuted in 2010. It was sleek, designed for multimedia, and had that great five-row QWERTY keyboard. But times have changed and I'm wondering if this phone has the chops to draw customers away from some of the other choices in Verizon's very strong repertoire. The updated Gingerbread OS and standards-setting 4G LTE speeds are a must, and with four business tools, and some fun add-ons, it's time to see what this phone can do.
The Stratosphere costs $149.99 after a $50 mail-in rebate, and with a new two-year service agreement.
If you're familiar with the Samsung Epic 4G, originally released with Sprint in 2010, you already know exactly what to expect with the Stratosphere: a glossy, all-touch black face with rounded shoulders that still looks elegant in its minimalism. The Stratosphere varies a little in the back cover. Here the soft-touch finish gets a pleasant, slightly nubbly texture that's reminiscent of suede.
Back when the Epic 4G first emerged, its 4.96-inch height, 2.54-inch width, and 0.55-inch thickness made it one of the larger phones available; now it fits right into the middle of the pack in this age of "jumbo phones," and is neither too large nor too small. It's still a bit on the heftier side at 5.8 ounces, but the weight adds a sense of durability that's to be expected in larger phones with greater mass.
The 4-inch WVGA (800x480 pixels) Super AMOLED screen is still impressive, with bright, saturated color that leaps off the display. Unfortunately, it's fallen a little behind, and Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus screen outshines the Stratosphere's face. Even though it's a great screen on its own, a higher resolution would make it look sharper still.
The Stratosphere runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread using Samsung's TouchWiz interface. As with any custom UI, you either connect with it or you don't, and despite some nice touches (like easily accessing system settings in the pull-down notifications menu), I personally think that TouchWiz is getting stale. With the drastically revamped Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich right around the corner, and the strong graphics and smart contributions from HTC's Sense interface, Samsung needs to offer something more beautiful or dynamic to make the interface truly compelling.
As it stands, there's nothing wrong with Touch Wiz per se. You've got your five customizable home screens right out of the box, your choice of some nice backgrounds, the "leap" screen for viewing all your home screens in one view, and a horizontal-swiping treatment to the app tray. It's good, it's reliable, but nothing out of the ordinary. Swype is a virtual keyboard option on the Stratosphere, but you have to choose it if you want it, since Samsung's keyboard is the one that comes preloaded by default.
Above the screen is a front-facing VGA camera for self-portraits and video chats. Below the screen are four touch-sensitive buttons for the Menu, Home, Back, and Search. The power button lives on the right spine, and on the left is the volume rocker. Up top you have the 3.5mm headset jack, and on the bottom is the Micro-USB charging port. The back has the 5-megapixel camera lens, and beneath the back cover is the microSD card slot. The Stratosphere generously comes with 4GB of external memory preinstalled.
Slide open that keyboard to find a very spacious QWERTY complete with five rows (numbers conveniently get a line all their own). The keys are backlit, fully separated, and rubbery; I like how they angle in slightly and snap back after you touch them. Samsung has also added a handful of convenience keys, like ones dedicated to Search, Back, Menu, and Home, plus keys to pull up a blank text message, the browser, and four directional navigation arrows. Keyboards feel different to different hands and my only personal complaints are that the keyboard is slightly flat (as they all tend to be on sliders; this is a height issue), and that at times I felt I had to stretch my fingers to reach some keys. Then again, I also have smaller hands than some.
Like all Android phones, the Stratosphere gives you e-mail, texting, multimedia messaging, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth support (3.0), and GPS. There's also contact-importing and access to a range of Google services, from Gmail, maps with turn-by-turn-navigation, to Google Places, Talk, Search, and YouTube. Essentials include a calendar, a calculator, a clock (plus alarm clock, stopwatch, and timer), an HTML WebKit browser, and a memo pad. Android's basic music player is also onboard, along with a handful of other Google services.
Between Samsung and Verizon, the additional apps are piled high. Ready? There's: All Share (Samsung's DLNA software), Amazon Kindle, BackUp Assitant, Blockbuster. There's City ID, a desk cradle mode, a touring app, IM, a golfing game demo, NFL Mobile, and NFS Shift. Samsung's Media Hub is onboard, and so is Verizon's mobile hub. In addition, Verizon fans will get the V Cast line of apps: Music, Media, Tones, and Videos. There's VZ Navigator as well. But wait, there are more apps to go: Quickoffice productivity, Slacker Radio, Adobe reader, and Amazon MP3. Whew! It's quite the load, which is great if you like being ahead on apps when you procure a new phone, and less helpful if you'd prefer to start small and set it up yourself.
Before you think we're done here, there are several other features hidden from view in the app tray. Business-focused capabilities include VPN settings, encryption, Microsoft ActiveSync e-mail, and ActiveSync calendar syncing. As it happens, the Samsung Galaxy S II has these features, too, so the Stratosphere isn't quit unique in that.
The Stratosphere also has Wi-Fi Direct, which allows two certified Wi-Fi dishes to talk to one another. The phone also qualifies as a Verizon hot spot.
The camera software is easy to use, with icons for choosing among six shooting modes, three flash modes, exposure value, and everything from focus mode and 14 scene modes, to white balance and effects. So in essence, it has all the tweaks and adjustments that should be present in an Android camera.
A 5-megapixel camera may not be the highest-end camera in numbers (that honor would belong to an 8-megapixel shooter), but with the right combination of hardware and software, 5-megapixel lenses have been known to produce some really fantastic shots. The Stratosphere is such a phone, creating excellent photos with sharp, defined edges and good color fidelity. The front-facing camera shots were also less grainy than I've seen on other phones.
Video recorded and played back smoothly with the 720p HD video camera, but with all smartphone camcorders, the volume on the video subject is rather low. The video camera struggled a bit adjusting the lighting in various low-lit and artificially lit indoor scenes.
The Stratosphere has 512MB internal memory, and holds up to 32GB external storage.
I tested the dual-band (CDMA 850, 1900; 750 LTE) using Verizon's network in San Francisco, calling to both landlines and cell phones. Call quality was good in some aspects and disappointing in others. On my end, volume was loud enough, and the call clarity was impressive, with no background noise and no crackling, although there were moments when the line cut out, and moments of digital interference. The largest complaint--and it is a significant one--is that voices also frequently warbled, which made it hard to follow along. I didn't hear it every time during my testing period, but heard it enough to make it distracting.
On their end, callers had mixed opinions. During one test call, the caller said I sounded clear and loud, but that there was an "airiness" around the sound that made my voice sound soft and almost echoey. Another caller heard a background hiss and said it sounded like I was cutting out.
Samsung Stratosphere call quality sample Listen now:
The warbled voice quality I heard grew more pronounced when I switched on speakerphone. Holding the phone at waist-level, voices on the other end dropped in volume, so I had to increase the volume to make up for it. As with many speakerphone units, voices sounded buzzy and tinny to me. On their end, callers said I sounded distant and hollow, and that it was harder to understand me than it has been on other speaker phones.
Verizon's 4G LTE network was impressive on the Stratosphere, and it hung on to 4G throughout most of San Francisco, though it did drop to 3G several times, including while indoors. CNET's mobile-optimized site loaded in 13 seconds, and the full, graphically rich site, in 20 seconds (it can often take between 45 seconds and a minute on 3G phones). The New York Times' mobile site finished loading in a mere 3.5 seconds, with the desktop version loading in just 11 seconds. In addition to real-life tests, I also checked out the Stratosphere's speed using Ookla's Speedtest.net app. Speeds were generally strong but ranged throughout San Francisco from as low as 6Mbps download (which is still great for 3G in this city) to as high as 32Mbps. Mostly, though, they ranged from 15 to 25Mbps. Speeds ranged from 4 to 13Mbps up, with much more fluctuation than the download speeds.
Most of the time, the 1GHz Samsung Cortex A8 Hummingbird did the trick, taking just a beat for programs to load. Yet there were frustrating moments when the phone didn't respond when it should have. For instance, I held the phone in portrait mode to review photos, and the onscreen controls stubbornly remained in landscape mode while I e-mailed five photos to myself. There was sometimes a bit of camera shutter lag.
The Samsung Stratosphere is a sleek, sophisticated Android 2.3 Gingerbread smartphone with nice specs under its belt. Still, as a cousin to the first-run of Samsung Galaxy phones, it isn't as top-of-line as we're seeing. That's no crime at all; not every phone needs to be nor should be a cutting-edge, $200 or $300 handset, and the Stratosphere's dual cameras and 1GHz processor mostly do a great job delivering. However, unless they're intent on a keyboarded smartphone, Verizon's target market of business users could fracture and seek other models with dual-core processors and even better cameras and tools.