The Samsung Droid Charge is released as the second 4G LTE Android smartphone on Verizon Wireless and has many similar features to the HTC Thunderbolt, and is in many ways a direct competitor to large 4.3-inch smartphones with blazing fast 4G data speeds. And while there are many similarities between the Droid Charge and the Thunderbolt, and by poxy the HTC EVO 4G, there are also subtle differences that make the Droid Charge stand out. At launch, the device will cost $300 with a 2-year contract, which is the same price as the high-end iPhone 4 on Verizon’s lineup. Is the price premium worth it? Can Samsung and Verizon make 4G LTE enough of a sell to lure away iPhone-hopefuls to give the Droid Charge a try, especially with the $50 premium over the comparable Thunderbolt? Read on to find out our review and thoughts about the Droid Charge.
Samsung took a different route than HTC in designing the Droid Charge. While both devices share a similar 4.3-inch WVGA capacitive touchscreen, rear 8-megapixel camera and front-facing camera, the Droid Charge is designed with a hump on the back. Gone is the Thunderbolt’s kickstand in favor of the hump on the lower rear, which takes us back to the design behind the Galaxy S, in what I call the ‘rear chin’ of the phone.
The massive touchscreen dominates the front, and you’ll find the front-facing camera on the upper left side next to the speaker. On the opposite side of the speaker, you’ll find little holes for ambient light sensor and the proximity sensor.
On the bottom of the front surface, you’ll find four Android navigation buttons. Unlike many traditional Android smartphones, these buttons are not capacitive touch buttons, but mechanical, physical buttons that actually require a key press. Users of Motorola’s Droid X should feel right at home with these physical buttons for menu, home, back, and search buttons, but the buttons on the Droid Charge aren’t as stiff and don’t require a hard press to activate as the Droid X, thankfully, which means less finger fatigue.
What’s really missing, and is a key point to many users, is a notification LED light. On the HTC Thunderbolt, this light was concealed and well integrated into the mesh covering of the front ear piece speaker.
The design of the Droid Charge is shaped similar to a diamond with a rounded top surface and a beveled, angular lower point on the bottom. This design philosophy is carried through the device in several other places including the top ear piece speaker and the chrome bezel surrounding the rear back camera.
Unlike the Thunderbolt, which uses a soft-touch material for added grip, the Droid Charge is an all around glossy device with a patterned back. The device is light, and you’ll feel the 1 ounce difference if you were to pick up both the Thunderbolt and the Droid Charge. Owners of the Galaxy S who were complaining of the device’s plastic build would notice a similar build on the Droid Charge. That’s not to say the device isn’t well constructed–it’s just deceivingly light.
Perhaps the biggest selling point and differentiator on the Droid Charge is the the display itself. While similar to the 4.3-inch WVGA display of the HTC Thunderbolt, the Droid Charge packs in a Super AMOLED Plus screen rather than the former’s traditional LCD screen. Why does this matter and how is Super AMOLED Plus better than LCD or even regular Super AMOLED displays found on the manufacturer’s other Galaxy S series, including the Verizon Wireless Fascinate?
With Super AMOLED Plus, Samsung uses a different architecture to render the pixels. Gone is the Pentile arrangement and Samsung has gone with a more traditional RGB layout underneath. What this means for the end user is that text will be crisp, and the quality of text rendering will be comparable to LCD technology. In the past, with AMOLED and Super AMOLED displays using the Pentile arrangement, I had complained that those display technologies, while offering deep blacks and vibrant colors, did not render text well as text appeared pixelated. That issue is now a non-issue with Super AMOLED Plus.
While the resolution is nothing to write home about–it’s no Retina Display and not even the qHD display that’s more high- resolution and found on devices like the Motorola Atrix 4G and the HTC EVO 3D–it does render deep backs. With its AMOLED-based technology, colors and blacks are rich and vibrant as they aren’t washed out by backlighting. Those familiar with the Vibrant will appreciate the same dark blacks and vibrant colors, but color-purists will note that colors do appear to be over-saturated.
Additionally, when the display’s brightness is turned down, whites appear cooler with a tint of blue or bluish green to it. That issue was gone when the brightness was turned up. When turning brightness up, beware, however, as if you happen to turn on the display in a dark room, you’ll be blinded by the bright display on the Droid Charge.
Under bright sunlight, the Super AMOLED Plus display was a lot more readable than previous generation Super AMOLED and AMOLED screens. The display was still bright and colorful, and didn’t appear as washed out.
The rear 8-megapixel camera offers great sensitivity with little noise in dimly lit environments and Samsung used a great image sensor on the Droid Charge. Unlike the Thunderbolt, however, the Droid Charge only has a single LED flash on the rear as opposed to the dual-LED on the former. However, I find that sensitivity, especially in low light environments, was better on the Droid Charge’s image sensor and pictures appear to have less noise and are less over-exposed when using the flash.
In a dark room when using the flash, you’ll notice that when you’re taking a picture that the flash light turns on briefly for the camera to focus, and then it would flash to take a picture.
Additionally, Samsung had equipped the camera application with a number of settings options for various scene modes, image adjustments, white balance control, and the ability to adjust contrast and saturation of the images before taking them.
Sample Image Gallery:
The video camera can record in 720p HD with autofocus ability. You’ll be able to hear the autofocus go on sometimes in captured images where you’ll hear a click or buzz in the audio of the recorded video when the camera is trying to focus. Unlike the Thunderbolt, you can’t tap to focus. The ability to tap to focus in videos is similar to the capability in capturing still images. With this capability to the rival Thunderbolt allow videographers better control of their video capturing and for tech reviewers who use their smartphones to make video reviews of other gadgets and phones–like the teams here at GottaBeMobile and Notebooks.com–it means that we can get better video footage of screens as those are hard to capture with an autofocus or fixed focus video engine.
Sample Video–taken in a dark environment with the video light on:
So far, the front-facing camera requires more applications to be able to leverage its capability, either for self-portrait shots or for video chat. At CES earlier in the year, Verizon promised Skype integration with its 4G LTE smartphones, and the results of are yet to be released. Hopefully with Skype integration, Thunderbolt and Droid Charge owners can communicate with each other over video more seamlessly, along with iOS owners and other platforms where Skype chat with video is enabled. Third-party apps, like Tango, Fring, and others, are filling in this void, but many of those apps require complicated sign-ups and also the other party to be on the same service. With Skype’s already established user base, the experience should be more seamless and should almost rival the ease of use experience of iOS and Mac users who now have access to Apple’s own in-house FaceTime video chat engine.
While calls on Verizon’s 4G LTE network and 3G CDMA network–the Droid Charge is a dual-mode phone that can switch down to 3G wherever 4G coverage isn’t available–sounded warm and clear, volume levels, I think, were slightly lower than those on the Thunderbolt. Additionally, while users complained that the kickstand on the Thunderbolt had muffled the rear-facing loud speaker, I found that sounds–even the muffled cries of those videos playing back on the Thunderbolt–sounded louder and cleaner than the Droid Charge. That’s not to say that the Droid Charge’s loud speaker was muted by any means, though it wasn’t as rich or as loud sounding, and I am guessing that Dolby’s partnership with the Thunderbolt had helped to create a better audio experience on that rival device.
It did take a few seconds for the GPS to pick up signal, which isn’t bad and is on par with most phones. One thing that’s odd, I find, is that in the default combined clock and weather widget–where weather was powered by WeatherBug, the widget wasn’t able to pinpoint me to my city. Instead of showing the weather for San Jose, the widget gave me weather to San Francisco, California, which is 50 miles away from me. When I had checked, manually entering in San Jose, I was able to pull up weather for my home town, so I know San Jose, California exists in the WeatherBug databases.
Now that we have gotten the negative aspect down, the positive is that with assistive GPS, the Droid Charge was able to pick up location quickly and accurately in several different mapping apps. As par for the course, Google Maps and the beta Google Maps with Navigation apps were able to deliver fast and accurate GPS locks. The other thing that I noticed is that the Droid Charge was able to both install and run one my favorite third-party turn-by-turn navigation apps, Navigon. On the Thunderbolt, I am not sure if it’s due to the 4G radio or the Qualcomm SoC, but Navigon refused to run despite it being installed correctly. Fortunately, for those as addicted to Navigon as I am, the app runs fine on the Droid Charge and you’ll still be able to enjoy 4G data speeds.
4G LTE Data Speeds:
I have to be honest that despite being labelled as a ‘geek’ and being addicted to the PDA, which then evolved to the smartphone space, industry for the last 15 years, I have never really liked browsing the Internet on a mobile device. I’ve always been ardent proponent of mobile broadband and the ability to literally put the world’s worth of information in the palm of your hand or the darkest abode of one’s pocket, but when it comes to practicing what I preach and believe in, I found that small screens coupled with latency, slow data speeds (even under good 3G coverage), and having to pan around to not be worth the instant gratification of beating my friends at an impromptu trivia. Instead, I often waited to get home to do my searches where my home broadband connection was often times a bit more reliable and delivered faster speeds where I don’t have to peck at a small screen and be hindered by auto-correction. That said, Verizon’s 4G LTE speeds have made me a convert, and those who follow me and my mobile exploits on GottaBeMobile will recall that I had specifically switched carriers and mobile platforms to use Android with the HTC Thunderbolt just to enjoy 4G LTE data speeds.
While Verizon Wireless promises download speeds of between 6-12 Mbps, up from the 5-10 Mbps promised when the network was initially launched late last year with a pair of USB modems for laptop mobile broadband connectivity, and upload speeds of between 2-5 Mbps, I find in my experiences that speeds were often faster than the promised speeds. In an age where carriers like AT&T over-promise (I’d rather forget about the HSPA+ 4G promises when devices like the HTC Inspire 4G and the Motorola Atrix 4G launched) and under-delivered, it is refreshing when Verizon does right by its customer to promise what it can actually deliver, and at that, over-deliver. Kudos to the carrier and to the network. On the Droid Charge, I was able to get speeds upwards of 16 Mbps on the downlink side and upwards of 7 Mbps on the uplink side.
Fortunately, though, with faster speeds and a large screen for browsing, Verizon, unlike rival AT&T, still offers an unlimited 4G data plan at this time. I find that I burn through gigabytes of data every month browsing the web, catching up on news, triaging emails when away, updating and getting updated through Facebook and Twitter, and more. My behavior of delaying searching and browsing to get to my home mainframe has changed, and I think that improved speeds and a large, more manageable finger-friendly 4.3-inch touchscreen are to be credited. When I was on a 3.5-inch iPhone 4 with slower data speeds on AT&T’s network, try telling me to surf the Internet and I’d give you a look like you’ve just fallen from Mars. Do that now and I will try and bet you that my network can beat yours, if I were a gambling man.
Early adopters of the HTC Thunderbolt echoed woeful cries that the device has less than acceptable battery life. Fortunately, for Droid Charge owners, Samsung coupled the device with a capacious 1600 mAh battery, up from the 1400 mAh on the Thunderbolt, and the battery should give users about a full day’s worth of emailing, browsing, and photo capturing. When I was in San Francisco, California for meetings the entire day, my Thunderbolt had died before I had gotten home but my Droid Charge, which I used more, was still at 20% by the time I got home that evening. If you’re lighter on your usage, you should be able to stretch it to a full 24-hour period, but I am glad that with my heavier use, I managed a full 10 hours out of the device.
Another benefit of the Samsung Droid Charge is the ability to turn off the 4G radio and use the more energy conserving 3G CDMA/EV-DO radio instead. This option still isn’t as simple as a simple widget toggle like on Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G, but it is accessible in the settings menu. The option, however, was missing–and sorely missed–on the HTC Thunderbolt on Verizon’s network. When in 3G mode, I got over a full 24-hour period of usage and still had ample charge to spare.
Users who are concerned about battery should turn off 4G data when they don’t need it. I’d advise users to turn on 4G when doing heavy downloading or uploading, but to turn it off when you just check emails or do casual browsing.
The other thing about battery life that’s great on the Droid Charge as opposed to the Thunderbolt is that users will not be draining their devices when completely powering off the device. On a recent flight to New York, NY, I had turned the HTC Thunderbolt completely off–not just put it in standby or in flight mode–in the hopes that completely powering down the device would help me maximize the amount of juice in the device when I land as the device was already power-hungry. Needless to say, when completely powered down, I had landed at JFK airport with a completely drained Thunderbolt. The Droid Charge doesn’t exhibit the same battery draining behavior when completely powered down as the Thunderbolt.
The Droid Charge is released with a 1 GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor with a dedicated PowerVR graphics core that’s capable of supporting Adobe Flash 10.2 (via download from Android Market) and Android 2.2. Samsung also included their typical UI overlay on the Droid Charge called TouchWiz, which should be familiar to those migrating from a Galaxy S smartphone or the Verizon Fascinate model. However, unlike the Verizon Fascinate, the pure Google experience is still there–you’re not bound by Microsoft’s Bing search and map, which will be a good thing for Android purists.
There’s not much to point out on the software side. You get the full suite of Android apps, access to Android Market to download third-party apps, and preloaded Samsung Digital Hub and Amazon Kindle for movies and books download, pre-installed Blockbuster app for movie rentals, and a number of Verizon Wireless pre-install apps including a subscription based VZ Navigator for turn-by-turn voice guided GPS with 3D cities in select areas, City ID to do reverse caller ID lookup, and also V Cast Media Manager, which is a basic online cloud storage solution offered by Verizon. The service gives you about half a gigabyte of storage for music, pictures, videos, and files, and we’ll cover this app more in a separate video in the next few days.
There’s also a Daily Briefing app and widget, which integrates your calendar appointments, latest news, weather, and stock information. The widget itself is a bit more elegant and less chintzy than on the Fascinate as it is now broken up into four separate widgets for each individual component rather than having one big widget for the four items. Each widget has a translucent background and complements the Android/TouchWiz UI nicely.
On the bottom of the software, we still have the four software shortcut buttons that show up no matter where you are on the home screen or on the app menu. These items are user-configurable and you can change up to three of the four items–the fourth item will be the shortcut to the app drawer.
Speaking of the app drawer, the app drawer will now pull up to reveal horizontally scrolling pages of apps, unlike the long vertical list of apps like on traditional Android devices. The iOS-like approach helps to make it easier for users to manage the pages of apps, and users can hit the menu key to edit how each page of apps will look. Some users will manage these pages by creating a page, for example, for productivity apps, and a page for game apps. Users can also change to a list of apps with the left icon for the app image and the app name on the right hand side. This list will scroll vertically, but won’t be arranged in a grid-like arrangement like most traditional Android smartphones.
The great thing about the app drawer arranged in the iOS-styled horizontally scrolling pages is that unlike on the iPhone where you may have to flick through many pages to get from the first page to the last page, for example, you can just do a pinch and zoom and it will show you a grid of all your pages and you can jump to the page with the app you’re looking for. This also works, like on the Thunderbolt, with the homescreens so you can jump between various homescreens that way. However, if you really want it easy, you can also use in Android 2.2’s universal search feature and search for the app you want.
On the top, like the Galaxy S edition of the TouchWiz UI, Samsung also changed the notifications drawer. Rather than the traditional stale grey notification drawer, you’ll see that the drawer will pull down to reveal shades of brown–dark brown for the accented places and a light brown background. There are also five widgets at the top, giving you the ability to toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, Mobile Data connections, and auto-rotation. As the widget is located in the notification drawer itself, it’s accessible in a majority of apps that still leave the notification bar exposed–full screen apps, like games like Angry Birds, that cover up or hide th notification drawer, of course, won’t have the notification drawer be accessible. This way, users can quickly toggle WiFi, Bluetooth, or auto-rotation in many apps.
Like the HTC Thunderbolt, the Droid Charge lacks a physical keyboard so the only way for users to enter text is with their voice, through Android’s voice recognition engine, or with the software keyboard. The keyboard is a bit cleaner than the Thunderbolt’s keyboard as only the top keyboard row displays alternate keys on the Droid Charge for the numbers, versus on the Thunderbolt where all the keys have secondary symbols for easy access. Based on looks and functionality, it boils down to a matter of prederence.
You can long press on the top row of the keyboard to enter a number quickly that way, rather than having to hit the secondary key button to switch to the keyboard with numbers and symbols. Just long press on the “Q” key, for example, and you’ll be presented with an option to enter the number 1, or the “W” key for the number 2. The drawback, as opposed to the Thunderbolt’s keyboard is that you do have to tap again on the number, 1 or 2, to actually enter them whereas on the Thunderbolt, just the long press would enter the alternate character or number.
In use, I find that the auto-correction and predictive text engine on the Thunderbolt’s keyboard was able to better guess at what I am trying to type as it corrects my typos and misspellings. On the Droid Charge, the autocorrection was not as intuitive as I had hoped and I used the keyboard mainly with the feature turned off.
The device also comes pre-loaded with the Swype keyboard for those who prefer this type of text entry.
Using the Droid Charge:
If you have any questions on how to use the Droid Charge, Samsung had cleverly bundled a Guided Tour app on the device. This app will reveal either video tutorials or step-by-step pictorial tours of the UI and how to use the device and some of the basic settings. The app is found in the app drawer. You do need a wireless connection–either a 3G or 4G mobile broadband data connection or a WiFi connection–to pull up the videos as they aren’t stored on the device to save on storage space.
The browser supports multi-touch gestures including pinch and zoom and flick scrolling. Pages rendered relatively quickly and are items that are loaded can be interacted with while waiting for the entire page to load. The browser seems standard for typical Android 2.2 HTML5 browser and includes support for Adobe Flash 10.2 Mobile. One thing to note is that when comparing the browser to the HTC Thunderbolt’s browser, the Thunderbolt’s browser is a bit more skinned. Additionally, on the Thunderbolt, there’s a nice feature for continuous text wrapping. On the Droid Charge, the text wrapping and re-flowing only happens once when you zoom in at a pre-determined level. On the Thunderbolt, every time you zoom in on text, it will automatically re-wrap and re-flow so you can do it incrementally rather whereas on the Droid Charge if you zoom in or out further than the pre-set level, you’re left with a lot of horizontal panning as text doesn’t wrap and flow to fit the device’s screen width.
At launch, for a finite period of time, Verizon is offering tethering free of charge with the Droid Charge, though the free period will end thereafter and the carrier will require a tethering data plan. In short, tethering, either over USB or WiFi, allows up to five other devices to share the mobile broadband data plan of the Droid Charge.
Like the Samsung-made mobile hotspot router, the Droid Charge will support up to 10 devices by tethering, and you can connect other smartphones, tablets, PCs, Macs, or any WiFi devices to the Droid Charge to share the fast 4G LTE data speeds. 10 is more than the typical 5 or 8 devices supported by most mobile routers or smartphones. With tethering, the benefit is that you don’t have to carry around a separate mobile hotspot router or carry around a separate mobile data plan.
With tethering, however, you’ll be burning through your battery level. While tethered, I can quickly deplete the Droid Charge’s battery in 2-3 hours with a good LTE signal. The tethering connection on the Droid Charge appears to be a bit more reliable than tethering via the Thunderbolt. On the Thunderbolt, sometimes the connection times out or sometimes there’s a period of about 10-15 seconds where I am waiting for the page to do something as it seems that the Internet is down. On the Droid Charge, I didn’t experience any of these travails like I did on the Thunderbolt, and the experience is as seamless as connecting to a traditional WiFi router.
Users can go ahead and change their SSIDs or password or password type on the Mobile Hotspot app. By default, the network name says SCH-I510 followed by a 4-digit string of numbers and letters. The default password is your 10-digit Verizon number. Users can change this to something more secure to prevent unauthorized access and more importantly, to prevent users from using your Internet connection to download illegal materials, like illegal music or movies, or more seriously child pornography.
Social Network Integration:
By default, like the Thunderbolt with HTC Sense, the TouchWiz UI provides excellent integration for social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. The Feeds and Updates widget allows users to update their status for any one of these networks or all the networks simultaneously, and users can get caught up with friends’ status updates with the most recent feeds.
Another area that social network integration shines through is through the Contacts app. There’s a widget called Buddies Now that integrates nicely with your social network and allows you to place some of your favorite, or most used, contacts in that list. The widget gives you options to dial or message your contacts in one touch and also displays your contact’s most recent status update.
In the Contacts application itself, once you click on a contact name, you’ll be able to access your contact’s most recently updated status update. Clicking on your contact’s picture will pull down a drop-down menu, and if the contact is associated with a social network, like Facebook, clicking on the Facebook icon, for example, will pull up the contact’s Wall post on Facebook, provided that you have the Facebook app (free on Android Market) downloaded, installed, and configured.
Now that we’ve talked about the contacts application in some detail, the phone application provides smart dialing. Smart dialing works in two ways.
The first way is to spell out the name of your contact by using the phone’s dial pad and doing T9 text input, typing in 5674 for Josh (if I wanted to access Josh Smith’s contact). The dialer will automatically show up the first Josh that I have saved and a number to the right hand side for how many other matches there are. I can click the number and a pop-up emerges with all the contacts with Josh listed, and I can scroll through to find Josh Smith and tap his number to call.
The second way is to begin typing their number and it will automatically match it. If a company has a (123) 333-XXXX number, I can quickly filter that way and type in the 3-digit area code, followed by the 3-digit prefix. The last four numbers I don’t have to enter and like the smart dialing by name, it will begin to show the first contact with the matched area code and 3-digit prefix followed by a number for the total number of matches found with that criteria so far on the right. Tapping that number, I can go through and find the appropriate contact.
The phone app will also be able to synchronize contact information–though that information will be stored in the cloud and not locally–from Facebook as well. The app will synchronize contact information from the cloud for Google and for Exchange ActiveSync accounts.
The Droid Charge will be the second phone in Verizon’s lineup that will allow users to surf and talk at the same time. When a user is on the carrier’s 4G LTE network, users can talk and browse the web and access the Internet at the same time, similar to the HTC Thunderbolt.
The one thing that was sorely missing is a unified inbox on the email app, though the app does a great job in managing emails from major providers (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google), Exchange, and other POP/IMAP accounts. Unlike other Android smartphones, using–Exchange didn’t deplete the battery any quicker–in the past when I had set up multiple Exchange accounts on HTC and Motorola Android handsets, those phones usually drained the battery in four hours versus the typical 8-16 hours. The look and feel of the email app is similar to the look and feel of the Gmail app. However, instead of dark text on a light background, the Samsung email app uses light text on a black background.
The reversed lighter text on a black background may be in part due to help the device conserve battery life. With AMOLED-based display technology, there isn’t a backlight to light up the entire screen. Rather, only the pixels with color or white is lit, so the black background will be more energy efficient on the device.
The Email app provides for push email on the major email providers, which is a nice touch.
Is the Droid Charge better than the Thunderbolt? Is this the device that’s leading Verizon Wireless’s smartphone lineup? In many ways, the device is a marked improvement over the Thunderbolt and in some ways, it is beaten by the Thunderbolt. Right now, it’s a toss up. Thunderbolt owners will probably want to hang on to their devices rather than upgrade to the Droid Charge so quickly in their device’s lifecycle, but new owners who are choosing between the Charge and the Thunderbolt should seriously consider the Droid Charge over the Thunderbolt if for no other reason than better battery life.
In use, both devices are pretty similar and offer similar performances, though I did notice that the Thunderbolt does lag a bit when swiping quickly through menus. That said, the Thunderbolt isn’t without its own flaws. When using the device, I’d often encountered pop-ups saying that HTC Sense, or some process powering HTC Sense, has crashed. That means that when I return to the homescreen, there’s a second or two where the Thunderbolt has to load the home screen. Are either of these drawbacks a deal breaker for either devices? Not really, but they’re growing pains right now as first generation devices on Verizon’s lineup.
Additionally, I think a lot of people will be overall happier with the super bright, but ultra saturated Super AMOLED Plus touchscreen. That, combined with the better battery life may give the Droid Charge an edge over the Thunderbolt.
With the TouchWiz UI being so similar in many respects to iOS, the pricing of the device is curious as if Verizon’s trying to position the Droid Charge as an alternative to the iPhone, especially since both 32 GB devices are priced similarly. However, where the Droid Charge beats the iPhone is in 4G network speeds, rather than 3G on the iPhone 4.