Samsung introduced a handful of Galaxy S smartphones this summer, and all of them are impressive. The problem is, however, that most of them are so similar that they can be hard to distinguish. But not the Samsung Epic 4G. This powerful Android-based phone packs in two features that none of its siblings offers: support for high-speed 4G networks and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard adds some bulk to the phone, and the 4G supports boosts its price, but both additions are welcome.
Price and Availability
The Samsung Epic 4G will be available from Sprint for $249.99 starting August 31. That price, which factors in a $100 mail-in rebate, is more than what you'll pay for competing smartphones. T-Mobile offers the Samsung Vibrant for $199.99, the same price that AT&T charges for the Samsung Captivate and a 16GB Apple iPhone 4. It's also what Verizon is charging for the Motorola Droid X.
The price of the Epic 4G also is $50 more than what Sprint currently charges for its other 4G-capable phone, the HTC EVO 4G. And like the EVO 4G, the Samsung Epic 4G comes with an extra cost each month: Sprint requires that you subscribe to a PDA/Smart Device service plan, such as the carrier's $69.99-per-month Everything Data plan, and that you pay a $10-per-month Premium Data add-on for its 4G service. Keep in mind that the add-on plan is required whether you live in an area with 4G coverage or not.
High-Speed 4G Wireless
Sprint says its 4G network can offer download speeds that are ten times faster than a 3G connection, and the Epic 4G is only the second 4G phone to hit stores. Sprint's nascent 4G network, also called WiMax wireless, is not yet available in the Boston area, where I tested the Epic 4G, though Sprint says it should be available soon.
Unlike its sleek and sexy sibling, the Samsung Vibrant, the Epic 4G is a bit on the bulky side. It measures 4.9 inches tall by 2.5 inches wide by .6 inches thick and weighs 5.5 ounces; I placed it next to an Apple iPhone 4, and the Epic 4G made the iPhone look positively diminutive.
But the tradeoff for the Epic 4G's size is its excellent hardware QWERT keyboard, which slides out from the left side of the display. At first glance, I thought the keys would be too flat for comfortable typing, but I was quickly proven wrong. Even though the keys are flat, they depress enough to make typing a breeze. I also appreciated the roomy layout of the keys.
Like all of Samsung's Galaxy S phones, the Epic 4G features a Super AMOLED touch screen, which is just gorgeous. Colors pop off the screen, and, with its 800 by 480 resolution, everything from images to text looks crisp and clear. The touch screen is nicely responsive, too.
The display measures 4-inches diagonally, noticeably larger than the 3.5-inch screen found on the Apple iPhone , but smaller than the mammoth 4.3-inch displays found on the Droid X and the HTC EVO 4G. The screen felt very roomy when using the phone, and was especially spacious when composing messages on the hardware keyboard.
Call quality was very good in my test calls, made over Sprint's network. Voices came through loud and clear on both ends of the line, though I sometimes noticed a slight echo.
The Samsung Epic 4G ships with Android 2.1, which is no longer the latest version of the Android OS. Android has since been updated to version 2.2, which is already available on Google's Nexus One and will ship on the Droid 2.
Android has come a long way from its earliest versions, and even though version 2.1 is not the latest version, it does offer refinements that previous versions were lacking. Navigating through the OS's many options has gotten easier, and the Epic 4G performed well when I was zipping around the phone, checking out its many options. Keep in mind, however, that Android is still a bit geeky enough to overwhelm some newbies. For more details on Android, read my complete review of the mobile OS.
On top of its Android OS, the Epic 4G features Samsung's TouchWiz interface, which has been nicely updated. When I tested it on the Samsung Behold II, I found that TouchWiz didn't mesh well with the Android OS; so many of its features were already offered by Android that it just felt superfluous. But the new version of TouchWiz blends into the Android environment nicely, offering new widgets that are more useful. I particularly liked the "Feeds and Updates" widget, which offers easy access to various social networks.
The Epic 4G, as already mentioned, supports Sprint's super-fast 4G network, but if you don't live in an area with 4G coverage, the phone will connect to the carrier's high-speed 3G network. It also supports wireless Wi-Fi networks, so you have plenty of options for speedy browsing. In my tests of the Epic 4G in and around the Boston area, Sprint's 3G network delivered speedy page loads and downloads.
I also liked the browser on the Samsung Epic 4G. In the past, Android's browser required you to dig through menus to access simple functions (like the address bar or the back button). That doesn't seem to be the cast on the newer batch of Android phones. Like the Droid X and the Samsung Vibrant, the Epic 4G features a browser that just makes sense. The address bar is just where you'd expect to find it, and you can use the handy back button below the display to move back through Web pages. The 4-inch screen felt very roomy when I was browsing the Web, too, and I liked that you can pinch and spread the screen to zoom in and out as needed.
What you won't find on the Epic 4G -- yet -- is support for Adobe's Flash technology. You'll get this support, which will allow you to view multimedia Web pages as you would on a desktop computer, when the phone is updated to the next version of Android. version 2.2.
The Epic 4G also can be used as a mobile hotspot, to which you can connect up to 5 Wi-Fi enabled devices. To use the mobile hotspot service, you'll have to pay an additional $29.99 a month, though.
The Epic 4G features a 5-megapixel camera with an LED flash (which is missing on siblings like the Samsung Vibrant). It also offers a 4X digital zoom, autofocus, and HD video recording. You also get a front-facing camera for video conferencing.
The camera was a definite step up from the one found on the Samsung Vibrant. Pictures looked crisper and brighter, and photo quality overall was improved.
The Epic 4G's video features include a YouTube app and a variety of Sprint services, including Sprint TV, which offers a mix of live channels (showing the same content you'd see on your TV) and content that has been specially packaged for viewing on your mobile phone. I watched a baseball game on ESPN and noticed occasional stuttering and buffering. But I was impressed by the level of detail I was able to see on the 4-inch screen.
What the Epic 4G -- like all Android phones -- is missing is the kind of connected eco-system that Apple's iPhone and iTunes offer. iTunes allows you to easily purchase or rent movies for viewing on your phone, offers a simple way to download music, and lets you transfer content easily between your iPhone and your computer. Right now, Android phones offer access to Amazon's MP3 store for purchasing music downloads, but the experience doesn't extend beyond that. That should change later this year when Samsung launches its Media Hub, which will allow users to purchase music and video. The Media Hub will be a definite advantage for Samsung's phone, provided it offers enough content.
With its attractive design, stellar screen, and impressive multimedia offerings, the Samsung Epic 4G is a top-notch smartphone. It packs in enough features to compensate for its price, and to earn a spot on my list of today's best Android phones and my list of today's best smartphones.