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Wednesday May 11, 2011 2:53 pm

Samsung Droid Charge review

Droid Charge review

Verizon customers now have two 4G Android smartphones to choose from: the HTC Thunderbolt, and the $299.99 Samsung Droid Charge, which is Samsung's first LTE device, and first officially designated Droid device for Verizon. The two cell phones are pretty similar, but not identical. While the HTC Thunderbolt retains a slight edge, you'll be thrilled with either device.

Design, Screen, and Call Quality
The Samsung Droid Charge measures 5.1 by 2.6 by 0.5 inches (HWD) and weighs 5 ounces. That makes it almost an ounce and a half lighter than the HTC Thunderbolt, but even slightly taller. The Droid Charge isn't as impressive looking, though, mainly thanks to its all-plastic design (save for the glass screen). The chrome trim around the edge and the glossy, tapered cover on back feel a bit cheap and seem to scratch easily.

The 4.3-inch, 480-by-800-pixel, Super AMOLED Plus capacitive touch screen is just as vibrant as other recent Samsung phones. The deep blacks and vibrant colors look great, and overshadow even the Thunderbolt's excellent screen. There are four plastic buttons beneath the screen. I like these better than the Samsung Galaxy S's finicky touch buttons, but HTC's haptic feedback-enabled design beats them both. Typing on the on-screen QWERTY keyboard was easy in both portrait and landscape modes, and dialing phone numbers was very fast.

The Droid Charge is a dual-band EV-DO Rev A and 4G LTE device with 802.11b /g/n Wi-Fi. With the LTE radio, Verizon says to expect download speeds in the 5 to 12 Mbps range, and upload speeds between 2 and 5 Mbps. We've gotten even higher speeds in some tests, though. You can also use the Droid Charge as a mobile hotspot with the appropriate plan; it can support up to 10 devices when running 4G, or five devices when in 3G mode. Interestingly, Verizon is promising to throw in the mobile hotspot feature for a limited time, instead of charging an extra $20 per month; that's a great deal, assuming you want that feature (and you do).

Voice quality was very good: crisp, clear, and loud in the earpiece. Callers had no trouble understanding me, either, although one caller said that I sounded a little thin through the microphone. Reception was solid. Callers sounded clear through an Aliph Jawbone Icon Bluetooth headset. The speakerphone went loud enough to use outside, but it sounded over-compressed and muffled. Voice dialing took several tries over Bluetooth to get the right number. I'm not sure why this is, but it could have something to do with the way the Droid Charge activates and deactivates its power-saving algorithm, as some of the Jawbone Icon's voice prompts were partially cut off.

We got some strange battery life results in our tests. The Droid Charge has a larger battery than the HTC Thunderbolt, 1600mAh compared to the Thunderbolt's 1400mAh. We saw very good standby and regular-usage time on the Charge - after a full day of sitting around, its battery life didn't drop much. But we repeatedly got short talk time results of between 4 hours, 15 minutes and 4 hours, 28 minutes, which is much shorter than we got on the Thunderbolt. Seeing those, we can't recommend this phone to people dissatisfied with the Thunderbolt's battery life; we'd expect the two phones to have similar experiences.

Hardware, OS, and Apps
Under the hood, the Droid Charge has the same 1GHz Cortex A8-based Hummingbird CPU found in half a dozen Galaxy S handsets over the past year. By now, it would have been nice to see an upgrade. The Droid Charge runs Android 2.2 (Froyo); there's no word yet on an Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) update. On our benchmark test suite, this phone tested slightly slower overall than the Thunderbolt, which packs a second-generation 1GHz Snapdragon CPU.

Samsung treads a bit more lightly than HTC with its UI layer. Most of the apps are stock, albeit with minor color or graphic enhancements. This is good and bad; I missed HTC's excellent address book layout, which looks livelier and makes it easier to access a contact's history than Samsung's does. The Droid Charge continues Samsung's tradition of wrapping menu icons in colored blocks. The seven customizable home screens work well.

Verizon has poisoned the Droid Charge's menus with some bloatware, though not as much as on the HTC Thunderbolt. The phone defaults to Google Search and Google Maps Navigation for voice-enabled, turn-by-turn GPS directions. VZ Navigator is available at half price, at $4.95 per month, but you don't need it. Kindle, Slacker, and Rhapsody apps are already on board, plus the solid TuneWiki music player, ThinkFree Office, and Bitbop for TV downloads.

Music and Video Playback
Samsung preloads its own 32GB microSD card in the slot beneath the battery cover; my own 32GB SanDisk card also worked fine. There's also a generous 1.08GB of free internal storage. The standard-size 3.5mm headphone jack makes finding good-sounding, third-party earbuds a cinch. Music tracks sounded full and punchy through Samsung Modus HM6450 Bluetooth headphones ($99, 4 stars); probably the cleanest I've heard in recent memory, given Bluetooth's typical grittier sound. The stock music player displayed large album art thumbnails and was simple to navigate.

On the video side, standalone 720p and standard definition files played back smoothly, with ever so slightly higher frame rates than the HTC Droid Incredible 2, and with more vibrant color. Black levels in particular looked exceptionally deep on the Droid Charge's AMOLED display. Verizon loads its usual V CAST Video portal for streaming video clips. You can also rent or buy movies from Samsung Media Hub, a clumsy, somewhat expensive store with mixed streaming performance. It only serves to divides the online video market even further.

Camera, Camcorder, and Conclusions
The Droid Charge features two cameras that, on paper, look just like the Thunderbolt's: an 8-megapixel auto-focus camera on back, and a 1.3-megapixel front facing camera. The latter is a fairly pointless addition; Verizon's Skype client is absent, and no other Android app delivers acceptable two-way video chat performance as of yet.

The Droid Charge's single-LED flash isn't as bright, but it didn't matter. Test photos were natural, vibrant, and detailed, with virtually no grain even in dimmer indoor rooms. There was a very slight whitish cast, but it wasn't at all objectionable. Shutter speeds were slightly slower than the Droid Incredible 2 and HTC Thunderbolt; I lost two shots to slight motion blur. But for the shots that were in focus, the Droid Charge's looked higher quality than the ones from the two HTC phones. The Droid Charge also offers face detection and geo-tags photos. Recorded videos were stellar: smooth, sharp, and colorful, at an even 30 frames per second at both 1280-by-720-pixel (720p HD) and 720-by-480-pixel (widescreen standard definition) resolutions.

The toughest part is probably deciding between this phone and the HTC Thunderbolt. The Thunderbolt is a bit faster and costs $50 less. It also has a nicer UI layer and a beautiful, high-end design that you feel every time you pick up the device. The plasticky Samsung Droid Charge doesn't look or feel as impressive. But it weighs less, has a more vibrant screen, and has a better camera and camcorder. Both are stellar 4G LTE Android phones, but neither has a dual-core CPU; we're still waiting for the first of those to arrive later this summer.

Two other options: The Apple iPhone 4 is more svelte and has the best apps available, although it has a smaller screen, lacks 4G, and lacks free voice navigation. If you want something smaller and easier to hold but want to stay with Android, the almost-as-good HTC Droid Incredible 2 is another solid choice. That one is a real world phone, with both CDMA and GSM, although it lacks 4G support. All four of these phones are stellar performers. If the Droid Charge beckons, buy with confidence.

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