Review: Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate for AT&T
Samsung's mid-range model for AT&T, the Galaxy Exhilarate, offers peace of mind when it comes to carbon footprint thanks to its eco-friendly build. If you're worried that being green means fewer features and down-graded performance, set aside your fears. Find out why in PhoneScoop's full report.
The Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate was first announced by AT&T in January. It's been a very long time coming, but now that it is here, Samsung's latest eco-friendly phone for AT&T is one of its best efforts yet at saving the planet one device at a time. The Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate doesn't aim as high as the Galaxy S III, but it provides enough oomph in the right places to make it worth consideration.
The Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate shoots for the middle of the smartphone market. It doesn't have the largest screen, the neatest features, or the flagship appeal that some of Samsung's devices have, but it manages to find a niche all its own.
The Exhilarate is dressed in all black and is more boring than bold in the looks department. It surely doesn't look bad - not at all - but nothing about its design stands out enough to call it a unique device. There are some shiny blacks, some matte blacks, and some grainy blacks. Perhaps it's the perfect phone for Goths.
For astute Phone Scoop readers, you might notice that the Exhilarate is very similar to the Galaxy Blaze 4G. The Blaze 4G has similar design, specs, and proportions. I found the feel of the Exhilarate to be much better.
Unlike many of Samsung's previous eco-friendly devices, you'd never know the Exhilarate was a green device based on appearances or feel. It's far and away the most solid and well put-together phone in Samsung's line of green devices. None of the materials feel cheap, and the build quality is excellent. I really like how the Exhilarate fits in my palm, and the soft-touch, matte-black battery cover gives it just the right amount of grip so that it doesn't slide out of your grasp. It shouldn't be a problem to fit into any pocket.
As with most Android smartphones, the front of the Exhilarate is all display. The AT&T and Samsung logos are about the only things you see on the front of the phone when the display is off. The normal four Android controls are placed along the bottom edge in capacitive form. I found them easy to use, and I liked the amount of haptic feedback they produce when pressed.
The volume toggle is on the left edge of the phone. It's easy to find, but I wish it had physical markings (whether it be a nub, or ridges, or whatever) that made it easier to tell which end you're pressing. Instead, it's a smooth piece of plastic. It offers plenty of travel and feedback.
As is typical for a Samsung device, the screen lock button is on the right edge. Samsung did a decent job with it. It protrudes just enough from the side surface that it is easy to find and use. The travel and feedback are quite good. The microSD card slot is buried in the right side, too, just below the power/lock button. It is covered by a little hatch that isn't much effort to pry off with your thumbnail.
The microUSB port is tucked on the bottom edge of the Exhilarate, and the 3.5mm headset jack on the top edge. The battery cover comes off with little effort. The SIM card is accessible without removing the battery, which is a pleasant surprise, as is the fact that the battery itself can be removed, too.
In all, the Samsung Exhilarate offers a somewhat bland approach to design, but the hardware all works well and feels good.
The Exhilarate has a 4.0-inch display with 800 x 480 pixels, and uses Samsung's Super AMOLED technology. I wouldn't compare it to the brilliant display of the GS3, but it is a fine display in its own right that is more than adequate for this class of device. It's plenty bright and is easily visible indoors and outside, but I was able to see more individual pixels than I'd like.
The Exhilarate maintained a strong connection to AT&T's network no matter where I took it. In both strong and weak coverage areas, it remained connected and able to make calls and surf the web. During my tests, the Exhilarate never dropped a call, never missed a call, and always connected calls on the first attempt. Though data always worked, it was noticeably slower in areas with poor coverage. When a good HSPA+ signal was available, man, the Exhilarate was zippy. It was even zippier under AT&T's LTE network. I tested the Exhilarate side-by-side with the Samsung Galaxy S III in San Francisco and it kept pace with its bigger brother. It showed an equal number of bars and scored similar results on speed tests.
The Exhilarate is an excellent voice phone. It achieves the right balance of quality and volume to make for smartphone nirvana. The majority of calls I placed were crystal clear and offered a pleasing tone to conversations. Further, the earpiece can be set loud enough for nearly all environments. It's loud enough that it hurts your ear a bit when set all the way up, but it doesn't suffer from distortion. The speakerphone was a bit less impressive in terms of both volume and quality. It will be useful in small rooms or spaces, but may not be loud enough to overcome the noise in a traveling car. Calls routed to the speakerphone had a bit more interference and distortion reducing quality. Ringers and alert tones are alarmingly loud, and the vibrate alert generates a good buzz.
The Exhilarate's battery does pretty well. It makes it through an entire day with no problem, and that's about all I really need from a smartphone these days. There was consistently enough battery power left so that I wasn't worried about running out before bedtime. You're safe from 7AM to 11PM, no doubt, and probably until the next morning, but not much beyond that.
The Exhilarate comes with the latest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz installed on Android 2.3.6 “Gingerbread”. (Yes, really, no Ice Cream Sandwich yet.) In daily use, it feels and functions exactly as other Samsung handsets with this combo, though I think it is inexcusable for new phones to ship without Android 4.0 at this point.
There are seven home screens on the Exhilarate. One of the features of Samsung phones that I like is that when you get to the home screen panel furthest to the left or right, you're not stuck cycling back in the direction you came. You can just keep circling through all seven panels without stopping. Wheee!
The main app folder is laid out in an alphabetical grid by default. The grids each hold up to 16 apps and are accessed by sliding the screen left or right. You can choose to rearrange the grid however you like, as well as view the apps in a single, alphabetical list.
There are a significant number of widgets available that can be used to litter the home screen. There aren't any cool lock-screen shortcuts, but at least the notification shade includes access to switch on/off the device's various radios.
On the performance side of the coin, the Exhilarate's Snapdragon S3 processor - a dual-core job at 1.2GHz per core - ran just fine. It was speedy throughout the user interface and applications. I didn't see any part of the phone's software suffer from jitters or lagging.
The calling and contacts applications on the Exhilarate work identically to most other Gingerbread phones we've seen from Samsung. The software dialpad pops up when the phone button is pressed. From there, it’s easy to access the call log, favorites, and the main contact list.
The Exhilarate includes the Samsung Buddies Now home screen widget. It lets you populate home screen panels with links to up to nine buddies. If you want to look at a buddy's entire contact card, simply press their face and you'll be taken into the contact application. This app can be used instead of setting a handful of contact shortcuts to the home screen.
Contact cards themselves can hold tons of data about each contact, and offer simple tools for calling, emailing, or messaging them.
The stock Android messaging tools are on board and cover the basics. The SMS application remains simple yet powerful. Messages are threaded in a conversational style, and media (photos, video, audio) fall in-line with the text. The usual two Android email applications are also present. There's the generic email app for POP3/IMAP4 and Exchange, as well as the native Gmail application.
On the instant messaging side of the equation, the stock Google Talk application is on board for Google IM users. Samsung's Social Hub is on board, which lets owners manage nearly everything — email, SMS, Facebook, IM, Twitter, even calendar — from a single portal. Social Hub supports Windows Live and Yahoo IM messaging services, but not AIM. The Hub can be your one-stop-shop for managing myriad communications. It is a convenient tool if you prefer to skim through messages rather than really dive into them. For example, it is easy to jump from Facebook to Twitter to email to SMS and back without having to actually switch applications.
Speaking of which, Facebook is pre-installed, but Twitter isn't; you'll have to download that yourself.
Other social apps/services on board include Google Latitude, Google+, and Google+ Messenger. Qik's video chat application is also on board, which lets you conduct real-time, two-way video chats with other users of the Qik application. However, at this point, Google+ offers a much better video chatting experience that is free, and supports large group "Hangouts."
A few words about typing on the Exhilarate. The device ships with three different keyboards (Android, Samsung, Swype). I found using either the Samsung or Android keyboards to be quite difficult because they've been shrunk. These two keyboard options are scrunched down along the bottom of the display, and offer drastically smaller buttons than on other keyboards. Bottom line: Swype is your best option.
The Exhilarate offers both the Google Play Music application and the older stock media player. The media player is a generic piece of software that can be used to access and playback media stored on the device. The Google Play Music application lets you stream your library from Google's servers over the network. It also lets you purchase music from the Google Play Store.
Music can be played back through attached headphones, or sent via Bluetooth to properly-equipped Bluetooth devices. Sound quality of music playback was quite good through both.
As far as video goes, the Exhilarate has the stock Android video player, YouTube, AT&T TV, and the Google Play application on board for renting or buying movies. The Exhilarate easily handled video content that I side-loaded, and it worked well for viewing most video content that I could find.
The Exhilarate also comes with Samsung's Media Hub. Users can access the Media Hub to download movies and television shows, but not music. Rental fees and sale prices vary by title. It basically dupes the functionality of Google Play.
AllShare is on board for those who like to share their multimedia files with DLNA-compatible devices, such as HDTVs.
The Exhilarate doesn't introduce any new features or functions to the tried-and-true camera software from Samsung. The viewfinder window has controls running down both sides. On the left, users can switch to the front camera, set the flash, or dive into a fuller settings menu. You can also choose to set your own shortcuts in this space, which means faster access to the tools you want. On the right, you can access the camcorder and the gallery.
The full camera settings menu is extensive and lets advanced users adjust nearly every facet of the camera and picture-taking experience. Exposure, scene, metering, ISO, and more can all be tweaked. “Shooting Mode” lets you pick from smile shot, panorama, action shot, and cartoon. Scenes adjust for lighting, and can be set for dawn, candlelight, beach, snow, and so on.
The Exhilarate includes touch-to-focus, and will lock onto anything you want in the viewfinder. Focusing is fast, but you still have to push the software shutter button to take a picture.
Overall performance of the camera application itself was excellent. It had no problems, and was quick to open, focus, shoot, and save images to the Exhilarate.
The Exhilarate makes use of the stock Android 2.3 photo gallery software. Images are stored in floating stacks based on date. The view of the gallery can also be switched to a more linear timeline if you so choose.
The gallery is limited when it comes to editing functions. Images can be cropped, rotated, copied to the clipboard, or renamed. That's about it. The Exhilarate doesn't offer anything fancy, such as the ability to sharpen focus or adjust contrast/exposure.
The Exhilarate may be limited to a 5-megapixel camera, but it does quite a good job. I was pleased with the majority of shots I took, which were in focus, exposed correctly, and showed accurate colors. There's slightly more grain found on images taken indoors, but the bright flash will help offset the grain a bit if you use it. The Exhilarate can easily replace a point-and-shoot camera for casual use.
The video camera maxes out at 720p HD video. I thought the results were very good. The footage I captured was smooth, focus was good, and panning the camera about didn't make me sick to my stomach. I wouldn't recommend you use it to record your cousin's wedding or your kid's graduation, but for everyday video needs it's a good alternative to dedicated video equipment.
The Exhilarate comes with the stock Android browser. With the capable processor and HSPA+/LTE on board, the Exhilarate offers a solid browsing device. When under strong AT&T coverage, browsing sessions were a joy. Web pages loaded in the blink of an eye under HSPA+/LTE coverage. I can't state that web sites loaded faster via LTE than HSPA+, but it felt faster. Browsing was only impacted under the worst network conditions (one bar or less).
Perhaps the biggest negative about browsing from the Exhilarate is that you can't use the excellent Chrome for Android browser. Why not? Because Chrome requires Android 4.0, and the Exhilarate is (for now) limited to Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
With seven home screen panels and apps and widgets galore, you have a vast canvas on which to personalize the Exhilarate and make it your own. I only wish there were some customizable lock screen shortcuts.
Of the 53 apps preinstalled on the Samsung Exhilarate, 9 of them belong to AT&T and 7 belong to Samsung. The rest are balanced between native Android apps and a handful of third-party apps, such as QuickOffice and Amazon Kindle. About one-quarter of the preinstalled apps can be deleted if you want to, but you're stuck with the majority of them. Even so, there's plenty of room on the Exhilarate so that you won't have to worry about running out of room to store additional apps.
Bluetooth works as expected on the Exhilarate. I had no trouble connecting it to other devices, including both mono and stereo headsets. The quality was fine and conversations were easy to hear. Bluetooth worked exceptionally well in my car, where I could really crank up the volume. Music sent to stereo Bluetooth headphones sounded excellent and was free of playback or stuttering problems.
The lock screen clock behaves just as on other Samsung TouchWiz phones. It's placed on the lock screen in large, white numbers. Owners can choose to position the lock screen clock at the top, middle, or bottom of the display. As I've opined before, however, I wish the font were thicker or bolder to make the time stand out against the background better. Indoors you'll have no problem reading it, but it's hard to check the time outside.
As with most Android devices coming from AT&T, the Exhilarate includes Google's navigation services in addition to AT&T's. You probably know the drill here. Google Maps, Places, Navigation, and Latitude all work really well. Maps, in particular, has become quite powerful with newer offline features and 3D maps for certain cities. It performed well on the Exhilarate. The AT&T Navigator app, which runs an additional $10 per month, does a fantastic job of routing directions from Point A to Point B, but is far less social than Google's services. Either way, you won't be led astray.
Samsung did a fine job with the Galaxy Exhilarate for AT&T. For a mid-range device, it scores well across the board. To use a sports analogy, it won't make the All Stars team, but it would be a solid competitor for the league's MVP.
I am particularly impressed with the materials in the Exhilarate and how well it is put together. This is by far Samsung's best eco-friendly effort. If you didn't know ahead of time that it was made from 80% recycled post-consumer materials, you'd never know it. The same cannot be said of some of Samsung's earlier efforts.
Beyond that, the Exhilarate gets all the basics right. The user interface is speedy and easy to use; phone calls sound great and the Exhilarate maintains a strong connection to AT&T's network; the media features — particularly the camera and video camera — deliver strong results; and all the essential communications tools are covered.
In a world full of smartphone extremes, the Exhilarate strikes a good balance, and in so doing, finds an identity all its own.
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