Review: Samsung Fascinate
Sep 9, 2010, 4:49 PM by Philip Berne
The Samsung Fascinate brings the Galaxy S family to Verizon Wireless, and The Network teaches this Android every trick it knows. Is this the Galaxy to explore?
Is It Your Type?
If you're looking for one of Samsung's signature Galaxy S phones with a giant Super AMOLED display and a high performance Android interface, the Samsung Fascinate is a relative late arrival to the party, but it comes packing superior storage and a few interesting extras. Is the Samsung Fascinate the phone you just can't live without?
My first experience with a Samsung Galaxy S device was the Samsung Epic 4G on Sprint, so I didn't realize just how thin and light the Galaxy S phones feel. The Samsung Fascinate is covered in glossy glass and plastic, which does make it feel more like a toy than the metal-plated competition from HTC and Apple. But the light weight and the sturdy feel alleviate all concerns quickly. The phone wasn't too large in the hand, but it did feel sharp thanks to its thin shell. Still, it's nicely curved on the back with no sharp corners, so it fits comfortably in a well-fitted pair of pants.
The front of the device is dominated by the 4-inch touchscreen, and it really steals the show. There are four touch sensitive buttons beneath the screen, for Menu, Home, Back and Search. These buttons were plenty sensitive, but they did not stay lit when the screen was on, and sometimes the faint button symbol below the screen would fade into the glossy black, making the buttons hard to see. I wish these buttons would just stay lit while the screen is on, or paint them a brighter white.
On the left side of the phone is a volume rocker, nicely raised and easy to find during a phone call. On the right side is the power / screen lock button. This was more difficult to locate, and I often found myself squeezing the volume keys, since they were so much larger. That's it for buttons, and I really missed the dedicated camera button. I don't need many button shortcuts, but a real camera button beats an onscreen button any day.
Up top you'll find a microUSB port hiding behind a sliding port cover. It seems sturdy enough, and more secure than a pop-off port door. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack. Samsung keeps a fairly minimalist look, and the Samsung Fascinate is a sharp looking tablet.
The large Super AMOLED screen on the Samsung Fascinate, and on all the Samsung Galaxy S phones, is really a sight to behold. The color is so vibrant and the contrast so dark and inky that interface just pops in a way that no other phone can. The iPhone's retina display may look more sharp, but Samsung's Super AMOLED beats you over the head with bright color. Outdoors, the Fascinate holds up. It isn't as bright and it loses most of that great color, but it's still quite visible when navigating the interface or taking photographs.
I was not terribly impressed by the signal performance I saw on the phone. Calling worked much better than the data network. In the vault (my parents somewhat rural Maryland home), the network flickered from 3G and digital 3G roaming to 1xRTT to no signal at all. But no matter what the bars said, I was unable to use the data features on the phone. Phone calls from the vault mostly did not go through, though a few found their way and these held on and did not drop. Even when I was out and about, I was usually disappointed by the data signal. It seemed slower than I expected from Verizon, and data performance was usually behind other phones I'm testing on other 3G networks. Wi-Fi worked just fine on my home network and at my local coffee spot.
Sound quality on the Samsung Fascinate was good but it could use some improvement all around. During calls, voices were a bit low and bass-heavy, with some muffled moments. There were some dropped voices during the worst moments of bad reception, but I didn't have a problem with completely dropped calls. The speakerphone could stand improving. It sounds tinny and weak, with a volume to match. It can get screechy loud during some poorly mixed songs, but it's not a good sound, and it wasn't great for speaker phone calls in a fast moving car. The phone comes with a wide selection of ringtones, and if the jangly pop beats don't appeal to you, there is an assortment of more standardized tones that actually sound like a phone ringing.
Battery life for the Fascinate was adequate, though not impressive. For the fast performance and huge screen you'll have to charge your phone every night, but it should last through a day's use if you aren't relying on it for navigation or more than a few seconds of HD video recording. I might have chosen a bit more weight or another millimeter of thickness to eke out some serious camera time.
The Samsung Fascinate responded well to the touch in every way. It wasn't super snappy, but the phone never failed to respond, either. The home panel screens might lag behind my swipes by a fraction of a second, but some graphically intense features, like the CD cover view in the music player, responded without delay. The touch sensitive buttons beneath the screen were likewise no trouble. They didn't leap to attention, but they always responded properly.
The Samsung Fascinate earns its title with a fascinating blend of influences and features. It's a Google Android phone with Samsung's TouchWIZ interface tweaks running Verizon Wireless branded features with search and maps handled by Microsoft Bing. Let that sink in, because that is a Shakespearean cast of strange bedfellows, indeed.
The interface is TouchWIZ on top of Android 2.1, the same as all the other Samsung Galaxy S phones. It's bright and colorful, a bit more playful than the stock Android interface, but occasionally in a cartoon way that comes across as goofy. I don't mind the TouchWIZ interface, except when Samsung's design seemed to hurt performance with the touch lag I noted.
Some of the most important features are stock Verizon Wireless fare. Navigation is available from VZ Navigator. The music store is V Cast, not Amazon MP3. There's a V Cast Ringtones store app and a V Cast Video app. Beyond V Cast, there's Blockbuster video and many, many more apps. Most of these you can delete, but some, like Blockbuster and the Need for Speed Demo, cannot be uninstalled.
In other words, the Samsung Fascinate is the phone that I worried the Motorola Droid would be. It's the carrier-stamped Android phone. Instead of the stock Google kit, with Google Search, you get Bing search when you press the Search button, with no way to change your Search results provider. You can download Google Maps from the App Market, but the phone has other navigation and mapping options built in.
So the main difference is Google search versus Bing search. The search feature still looks through your contacts, your music files and your applications in addition to suggesting a Web search, which opens Bing. Bing also offers maps, image search, news search and a dedicated section for local movie times. I found the Bing results somewhat limited compared to Google search results on other Android phones, and the interface seemed like a step back, ignoring the cool background image in the Bing search app. I prefer Google, but Bing wasn't much of a factor either way. I suppose if you have a strong preference for Microsoft over Google . . . well, why are you buying an Android phone?
It's easy to jump into a phone call on the Samsung Fascinate. You can press the Phone button that persists at the bottom of every home screen panel. This opens the dialer. You can press the Contact button directly beside the Phone button for the contact list. Or, you can hit the Search button beneath the screen and start typing a name.
Once you're in a call, you get the standard selection of Android options. You can mute, hold the call, send the audio to a Bluetooth device or add a third call for a conference. The Samsung Fascinate wasn't too bright on conferencing. I couldn't manage or swap my individual calls once joined, I had to hang up to go back to a private conversation.
The Samsung Fascinate was able to synchronize with my Google contacts with no trouble. Search may be handled by Microsoft, but all the other Google features remain intact. The phone is also supposed to synchronize with Twitter and Facebook contacts. When you activate a service, you can hand pick which contacts you like, or just sync all of them. I wish there were some middle ground, like an option to sync with existing Gmail contacts, for instance.
Twitter gave me no problems at first, but then I started getting sync error messages on a daily basis. Finally, Twitter sync stopped working. Facebook gave me error messages relating to the same problem, the SNS (social networking service) that Samsung uses to manage accounts on the Fascinate. In any case, I'm assuming this is a software bug that could be cured, and it only affected my social networks, not my Gmail contacts or Microsoft Exchange address book.
The Fascinate has a nice looking contact list. You can swipe a name in the list to get a dialing or messaging option, or tap the contact to open the larger entry. These entries can hold near limitless information. Tap a phone number to start a call or message. Tap a postal address and a menu pops up asking if you want Bing or VZ Navigator (or Google Maps, if you download it from the App Market).
There are a few nice contact shortcuts, as well. Samsung has a "Buddies now" widget that gives you a customizable carousel of buddies. You can tap a button next to your buddy's face to send a message or call. You can also create direct dial shortcuts for your homescreen panels that let you tap once to dial a contact's specific number. Mom's work number, for instance.
For email, the Samsung Fascinate only lets you use Microsoft Hotmail. Just kidding, it actually functions like all other Android phones, with dedicated apps for Gmail and Google Talk, and catch-all apps for the other services you might enjoy. Gmail and Google talk are superior in features and design to the competition, but if you have an IMAP, POP or Exchange email account, the Email app gets the job done. The Mobile IM app looks quite dated, and it could be confusing to use, but it offers rudimentary support for AIM, Yahoo and Windows Live messaging. The Mobile IM service insists on running over Verizon's data network; it won't use the Wi-Fi network. This seems like an odd restriction.
Text messaging is handled nicely on the Samsung Fascinate. The messages come through in a threaded, conversational style, and each side of the conversation gets its own brightly colored dialogue balloon. Some MMS messages gave me trouble. Picture messages that I sent from the Fascinate went through just fine, but a couple of the MMS messages I sent to the phone came through with only their text component intact, no picture on board.
The Fascinate has a cool lock screen. Normally, to unlock the phone you drag a puzzle piece into a fitted slot. When you have new messages, more puzzle pieces appear. So, if you have a text message, you drag the message puzzle piece and the phone unlocks directly to the message screen, instead of the home screen. When you miss a call, drag the call puzzle piece to the slot to jump to the call log. It's a unique touch that's also convenient, especially for incoming messages.
The Fascinate integrates your social networks into the phone in a few ways. First, in the contact list, you get a History tab that gives you all the private Facebook emails and Twitter DMs that you've sent and received. Second, you also get an Activities tab that provides an exhaustive feed of updates from all of your contacts on Facebook and Twitter. It's nice for a quick glance, and you can also reply or retweet Twitter updates, or add your comments to Facebook posts. The same tabs are supposed to work on individual contact listings, but when I pulled up my friends' contact cards, these tabs were always left blank.
I had trouble with the social networking features on my Samsung Fascinate review unit. A Samsung app called SNS manages all of your accounts for social networking widgets and contact sync. Unfortunately, this widget on my phone seemed buggy and always at the root of Force Close error messages. A hard factory reset fixed the issue.
The Samsung Fascinate does not come with any official social networking apps preloaded, but you can download Twitter, MySpace and Facebook from the App Market. These apps all worked well on the Fascinate. The phone does come with Skype mobile, and Verizon has Skype locked up exclusively on Android. Skype worked fine, for a voice-only app. I had a nice chat with my sister in Amsterdam, but we couldn't connect for a video chat over Skype, which is a bummer.
The Samsung Fascinate has its ups and downs with music. The music player is not stock Android, but it does mimic the Android player's only good feature, the YouTube search ability. The music player is a hodge-podge of design. There are translucent bits and transparent bits. There are gradients with flat buttons and a 'chrome-free look,' and a place indicator that is polished with a bit of lens flare. It's not a cohesive look and it doesn't add to the capabilities on screen. Thankfully, most of the good stuff hides just beneath the surface.
There's a customizable equalizer, as well as a stereo widening "5.1ch" surround sound-like effect for earbuds. To me, it sounded more like hitting a 'noisy and loud' button, but the EQ was a welcome addition. There are also some cool visual effects. Samsung has a nice riff on the Cover Flow theme with a merry-go-round of floating CDs, each printed with their respective album artwork. There's also an EQ visualizer that bops along to the music, albeit at a sluggish frame rate.
I wasn't terribly impressed by the sound quality of music on the Fascinate. Neither tracks I purchased from the V Cast store nor tracks I sideloaded sounded especially good through my earbuds. The special effects changed the tone significantly, but not usually for the better.
The Amazon MP3 store is absent from this phone, and it's replacement, the V Cast Music Store, is quite strange. It looks and acts like the same app on Verizon's touchscreen feature phones. It responds poorly to the touch, reacts slowly for information requests, and it seems aimed more at selling expensive singles than catering to real music enthusiasts. In fact, you can't download an entire album at once. You have to buy songs individually for $2 a pop. You can download music in the background while you perform other tasks on the phone, but you can't set the Store to download a queue of music, you have to wait for one download to finish before you can buy the next song and start your next download.
There is no music widget preloaded on this phone, so you can't start playing tunes from the homescreen without downloading a 3rd party music app. Once your music is playing, playback controls appear in the notification shade, and you can jump directly to the Now Playing screen by tapping on the album artwork.
In terms of hardware, Verizon Wireless goes the distance with the Fascinate. The phone comes with 2GB of storage built in, and Verizon Wireless is also preloading a 16GB microSD card. That gives you plenty of internal storage for applications, plus that whopping card, and pushes the Fascinate to the top of the Galaxy S pile in terms of out of box storage generosity. The 3.5mm headphone jack is up top, just where I like it.
I always prefer having a dedicated hardware camera button so I can jump quickly into shooting mode, but even without this shortcut the Fascinate's camera operated quickly. It took about 2 seconds to launch the camera, and another 2 seconds in between shots. That's not bad for an Android phone. The camera has a ton of controls divided between a few different menus. By default, you can tap the screen to focus, then tap the onscreen camera button to take your picture.
The Fascinate has a shooting mode menu with a wide selection of modes. You get single shot and a panorama stitch assist mode. Panorama shots looked great until you zoom in close, where most of the stitched edges are still blurry and visibly broken. There's also a smile shot (which did not work on my smile), a vintage Lomo-esque mode, and a cartoon filter mode. A separate camera menu lets you choose macro focus mode, and I wish this were easier to switch. You can also adjust resolution, white balance and ISO, and some other color and exposure settings.
The Fascinate was difficult to use for self portraits. It could not find my face with face detection, it would not shoot automatically in smile mode, and my finger often missed its target with the touchscreen camera button when I couldn't see it.
The gallery app on the Samsung Fascinate is similar to other recent Android phones, and it looks great. Photos first appear in small piles grouped by date or folder. Tap a pile to see a grid view. Tap again to see individual photos in a view you can pinch and zoom. There aren't many editing options. You can crop or rotate photos, but that's all. You can also share photos from the gallery easily. You can send pics via MMS message or email, transfer files using Bluetooth or upload images to Picasa. There aren't too many sharing options, but as you add apps and widgets to the phone, more should appear in this list.
Photos are one way this phone sells itself. Photos from the built-in camera look great on this screen, but if you like showing off photos from your computer or favorite online service, the Fascinate, with its huge Super AMOLED display, makes for a great digital photo wallet.
Image quality from the Samsung Fascinate's 5 megapixel camera was strikingly good at times. Images taken under bright, outdoor light were crisp with great details and accurate color. Some reds could blow out a bit, but this was better controlled than on most mobile camera sensors. The camera couldn't quite aim properly for real macro photography, but it did a nice job with simple close-ups.
Indoors, quality was reduced, but not dramatically. In good indoor light, the camera sensor stayed true to the colors present, and didn't drown in noise or other problems. In dimmer light, colors started to drain. The flash was little help, though it would be welcome in the most severe low-light circumstances.
At best, images from the Fascinate were printworthy as 8 by 10s, and that's fine praise, indeed. At worst, they would still be fine for Web sharing and any simpler messaging tasks.
The Samsung Fascinate records 720p hi-def video. I found the videos looked pretty good. Outdoor videos were bright and colorful, without exploding too much in bright backlighting. Indoors, more artifacts and blocky bits of compression were evident. It's a cameraphone best suited for working outside, then.
Check out these high definition samples below. Be sure to click on the resolution button until it says "720p," then watch the samples full screen for the highest quality.
The Web browser on the Samsung Fascinate is the standard Android kit. It can handle HTML pages with ease and my favorite sites, including our own PhoneScoop homepage and the full CNN site, looked just like their desktop counterparts. The phone has Flash Lite support, but it was useless in my browsing. None of the CNN videos I wanted nor our own YouTube samples played back properly on the phone.
Even without Flash, the Web browser is still top notch. Text was always sharp and easy to read, and photos looked clear. The browser responded nicely to pinching and swiping gestures, and the huge screen made it easy to read long Web pages. In all, browsing is a solid experience on the Samsung Fascinate.
Except for that one big thing, there's quite a bit that you can customize on the Samsung Fascinate. There are plenty of widgets and useful shortcuts for the homescreen panels. Samsung starts you with a generous seven panels, but you can cut that number down to your liking and even rearrange the panel order with a flick.
You can rearrange the order of the app icons in the application folder, or view your apps as a long list, instead of an icon grid. You can also change which show up in the bottom four shortcuts on every menu screen. You can't change the basic theme or color scheme, but I didn't mind Samsung's TouchWIZ interface in the slightest. It might be a bit too bright and cheery for some tastes, but I found this version to be customizable to the point of being useful, and it never seemed to get in the way.
You can also download plenty of apps, including some that fill in the Google blanks, like Google Maps. Google Search isn't available, and at press time Verizon Wireless reps were being cryptic about why, saying only that Verizon "isn't blocking" Google Search on this phone. Who knows what that will mean for users in the long term.
The Samsung Fascinate worked well with all my Bluetooth devices. I was able to pair with my Bluetooth headset with no trouble. Reception was okay, as good as it is with any mobile phone. Reception is always better with a larger device, like my stereo Bluetooth speakers, and these sounded great for music playback, with no reception problems. I was also able to transfer files from the image gallery to my laptop over Bluetooth with no hassle.
The Samsung Fascinate will appease clock obsessives and those on a schedule. The phone has a clock placed prominently at the bottom of the lock screen. It's visible in all sorts of light, indoors and out. There's a small clock in the notification shade. You also get a ton of clock widgets from Samsung, including a weather clock and dual-time clocks for travelers. The phone also has a built in alarm and timer.
Out of the box, the Samsung Fascinate uses Bing and VZ Navigator to handle mapping and navigation duties. When you tap on an address in your contact list, a menu pops up asking which app you want to use. The correct answer is neither. Instead, download Google Maps. Bing Maps is kind of like Google Maps . . . for a Palm Treo. It doesn't use multi-touch for zooming, it is a sluggish piece of software and it often got my location wrong, placing me in New York City instead of Dallas, TX. That's pretty far off.
VZ Navigator has been improved for Android, but Networks in Motion's mapping and navigation app just doesn't live up to any of the competition. It's a sluggish app that constantly refreshed the map pages every few seconds. The interface still isn't multi-touch friendly, and it isn't as advanced as Sprint Navigator or AT&T Navigator, both TeleNav products, and it isn't as friendly as the free option from Google. It is convenient that VZ Navigator offers local gas prices and special event calendars, so it might be a useful location-based tourist app, but for driving directions, I much preferred Google Maps.
The commercials for Samsung's Galaxy S line of phones, including the Samsung Fascinate, might fool you into thinking this is a gaming powerhouse. In fact, there are almost no advanced games available for Android phones. I tried playing Speed Forge, one of the most advanced 3D games, on the Fascinate but the game would not load. I'd love to see Samsung put its money where its mouth is and buy a gaming studio to create the games it claims these advanced phones can handle.
The Samsung Fascinate is a phone that might just push too many buttons. I love the Galaxy S aspects of the design. The phone is thin and light, glossy and classy all at once. The screen is fantastic, and it does nothing better than show off the top notch pictures I took with the 5 megapixel camera. Samsung has toned down TouchWIZ quite a bit, paring it back to a highly customizable interface theme and a few nice custom widgets. So why do I have reservations recommending this phone?
First, there's Bing. Then there's the social networking integration, which was buggy for me and felt half-baked. The music player is better than it first appears, but the experience is hurt by the V Cast Music Store. VZ Navigator and Bing Maps spoil what is otherwise an Android specialty, navigation. That said, the Fascinate has its benefits. It comes with the most storage of any Galaxy S phone. It's got an LED flash. It's open to third party apps, and it's got Wi-Fi Hotspot capabilities. It's also on Verizon, and The Network has enough fans to make that a meaningful selling point.
The Samsung Fascinate is a fine phone with a few troubling issues that might be outweighed by Verizon's provenance. But if these issues have you concerned, there are other Galaxy S phones that haven't been so deeply repurposed.
"...the Fascinate has its benefits. It comes with the most storage of any Galaxy S phone..."
What about GPS not working?
Three minutes and still not GPS lock. I have heard firmware update sometime this month. Deal breaker for me right now.
Crippled by verizon!!
As far as Bing, well, even easier, turn phone onto airplane mode, turn ON wifi, goto market, download google search bar. Install. I do know tha...