Final thoughts on Samsung’s Galaxy S

As you might have noticed, I’ve been using (since mid-2010) Samsung’s 2010 flagship, the i9000 Galaxy S.

I bought it carrier-locked to Vodafone for €420. In the European country I currently live in, it’s almost the minimum wage!

Besides all the marketing efforts Samsung put behind it (especially at the European airports!), the phone was €250 cheaper than the iPhone 4, packing almost the same (or better) hardware:

– The 1GHz Hummingbird SoC, co-developed by Samsung with Intrinsity (later acquired by Apple) is similar to Apple’s A4 chip

– It has 512 MB of RAM (as the iPhone 4/4S)

– The SGX540 is better than iPhone’s SGX535

– The Super AMOLED 4″ display is bigger and offers deep black levels

Spec-sheet wise, this was the super-smartphone I was waiting for to replace my old Symbian-powered Nokia.

There were a few things hardware-related the spec-sheet did not mention I’ve only discovered after some time:

– The SIM-card hold mechanism (or the lack of it!) was not very good. The phone was losing the SIM-card all the time in the first weeks and I initially thought it was the SIM-card fault. I asked Vodafone for a new SIM-card and with this one things got much better. The problem was not completely solved, as I had this problem again with the new one, although much less frequently.

– The battery was not completely still inside the phone. When I grabbed the phone I often felt the battery moving inside, but I did not care about this very much since the battery never actually lost contact (unlike the SIM) with the phone.

– The back cover, made of cheap plastic, did not provide a premium quality that a flagship phone is supposed to have. It was prone to scratches, which over time made the phone look used prematurely.

– The Super AMOLED screen has awesome deep blacks but after about 6 or 8 months of usage there was some burn-in, especially at the top where the notification bar with the clock is. I believe this was one of the reasons led Samsung to change the notification bar color from grey to black.

– Antenna performance was definitely not great: at my place’s basement, where any old Nokia could get 1 or 2 bars my Samsung frequently lost connectivity to the network and even when there was connectivity, making a phone call was almost impossible. Same thing happened at my University’s library.

So, there were a few issues with the phone’s hardware, that revealed it not as high-quality as I thought initially it was.

When I bought the phone, Android 2.2 Froyo was already in the wild, but the Galaxy S was still running Android 2.1 Eclair. It didn’t take long till I find some annoying problems with the phone’s software:

– Android was noticeably slow and the performance was underwhelming (Quadrant score was around 700 or 800 points, slower than it’s main competitor, the HTC Desire)

– It wasn’t able to get a lock with the GPS satellites (maybe this was also a bit related to the antenna performance)

– There was some overheating after playing some games

– Animations were not smooth, such as the Vodafone logo when starting up and shutting down

I looked for the issues on the web and apparently they were pretty much common knowledge among the owners, but there was Android 2.2 coming and this update was supposed to fix everything for everyone. So, instead of returning the phone within the first 15 days, I just kept the phone waiting for the promised update.

This belief was my mistake as I found out later! In fact, Samsung took a long time (several months) after the launch to release Android 2.2, postponed the update several times, and when finally released it, Vodafone took some extra time to release it to their own branded-handsets. I’ve lived without Skype or Flash for a long time, as both required the Galaxy S to have Android 2.2. It’s worth mentioning that my previous phone, a Nokia with Symbian S60v5, ran both Skype and Flash Lite, so Android, at this point, was some sort of a regression.

By the end of 2010 the update was eventually available! After some weeks, even after factory resetting the phone, I concluded that, beside now having Flash and Skype, everything else was still the same: the lag was really noticeable, Quadrant score was just around 150 points up from the previous version, GPS would lose the satellite fix all the time (making it impossible to use in the car) and then there was the overall stability: instead of getting better, it seemed even worse, with games such as Angry Birds crashing the phone entirely as you can see below.

When it crashed like this, I had to pull the battery off or press the power button for a very long period of time until the phone restarted by itself. Another problem was that, despite the performance improvements of Android 2.2, the phone slowed down as time passed by. Eventually the phone would be so slow and lag so much the only solution would be to factory reset it again, lose all the progress and data of the apps and games and start all over again, since there is no official way of backing up the data without rooting the OS.

My new hope by then was to believe that the future Android 2.3 Gingerbread would make a miracle. It wasn’t until the summer that the Gingerbread update was finally released by Vodafone and I updated the phone and reset it… again!

In the first week I truly believed the miracle have been made: the phone was now blazing fast, GPS seemed ok, Quadrant score made a huge jump, almost doubling the original Android 2.1 score!

I finally had this amazing phone I was expecting to get when I bought it one year before!

Unfortunately this great performance did not last for long and soon I was feeling the old lag back again, the GPS was not that good after all (although improved, the precision was much worse compared to a friend’s Sony Ericsson Xperia Neo), the performance was decreasing (Quadrant Score was scoring lower results as time passed by), the stability was hitting all time lows (both games and popular apps such as Facebook often force closed as you can see below) and then there was a new bug I already wrote about in another blog post: the Android OS battery drain bug!

Another thing that really annoyed me was the browser! Samsung made a few changes ruining it even more:

– In Eclair the browser supported up to 8 tabs, but in Froyo and Gingerbread it is limited to 4 tabs!

– Samsung removed the + and – button that allows you to zoom in and out without using the pinch to zoom gesture

– Unlike other Android competitors, the browser did not fit the text automatically to the screen when zooming in, you needed an extra double tap after pinching to zoom

– Browser performance is far from good, the SunSpider score is not impressive at all and there was a problem with the kinetic scroll I mentioned in a previous blog post

– Stability was never something to brag about, and in my opinion it got worst in the latest Gingerbread updates

– There was some rendering issues with some websites (e.g.: lists that did not appear), as you can see below

– I suspect the browser had frequent memory leaks, and since only about 300 of the 512 MB of RAM were actually available to Android I believe this was one of the reasons Samsung limited the browser to 4 tabs from Froyo onwards.

It’s amazing how the most expensive and sophisticated phone I’ve ever bought turned out to be the worst I’ve ever had!!!

After I’ve searched for a while there was a recurring answer to all my problems: surrender and enjoy the dark side of custom ROM’s, such as Cyanogenmod 7!

The community had come up with some of their own-made firmwares that improved noticeably the performance of the phone but in most of these custom ROMs there’s always a few drawbacks:

– First of all, you lose the manufacturer’s warranty (which is a big deal to me!)

– Battery life is apparently even worse compared to the official Samsung firmware

– I would also lose the ability to make standard UMTS/3G video calls

– The camera performance would decrease, since 720p HD video recording was not possible or not entirely smooth

– Some features at some point were not yet developed (such as FM Radio)

So, even though this kind of custom ROMs actually solved some performance-related issues, I would not get as many features as in a Samsung ROM.

The community also came up with some “lagfix” apps that, as far as I know, change the original Samsung filesytem to a faster one, which solved, at least temporarily, the lag problem but required rooting the OS.

My personal belief is that a manufacturer should be responsible for supporting their own products, especially one such as the Galaxy S that sold millions of units and was the company’s flagship phone in 2010.

I really respect how great (and big) the Galaxy S community is and their continuous efforts to solve for free what Samsung is being paid by the customers to solve, but in the end what I really want is a brand to take full responsibility for the things they have put out in the market!

I’m writing my final thoughts on this because recently I’ve met someone that was looking to buy a used smartphone and the Galaxy S was fortunately one of the models he was interested in: this sounded to me as a sign it was time to let my phone go and I didn’t miss the opportunity to sell it: problem solved!

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