Software

Like the other Galaxy S phones, the Fascinate packs Samsung's TouchWiz Android skin. Right off the bat, it's pretty obvious that Samsung has changed a lot of things here. I've changed the default applications on the homepage, but you can get a pretty good feel for what you start out with. The first and seventh home pages are completely blank.

Home Screens—Default Configuration and Layout

The default wallpaper is some sort of ocean waves atop coral scene - touching the screen creates ripples in the water which distorts the coral scene underneath. Honestly, I think this is Samsung showing off the SGX 540 graphics, as it's got a heavy 3D feel to it. Run your finger back and forth, and you'll create waves of distortion all over the home pages.

The coral scene underneath is a bit low resolution, and you can pick out some JPEG artifacts just casually glancing at it. I found myself wanting to change the image underneath, but leave the water distortion effect intact. Unfortunately, that isn't possible. You either get the strangely low resolution coral and water ripples, or the normal Android wallpaper selection.

Anand already talked about how Samsung's TouchWiz takes heavy nods from iOS. The application launcher scrolls in pages to the right, and newly installed applications go to the end of the list, rather than in alphabetical order by default. It's out of place on Android to see such a blatant attempt to emulate that experience. Looking through that list of preinstalled applications though, and you'll notice something…

Applications Launcher - First, Second, Third pages

It's Bing.

I want to preface this by saying that I don't have a problem with Bing. I don't have anything against Microsoft's search engine, but Bing is all over the Fascinate.

Lots of Bing

Press the search button, and you're searching with Bing. There's even a widget that's a Bing-searching facsimile of the Google search widget. Want maps? There's no Google maps by default, just Bing maps. Fire up the browser and search? You guessed it, Bing.

It's not like you can change it, either. There's no way to change the in-browser search engine - it's stuck being Bing. In fact, it isn't really even Bing, it's a Verizon-hosted Bing search portal at search.vzwwap.com.

Now, that isn't so bad, but the mobile Bing interface isn't exactly stellar. In fact, I distinctly remember hearing a Microsoft employee, during a session at MIX10, proclaim that the mobile view was awful and seriously in need of work. No kidding. It's improved a bit since then, but there's still a number of out of place or low resolution Verizon and Bing logos all over. It just feels weird.

Similar to the Droid 2, you also cannot remove the Verizon bookmarks. Trying to do so gets you a nice error message. This applies to both VZW Home and My Verizon. 

Default Bookmarks - Deletion Error

Bing Maps was similarly awkward for a time, complete with strangely low resolution resources and no multitouch zooming. About a week after I got my review unit, the software was updated in the market and now includes multitouch support, but still feels clunky and occasionally slow. Thankfully, you can install bona-fide Google Maps from the marketplace and get the whole maps and navigation bundle without any problems.

Oh and that Bing widget? While you can remove it, installing the stock-Android Google widget requires hunting the APK down online.

I looked through the entire Android 2.1 install on the Fascinate, and even finding the word "google" is a challenge. It's curiously absent from the back of the phone as well.

There's also a ton of other Verizon proprietary applications installed, including the paid-service VZ Navigator (why you'd use this instead of Google Maps defies logic). The remaining set of preinstalled apps is the same as I've seen on other Verizon-bound Android phones. A trial install of NFS Shift, My Verizon Mobile, some V Cast stuff - it's all there.

The TouchWiz UI does include a nice task manager, complete with easily locatable "End All" button. You can uninstall packages and also get a glance at RAM use. It's nice to see this preloaded. Holding down the home button to bring up the recently used application list also includes a shortcut to this task manager. I think that's a nice tweak.

TouchWiz Task Manager

Another relatively useful TouchWiz thing is actually the lock screen. Miss a call or get a text message, and you'll get a puzzle piece with the corresponding number of things you've missed. Drag that to the empty piece, and you'll instantly get taken there. I think that's pretty useful.

What's most surprising about the Fascinate (and the other Galaxy S phones) is that they run Android 2.1, but don't feel slow or want for the performance increases that 2.2 brings with JIT compilation. This is the first Android 2.1 device I've used since 2.2 came to the Nexus One that I felt wasn't in dire need of the update. It needs to happen - and soon - but it isn't experience-killing.

Keyboard

Like the Epic 4G, the Fascinate comes with Swype installed and selected by default. The default android keyboard is there too, but Swype is really what you should be using. The Fascinate doesn't have quite as many keyboard options as the Droid X or Droid 2, which bundle a custom Motorola multitouch keyboard, Swype, and SwiftKey, but you can always grab something similar from the applications marketplace. 

Hardware Impressions and Analysis Super AMOLED is indeed Super
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  • Brian Klug - Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - link

    Chemist1,

    I actually completely agree with you, 100%. When I joined on to tackle smartphones, my big objective has and still is to nail down testing for everything that's traditionally been subjective - battery life, screen quality, performance, signal strength, e.t.c, and make it just as objective as hardware reviews. Of course, audio (voice) quality is on that list as well.

    I've been grappling for some time on an ideal test methodology, one that would give a much better (objective) means of testing actual call quality than - it sounded good. I honestly couldn't agree more that this level of analysis is lacking. Unfortunately, until I've got that nailed down, it's really all I can say. What shape that takes is still up in the air.

    I've thought of recording the local ASOS weather station test call (which is so far what I use for measuring speakerphone volume) through both the line-out and speaker, then letting people compare those audio files directly. I've considered using some spectral analysis tools similar to determine the pass bandwidth of these phones (of course this would require some tweaking due to cellular latency and also a land line), and a few other things. If you or other commenters have suggestions, I'm more than all ears, seriously ;)

    I've actually done a fair amount of playing with CDMA voice codecs in the past - a number of WinMo devices would let you change from relatively-basic EVRC to better 13k voice codecs and a number of others. That kind of discussion and reporting about what codecs each device are using is where I'd like to go, getting that from Android sometimes is very difficult unfortunately. In fact, only device I've really seen that on so far is the EVO. I'd also like to eventually be able to characterize the difference between 1x voice, GSM and UMTS.

    There's a lot more we're trying to add for certain, I/we just have to figure out what the best way of testing those would be.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • jasperjones - Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - link

    You may find this shocking but I highly doubt people will consider audio quality as important as you do when deciding for a smartphone.

    I faintly remember some study on what consumers are looking for in portable audio/MP3 players. Audio quality was NOT in people's top 5! Design, storage capacity, and three other things I cannot recall right now were more important to them. In an audio device!!

    So there you go.
    Reply
  • chemist1 - Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - link

    jasperjones: Thanks for your comment. Well, one needs to be careful of these surveys, since small differences in wording can significantly change the outcome. But your point is well-taken: audio quality is not a top priority for consumers. Nevertheless, that's not to say that audio quality is of no interest to the majority of consumers, nor that it should not therefore be of significant interest to us. [Please see paragraphs 2 and 3 of my reply to kmmanety.] Reply
  • MacTheSpoon - Wednesday, October 06, 2010 - link

    Audio quality matters to me, too, thanks for fighting the good fight, chemist1. ;)

    By the way, I own the phone and I have found the audio to be pretty good for calls so far. At least, I haven't found myself wishing the phone was louder or had any problems distinguishing speech.

    Listening to music with headphones...I don't have golden ears, and I don't know how it stacks up to a top mp3 player like a Cowon, but it's definitely not a low-end sound like my iPod Nano 4th Gen or my 2007 Macbook Pro, anyway.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, October 07, 2010 - link

    Kinda like how in CNET reviews of point and shoot cameras image quality only accounts for something like 10% of their final score.

    Though a lot of consumers probably just assume audio quality is good enough. The majority are going to put compressed music on there anyway and then use cheap earbuds, so a lot of the audio quality discussion that goes on on tech sites is utterly irrelevant to the majority.
    Reply
  • cwebersd - Wednesday, October 06, 2010 - link

    In addition to measurements of sound quality, how about a simple internal poll? Record sound samples of various phones, post them with obfuscated names for other staff members to listen to and have them judge intelligibility, clarity, harshness, etc. This should give you a decent sampling of real people's observations. Better than just your own. Reply
  • dagamer34 - Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - link

    Brian, there are some JPEG artifacts in your gallery shots. I doubt the D80 has such visible artifacts on a downrezzed shot. Reply
  • Brian Klug - Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - link

    Yeah unfortunately the gallery preview images are compressed even though I upload originals from all the cameras. If you click "View original size" you'll get the raw untampered JPEG though, complete with all the EXIF headers and everything you'd get from the camera. Unfortunately I can't control how the engine compresses those images for the gallery preview.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • kmmatney - Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - link

    One problem is that the Audio quality changes so much with various factors (signal quality, the phone at the other end, etc..).

    I would disagree that that the main purpose of these phones is to actually be a "phone". No one cares that much about call quality when they are buying these phones - you just assume it will be acceptable.
    Reply
  • softdrinkviking - Tuesday, October 05, 2010 - link

    Brian, even though there are many factors, I think you can do an, "all things being equal" type of test with a couple of variations.
    The data will still be meaningful when you are comparing it to other specific phones.
    Reply

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