Can AT&T’s Newest Android Phone Captivate Like an iPhone? Yes!

UPDATED: AT&T (s t) customers looking for a high-end smartphone not made by Apple (s aapl) now have a worthy alternative in the new AT&T Captivate, a $199 handset running atop Google Android. This thin and light device is fast, easy to navigate and offers much of the same functionality as an iPhone when it comes to web browsing, running mobile applications and capturing high-definition video content.

For the past week, I’ve been using a Captivate, on short-term loan from AT&T. (Note: the AT&T Captivate is a variant of the Samsung Galaxy S, models of which will be available on every U.S. carrier.) Aside from some minor glitches and annoyances, the phone is excellent. It runs version 2.1 of Google’s Android operating system, but doesn’t use the stock Android interface. Instead, Samsung customized the user interface, making it very reminiscent of Apple’s iOS4 — complete with a four program dock and screens that slide horizontally. (In fact, that’s one of the annoyances I have: there’s no way to currently customize the four apps for the dock. Update: thanks to the commenters below for pointing out the method to customize the dock! Use the Customizable Grid option in Applications, then click the Menu button for an Edit option.) Otherwise, the user interface is well designed and it’s easy to navigate around. And I expect Captivate owners to do plenty of navigating on the seven home screens thanks to the large, vibrant display.

The AT&T Captivate uses a bright, 4-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen display. In addition to the large size, the screen is Samsung’s answer to the problem that OLED displays have — in direct sunlight, you can’t read them. Captivate’s Super AMOLED screen, which offers OLED’s benefit of beautiful colors that pop, is an improvement, but you can see that the display looks a little washed out under direct sunlight in our image galley below. Indoors or outside under shade, the Captivate’s screen is stellar. I have noticed a bluish tint, but only by comparison to other handsets, so it likely won’t be a detractor for most people.

Unlike the many HTC Android devices that run on the 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, the Captivate uses a Samsung 1 GHz Hummingbird processor. In my daily use, I found the Captivate nearly as snappy as my Qualcomm-powered Google Nexus One. Occasionally, I saw a little lag in the Captivate when tapping buttons, but the difference is marginal. And when the Captivate gains Android 2.2 — Samsung is shooting for September — the phone should experience a performance boost in browsing and apps, just like my Nexus One has.

A 5 megapixel camera is integrated into the back of the Captivate, which takes stills and also boasts 720p high definition video recording. However, the phone lacks a dedicated camera button and an LED flash — in fact, the only hardware buttons on the phone are the power button and volume adjustment. I’m impressed with the images and video taken with the Captivate — especially the panorama mode that stitches together eight stills — but found a glaring bug that should be addressed in a future software update. When one shoots in portrait mode, the camera software doesn’t rotate the controls — nor your images on a consistent basis — from landscape mode. For example, I uploaded a portrait photo on my Facebook page, a nice integrated sharing feature, but the image posted in landscape mode. I corrected it on the web directly through Facebook, but I shouldn’t have to do that.

Back to the single hardware button for a second — you’d better learn to like it because it is currently the only way to wake up the Captivate if the display is off. Unlike other phones that have at least one more hardware button, the Captivate uses four touch-sensitive buttons under the display. You can tap the screen or these buttons, but they won’t wake up the phone. Instead you have to press the small power button on the side and then swipe across the screen to unlock the device. The touch-sensitive buttons work very well for navigation although they can be difficult to see when not lit.

AT&T-specific apps are pre-loaded on the Captivate, which I find both good and bad. Folks that want to use AT&T Navigator or AT&T Music, for example, will be happy because such pay services are now only a tap away. I’ve used them in the past and these extras work well, but I personally prefer other third-party alternatives — some free, some paid. Unfortunately, the pre-installed AT&T apps can’t be removed from the Captivate. You can remove them from the home screens so that you don’t see them, but they’re still on the phone, using up storage. In fairness, Captivate comes with a relatively large amount of internal storage — with 16 GB of on-board flash memory, which is more than most current Android phones. And the phone has an internal microSD slot for additional memory expansion.

There’s not much else bad to say about AT&T’s newest Android phone because it’s a great implementation of the Google Android platform. Plus, I could actually use it as a phone. Conversations were clear and I had no dropped calls on AT&T’s network — although where I live, AT&T provides excellent coverage. The speakerphone is loud and clear, although with only one microphone, Captivate doesn’t provide any noise-cancellation features — when on a handsfree conversation, callers could easily tell I had them on speakerphone. Carrying this phone is breeze too, thanks to the light 4.5 oz weight and slim, 9.9mm profile.

Browsing is a treat on the Captivate thanks in part to the display and also because of a few tweaks added to the stock Android browser. You can double-tap or pinch to zoom, of course, but there’s a one-touch button that seeks out and adds RSS feeds on a web page. I found this to be a simple method for adding feeds to my Google Reader account. And although I prefer using the auto-brightness setting for the device display to save battery life, you can adjust brightness directly in the browser application — a nice touch.

Captivate’s 1500 mAh battery got me through a full day more often than not over the past week. In fact, the battery lasted longer than with any other Android phone I’ve tested or used. And I have to give kudos for the battery cover design. Captivate has one of the easiest covers to remove for easy battery access — you just slide down the bottom part of the phone and the cover lifts off. Captivate gets bonus points for a little sliding door that covers the micro USB port too — catch a closer look in the video overview below.

The handset has many more features — too many to list here in detail, but the ones that impress include stereo Bluetooth 3.0, customizable system fonts, DLNA support, a 6-axis accelerometer and the very useful Swype input method. In fact, I like Swype and even Samsung’s keyboard over the stock Android input method, but you can choose between the three. Although I’m an unabashed fan of my Google Nexus One, I’ve enjoyed using the Captivate immensely and feel that AT&T finally has a solid, high-end Android smartphone to compete with it’s iPhone 4 offering. It may fall short of the iPhone in some areas — no front facing camera, for example — but this is a fast Android phone that is great for browsing, apps and phone calls. I have the review unit for a bit longer, so don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.


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