Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

The second ever 4G phone has added pressure to be better than the first. Aldrin was better than Armstrong at punching skeptics in the face, for example. So is the Epic 4G better than the EVO? In almost every way.

This is a big phone, but it's not a heavy phone. At 4.9 x 2.54 x 0.56 inches, it's wider in every way than the 4.63 x 2.3 x 0.47 inch EVO. But even if the Epic is 5.46 ounces to the EVO's 4.6 ounces, it doesn't really feel heavier. In fact, the rounded corners and the pocket-friendly curves make it seem more wieldable on a daily basis.

Sprint's Epic 4G is a really good phone for people who want features—be it 4G, a slide-out keyboard or a bright Super AMOLED screen—and can sacrifice pocket space to get them.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

Slide-out keyboard

The physical keyboard might add enough bulk to make the Epic thicker than the already gargantuan EVO, but it doesn't mean that it's unwelcome. This is one of the best slide-out keyboards I've used since the days when HTC was still primarily making Windows Mobile devices—so, it's one of the best slide-out keyboards on the market now.

The travel on each individual key is fantastic, and there's enough separation between the keys that you're not hitting the "T" when you meant to hit "R" or "Y". Even the layout, with four rows instead of three, the D-pad in the bottom right, the function key placement and the inclusion of the four "Android" buttons on the left and right seem very inspired. I am in love with this keyboard, even if it's not actually used all that much.

Sprint tells us that even for their customers that insist on having a hardware keyboard, the keyboard only gets used about 20% of the time. I found that to be true. Typing quick texts and Google searches with the onscreen keyboard was fine, but responding to long emails or IMing felt much better using the hard keys.

Screen

The Super AMOLED screen, although brighter and clearer and sharper, has a bit of a blue tint when compared to the EVO. It's nothing you'd really notice unless you had your phones side-by-side. The only thing you're really concerned about is whether web pages, photos and videos look better—and the answer is yes. It's not so great of a screen to be a huge selling point—despite the hype around Super AMOLED—but it is good, and it does eke out slightly longer life from the battery.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

Outdoor visibility

One of the larger complaints of the EVO is that its OLED LCD touch screen is washed out and fairly unreadable under direct sunlight. (Strangely enough, the HTC website lists the EVO as having an OLED screen, whereas the Sprint one says it's LCD.) The good news is that Samsung's Super AMOLED screen is drastically improved, and you can actually see and read most things, provided you're not catching the sun's glare directly into your eyes. The bad news is that it's still not as bright as phones with LCD-based screens—the Droid 2 is slightly more visible and the iPhone 4 is noticeably more.

But, it is a definite improvement over the EVO's screen.

Speed

The Epic has a 1GHz Samsung Hummingbird processor, compared to the EVO's 1GHz Snapdragon processor, so they're give-or-take, about the same in everyday performance. Which is to say, some things you'll see the Epic being faster on, and some things you'll see the EVO be faster on. They're both plenty fast.

4G

Like the EVO, the Epic 4G has 4G. If you're in a 4G area, that's going to give you speeds at about three times as fast, even if building penetration isn't that great. But when you do get 4G, the built-in hotspot feature lets you connect up to five other devices to the net—devices like an iPad, iPod Touch, Nintendo DS or any 3G device that you want to get added speeds on.

And of course, when you are in a 4G area, you can make calls and use your data connection simultaneously.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

Camera

Here's how the camera compares with the iPhone 4. You can see the big difference between having white balance and not having white balance. Otherwise, the quality difference doesn't seem to be too huge.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

In the dark or under every type of lighting that's not natural light, the Epic 4G wins by sheer fact that it has a white balance adjustment. It's even got a flash for use in the dark, although you'll turn out with photos that are blown out or still blurry most of the time. But having a flash is better than not having a flash.

The 720p video recording is another reason why the camera you have on you is the best type of camera. The quality is good enough (especially with white balance) that it'll be fine for whatever spontaneous event you'll need to record and upload to YouTube. And unlike the iPhone, you actually have the option of uploading videos in full resolution over Wi-Fi, without having to dump it onto a computer first.

You've also got a front-facing camera for video calling using apps like Fring as well.

Battery

A person at Sprint describes the EVO as a 3-o'clock phone (as in, you're out of juice by 3 in the afternoon), and the Epic as a 6-o'clock phone. Through my use, it's more of a 4:30 phone, meaning that it's definitely better than the EVO, but it's not so great that you're going to be satisfied in the battery performance. Luckily, Samsung has an external battery charger (sold separately) that you can use to constantly keep a spare battery charged. A BlackBerry this is not, but the 4G and giant, bright screen needs to be powered somehow.

Software

The software is Android 2.1, and if you're familiar with Android at all, then you're familiar with the basic premise of the phone. Samsung, like HTC, shoved their own skin onto the phone to "enhance" the usability. Although the mere fact that they're not running a stock Android ROM is going to make software updates take that much longer, I think, in this case, that it's worth it.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

Samsung customizations

The most noticeable customization is the app launcher bar on the bottom of the home screen. Phone, Contacts, Messaging and Applications (which bring up app launcher) is present at all times, giving you iPhone-esque shortcuts to the "most used" apps. That phrase is in quotes because you can't swap out Phone, Contacts or Messaging to say, Browser or Gmail, if you happen to use those latter apps more. This is something we'd like to see Samsung change immediately. The launcher idea is sound, but the fact that you can't switch the apps out is a big oversight.

Update: For those of you emailing or writing in, yes, you can do this on the Captivate, but the same option is missing in the Epic, strangely enough.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

App organization, however, is a definite improvement over Android's default scroll-downwards-toward-infinity concept it has for finding your apps. It's, to use a shorthand, exactly like the iPhone's. You've got four rows of four icons, arranged in alphabetical order. Making it quick to jump 16 apps down your list with a flick, rather than having to guess how fast you've swiped and where in the list you are. There's also a "list" view, if you prefer that.

Samsung also included some neat widgets, such as a Facebook/MySpace/Twitter feed, and a "Buddies now", which is like a scrolling favorite buddies list to quickly call or text. Task manager is also included, and can quickly show you how many apps are running and if they're in a state that's hogging up a lot of RAM or CPU.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

The standard Android widgets are still there, like Facebook, Latitude, Music, Power Control (quick access to enabling/disabling phone features like Wi-Fi, 4G, GPS), Twitter, Voicemail and YouTube. The Power Control is fairly useless now that Samsung placed those same controls in the drop-down windowshade at the top of the screen.

Swype by default

I'm fond of saying that the large 4.3-inch screen of the HTC EVO finally made the on-screen Android keyboard usable, because there's more room for your thumbs to type. The 4-inch Epic 4G screen is only slightly smaller—and so it's equally usable—but that's not the best way there is to type on the screen. For that, you should enable Swype. It is, without a doubt, the best way to enter text onto this phone via the screen, and rivals the speed of the hardware keyboard.

This video shows what's going on. It's still the same QWERTY layout, but instead of pressing each key individually, you slide your finger to all the letters of the word you're spelling and the software interprets the rest. In the case that there's more than one possibility of words being spelled, it presents you with the options to choose from. Man, it's fast, and you're never going to want to go back to QWERTY.

The only quirk you find with Swype is that you actually have to think hard on a word's spelling. Instead of using a variation of muscle memory to bang out words ("the" is the left index finger, right index finger and left middle finger, for example), you're accessing the part of your brain that only beginning typists use—which is to say, you're actively concentrating on what letter comes next. If you're a great typist from muscle memory and a horrible speller, it will take some getting used to.

Software updates

The Epic 4G is made by Samsung, and Samsung has the reputation—deservedly—of not updating the firmware in their devices promptly. Sprint and Samsung promise that the Epic will get Android 2.2 Froyo soon—think the time between Froyo release and EVO update—but after that, it's hard to say.

Whether or not Samsung has allocated more priority to software updates is uncertain, but what we do know is that the Galaxy S base is on all four carriers. This could mean both that it gives Samsung more incentive to work on updates (because it's a widely-used phone), but could also mean that their manpower is stretched too thin because of minor differences to the four phones, and updates could be even slower.

Weirdness addendum

I've never seen this happen on any other Android phones, but with the Sprint Epic 4G and the AT&T Captivate, I get constant and repeatable failures when downloading and installing apps from the Marketplace. Downloads would work fine for a few days, and then suddenly fail every single time. Samsung and Google are looking into it, and at the time of this review, haven't gotten back to me with a solution yet. I wouldn't expect this to be an error that goes long before getting fixed (if indeed, other people are seeing it).

Update: It appears it was a problem on Google's side, and things have been fixed now for both the Epic and Captivate devices I have. Woo.

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G PhoneS

It's the best 4G phone and best Samsung Galaxy S phone

When you compare the Epic to the EVO, the Epic is the clear winner. Whether it's the slide-out keyboard, better screen, longer battery life or Swype built in, there are plenty of reasons to choose this phone instead.

Placed aside the other Galaxy S phones, the Epic still comes out ahead. It's the only one of the four that has 4G, the only one with a camera flash and the only one that has the slide-out keyboard. Most everything else across all four carriers are the same, except for small details in pricing and data plans. But when you're trying to decide between three skinny brothers and a stronger (but fatter) fourth brother, it's clear what the choice is. [Sprint]

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G Phone

Slide-out keyboard is wonderful

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G Phone

Super AMOLED screen improves on EVO

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G Phone

About the same fast-ness as the EVO

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G Phone

Sprint's software customizations aren't atrocious

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G Phone

4G!

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G Phone

Battery life is still pretty mediocre

Sprint Epic 4G Review: The Best 4G Phone

It's a waiting game to see if Samsung will offer Android updates frequently

Imagery by Sam Spratt. Check out Sam's portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.